Badass Biology: Humanity’s most badass adaptation
At some point, modern humans started believing that we are somehow special, that we are the center of creation and of the universe and that God loves us most. My point isn’t to argue against such divine egocentricity; we are indeed very special. Hell, no other species has made guns and missiles and stuff. And we are special even from a biological perspective. The reason we’ve done so well as a species is because we have adaptations that have allowed us to do so. So what are they?
We have many. Vertical skeletal structure, opposable thumbs, massive frontal cortexes, and unlimited salad and breadsticks are all commonly cited as being necessary for our species to thrive and dominate. These are all important morphologies. I believe, however, that there is one very overlooked adaptation in our evolution, one thing that, if it weren’t just right, would negate all of the benefits from these other lesser adaptations. So if it’s not our massive brain or our dexterous hands, what is it? Turns out it’s guns and missiles.
Guns and missiles have allowed humanity to reach far beyond our former niche. We now own the planet with such unchecked power that one person can say “I want to blow up that bit of the surface right there”, and his buddy thousands of miles away can instantly reply, “done!”. This adaptation has caused an evolutionary cascade of intermittent……………..ok, I can’t keep this up. I’m full of it. Our most important adaptation is actually our size.
I guarantee that human size was not the first adaptation that would have popped into your brain, but it is arguably the most important. Am I suggesting that all animals our size are evolutionarily successful? Of course not. Am I saying that tiny or huge people are somehow inferior biologically? Nope. However, if we were, on average, significantly larger or smaller, like ten times as large or small, the course of earth’s history probably would have played out very differently.
Much like the famous fairytale porridge, we benefit from being “just right”. Being the right size means there’s space for a brain that prioritizes and categorizes and tells the body to act judiciously. We stand vertically because we’re small enough not to battle gravity as ferociously as we would if we were the size of elephants. We can offer unlimited salad and breadsticks because we’re large enough to farm yet small enough to be incapable of eating the planet’s supply of breadsticks in one sitting. In this article of Badass Biology, I hope to convince you that our dominance stems from our ideal size. Had we been much larger or smaller, the evolution of our intelligence would have played out much differently, meaning no guns and missiles.
Bigger is better, unless you’re Godzilla
What does size have to do with anything? As animals grow larger in size, they tend to become more metabolically efficient. A cornerstone of evolutionary theory lies in Kleiber’s “3/4ths power rule”, stating that for every added unit of mass, metabolic rate only increases as a rate of mass^(3/4) . While the value of the exponent and its real-world meaning is debated, one thing is clear: grow larger, and you’ll use less energy for your size, a comment you also hear regularly from your disappointed girlfriend.
Humans are damn gigantic; 99% of all animal species on earth are smaller than we are . Does the power rule work to our advantage? Yep. Because math. The average human male (7700g) weighs roughly 457 times that of a typical field mouse (15g). Raise both to the ¾ power, divide one by the other, and you’ll find that the human has only about 100 times the metabolic demand of a field mouse despite the 457 fold increase in mass. I’d say that gives us a pretty big advantage in terms of having to spend less time and energy feeding, replacing tissues, respiring, etc. More time for guns!
This sounds great, but if bigger is better, why isn’t every animal huge? Again, because math. Think back to high school geometry. Among the suppressed memories of sitting behind that brunette you thought was cute but wouldn’t pay attention to you unless you were captain of a team sport but that you later reconciled with because she ended up being a relatively heartless and shallow person despite her extreme self-professed piety, or that guy across the room you thought was an asshole to other people because he had a giant triangular face and douchey long blonde hair and a name not unlike “Brittney” until he confirmed his assholiness by being an asshole directly to you about something that absolutely did not matter at all, surely you must remember the formulas for surface area and volume. Basically, a shape that grows larger and keeps its form expands its volume in three dimensions (side x side x side), whereas surface area expands only into two (side x side). Big objects, like animals or guns or missiles, have relatively low surface area compared to their volume because volume mathematically outpaces surface area as objects grow bigger.
