Sunday, September 25, 2011

Metaphor(um) in Tarragona

While Ken and I were in Catalunya last week, we spent a day wandering around the Roman ruins in Tarragona, once one of the largest cities in the Roman empire.  The current Old City is built within what was once a wall surrounding what was once the forum.

And it was fascinating; the remains of the amphiteatre, the wall around the city, the sports arena, the forum, the arches everywhere, leading from Roman centers to medieval alley to modern street. 

It was also very evocative, for many reasons, not the least of which was to see Tarragona through the lens of evolution: the Roman wall, undoubtedly built on a site where the contemporary Spaniards were living, to which a tower was added in medieval times, and that is now one wall of a modern museum, all seemed strikingly parallel to, say, the stem vertebrate of which the arms were recruited for wings, and then perhaps pink feathers, long legs and neck were added on.  It is how one thing is built upon another in this particular history, changing or melding functions as time went on.
The amphitheatre was used for centuries as a quarry, with the stones removed and scavenged in recruitment for other purposes.  The hall in what was the forum was used to house prisoners beginning in the early 1800s and up through Franco’s time, where hundreds were executed.  Brutal perhaps, as though a civic building were recruited for evil purposes, but of course the Romans had prisoners, and treated them brutally as well.  So this particular function didn’t evolve as much as the rest!

The ruins are now a tourist site, used to feed many Tarragonans, and the city itself.  That’s a modern use, yes, but tourists in classical times are even known to have visited the Egyptian pyramids when they were new, and on into classical times when they were as old to people then as Roman ruins are to us….so re-use for tourism isn’t really new, either.   

Flamingos, in La Camargue, southern France
Of course, genes may be conserved and used as they have been perhaps for eons, but they might also be recruited to new functions, or duplicated, they can become non-functional, pseudogenes.   And any trait or organ can evolve to include a new or additional function. 

The famous analogy of the ‘spandrels of San Marco’, that stressed how one thing, originally with one function, can be recruited for another function is somewhat similar.  But here in Tarragona, one culture finds different uses as well as building upon a previous structure’s original uses.  The scavenging of blocks of amphitheater stone for making houses later shows that sometimes the original use is simply discarded, more or less as a gene might take on a completely different, or additional use over time.

In any case, it was a day for tourism that triggered thoughts about how life works.

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