Reflection 31: Matters of Scale

December 1, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Animal consciousness deals with situations varying along a continuum of different sizes or scales. It is no surprise that the inch, foot, and yard correspond to dimensions of our own bodies. As do the centimeter, decimeter, and meter, though intended as more “rational” and less anthropocentric (the French got their numbers wrong in trying to peg the meter to the distance from equator to North Pole along the prime meridian).


When we stand erect, our eyes are at what we take to be a normal distance from the ground. Lying on our bellies, we lower our outlook to the level of cats, gerbils, and raccoons. From skyscrapers we see with the eyes of eagles and geese.


Through telescopes, we make ourselves immense, with eyes that can see so far we need new units of measurement to scale our discoveries. The Great Galaxy in Andromeda is 2.54 million light-years from Earth, the distance light travels in that number of years going at 186,000 miles a second, which amounts to the unimaginable number of some 15-million billion Earth-scale miles. The mile may be a useful measure of distance when driving to Boston, but is quite useless when trying to visualize the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s far out, a very long way, past Siberia or even the moon, beyond Mars or Jupiter. After that it drops off every scalable chart in common use.


Recording images that are near the edge of the universe, the Hubble Telescope can operate on a scale that has almost no meaning in everyday life. Saying that the edge of all edges is 14 billion parsecs (46.5 billion light-years) away may be meaningful to astronomers, but not to the rest of us. This is 18-thousand times as far as the already unimaginable distance to the Andromeda galaxy. Beyond walking distance, I’d say. Flying distance. Even projectile or rocket distance. We have trouble picturing a situation in which that distance might become meaningful to us.


If we drew a chart with Earth represented one inch from Andromeda Galaxy, the edge of the universe would be only three miles away, but Earth would be invisible, far too small to represent at that scale. Puny humanity wouldn’t even exist. If we didn’t exist, there would be no question of putting ourselves in the picture. There is simply no place for us to stand where we might see the edge of the universe at a meaningful scale.


Forget the universe; think of sand beaches. Get down on hands and knees and put your eyes close to the surface. Even at that distance, the grains are beyond counting. You may notice a few individual grains—of sand, shell, wood, seaweed—but when you look at other grains, the first set disappears and you can’t find it again. Remarkable creatures actually live among those grains. Little red mites scooting hither and yon on errands of crucial importance. Bacteria by the billions. Planktonic life that humans need a microscope to see. Oh, here comes an ant, looking huge as a dinosaur, shaking the Earth when it walks, or at least dislodging a few grains of sand. Imagine the view through the eyes of this ant. With the wits of this ant. What would we experience? As hard to imagine as the edge of the universe, and yet this is right in our own neighborhood.


Now look overhead, at that spot in the sky which is really an eagle. Imagine its consciousness at this moment, the situation it is experiencing. Probably looking for lunch. It has great eyesight, so it can probably see that mouse over there hiding beneath a tuft of beach grass. It can certainly see us. We and the eagle are aspects of somewhat similar situations, so each may have some sort of meaning to the other. Eagle, after all, is our national bird. We put its image on flagstaffs and state seals. Perhaps humans rate as national primate from the eagle’s perspective.


We watch it soar, fascinated, but it pays no mind to us because—aside from the Endangered Species Act, and the many structures people build in eagle habitats—we are basically irrelevant to its existence. Eagle’s awareness is situated in a different frame of reference. Like the mite and the ant, it has different concerns, motives, capabilities, capacities, feelings, and so on. As different from yours and mine as mouse, mite, and ant differ one from another.


Human consciousness gives us life worlds which are meaningful at a certain scale. I am a bit over six feet tall. In the presence of someone a few inches taller, I feel self-conscious and out of place. When I meet an adult six inches shorter, I feel awkward in talking at the top of his or her head. I much prefer to talk sitting down, which minimizes the differences in height.


Whatever our height or breadth, we take that as normal because that is what we know from the inside. We know the feel of acting at that scale. We know how to move our bodies, how to dance, how to play the piano, how to jump rope. Even moving our tongues and lips when we talk is done at that scale. In my observation, small people can talk faster than big people. The difference can be so great, I often have difficulty keeping up my end of a conversation with someone a foot shorter than I am. Sometimes I get worn out by their rate of delivery, or can’t formulate my response before they’re off on another topic entirely.


I conjecture that adolescence might be harder for tall than for short people because tall bodies are awkward for so long while short bodies knit together and become graceful far earlier. Does that make any sense? Think compact gymnasts (apt to be small girls) and gawky basketball centers (tall boys).


Physically, we find it easier to coordinate our movements once our nerve fibers become wrapped in the myelin sheaths which speed up the signals they carry. Myelinization isn’t complete until the early twenties—or even later for people with long nerve fibers. This not only enables faster, more coordinated action, but processing of incoming signals as well.


I see this as having a profound influence on comprehension. Before myelinization is done, we are apt to be slow on the uptake. After, we get the point right away. Big people have a reputation for being not only slow and plodding, but dull. When their myelin sheaths get fully wrapped, they can hold their own with anyone. I remember taking a course in contemporary civilization, not being able to take in what others were saying. At the end of the year I caught on, partly because I became familiar with the terminology and my understanding increased, but also because my brain could process what was going on so much faster. Maybe education is wasted on the young, or at least the under myelinated.


The point of all this is that the size and complexity of the situations we are able to handle increase with the size of our consciousness, which is a function of our physical being. If we were gnats, we’d have gnat consciousness and live in gnat life worlds. If we were whales or elephants, we could aspire to far greater wisdom than mid-sized humanity. Looking through telescopes doesn’t do it because the eye on the near end feeds into a modest and Earth-bound awareness. The greater the power of the instrument, the smaller its field of view. We become specialists, but don’t necessarily increase our grasp of the connections between our divergent fields of specialization.


We take human awareness as the norm solely because we share in awareness at that scale. We make the mistake of believing that the world is as we see it and act in it. Compared to mites and bacteria, we are bumbling giants. Certainly our earthmovers and bulldozers make hash of the landscapes that serve as their homelands. Truth is, we are extremely self-centered in everything we do on—and to—the Earth. We know little and care less for life forms in the soils at our feet. For life forms throughout the wide oceans, which we regard almost exclusively as food.


Our consciousness is stuck at the scale we are born to. It takes great effort to learn to see through eyes that picture life situations on a different scale. Rarely do we have the wits or gumption to try to imagine it. Yet there is far more going on in our own life situations than we realize. Because we aren’t aware of it, we say nothing is happening. In the process, we overlook the myriad ways we are connected to every other life form on Earth. Not only animate forms, but plant, fungal, and microbial forms as well. Being stuck at our scale of awareness, we are condemned to ignorance concerning the majority of life forms sharing what we think of as our planet.


Our own bodies serve as condominiums for the invisible horde living on our skins and in our guts. We treat them as if they didn’t exist—to our peril. After all, they remove our dead cells, and digest our food for us. Without them we would die. Yet when we magnify them, we are horrified by their images, and rub ourselves with antibiotic solutions to be rid of them. In day to day consciousness, we are anti or ignorant of everything but us.


So much to learn about life and nature on nonhuman scales, so little time. I often wonder what it is our children actually do all day in school, besides keep from getting underfoot in the homes and workplaces of our narrow worlds.




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