Small Is Beautiful | Cellular Simplicity

An article in this month’s Prospect carries a review by Oliver Morton of Nick Lane’s ‘magnificent’ new book Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. His thesis is an

“antidote to the gene-centred view of life… Cells convert the energy they take in from the environment into a form that can be used to drive chemical reactions by a fundamental mechanism, which, Lane shows us, has a central relevance to questions that range from the astrobiological – how common is complex life in the universe – to the fundamental – how did life begin – to the world historical – how realistically can we imagine lengthening human life-expectancy by a century or two?”

One particular aspect of this hit me as I read the review:

“The amount of energy a creature needs in order to reproduce is roughly proportional to its volume, since it is the volume that has to be doubled in reproduction. But the amount of energy a membrane system can produce is proportional to its surface area. When things get bigger, their volume increases quicker than their surface area, so bigger bacteria will take longer to produce enough energy to reproduce themselves than smaller ones will.”

When I read this I couldn’t help think of the mega/micro church debate. As you will know if you’ve read the book, I’m a fan of the viral, self-organizing model of being. And what I think this argument affirms is that such a model of small, simple, local incarnations is more ‘energy efficient.’ Moreover, they have a better ratio of “surface area to volume”… In other words, they are more exposed to the environment they exist in.

Large mega-churches appear to have ‘economies of scale’, and this will be true in many economic contexts. But in this biological parallel they have poor surface area to volume ratios: fewer people in them are actually ‘on the boundary’ interfacing with the environment that hosts them. And they require a huge amount of energy to replicate.

Either way, the stark truth of biology is, whether you take a gene or energy-centred view, is that life goes on, even when individual cells and bodies die. To try to artificially extend life-expectancy can create monsters. Life is good. Death is a necessary part of that cycle.


2 responses to “Small Is Beautiful | Cellular Simplicity”

  1. Dana Ames

    One can find the most interesting stuff reading book reviews! I remember calculating surface area:volume in my high school biology class.
    BTW, you have an e-mail from me requesting to buy the book from the US. If it’s not where it’s supposed to be, please contact me at ldames at pacific dot net.
    Thanks Kester.

  2. I like the analogy and it’s implications. It’s true that many large churchs don’t replicate at very high speeds. And the interior of that body is using the exterior for sustinance.