Behold the Imago!

A flesh fly of the genus Sarcophagi. You don’t particularly want to see the larval (stage, part, being) of this insect, since as their name suggests they are carrion-eating maggots. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to see carrion slowly decomposing by bacteria and the weather alone; that would take much too long: the stuff would quickly pile up high and deep.

The adult or reproductive stage of an insect that goes through metamorphosis is an imago, “the image or essential form of a species” to quote Stephen Jay Gould, from whose essay “Glow, Big Glowworm” (in Bully for Brontosaurus) I take today’s sermon. Linnaeus gave us “imago,” as well as “larva” (mask) and “pupa” (girl, doll/puppet). The great namer essentially said the reproductive form was the true being of the animal, the essence, the complete insect; earlier stages are immature, imperfect, juvenile, unfulfilled, and, oh, hey, female.

Linnaeus’s developmental metaphor takes humans as the model (a child is the immature form of the adult) and sets this on other life forms. But there is no reason to think that larval and imago aren’t equal parts of the life cycle of these animals. Both are fly; ladybug; butterfly (the caterpillar-butterfly metamorphosis was long taken as a metaphor for the soul’s release). Gould suggests an economic metaphor instead, a division of labor between the components. “By allocating the different, sometimes contradictory, functions of feeding and reproduction to sequential phases of the life cycle, insects with complete metamorphosis have achieved a division of labor that permits a finer adaptive honing of each separate activity.” (But note that Gould here is still imposing one of our human conceptions on this relationship; sure, that’s we humans do, but is it right? I mean “right” in both the senses of accuracy and morality. Maybe it’s the best we can do.)

[The same essay has a postscript on how faulty our conceptions are when it comes to distribution (of stars, glowworms on a cave ceiling, etc.). It looks to us as if randomly generated things have a pattern because of the clumps and strings that inevitably get created in a random array. A non-random distribution, on the other hand, looks random to us because it lacks the clumps and strings and patterns and constellations we see. We just don’t seem to be mentally attuned to understanding probability. We crave patterns and design. We want origins, order, and above all meaning. Oh, gods, how we demand meaning! Cue the theologies, the conspiracies — yes, even the narratives. We want a story and by jiminy we want to be its heroes.

But life isn’t a story and we’re not the stars.]

2 Responses to “Behold the Imago!”

  1. 1 elwnyc June 18, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Considering the amount of time spent in that form, I’ve thought of the butterfly stage as the caterpillar’s way of reproducing itself.

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