john_mcwhorter's picture
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Words on the Move

How Do You Get From A Lobster To A Cat?

Did you ever notice that the "vein" you are told, for some reason, to remove from shrimp before eating them doesn't seem to ooze anything you'd be inclined to call blood? Doesn't the slime seem more like some sort of alimentary waste? That's because it is. In shrimp, you can get at the digestive system right through its back because that's where it is. The heart's up there too, and this is the way it is in arthropods, the animal phylum that includes crustaceans and insects. Meanwhile, if you were interested in finding the shrimp's main nerve highway, you'd find it running down along its bottom side.

That feels backwards to us, because we're chordates, another big animal phylum. Chordates have the spinal nerve running down the back, with the gut and heart up in front. It's as if our body plans were mirror images of arthropods', and this is a microcosm of a general split between larger classes: arthropods are among the protostomes, with the guts on the back, as opposed to the deuterostomes that we chordates are among, with the guts up front.

Biologists have noticed this since auld lang sine, with naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire famously turning a dissected lobster upside down and showing that as such, its innards' arrangement resembled ours. The question was how things got this way, especially as Darwin's natural selection theory became accepted. How could one get step-by-step from guts on the back and the spinal chord up front to the reverse situation? More to the point, why would this be evolutionarily advantageous, which is the only reason we assume it would happen at all?

Short of imagining that the nerve chord glommed upward and took over the gut and a new gut spontaneously developed down below because it was "needed"—this was actually entertained for a while by one venturesome thinker—the best biologists could do for a long time was suppose that the arthropod plan and the chordate plan were alternative pathways of evolution from some primordial creature. It must have just been a matter of the roll of the dice coming out differently one time than the next one, they thought.

Not only was this boring—the problem was that molecular biology started making it ever clearer that arthropods and chordates trace back to the same basic body plan in a good amount of detail. The shrimp's little segments are generated by the same basic genes that create our vertebral column, and so on. Which leads to the old question again—how do you get from a lobster to a cat? Biologists are converging upon an answer that combines elegance with a touch of mystery while occasioning a scintilla of humility in the bargain.

Namely, what is increasingly thought to have happened is that some early worm-like aquatic creature with the arthropod-style body plan started swimming upside-down. Creatures can do that: brine shrimp, today, for example (remember those "sea monkeys"?). Often it's because a creature's coloring is different on the top than the bottom, and having the top color face down makes them harder for predators to see. That is, there would have been evolutionary advantage to such a creature gradually turning upside down forever.

But what this would mean is that in this creature, the spinal chord was up and the guts were down. In itself, that's perhaps cute, maybe a little sad, but little more. But—suppose this little worm then evolved into today's chordates? It's hardly a stretch, given that the most primitive chordates actually are wormish, only vaguely piscine things called lancelets. And of course, if you were moved to rip one open you'd see that nerve chord on the back, not the front.

Molecular biology is quickly showing exactly how developing organisms can be signaled either to develop a shrimp-like or a cat-like body plan along these lines. There even seems to be a "missing link"—there are rather vile, smelly bottom-feeding critters called acorn worms that have nerve chords on the back and on the front, and guts that seem on their way to moving on down.

So—the reason we humans have a backbone is not because it's somehow better to have a spinal column to break a fall backwards or anything of the sort. Roll the dice again and we could be bipedals with spinal columns running down our fronts like zippers and the guts carried in the back (it actually doesn't sound half bad). And beyond this, this explanation of what's called dorsoventral inversion is yet more evidence of how under natural selection, such awesome variety can emerge in unbroken fashion from such humble beginnings. And finally, it's hard not to be heartened by a scientific explanation that early adopters, like Geoffroy-St. Hilaire, were ridiculed for espousing.

Quite often when preparing shrimp, tearing open a lobster, contemplating what it would be like to be forced to dissect an acorn worm, patting my cat on the belly, or giving someone a hug, I think a bit about the fact that all of those bodies are built on the same plan, except that the cats' and the huggees' bodies are the legacy of, of all things, some worm swimming the wrong way up in a Precambrian Ocean over 550 million years ago. It has always struck me as rather gorgeous.