Hummingbird vs Butterfly – how the world changes in unexpected ways

The butterfly effect is a fairly well known idea in chaos theroy. It’s a metaphor thought up by Edward Lorenz, who imagined that the air moved from the flap of a  butterfly’s wing could result in a hurricane over time; the idea that one’s actions, however small, could be the cause of great effect somewhere down the road.

What I’ve never heard of until today, is the hummingbird effect. This effect is one where “an innovation, or a cluster of innovations, in one field triggers innovation in an entirely different field.” What seperates it from the butterfly effect, is that the cause and effect is directly relatable, if not originally anticipated.


Image from Brain Pickings

The reason for all the interest is due to Steven Johnson’s new book, How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world – where all six are the result of the hummingbird effect.

Here is one of the famous, historical examples of the this theory in action:

“Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.”

I had never realized the relation between these innovations before, and it honestly makes me want to go out and buy this book, if only to explore this phenomenon further.

Sources: LinkedIn; brainpickings