The art of molting

Justin E. H. Smith:

Snake_moultingMany animals, not just humans, generate objects that resemble their generators. In most cases these objects are not held to be works of art, however, since they are not made for the sake of resemblance to their makers. They are not made at all, in fact, but rather molted.

At its most masterful, nature gives us ecdysis, the variety of molting common to many invertebrates. Unlike lizards shedding their skin, birds their feathers, or mammals their fur, insects and arthropods are outfitted with rigid outer casings, and so their molting involves something closer to a crawling out than a casting off.

Consider the scorpion as it sinks into apolysis, when the epidermal cells gradually separate from the hard old exoskeleton. A new cuticle begins to form, and the
creature within agitates, thrusting back and forth until the old integumentary shell cracks. It squeezes out, reborn. Let us imagine that it then turns and regards—perhaps with admiration, perhaps with disgust—the scorpion shaped, self-shaped monument it has, by nature’s necessity, cast off. The new creature appears neotenous, inexperienced, soft-shelled, while the outer casing it leaves behind takes on the appearance of a gutted and abandoned tank, dry and gray and dead, while still plainly retaining the figure of the life it once vehicled.

Can we easily distinguish between what the scorpion does when it molts and what we human beings do when we, say, sculpt the human form in stone? The most common means of distinguishing between the two sorts of production is that the human sculptings are representations of human forms, whereas molted exoskeletons or shells are not representations but rather the things themselves, or at least vestiges of the things.

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