This is a really big deal. Think about every process that keeps you alive. Breathing, eating, sensing your environment, playing Civilization 5. All of these processes rely on tissues with some kind of exposure to the outside environment. Oxygen is absorbed as air rushes across alveoli in the lungs. Nutrients are absorbed through countless tiny folds of the small intestine. Tastants and odorants absorb through fluid media in the mouth or nose to trigger sensory receptors. Civilization 5 enters your brain through tiny refractive holes in the middle of your face. These are all parts of your surface area.
The point is this: if we were a lot bigger, like Godzilla-sized, we’d have a lot of trouble performing these same basic functions given our current body shape. This would suck for the most part. We’re already pretty specialized as is; a lot of animals don’t have folds in the lungs or intestines like we do because they’re small enough (thus having enough surface area for their volume) not to need them. But not absorbing things would be only one of our many worries if we were larger.
The earth’s gravity is not all that strong in a cosmic sense, but its impact on surface-dwelling body forms is huge. Let me put it simply: stuff caint grow too big because aint no way they caint get strong enough to stand up. Fighting gravity is hard unless you’re a gun or missile, especially when you’re giantic. Our skeletons would have to be quite different in order to support our huge stature. Bones would need to be thicker yet more pliable.To be Godzilla-sized would be risky, not only because of the inevitable bone weakness and joint decay, but because of imbalance and falling. Even at twice our current size, tripping over a gun or missile would cause a tumble with 16 to 32 times more kinetic energy than it would now.
This all sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Suppose that our bodies do adjust. We grow to Godzilla size, have super-efficient perforated lungs, guts that absorb enough to get by, and bones capable of supporting a small skyscraper that can walk and build guns and missiles. Imagine the caloric demand a body like that would require. How many hamburgers would we need to eat in a day?
Godzilla is, at lowest estimates over his career, 164 feet tall, or about 50m. A quick foray into ideal body weight calculations yields that a 25-year old male this height should weigh around 8106.8 pounds, or 3676ish kg. Plug that into the ¾ power formula, and the daily metabolic demand of our gargantuan is around 84,000 calories per day. The power rule certainly works into this huge person’s favor, because I certainly was disappointed by how low that caloric count was. So what does 84,000 calories look like? Imagine 81 quarter pound hamburgers with white wheat buns, ketchup, and a tomato slice. And that’s only just breakfast; imagine eating that three times per day. BIG PEOPLE PROBLEMS. I’m sure I’ve made my point. The earth would strain to support life of that magnitude. Here’s the kicker: I didn’t even account for added bone mass and musculature necessary to become that tall. Let’s add another 100,000 hamburgers per meal to the calculation just to be safe.
The worst part of being tall would be this: it would be really hard to fit as many people onto airplanes. The airline industry wouldn’t see as much profit from airfares, thus flying would be a privilege only for the super-rich, limiting my ability to go to places like Switzerland. And I really want to go to Switzerland.
Why Ant-man is the worst superhero ever.
What if we were much smaller? Well, there’s good and bad news. The good news is that we could adopt simpler body forms, but that’s about it. The bad news? Pfft.
First. we would probably be much dumber than we are. Zoom in closely on the brain of every animal and you’ll find neurons, cells that communicate to one another using electrical or chemical signals. Hundreds to thousands of these neurons form dense and complicated circuits with one another in the vertebrate brain. Such circuits form pathways that tend to perform specific functions in the body. For instance, there are specific regions of the brain designated for movement, for regulating sleep, for hunger, for balance, for typing “guns and missiles”, and for interpreting the sights, sounds, and smells from the world. Our bodies may be able to shrink in size and still function to some degree, but our neurons cannot only be miniaturized and still function with such complex synchrony and elegance. As we grow significantly smaller, we run out of room for neurons very rapidly.
“But Kevin, I’ve always heard that a big head doesn’t mean make you smarter”. Don’t you sass me. But you are right, anonymous naysayer. There is admittedly weak evidence that intelligence correlates with head volume, yes, but that’s among humans of relatively the same size . For example, my fiancée is tiny and adorable, though she’s likely smarter than I am (Fiancée et al, 2014). However, when we’re talking about a difference in scale between us and a mouse, size matters. We have nearly half the number of neurons as the U.S. military has guns and missiles, something around 86 billion neurons . Mice have around 10 million. Ants have around 200,000. To put this into perspective, if each neuron were a person, our brains would outnumber earth’s human population 12 times over. A mouse’s would be constrained to the size of North Carolina. An ant’s would be Laredo, Texas. It’s hard to grow intellectually when you’re Laredo, Texas.
