A Sense of Kinship

This past summer, I was visiting the New York Botanical Gardens when serendipity struck: this beautiful little creature alighted on a stone railing around the edge of a pool, staying just long enough for me to snap this shot:

I think, though I’m not an expert, that this is a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

I don’t usually like close-up photos of insects – they have an eerie, alien feel that I find disturbing. (I admit it, I’m a mammal chauvinist.) But this one is one of the rare exceptions. Looking at it again, it’s hard for me not to feel admiration for this sleek, graceful creature.

With its iridescent blue scales, its impossibly frail and transparent wings, its delicate jointed legs, it scarcely seems to belong to nature at all. It looks almost like a device, a tiny whirring clockwork machine made by some detail-obsessed jeweler – except, of course, that we humans haven’t yet learned to make machines of such fine and precise workmanship, nor any that pack so many marvelous capabilities into such a small package.

So much of its head is taken up by those huge, gorgeous compound eyes, it seems it has scarcely any room for a brain to process the information they take in. Yet dragonflies have keen eyesight, and are blurringly fast and acrobatic fliers – and imagine how well-tuned their organs of balance must be, to control their pitch, roll and yaw in three-dimensional space at such speeds, a task that would overwhelm a human vestibular system. And though they seem so clumsy, so fragile – adult dragonflies can only fly, not walk, and their wings can’t be folded in like a beetle’s but must be held out at all times – on their own small scale, they are fearsome and effective predators. And of course, like all living things, dragonflies have one more astounding ability that human-designed devices can’t match: they can make copies of themselves from the raw materials of their environment!

All in all, despite all our brains, we humans can’t create anything nearly as clever, as intricate, as adaptable, or as beautiful as a dragonfly. But we shouldn’t feel too bad: when it comes to forging machines, we’ve had barely a few hundred years of practice. Evolution has had hundreds of millions of years to refine its designs, to hone and sharpen them against the ruthless grindstone of natural selection. With that much of a head start, and with all the resources of a planet to use for trial and error, it’s no wonder that even this blind algorithm produces results of a beauty and craftsmanship we can’t match.

And yet, the stunning truth is that we ourselves are products of the same evolutionary process. Look at your hands, your arms, and imagine tens of millions of years of natural selection pushing and tugging on them like a sculptor kneading clay, slowly molding flesh and bone into new shapes. Imagine the skeins of DNA coiled in your cells, woven out of evolution like a tapestry from a loom. Imagine the unbroken chain of your ancestors stretching back into the misty recesses of time, each one only subtly different from the last – but even subtle changes add up, until you reach a point, untold millions of generations ago, where the ancestral lines of human and dragonfly merge into the same track.

This knowledge should fill us with awe. The fact of universal common descent via evolution means that I and this glittering blue dragonfly, no matter how distant the links, are related. When I snapped that picture, it was a family reunion, of sorts – and the admiration I felt for its intricacy and beauty is the same kind of admiration I’d feel for any talented relative whose glory reflects, even if only a little, on his siblings and cousins.

The human species is like a hiker who, having scaled a long and arduous path, can finally stop at a vantage point and look back on the journey he’s taken. Looking out across the landscape, we can see our fellow travelers, each one taking a different course from all the rest, all of them spreading out from a single point of origin in the far distance. Why should we not feel a sense of kinship for all the other beings who are traversing life’s winding, contingent paths along with us? And why should we not marvel all the more that our astonishing existence is not the result of deliberate planning, but of a glorious, messy, freewheeling cauldron of chance?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • konrad_arflane

    Dragonflies are awesome. That is all.

  • AnonaMiss

    Thanks for making the hiker metaphor one of stopping at a vantage point rather than at the pinnacle. I didn’t realize I was bracing myself for a statement that took for granted that “humans are the pinnacle of evolution!” until I felt the relief wash over me.

  • Valhar2000

    I find close-up pictures of insects profoudnly interesting, precisely because they are so alien, so different from us and our comparably close relatives, the rest of the mammals.

  • mike

    Pachydiplax longipennis ??

    Longipennis? I think there is more to the story of this dragonfly…

  • konrad_arflane

    Longipennis? I think there is more to the story of this dragonfly…

    IIRC, dragonfly reproduction is profoundly weird. Not quite in that sense, though.

