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Why Size Matters

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales

John Tyler Bonner
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Why Size Matters
    Book Description:

    John Tyler Bonner, one of our most distinguished and creative biologists, here offers a completely new perspective on the role of size in biology. In his hallmark friendly style, he explores the universal impact of being the right size. By examining stories ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Gulliver's Travels, he shows that humans have always been fascinated by things big and small. Why then does size always reside on the fringes of science and never on the center stage? Why do biologists and others ponder size only when studying something else--running speed, life span, or metabolism?

    Why Size Matters, a pioneering book of big ideas in a compact size, gives size its due by presenting a profound yet lucid overview of what we know about its role in the living world. Bonner argues that size really does matter--that it is the supreme and universal determinant of what any organism can be and do. For example, because tiny creatures are subject primarily to forces of cohesion and larger beasts to gravity, a fly can easily walk up a wall, something we humans cannot even begin to imagine doing.

    Bonner introduces us to size through the giants and dwarfs of human, animal, and plant history and then explores questions including the physics of size as it affects biology, the evolution of size over geological time, and the role of size in the function and longevity of living things.

    As this elegantly written book shows, size affects life in its every aspect. It is a universal frame from which nothing escapes.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3755-7
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences, Developmental & Cell Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Margaree Harbour
    (pp. 1-6)

    In the seventeenth century it was held by some that inside a human sperm there was a minute human being—a homunculus—that was planted inside the womb. Development consisted of the miniature homunculus enlarging and passing through birth and on to maturity—just like inflating a balloon. There were others, going back to the early ideas of Aristotle and the many who followed him, who took the view that vast changes in shape occurred between egg and adult, for it could be plainly seen that the early stages of development of any animal bore no resemblance to what came...

    (pp. 7-27)

    It is only natural that we should measure everything in the world around us in terms of our own size. An elephant is bigger than we are, and a mouse is smaller. Some years ago, Time-Life was publishing a series of illustrated books on various subjects, and they called me up to ask for advice on a book they were doing on the general subject of growth—would I please come in to New York to discuss the matter with their editors, for they had numerous questions they wanted to ask an interested biologist. I no longer remember what to...

    (pp. 28-61)

    Size and shape are inextricably connected. One of the most elementary ways we can show that size is the supreme arbiter and has a profound effect on shape is to consider the relation between weight and strength. Galileo first demonstrated the principle elegantly in his bookDialogues concerning Two New Sciences, which he wrote after he was tried and condemned by the court of the Inquisition in Rome for having committed heresy in supporting Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the heavens—that our world was not the center of everything. He wrote the book while in house arrest in the palace...

    (pp. 62-78)

    In looking at the history of the earth, there is general agreement that at some early era all organisms were unicellular; first bacterial (prokaryotic) cells, and later cells with a nucleus (eukaryotic). This was followed by the advent of multicellularity, and ultimately those multicellular animals and plants became the huge organisms I have just described. Over the years, from Aristotle on, some form of this trajectory was interpreted in terms of progress. Aristotle called it the scale of nature, which went from vegetables and worms to human beings. Because we were the pinnacle of this progress, it was not a...

    (pp. 79-115)

    For many years I have been struggling to understand the relation between size and the division of labor in multicellular organisms. One wants to know why it is generally true that the bigger the organism, the greater the division of labor. It is a principle that to some degree we all accept as given; let us examine it closely.

    The division of labor, which is a reflection of biological complexity, is a venerable subject. The history of the idea has a few years ago been admirably discussed by Camille Limoges.¹⁶ He points out that the pioneer for considering the matter...

    (pp. 116-146)

    At the time the new millennium was about to come upon us, I was asked by the Buddhist magazineTricycleto write a few paragraphs on what the year 2000 might mean to my slime molds.²⁸ This seemed to me like a fun idea and this is what I wrote:

    Time and life are intertwined in so many different ways, something all biologists are acutely aware of. Consider a few extremes: a single cell bacterium may have its entire life cycle in half an hour, but a generation for an elephant takes 12 years and a giant sequoia takes 60...

    (pp. 147-152)

    Size and the actual organisms that are measured are rather like shadow and substance. The organisms are material objects. In correlation with their size, they come in many shapes and have different physiologies, degrees of internal complexity, generation times, life spans, speeds, and frequencies to their songs. A beast’s size is like a shadow: it has no substance. It is simply a statement of how much matter makes up a particular living entity.

    What is remarkable is that although size is no more than a shadow, no more than a description, a property, it nevertheless exerts enormous power over the...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 153-156)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 157-161)