Magazine article American Scientist

Visualizing Biological Networks as Mandalas

Magazine article American Scientist

Visualizing Biological Networks as Mandalas

Article excerpt

As anyone immersed in the life sciences can tell you, the world of biology contains a great many interacting systems, but very few of the connections among them can be portrayed simply as straight lines. The more closely we look, the more apparent it becomes that living systems on any scale are complex, self-replicating, and dependent on one another-whether for sustenance, to regulate their growth, or simply to make use of one another's waste products for their own purposes. From molecular cascades to entire biomes, the connections within and among biological networks multiply and give rise to emergent properties, which in turn foster new connections that develop into networks. Yet most standard introductions to biology omit this dynamic perspective. The conventional classroom practice of presenting material in a linear sequence fails to reflect the ways in which a living planet both produces and consumes energy in a continuous cycle.

With our increased understanding of the complex networks that add up to an evolutionary and ecological framework, we need to teach biology in a way that takes account of this interdependence. The formula for presenting such material, however, is not obvious. For some time, as a teacher of biology, I had been asking myself how to depict the limitless diversity and interactivity of living cells. Was it possible to visualize a process such as symbiosis, or to shape the evolution of bioluminescence into a narrative? What would the coevolution of angiosperms and insects look like if we could show how its spatial and temporal elements have acted upon one another? We already have phylogenetic trees, and we can create circular genomes, but where are we to find the visual tools that will help students to see the multilayered, networked events of life? In the end it was not my training in biology but my background in art that led me to just the right visual form: the mandala.

Pictures of Complexity

The word mandala in Sanskrit means "circle," or, as many interpret it, "sacred circle." As a symbol it represents the whole universe, and even viewed simply as an image the mandala tells a story at many levels. Concentric rings of different colors, for example, may each stand for an element of life such as air or water, with various life-forms represented by smaller shapes within the rings, each one distinct and yet related to the others. A few years ago, while teaching physiology in an acupuncture institute, I became fascinated with the Buddhist concept of the mandala and went on to observe the creation of sand mandalas by Tibetan monks. Borrowing the spirit of their creative work, and acting on my innate tendency to use art as a tool for understanding nature, I developed what I came to think of as a biological mandala.

For my first challenge, I tackled the formidably complex concept of the coevolution of insects and angiosperms, or flowering plants. This is a nearly 100-million-year-old story of interdependency and the emergence of whole orders of arthropod pollinators and seed plants. How would I represent intricate relationships, mergers, morphological changes, structural anatomy, extinctions, and adaptive radiations?

As I pored over the fossil evidence and the macroevolutionary patterns (the morphology of plant anatomy, the minutiae of insect feeding parts), the circular format of the mandala started to assist me in organizing the information. In the center I started with the magnolia, one of the oldest flowering plants. Then, progressing through evolutionary time as I worked outward from the center, I began to switch images from early insects (incomplete metamorphosis) to early angiosperms and to include some interactions, including a circle of beetles, the coleopterans, with empty spaces to indicate extinction and new niches.

In a remarkable facsimile of adaptive radiation itself, my biology mandala gained in complexity as new forms of life appeared, diversified, and formed their own connections in the circular network. …

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