Friday, August 11, 2006

Got the Butterflies All Tied Up

This is a Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata) just after emerging from its chrysalis, expanding its wings, and preparing for its last stage of life. The photo really doesn't do justice to its exquisite beauty and opalescent coloring (I wonder if the coloring is why it's named 'vanilla incarnate'). This photo was the other on display at the Dogwood Arts Festival Photo Show in April along with 'Splendid Anomaly.'

This post has been a long time (several months) coming. One problem was that I just could not think of the right title to 'tie it all up'. Then a few weeks ago (yet more delays) I heard the Prince song "When Doves Cry" on the radio followed by Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight." It was the 'random' juxtaposition of these two songs that somehow connected for a solution. Hearing in the second song, "I can feel you breathe; I can feel your heart beat faster.....faster," caused a 'free association' (see, female verbal pattern thinking can be pretty cool) to the first song:

Touch if u will my stomach
Feel how it trembles inside
You've got the butterflies all tied up
Don't make me chase u
Even doves have pride

I've been somewhat obsessed with butterflies for the last several years. This obsession with butterflies was born in December 1999, when in Puerto Rico exploring Old San Juan we stumbled upon The Butterfly People. I was instantly caught in the "butterfly dimension" and butterflies (click for a brief description of some cute shamanic totem animals including butterflies) began to enter my life in various ways. Living in the country for the last 5 years has made it possible for me to have hands-on studies of them. In the summers my friends have teased me about my jars of caterpillars and chrysalides lined up on the kitchen bar. But they've never complained when they got to watch a butterfly fly for the first time. (However, this year the kitchen bar has been dominated by the black widow spider jar, and that has been the source of even more teasing about me really finally 'losing it.' lol But I think that the spider's presence, until her recent death, fit nicely with the symbolism of tied-up butterflies.)

I've recently finished reading the book, An Obsession With Butterflies, by Sharman Apt Russell. The first few sentences of the book immediately intrigued me:

In physics, string theory suggests that there are more than four dimensions, perhaps ten in all. [I thought it was 11.] These extra dimensions are curled up into a very small space, big enough only for subatomic particles, or tiny loops of vibrating "string." The theory does not rule out more dimensions, perhaps in the area of time. These dimensions, here but not here, exist outside our range of perception.

Adding butterflies to your life is like adding another dimension.

Russell goes on to describe examples of the richness and complexity of activities happening in the world all around us that we never even notice or perceive at all. Always surrounding us there are countless chemical messages being passed between flowers and insects (as well as other animals and plants) that exist in what can seem like dimensions other than our own. (I might could call it the "Olfactory Dimension".) She describes many examples of the hidden behavior that occurs in the butterfly world and how that behavior and other traits evolved in concert with the evolution of plants and other animals.

Let me indulge in a bit of quoting of out context. Czech string theorist Lubos Motl (who told me his name coincidentally is very similar to the Czech word for 'butterfly'- motyl[missing its proper accent thingy], which is much easier than the Aztec name of one type of butterfly, xiquipilchiuhpapalotl) says:

The punch line is that we absolutely need string theory to understand what's really going "inside" various physical systems that depend on nice mathematics. For an intelligent person, it is impossible to deny that string theory connects A,B) with C,D) and with E). It allows us to make seemingly obscure but true relations as clear as the sky. String theory allows us to answer questions in each category. It even tells us what are the right questions and what are the wrong questions. It also informs us which similarities, isomorphisms, and identities are deep and which of them are just random coincidences.


Our understanding of such dual systems is necessary if we want to predict what happens behind the borders between our current knowledge and our current ignorance. Sometimes the borders of the hostile empire of ignorance are only defined by our limited calculational skills. Sometimes the borders occur because without string theory, we would have no idea how to define the theory of the physical phenomena in the first place...

I know that he's not talking about butterflies and their seemingly extra-dimensional communications with flowers and other insects. But it's a fun thought to try to take complex theoretical physics and 'apply' it to events in the 'real' world. Russell does this with her opening paragraph, but that wasn't quite enough for me because I had hoped she would explicitly weave that idea into the rest of her book. I like to dig a little deeper and 'see' the connections in more detail. Or at least with my limited understanding of string theory it seems to fit together pretty well in that metaphorical sense. And I do want to emphasize the word "metaphorical" here because at this level that is all I can do to connect string theory and butterflies. I'm only describing an analogy or metaphor as I perceive it. I'm not capable of explaining why or how. (link to an explanation of various ways of looking at the Universe) However, I do think that when a theory begins to be used as a metaphor for real events that it means it is gaining acceptance in the minds of non-scientists. There is so much more going on in the world around us than the tiny bit that we do perceive. I like the use of String Theory as metaphor even if it might not be 'analytically correct'. It is philosophically pleasing.

