Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Neurology 101

Here is the homepage one day last week for the Bing search engine (click to enlarge), a photo of the Kurobe Dam in Japan. What struck me at once was the difference in scale between the tiny antlike humans and the massive bulk of the dam.

How could such miniscule creatures have amassed such a volume of concrete?

Of course, we are not the only creatures that build on a scale that dwarfs the builders. Tiny coral polyps built the 1,250-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. On our island of Exuma, termites almost too small to see build nests the size of a man. Time and teeming numbers do the trick.

What is unique to present-day humans is the relatively brief time and small number of builders required to construct great works of engineering.

Still, we marvel. Surely those people in the photograph leaning over the rail are awed by the scale of the thing, wondering how a mass of meaty tissue the size of a softball could conjure such dimension and power. I too wondered as I looked at the photograph, wondered at the mystery of that knot of neurons stuffed between my ears. This is something different than animal instinct. Coral polyps build reefs. Termites build black, ovoid nests. Humans build whatever we dam well please.