Imaginal Cells: A Model from Nature for Transforming Systems

The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly provides a compelling metaphor for those working to re-imagine and transform organizations and larger systems to be thriving, restorative, and sustainable. This metaphor illustrates how connecting networks of those working for change is the next step to bring about a larger transformation. Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist who has written a wonderful book about how living systems evolve, shared the metaphor as follows:  

“My favorite metaphor for the current world transition, first pointed out to me by Norie Huddle (Butterfly, 1990), is that of a butterfly in metamorphosis.

It goes like this: A caterpillar crunches its way through its ecosystem, cutting a swath of destruction by eating as much as hundreds of times its weight in a day, until it is too bloated to continue and hangs itself up, its skin then caterpillarhardening  into a chrysalis.

Inside this chrysalis, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny things biologists call ‘imaginal disks’ begin to form. Not recognizing the newcomers, the caterpillar’s immune system snuffs them as they arise. But they keep coming faster and faster, then linking up with each other.

Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails from the stress and the disks become imaginal cells that build the butterfly by feeding on the soupy meltdown of the caterpillar’s body.

It took a long time for biologists to understand the reason for the immune system attack on the incipient butterfly cells, but eventually they discovered that the butterfly has its own unique genome, carried by the caterpillar, inherited from long ago in evolution, yet not part of it as such (Margulis & Sagan, Acquiring Genomes 2002.)

If we see ourselves as imaginal discs working to build the butterfly of a better world, we will understand that we are launching a new ‘genome’ of values and practices to replace that of the current unsustainable system. We will also see how important it is to link with each other in the effort, to recognize how many different kinds of imaginal cells it will take to build a butterfly with all its capabilities and colors.”

         – Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D., evolution biologist, lecturer and author of EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution  

Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, catalogued the thousands and thousands of initiatives and organizations across the globe working for similar aims of restoring the earth, creating economic opportunity and justice for all, spreading democracy, and more. All of these can be seen as “imaginal cells,” responding to conditions around them by taking positive action for reform and inventing “a better way.” With the huge rise of on-line connectivity and communication, as well as new models for linking and aligning this work, we are poised to bring forth this new genome of a sustainable future.

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