I enjoyed the first half of Russell's book more than the rest because she discussed in detail some scientific observations of butterfly behavior and the complexity that has evolved (and continues to evolve) in relation to other animal and plant behaviors. Butterflies and ants in particular have established close symbiotic relationships:

Over 2000 species of butterflies around the world suffer from myrmecophily. They are ant-loving. (page 32)
And this dynamic symbiosis is present with flowers too, though these relationships rely on a balance of needs by each participant and seem to constantly change/adjust in small ways which is, of course, the point of evolution. But this interconnectedness isn't limited to animal-animal or animal-plant relationships. For example, in many species their developing coloring responds to temperature changes, but that ability is lost in butterflies bred in climate controlled labs in fewer than 20 generations. Apparently, climate change is necessary for adaptability and evolution. Whoda thunkit? ;-)

There is also a discussion of the unique characteristic of caterpillar blood that seems to 'count time', a true biological clock. This is only one of the discussions in the book that makes it so worthwhile and thought provoking. I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the complexity and 'connectedness' of Life even down to the smallest, most common of creatures. (And it's a small book and a quick read, provided you don't have kids constantly interrupting you.)

In her discussions of the history of butterfly study, lepidopterology, we learn that Vladimir Nabokov was an avid and well-known 20th Century lepidopterist. Many of us know him for his controversial novel, Lolita, about, as most of us know, a pedophile's pursuit and 'capture' of a young girl. (I haven't read it, and I will admit that it could have literary value despite the subject which I find disgusting.) Apparently, Nabokov was obsessed with butterflies too, especially their metamorphosis from a "bag of goo" (Russell's description) to a beautiful work of biological art. Russell sums it up by saying:

It is a gesture of beauty almost too casual. (page 48)
"A gesture of beauty almost too casual" seems to me to be expected from an "Elegant Universe."

When gulf fritillaries are mating they stay connected for most of a day.

The primary purpose of the adult butterfly is reproduction. And butterfly sex is almost as varied as human sex. Some species like the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) engage in 'rape' or what looks to us like forced, uninvited sex, and is probably the result of the male Monarch lacking enough pheromones to properly 'attract' a female. Other species like the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonia) engage in pupal sex, or what could be compared to pedophilia in humans, though in the butterflies it does often result in actual reproduction but also sometimes results in female death. This barbaric practice in butterflies has evolved probably as a result of intense male competition to perpetuate their own genes. They even sometimes engage in interspecies pupal mating (which kills the female) probably to reduce competition on host plants. (A disturbing thought is that perhaps human pedophilia is an evolutionary relic which has yet to completely disappear.) And some butterfly species have even developed a form of 'bondage' (or being "tied up") with a structure called a "sphragis" which Russell equates to a "chastity belt" that keeps other males from mating with a female. However one male butterfly sexual feature that I'm sure most human males would wish they had are rudimentary 'eyes' on their genitalia that detect light and probably assist the males in properly 'lining up' with the female genitalia.

Gulf fritillaries are probably my favorite butterflies for several reasons. They are plentiful here so I have gotten to watch them quite a bit. They have the coolest scientific name ("vanilla incarnate"), and they feed on the Passion Flower plant (Passiflora incarnata or roughly "widespread goddess of flowers incarnate") which grows wild around here and is quite beautiful and smells incredible:

Maybe their feeding on this Passion Flower is part of why their mating lasts so long? And it seems logical to me to think that they must surely be having little butterfly orgasms even though we've yet found a way to detect them. (Why would they stay connected so long if wasn't very pleasurable? Staying connected for long periods increases the risk of being eaten by a bird or other predator so you'd think there has to be some big benefit to offset that danger.) Maybe these butterfly orgasms are occurring in another dimension, a curled-up dimension predicted by string theory that we've also yet to detect? Maybe someone should try to study this further? Maybe this is the answer so many have been searching for? ;-)

I'd like to leave it here with that 'punchline', but no discussion of butterflies and the significance of their lives and life-cycle is complete without mentioning death. Butterflies, like most of us, live then reproduce and then die. It's the Way of Life. In Russell's book there is a brief discussion of the cross-cultural spiritual symbolism of butterflies' metamorphosis. Many cultures have independently associated this metamorphosis with the life/death/rebirth cycle of Life, and some have associated it with reincarnation. Some say that butterflies are the souls of dead humans. Here is an iconic representation of this idea:

Of course, there is much in the book that I haven't mentioned, but that's why you need to read it. Now that I've come to the end of this I'm wondering if it was worth the trouble, but I'm relieved to have it finally finished.

