You learned in grade school that a caterpillar metamorphoses into a moth or butterfly. But what would you find if you were to cut open a chrysalis during that transformational stage? Would you find a half-caterpillar/half-butterfly hybrid? It’s a black box — you don’t know. Caterpillar goes in, butterfly comes out. We don’t ask what happens in between.
But we should.
What you would actually find would be little more than snot – a milky white mucous, with a few dark specs floating in it. The caterpillar dissolves itself into goo, and the cells of the goo reconstitute themselves into a moth or butterfly.
So what happens to the “personhood” of the being inside? Does one creature die while another is reborn, growing out of the mulch of its former self? Does the butterfly have any “memory” of the caterpillar it was? Here’s the really mind-blowing part: Scientists have figured out how to train a caterpillar (via subtle electric shocks) to turn and walk the opposite direction when a certain smell is introduced into their environment. When they later tested for the same learned ability in metamorphosed butterflies and moths, they found a 70% memory retention rate, which had lasted right through the goo phase. Turns out those little specks in the goo are clusters of brain cells, which save memories and then reproduce in the new being.
The biological weirdness continues: If we peel off the skin of a dead caterpillar, we find proto wings, laying in wait. They never emerge on the caterpillar itself, but when the rest of the insect dissolves to goo, the proto-wings cling to the walls of the chrysalis, and then attach themselves to the newly formed butterfly and continue their evolution. The caterpillar starts them, the butterfly finishes them.
The whole process is as spiritual as it is philosophical as it is scientific. Is there anything stranger or more magical in nature? (rhetorical question). Over dinner, as our family discussed this process, we wondered why it isn’t taught in grade school. Why do we just get the black box (input –> output) version? Always look behind the curtain.
Image above: Metamorphosis by Almacan
Inspired by this week’s “Black Box” episode of the always amazing Radiolab.