How new ideas surprise us

THIS IS HOW CHANGE happens in the natural world: sometime during the Cretaceous age, flowers began to evolve colors and scents that signaled the presence of pollen to insects, who simultaneously evolved complex equipment to extract the pollen and, inadvertently, fertilize other flowers with pollen.

Over time, the flowers supplemented the pollen with even more energy-rich nectar to lure the insects into the rituals of pollination. Bees and other insects evolved the sensory tools to see and be drawn to flowers, just as the flowers evolved the properties that attract bees. The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms — the hummingbirds — to extract nectar from plants, though to do that they evolved a extremely unusual form of flight mechanics that enable them to hover alongside the flower in a way that few birds can even come close to doing. In other words, they had to learn an entirely new way to fly.

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. As the great James Burke wrote, in his book Connections:

“Change almost always comes as a surprise because things don’t happen in straight lines. Connections are made by accident. Second-guessing the result of an occurrence is difficult, because when people or things or ideas come together in new ways, the rules of arithmetic are changed so that one plus one suddenly makes three. This is the fundamental mechanism of innovation, and when it happens the result is always more than the sum of the parts.”

This may sound, at first blush, like a variation on the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory, where the flap of a butterfly’s wing in California ends up triggering a hurricane in the mid-Atlantic. But in fact, the two are fundamentally different. The extraordinary (and unsettling) property of the butterfly effect is that it involves a virtually unknowable chain of causality; you can’t map the link between the air molecules bouncing around the butterfly and the storm system brewing in the Atlantic. They may be connected, because everything is connected on some level, but it is beyond our capacity to parse those connections or, even harder, to predict them in advance. But something very different is at work with the flower and the hummingbird: while they are very different organisms, with very different needs and aptitudes, not to mention basic biological systems, the flower clearly influences the hummingbird’s physiognomy in direct, intelligible ways.


THIS “HUMMINGBIRD EFFECT” plays a key role in my TV series and book, How We Got To Now. An innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether. Hummingbird effects come in a variety of forms. Some are intuitive enough: orders-of-magnitude increases in the sharing of energy or information tend to set in motion a chaotic wave of change that easily surges over intellectual and social boundaries. (Just look at the story of the Internet over the past thirty years.) But other hummingbird effects are more subtle; they leave behind less conspicuous causal fingerprints. Breakthroughs in our ability to measure phenomenon — time, temperature, mass — often open up new opportunities that seem at first blush to be unrelated. (The pendulum clock enabled the navigational triumphs of the Age Of Discovery.) Sometimes, as in the story of Gutenberg and the lens, a new innovation creates a liability or weakness in our natural toolkit that sets us out in a new direction, generating new tools to fix a “problem” that was itself a kind of invention. Sometimes new tools reduce natural barriers and limits to human growth, the way the invention of air conditioning enabled humans to colonize the hotspots of the planet at a scale that would have startled our ancestors just three generations ago. Sometimes the new tools influence us metaphorically, as in between the clock and the mechanistic view of early physics, the universe imagined as a system of “cogs and wheels.”

Observing hummingbird effects in history makes it clear that social transformations are not always the direct result of human agency and decision-making. Sometimes change comes about through the actions of political leaders or inventors or protest movements, who deliberately bring about some kind of new reality through their conscious planning. (We have an integrated national highway system in the United States in large part because our political leaders decided to pass the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.) But in other cases, the ideas and innovations seem to have a life of their own, engendering changes in society that were not part of their creators’ vision. The inventors of air-conditioning were not trying to re-draw the political map of America when they set about to cool down living rooms and office buildings, but the technology they unleashed on the world enabled dramatic changes in American settlement patterns which in turn transformed the occupants of Congress and the White House.

The causal relationships at work in the Hummingbird Effect are complicated ones. Consider the early 20th-century scientific and public health breakthrough of adding calcium hypochlorite (or chlorine) to drinking water to kill bacteria. This innovation had a dramatic impact on mortality rates, but it also transformed our recreational habits. After World War I, ten thousand chlorinated public baths and pools opened across America; learning how to swim became a rite of passage. These new aquatic public spaces were the leading edge in challenges to the old rules of public decency during the period between the wars. Before the rise of municipal pools, women bathers generally dressed as though they were bundled up for a sleigh ride. By the mid-1920s, women began exposing their legs below the knee; one-piece suits with lower necklines emerged a few years later. Open-backed suits, followed by two-piece outfits, followed quickly in the 1930s. “In total, a woman’s thighs, hip line, shoulders, stomach, back and breast line all become publicly exposed between 1920 and 1940,” the historian Jeff Wiltse writes in his social history of swimming, Contested Waters.

We can measure the transformation in terms of simple material: at the turn of the century, the average woman’s bathing suit required ten yards of fabric, but by the end of the 1930s, one yard was sufficient. We tend to think of the 1960s as the period when shifting cultural attitudes led to the most dramatic change in everyday fashion, but it is hard to rival the rapid-fire unveiling of the female body that occurred between the wars. And this is where the causality question becomes so interesting. It is entirely possible that women’s fashion would have found another route to exposure without the rise of swimming pools, but it seems unlikely that it would have happened as quickly as it did. No doubt exposing the thighs of female bathers was not in the forefront of the public health pioneers that first chlorinated water, but like the hummingbird’s wing, a change in one field triggers a seemingly unrelated change at a different order of existence: a trillion bacteria die at the hands of calcium hypochlorite, and somehow, twenty years later, basic attitudes toward exposing the female body are reinvented.

It’s not that the practice of chlorination single-handedly transformed women’s fashion; many social and technological forces converged to make those bathing suits smaller: various strands of early feminism, the fetishizing gaze of the Hollywood camera, not to mention individual stars who wore those more revealing suits. But without the mass adoption of swimming as a leisure activity, those fashions would have been deprived of one of their key showcases. What’s more, those other explanations — as valid as they are — usually get all the press. Ask you average person on the street what factors drive women’s fashion, and they’ll inevitably point to Hollywood or glossy magazines. But they won’t often mention calcium hypochlorite.


I’VE POSTED A FEW OTHER ESSAYS on Medium that tell the stories of hummingbird effects in our technological history, including the story of how the flashbulb sparked a new political movement and changed the face of urban poverty. If you like this mode of historical storytelling, you’ll find much more of it in the book and the show.


Excerpted from How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, published by Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2014 by Steven Johnson.

The Emmy-award-winning How We Got to Now aired in 2015 on PBS. Episodes are available at Netflix and iTunes and other venues. Learn more about the show at pbs.org.