Hermit Crabs and Human Beings
Every year, my husband and I take a break from the New York winter and spend some time unwinding on a beach. For the past four years we’ve gone to Jamaica. Mostly it’s pure lovely downtime – I really make the effort to “contain” work, so that I just have one 30-60 minute session of emailing or blogging each day. Like right now.
My brain really never stops considering things, though – that’s just how I’m wired – so I thought I’d share something cool with you that I just found out. Yesterday at the beach, Patrick brought me this fascinating creature (the picture at left); a big sea shell with a claw sticking out of it. He said it was crawling along the beach by pulling itself with its claw.
I looked it up just now, and I believe it’s a hermit crab. They have long, soft bodies that they curl into an abandoned shell (whose original occupant has died), and then grasp into the shell with their “tail” – really the end of their abdomen. As they grow, they need to find progressively bigger shells. But then I started wondering – how do they find a shell that’s the right size when they need it? They must be very vulnerable to predators, I reasoned, when they’re between shells.
Then Wikipedia gave me a really interesting answer:
Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.
And I started to think about how “vacancy chains” are a big part of human life, as well. It’s just that they’re somewhat more complex, so harder to see. But, for instance, every time someone moves to a larger/better house, it starts a vacancy chain. Every time someone moves to a bigger/better job: a vacancy chain. And we’ve used the internet to create more efficient vacancy chains, too: to sell stuff we no longer need because we’ve acquired a newer or better version, to let other people know that we’re wanting to move on to a better relationship, organization, dwelling.
There’s an internal analogue as well. When we learn something new, or understand something that previously eluded us, we’re moving to a bigger comprehension of the world and abandoning our outgrown worldview.
That kind of internal change is difficult; we feel vulnerable when we’re ‘between understandings.’ But here’s an inspiration to keep growing and ‘moving along the chain’ mentally and emotionally: when we cling to a smaller understanding of ourselves or the world around us, we’re actually getting in the way of evolution.