Form dictates function

4 minute read

This postulate from evolutionary biology has hit me time and again, each time following a “Eureka!” moment in completely unrelated situations. I believe it is quite unappreciated, and I should hence gather my thoughts around it to bring out its beauty.

The idea itself is quite simple: an optimal physical form leads to the completion of the desired function. Form here refers to the physical configuration of an organism in time and space. The function is usually a change in its form and/or the immediate physical environment of this organism. The context behind this postulate was to explain why physical organisms look the way they look, live where they live, eat what they eat and so on. It hence successfully explains these phenomena over a macroscopic time scale: millions of years of mutations. However, the postulate itself is intemporal - in the sense that it also lends itself equally well to the analysis of instantaneous physical changes.

Now as a logical consequence of this statement, the failure to achieve the desired function implies a lack of the optimal form. Several interesting physical activities rely on our ability to manipulate our form and exert force to effect the desired function. However, as the difficulty nears the end of our ability, an un-noticable deviation in the form kills the function and we have to start again. Usually, the reason behind this “form breakdown” is that we perceive our body as one big chunk of mass, that is being acted upon by (read: at the mercy of) external influences. However, it is really not! Solid bodies–as basic high school mechanics teaches us–are a combination of infinite point masses with internal and external forces acting on them. They behave as though a point-the centre of mass- is acted upon by an external force and evolves through space and time by its virtue.

The body is hence a sum of parts. Each of these parts needs to assume a precise configuration in order to efficiently perform the function. The mental model of the body, therefore also has to be a sum of parts. You need to be aware of what each part is doing, how it is oriented in the 3D space right now. This conscious effort to manipulate each point can allow you to quickly pick up new skills, or perfect the existing ones beyond their current limitations.

Let’s take my favourite example, the loaded barbell. I grip it with the thumbs pointing to the floor, just over the meaty part of the palm, shoot my chest up and out. Unrack it, and take a step back. Look forward, tight armpits, tight hips, tight thigh, big breath. Locked and loaded. HIP DRAAHVE! The bar drops down, and bounces back up. I catch the bounce and push it up. It moves up to in-front of my forehead. Fuck, this is really heavy. Just can’t seem to move it. Come on you pussy, are you gonna let it go? PUSH! I groan, and it somehow moves up just enough to clear my head. I shove myself forward and lock it out at the top instantly. I know that is the premature end of the set. Have to rack the bar now. I can already hear the fat pink man groaning disdainfully: “Now hwhy the hell did you not finish the set? Failing the rep is not the same event as you racking the barrr” I look at the video of my lift, and it is glaringly obvious now. The elbows were under the fucking bar - not an inch in-front as they should have been! The bar therefore went up, not over the shoulder. The torque about the shoulder killed the lift midway.

It is just not enough to try to move correctly. You have to consciously think about each bone and its position. It has to be perfectly in the right position and moved at the right time. That is how you improve your physical abilities.

Another example is playing the Tabla. This percussion instrument has a strong bass and a clear, yet soft treble. The smaller piece of the two: the dayan has three concentric circles on its surface. It is hollow inside, and the vibrations of the surface resonate down at different frequencies to produce exquisite highs. Two of these notes, the Ta and the Tin are quite close. In fact, none of them are ever played correctly the first time by a beginner. After about a week of practice, you may get them right on one out of ten tries. The index finger has to strike the outermost circle at about 8 o’clock for the Ta, and the common boundary of the two outer circles at about 7 o’clock for the Tin. The Ta is played with the Distal Phalanx of the index finger, while the Tin probably needs the joint between the Proximal Phalanx and the Middle Phalanx to strike the exact same spot at 7 o’clock and rebound instantly. Even with this information, I was not able to get the resonating Tin each time. It would sometimes be flat, and sometimes resonating. Today, I figured out the missing piece of the puzzle. I was striking the joint on the medial side due to the rotation of the wrist about the arm. It has to infact strike with the joint flat on it’s anterior side. The resulting sound was a tight resonating Tin. Beautiful each time thereafter.

Coming back to our underrated postulate, a perfect form is a non-negotiable prerequisite to the optimal function. You can either make a thousand random tries, and achieve the function once by coincidence. Alternatively, you can think about where each point on your body is and how it is moving, and make it move the right way. Either way, the optimal form and the resultant function will feel different. It is a blissful moment, and I hope you get to experience it sometime.