Humans are Just Bigger Cats (or Smaller Elephants)

There's a surprising regularity connecting the size, speed, and lifespan of not just animals, but cities and organizations, as well

Your heart is going to beat 1.5 billion times.

OK, I can’t tell you that exactly, but assuming you have a standard lifespan, the average human heart will beat about 1.5 billion times before it stops. What’s fascinating, though, is so will a cat’s. And an elephant’s. And a shrew’s. And a giraffe’s. In fact, every mammal has (more or less) the same number of heart beats in its life.

What’s different among those animals, though, is how quickly they go through those beats. The smaller the animal, the faster the metabolism and the shorter it lives — if you ever held a pet hamster, you can feel how fast it breathes. On the other end, the bigger the animal, the slower the metabolism and the longer it lives — a blue whale’s heartbeat, for example, is only about 8 – 10 per minute.

Physicist Geoffrey West is the director of the Santa Fe Institute, and the author of the new book Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, and his work is focused on the question of “scaling.” He has discovered that there’s a surprising regularity connecting the size, speed, and lifespan of not just animals, but cities and organizations, as well.

The link, he says, is how we use energy. Larger animals are more efficient in their use of energy than smaller ones, but

[no] system…whether “natural” or man-made, can operate without a continuous supply of energy and resources that have to be transformed into something “useful”…As social human beings, and in marked contrast to all other creatures, the major portion of our metabolic energy has been devoted to forming communities and institutions, such as cities, villages, companies and collectives, to the manufacture of an extraordinary array of artifacts, and to the creation of an astonishing litany of ideas, ranging from airplanes, cell phones, and cathedrals to symphonies, mathematics, literature, and much, much, more.

However, it’s not often appreciated that without a continuous supply of energy and resources, not only can there be no manufacturing of these things, but perhaps more important, there can be no ideas, no innovation, no growth, and no evolution. Energy is primary. It underlies everything we do and everything that happens around us. (West, 13)

As I read his book, I was thinking about the Jewish community. First, I wondered whether the same laws of “scaling” would apply to the Jewish community. Is Temple Emanu-El of New York City simply a scaled-up version of a pop-up minyan? And second, what is the “energy” Jewish organizations need to survive and thrive?

The answer to the first question is most likely “yes,” and it relates to the answer to the second question. The “energy” Jewish organizations need is individual relationships, and the only way organizations thrive is through small, simple connections.

Our real-life social networks — the people you might invite over to a dinner party — maxes out at about 150. As West remarks,

Increasing the group size beyond this number will result in significantly less social stability, coherence and connectivity, ultimately leading to its disintegration. For situations where group identity and cohesiveness are perceived as central for the group to function successfully, recognizing this limitation and the broader implications of social network structure is clearly of great importance. This is especially true in situations where stability, knowledge of other individuals, and social relationships are integral to performance.

(West, 307-8)

So to survive, an institution needs a constant influx of energy, and that energy comes from small interactions since that’s where “Points of delivery and transmission where energy and resources are exchanged.” (West, 113) Indeed, energy goes both ways. If you hear a wonderful sermon, that’s great, but the energy flows only one direction. If you talk with someone at Kiddush afterward, though, there’s an exchange.

And as West notes, those small interactions are the same, no matter the size. Your capillaries are the same size as a whale’s since that’s how the blood transports its nutrients. Your electrical outlets are the same size as those of the Empire State Building since that’s how the electricity goes to your phone charger. And your one-on-one conversations and exchange of ideas are the same size no matter how big or small your community is.

So if you want your institution to thrive — or even just survive — you need energy. So cultivate ideas. Generate excitement. And most of all, build relationships. No matter how big or small you are, that’s how you extend your lifespan.

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