Why Don’t Any Animals Have Wheels?


Hey, Vsauce, Michael here,
and today we are going to ask a question— why don’t any animals
have wheels? I mean, animals use a plethora
of complicated locomotive techniques— slithering, fins, legs, wings— but yet, no animal has wheels. What’s really paradoxical
about this question is that us humans seem
pretty technologically advanced. We’ve mastered the wheel,
but we have yet to design something that fully takes advantage
of the limb, which is why this contraption seems
so eerie. It may be the closest we have come
to mimicking what nature is already
quite natural with. Of course, nature,
the source of these miraculous limbs that we have yet
to adequately reproduce, doesn’t use wheels. The wheel gives a mechanical advantage
to the user, allowing them to move heavy things
more easily, but if the wheel is so simple
and seems like such a no-brainer, why don’t any animals have them? Well, to be sure, let’s take a look
at the wheel spider. When escaping from a predator,
this spider will turn its body into what is essentially a tire
rolling downhill. And who can forget tumbleweeds? These things roll around in the wind,
spreading seeds everywhere. An even crappier example
is the dung beetle, who takes pieces of poop
and turns them into rollable balls that can be easily moved. But those are examples of rolling,
not wheels as we are looking for them today. Wheels on axles—
something that’s a part of a whole, but yet exists independently of it and can spin indefinitely
in one direction without having
to wind itself back again. Bacterial flagella
actually operate in this manner, but we don’t see it
in any larger life form, which brings us to the first problem
of finding wheels on animals. How can a living wheel
be completely separate from the animal and still receive nutrients
and expel waste? Or, if that wheel was made
out of a dead material the animal produced,
like fingernails or hair, how would it build
into the shape of a wheel while maintaining separation
from the host? For that matter,
how does developing a wheel on your body
help you along the way? I mean, look at a giraffe—
having a neck that’s just a little bit longer
still means that you’ll be able to reach food
that’s a bit higher, you’ll have more food,
will live longer, and will have more babies,
making longer necks more common. But if your mutation is a wheel
that’s only a little bit round, it doesn’t provide the same benefit. It doesn’t equal you making
more babies. And as much as I hate
to admit it, the wheel may be
a bit overrated. Think of it this way—
in order for a wheel to be useful for movement,
it sort of requires a prior invention—
roads. Without a smooth surface
to roll on, like a road or rails,
the wheel falls short, and wings and fins and limbs
do a better job for the terrain found
on Earth. Even when humans knew
about the wheel, they had little use for it
across rough terrain or muddy, debris-ridden streets, which is why wealthy people
in the past simply got carried around
in litter— no, not rubbish—
a litter, a vehicle that uses no wheels
and is carried by people or animals. Fancy, rich people
would get carried around in chair sedans,
but another type of litter was simply a sling
made out of fabric that would help you carry, say,
wounded soldiers across the terrain
of a battlefield. The modern-day stretcher is an example
of a litter. Okay, so in order for the wheels
on your body to be useful, you have to build roads. So what gives, animals?
Why didn’t you ever build roads? I mean, you guys are capable
of some pretty awesome things— complicated burrows,
nests, dams— why didn’t you ever build roads? Well, this question is fundamental
to Richard Dawkins’ analysis of the wheeled animal problem. He says that the problem
with roads is that they’re not selfish enough. A nest, a burrow, a dam—
these are things that you can defend; that you can build
and then only use for your own benefit. Because hey, you were smart enough
and industrious enough to build it, but roads can be used
by anything that stumbles upon it. I mean, you lost energy
and resources to build that road, while a moocher can just come up
and use it anyway and have time left
to make a bunch of babies and prosper. So the road is a really cool example
of how humans got benefits from breaking the mold
and doing things not just for themselves,
but for everyone. In fact, of all the animals,
only humans have ever invented taxes—
money that we force others to pay to build services
that they might not even use. So the next time you see a wheel,
say, “Thanks, wheel. “You’re a great symbol of the fact
that humans can cooperate and be unselfish.” And as always,
thanks for watching. I wheel-y mean that. [♪ music ♪] [Vsauce] [@Tweetsauce]
[Facebook.com/VsauceGaming] [♪ music ♪]

About the Author: Michael Flood

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