  • Alex Weaver

    I don’t usually like close-up photos of insects – they have an eerie, alien feel that I find disturbing. (I admit it, I’m a mammal chauvinist.) But this one is one of the rare exceptions. Looking at it again, it’s hard for me not to feel admiration for this sleek, graceful creature.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it helps that you can’t see its mouthparts. O.o

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I love close-up photos of insects. I spent about a year of my childhood trapping, poisoning, and collecting elephant stag beetles, giant horseflies, praying mantises, spiders, various bees and moths and butterflies, and stuffing them into tiny little boxes with miniature magnifying glasses on top. I never felt kinship until I learned about evolution (which I didn’t really learn about until after I graduated high school… stupid American educational stystem…), but I was always fascinated by these “tiny monsters.”

    Great stuff!

  • Caiphen

    To think, I thought I was great in my early 20′s when I learnt to programme a Programmable Logic Controller when I did Elec Engineering. I sit back and laugh at myself now.

    It’s a damn shame that life is so short!

  • Nioclás

    @mike:

    The “pennis” in “longipennis” probably means “leaf” (and by meaning extension, “wing”), so “longipennis” probably means “long-wings”.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I didn’t realize I was bracing myself for a statement that took for granted that “humans are the pinnacle of evolution!” until I felt the relief wash over me.

    I would deserve a verbal flogging if I made a mistake like that, AnonaMiss. :)

    I think there is more to the story of this dragonfly…

    Sorry to disappoint you, Mike, but longipennis is Latin for “long wings”. If your tastes run to dragonfly porn, however, here are some prurient details. (No nymphs or larvae are allowed to click on that link, thanks.)

  • MissCherryPi

    So the first single celled organism was at Happy Isles Trail-head in Yosemite? Good to know. ;)

  • http://www.waialeale.org MikeK

    Looking at the photo, nature, the human race, etc., has tempted me to reconsider Intelligent Design. What if the Designer wasn’t that swift? Maybe dull-normal at best like most ID’ers. Even stupid! Or with a twisted sense of humor — Monty Pythoesque maybe. Certainly a Brit sense of humor. Or our Universe was designed by a committee or a celestial congress, sorta like the tax codes. That’d explain a lot.

    Dumb Design. DD.

    Sorta off topic, just a thought.

  • Archimedez

    Generally related to the theme of Ebon’s post, some of you may be interested in the CBC documentary about Darwin, which is a multi-part series.
    http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2009/darwin/index.html

  • Entomologista

    That’s a great picture. Dragonflies are aerial hunters, which is why they need big eyes. Males actually have a territory they defend from rivals. There is an amazing amount of behavior exhibited by insects, considering how tiny their brains are.

    And yes, their mating is weird. And violent. The male grabs the female by the head, often puncturing her exoskeleton. In some damselflies the male holds the female under water until she’s forced to release the eggs.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Mike, that’s an awesome idea! We should totally start lobbying to get this taught in schools, and when it’s revealed to be nothing but more religious bullshit, we should start imploring the courts to make schools “teach the controversy.” And we’ll steal all the Creatards & IDiots from their own camps, lining them all up behind the Dumb Designer (who only guides, but does not directly interfere) with development, and then when religion is dead and gone, we do the Big Reveal!

    The Dumb Designer = The Blind Watchmaker. Turns out it was evolution, all along! That rambunctious little scamp, acting as if it had intelligence while utterly lacking it… wait, are we talking about blind watchmakers or design theorists now? I forget…

    @ Entomologista: Hoo boy, nature-rape. Whenever people go on about the “uniqueness” of human evils, I just want to educate them so much on how everything we do has been done before. Well, except going to the Moon. But still, it’s starting to look like panspermia (and why not panovia?) may not actually be that unreasonable. Single-celled organisms might be able to withstand, say, ejection into space from an impact, if the conditions are right. The Universe being what it is (i.e. “a really big place where rare things happen all the time”), all we have to do is presumably go and actually find it. And then not even space travel will be a homo sapiens original!

  • chas

    Interesting photo of a dragonfly. Here’s a 1971 Fleetwood Mac song I like
    entitled Dragonfly.

    According to the youtube notes, the lyrics are based on a poem
    by W.H. Davies.


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