The Bestlaid Body Plans

w e are a package of about two trillion cells assembled in a very precise way. Our bodies exist in three dimensions, with our cells and organs in their proper places. The head is on top. The spinal cord is toward our back. Our guts are on the belly side. Our arms and legs are to the sides. This basic architecture distinguishes us from primitive creatures organized as clumps or disks of cells.

The same design is also an important part of the bodies of other creatures. Like us, fish, lizards, and cows have bodies that are symmetrical with a front/back, top/bottom, and left/right. Their front ends (corresponding to the top of an upright human) all have heads, with sense organs and brains inside. They have a spinal cord that runs the length of the body along the back. Also like us, they have an anus, which is at the opposite end of their bodies from the mouth. The head is on the forward end, in the direction they typically swim or walk. As you can imagine, "anus-forward" wouldn't work very well in most settings, particularly aquatic ones. Social situations would be a problem, too.

It is more difficult to find our basic design in really primitive animals —jellyfish, for example. Jellyfish have a different kind of body plan: their cells are organized into disks that have a top and bottom. Lacking a front and back, a head and tail, and a left and right, jellyfish body organization appears very different from our own. Don't even bother trying to compare your body plan with a sponge. You could try, but the mere fact that you were trying would reveal something more psychiatric than anatomical.

To properly compare ourselves with these primitive animals, we need some tools. Just as with heads and limbs, our history is written within our development from egg to adult. Embryos hold the clues to some of the profound mysteries of life. They also have the ability to derail my plans.

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