22 August 2007

The Butterfly Effect

A theory called the ‘Butterfly Effect’ suggests that even a tiny change somewhere in our ecosystem can bring in gigantic changes everywhere. The theory uses the analogy of the flapping of a butterfly’s wings (an almost-insignificant action) building up a momentum and force through a chain of actions and events to cause storms or other catastrophes elsewhere.

I’m not sure if this is the law of the Universe, but some people swear by it, saying that science can actually prove it. Apart from experiments in physics with application of force, there seems to be enough evidence from history which justifies this theory. I mean, take a look at any human revolution or uprising, and you’ll know this theory is true. The evidence is all around us.

Like history, the social sciences also seem to prove this theory over and over – from gossip to fashion trends to viral marketing to religion. All seem to be saying the same thing: a tiny change can result in a momentous event. As the tagline to the film ‘The Butterfly Effect’, a fantasy thriller by directors Eric Bress and J Mackye Gruber, starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart, says: ‘Change one thing. Change everything.’

The point of this is, when it comes to human evolution, even in biological and cultural systems, “small changes in one component can have cascading implications.” So agreed Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, in a 2000 interview with Leader to Leader Institute, titled ‘The Spice of Life’, while discussing similarities and differences between the natural and business worlds. Yet, he had cautioned, predicting human evolution or the success of business models is not easy.

“I can tell you to the minute when the next eclipse is going to occur, because it’s a simple system with limited interactions. I can’t tell you where human evolution is going. Also, the mathematical analysis of complex systems – systems composed of multiple, independent parts – shows that a small perturbation can produce profound effects, because of the way it cascades through the nonlinear interactions of the system. If you then add a little bit of randomness you get profound and unpredictable effects.”

According to Professor Gould, applying Darwinian laws of natural selection directly to cultural systems may be wrong in principle. That’s because, “The mechanics of change in human cultural institutions are quite different from those in nature… Natural selection is not a very efficient system because it works by elimination. You get to goodness by eliminating the bad. Why don’t you just go to good? The problem is, you don’t know what good is. You have to let a system operate and find itself. That kind of modeling is counterintuitive to the way in which humans generally try to run their institutions.”

‘The Spice of Life’ interview with Stephen Jay Gould can be found here.

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