On Human Nature

I’d like to share a truly beautiful natural metaphor that I see in the praying mantis’s life cycle. As a longtime admirer and mantis hobbyist, I am repeatedly stunned by these incredibly similar, yet starkly alien creatures.

Every spring around the world, mantis nymphs emerge from their foamy egg sacks. Almost magically, like so many instinctual phenomena, between twenty and three hundred tiny translucent mantids emerge dangling from a fine silky thread. Upon close examination, the mantis nymphs are remarkably well formed and proportioned. Unlike so many creatures, including most mammals and insects, mantises begin their lives in almost the precise image of its adult body.

As with most creatures, mantids grow over time. Unlike mammals, they do not grow slowly and evenly, but rather undergo ecdysis several times throughout their maturation until they reach their adult form. This process, known as molting, is the literal shedding of the insect’s exoskeleton. In preparation for a molt, mantids climb to an elevated position, hang upside down, wriggle their abdomen rhythmically, and carefully crawl out of their dermal jackets.

With each molt, the mantis grows; however, the original proportions and image of its nymphal state are preserved, with the exception of the development of various secondary sex characteristics. The most significant molting event signifies the mantid’s entrance into adulthood: wings. Upon the mantid’s final molt, small wing buds are shed to reveal impossibly thinly veined membranes. The mantis then flushes these membranes with bodily fluid, causing them to unfurl. However, the rest of the mantis is remarkably identical to its nymphal form.

Molting can be a difficult and dangerous procedure, and an error such can result in the debilitation of legs, joints, wings, or any intricately shaped protrusions. A mismolt can be as innocuous a single deformed leg or wing, or as disastrous as a crippling of the raptorial limbs, which can often lead to death. However, with each subsequent molt, the mantis has the capacity to shed its deformed exoskeleton and regrow any parts that are broken or weak.

I would now like to depart from biology and enter the infinitely more interesting world of metaphoric thought.

If we can look past the bug-eyed, the mantid’s developmental progression appears to be an easily adaptable metaphor for our own human development. Foremost, I would suggest that humans, like mantids, begin their lives as a miniature representation of their adult character. That is to say, upon birth, each human possesses a guiding kernel that might be deemed our “essence,” or who we “truly” are. This, in combination with a host of influential environmental factors, is what decides whether we spend our childhood drawing and painting, collecting rocks, reading avidly, or even bullying our peers and causing trouble.

However, just as mantids repeatedly shed their outermost layer in favor of a larger and more robust self, humans undergo this same process. With each new experience, each previously unknown situation we encounter, and each obstacle that presents itself along the way, we molt. Clearly this is literally false (or is it?), but also incredibly true. They say hardship breeds character. According to the mantis, I agree. Thomas Paine writes in 1773, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” (thank you 10th grade US History!)

And we have mismolts. Our exoskeletons often tear and leave leathery pieces bound around joints and limbs and cause all kinds of mangled body parts and perceived degradations of our character. We forget to do our homework. We refuse to do our homework. We miss classes and don’t show up for work. We refuse to do either out of anger and spite. We forget to call on someone’s birthday (or refuse because they didn’t call on yours). We crash cars, lose large amounts of money, cheat on our spouses and generally mess our own lives up- frequently.

But biology is malleable; when young mantids have a mismolt for whatever reason- perhaps the humidity is too low, or the mantis wasn’t quite developmentally ready to shed its skin, or some environmental factor interfered with the process, all is not lost. With each molt, the outermost layer is shed, allowing the mantid’s pure and functional kernel to be re-exposed. Redemption. A second chance- or a third, fourth, or seventeenth; unlike praying mantids, humans do not experience a mere six or seven molting events. We, as adaptable and intelligent mammals, are constantly molting. Always. There is no such thing as a “final molt,” for we are infinitely evolving, adding to our character and knowledge of ourselves and the world. This, I believe, is the most integral and fundamentally intrinsic human character: infinite molting capacity.

That all being said, I encourage all of you, my proverbial royal readers, to actively molt. Seek out new experiences, do things that you’ve never thought to do- make a bucket list every day or every week or every ten years- and repeatedly add new layers to that kernel that guides your way. Take advantage of our infinite human capacity to grow and heal. Mess up. Make mistakes, experience hardship, climb over Kilamanjaro until your oxygen tank runs out or you get paged for work or you stub your toe or something. Try to avoid those big mistakes- our biology is impressively resilient, but there is certainly a point at which recovery is increasingly improbable. Keep your raptorial limbs functional and healthy- you’ve got to be able to catch crickets and crawl around and eat your spouse’s heads and all. But trust in your humanity, that even those deep wounds may heal with time and active molting.

Good luck to you all. With the start of the new semester I may blog more intermittently, but check back often! Feel free to leave comments and share your own experiences- molting or mismolting. Until next time,

6 thoughts on “On Human Nature

  1. Hi Alex,

    Wonderful use of the mantis’s life as a metaphor for humans ultimately healing from life’s trials and tribulations . I feel as if I’ve experienced hundreds of moltings myself since the fall of 1997. While it’s true that this experience does in fact make one stronger, there comes a time, at least for me, where I’d enjoy a longer hiatus between moltings in order to give my mind and body enough time to completely recover. I’m curious, what is the mantis’s time of respite between moltings?


    • Thanks maria. It varies from mantis specie to mantis specie, just as I imagine it varies from human to human. We may experience be periods of intense consecutive change, but there is usually between three weeks and two months respite after each molt. For humans, this time period may be as efficient as a day or as lasting as many years. It’s as individualized as each individual would prefer. Sometimes it’s healthier to wait extra long between molts, as this might allow the developing skeleton underneath to become stronger and more ready to face worldly exposure.

  2. You’re an inspiration to me, Alex. I couldn’t speak for weeks after my dad passed, and you’re writing profound posts for the world to see. Keep this unique, empathetic, and humane perspective you have–or, better yet, let it grow through your own molting.

    As I shared with you before, here’s my favorite quotes on the subject of adversity and overcoming it:

    The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.

    You, I, and many others are strong, and are becoming stronger by the day, in the broken places.


    • Many thanks, Joe- molting is inherently a strengthening process. Just as you say— where once was broken, now is stronger.

      Thank you for your words and support Joe, those with (even undesirable) experience are a real resource.

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