I apologize to anyone from or living in the city limits of Laredo. I did not mean to say your city is dumb. However, it certainly looks that way. I’ve visited your website. It looks terrible.
Being the size of an insect would present a number of other challenges. The interactions we have with things in our environment (like the water we drink and the food we eat) conform to the laws of physics. As we shrink in scale, these interactions change. To an ant, water seems as viscous as maple syrup. Gravity takes a backseat to air turbulence. As Steven Jay Gould writes, “An ant-sized man might don some clothing, but surface adhesion would preclude its removal. The lower limit of drop size would make showering impossible; each drop would hit with the force of a large boulder. If our homunculus managed to get wet and tried to dry off with a towel, he would be stuck to it for life. He could pour no liquid, light no fire…” .
Could an ant-sized version of early man have developed civilization even if intelligence were not a factor? Probably not, at least not at the same rate or with the same level of success. I imagine cultivating agricultural crops, one of the supposed precursors for civilization, would have been near impossible, not to mention cross-breeding them for good yield. Our meat-based diet would be replaced with who knows what, but I suppose it would include plant material and any nearby organism that decides to die. For that matter, hunting would be folly; spears and bows would be completely ineffective because we probably couldn’t put enough force behind the blow. Guns and missiles wouldn’t exist. Our predators would vastly rise in number, distancing us from the top of the food web. We’d be stomped into submission by the elements, by other creatures, and by our own ineffectiveness. Switzerland would be near impossible to get to. So long, Mürren.
What about food? Shouldn’t food be more abundant since, you know, one kernel of corn could feed an entire village of people? That’s true, but there’s a much bigger caveat to this than you’d think. The world’s food is spatially patchy. I don’t just mean that bananas only grow in the tropics or that rice grows best in silty soil. I mean that, when you’re the size of an ant, getting a bug from the ground nearby is a marathon. Food sources are really f**king far apart, but plentiful once they’re found. Many animals that live upon such food sources adopt life strategies to cope with smorgasbord-style resources. Some insects that exploit huge but infrequent foods, including flies like the gall midge, have adaptations that allow them to exploit them quickly. Gall midges typically reproduce sexually, though it takes a long time for larvae to develop this way. When midges find a mushroom, a gold mine on their scale, females reproduce without a male through a process called parthenogenesis. These offspring are formed more quickly than doing things via the sexual route, though it comes at a cost to the mother. Instead of developing externally, the larvae grow inside the mother, eventually liquefying her insides and bursting from her lifeless husk . However, immature as they may be, they are ready to start chomping away on some sweet sweet mushroom bits and rotting parts of their mommah. D’awww. Overall, the flies have more successful babies this way, thus the need for bursting out of their moms and such.
Will humans do that? I dunno. That sounds desperate. But food would likely be lacking for most humans on earth. Maybe we’d be as successful as ants and develop complex chemical signals to communicate the locations of food, bypassing any other weird adaptations like the ones midges have . Maybe we wouldn’t, and we’d fill just another tiny niche in the complex world which we inhabit.
So, I hope you now understand how important our size is for our survival. We are big and scary creatures, and that’s allowed us to hunt and kill and eat meats and make pizzas and build guns and missiles. But we’re not so large that joint damage, eating entire herds of cattle per day, and toppling over and breaking bones would be a daily norm. We’re also not so small either that we can’t take showers or cultivate food. So, here we stand, results of the goal-less, powerful, yet delicate hands of natural selection. Just right.
Nobody comments on my stuff. You should comment on my stuff. Get your friends to comment on my stuff. I will then comment. We can all comment. It will be a great world full of comments.
 “Ever Since Darwin” by Steven Jay Gould, Norton & Co. 1977