The Hummingbird Effect
Steven Johnson’s new book, How we got to now is a must read:
Insects can stabilize themselves mid-flight because they have fundamental flexibility to their anatomy that vertebrates lack. Yet despite the restrictions placed on them by their skeletal structure, hummingbirds evolved a novel way of rotating their wings, giving power to the upstroke as well as the downstroke, enabling them to float mid-air while extracting nectar from a flower.
These are the strange leaps that evolution makes constantly: the sexual reproduction strategies of plants end up shaping the design of a hummingbird’s wings. Had there been naturalists around to observe the insects first evolving pollination behavior alongside the flowering plants, they would have logically assumed that this strange new ritual had nothing to do with avian life. And yet it ended up precipitating one of the most astonishing physical transformations in the evolutionary history of birds.
THE HISTORY OF IDEAS and innovation unfolds in a similar way. Consider Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Everyone knows it changed the way information was stored and shared, triggering multiple revolutions in science and theology and art. But it also had a less celebrated, but crucial, effect on a seemingly unrelated field: the 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. (Before books came along, most people had no need to discern tiny figures on a page.) 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.