A quick disclaimer here: this is for entertainment purposes only. ;-)


QUASAR9 said...

Wow Rae,
if it's been a lon time coming
It certainly arrived with a bang.

Great post, great links, even quotes from the man at the reference frame.

Love the pics, and the link toooo
Have a great weekend, rain here, but hey that's needed too keep the green grass green, it was looking parched and sun baked afore

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Rae, I have to say your intuition is right - everything is ...

However, there is a big bang or biblical six days, when everything in the 'physical' universe we inhabit started (iscreated) >>>
particles, forces, time, ...
which leads to gases, galaxies, stars, planets, ... which continue to revolve & evolve.

Of course just as an atom is small and the nucleus of an atom smaller still, and there are even smaller things still which contain so much informaton and power (energy) - some which we have 'revealed' or discovered and some which we are still searching for, no particle physicist in his right mind would doubt that imperceptible or intangible Souls exist, and are the lifeforce of 'animate' beings.

QUASAR9 said...

PS - Don't tell anyone, they might not believe you.

Can you imagine JoAnne Hewett giving up looking for particles which prove supersymmetry

Can you imagine Lubos giving up looking for strings

How big is the brain of a butterfly - yet if the brain is an atom and the soul the atoms nucleus, how big is the butterflies Soul.

I think your friend kat might have a good idea ... if you catch my drift

Rae Ann said...

Hi Q, remember the Southern Sun Signs and that I'm "chitlins" that can unexpected erupt? LOL Just like a volcano it takes a while for all the conditions to be right for the big eruption. I have to admit that I'm feeling a little 'spent' now. LOL I just hope that those lemons will ripen soon so I can refresh myself with some delicious fresh-squeezed lemonade. Everyone should have a lemon tree!

I would never expect scientists to stop searching for evidence. We need that. They have to put it in their language to be able to really understand it. If I could be brilliant enough to reduce it to a formula I certainly would. But I'm afraid the kettles that simmer on my backburners have some 'cracks' in them. But I hope that I can cook up some fun snacks with them anyway. ;-)

I really think you should read the book. You'd love it and breeze through it probably in a day. There's a lot in it that I didn't mention here.

PS Don't tell anyone ;-), but I'm kind of thinking that the 'big bang' and the 'six day creation' will ultimately (far in the future) be seen as synonymous myths that are replaced by some radical new knowledge. Oops! I think one of my kettles just completely cracked in half! LOL

Thanks for your comments!

QUASAR9 said...


serenity said...

This is an absolutely stunning post. Thank you for all of the work that you put into it, and for the remarkable pictures. I have picked this book up several times in the bookstore but have yet to purchase it. I will remedy that immediately if not sooner. What a fascinating, purely delightful read.

QUASAR9 said...

Top of the morning to you
and this fine Sunday too.

Have fun!

Rae Ann said...

serenity, thanks! Your compliments made all the work worth it!

Q, you too!

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Nice pics, links, and post.

QUASAR9 said...

It's A Magic post Rae!
As CIP says:
Nice pics, links and post
threaded with words
garnished with thoughts

e4c5 said...

I really enjoyed reading this article! Thought provoking, funny and interesting...

Rae Ann said...

cip, thanks!

Q, you're such a nice poet!

e4c5, thank you! Thanks for reading it and commenting.

changapeluda said...

Hi Rae Anne,

It's your friendly weird K.S

I LOVE Dolly Parton and she loves Butterflies.

She wrote:
It makes your heart feel strange
It flutters like soft wings in flight.

Love is like a butterfly
a rare and gentle thing.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

08 21 06

Rae Ann:
You really outdid yourself on this one. I learned something. Thanks:) Thanks also for your kind words regarding my Grandma Jo. You are kind:)