I’m not sure quite how I was struck by the thought, but something occurred to me about the way we learned to fly. Early attempts at flight were clearly based on an examination of birds. Contraptions designed to allow a human being to fly would typically employ a device whereby the aviator’s arms and legs would power a “flapping” motion of the wings on the machine. Da Vinci designed such a device, as did many others — some of whom tested them with varying degrees of success. Perhaps “varying degrees of failure” might be a better way to phrase that. It seems that the best case scenario was flight for a limited distance off the edge of a bluff or small cliff and lasting for as long as the aviator could maintain the frantic flapping that would delay or diminish the pain at the end of a potential plummet.
The approach made sense, as far as it goes. People had only ever seen birds fly, and birds, for the most part, all fly in fundamentally the same way. They flap their wings. By all logic and reasonable scientific principle, it stands to reason that by studying the flight of birds and devising a means to mimic the principles by which they achieve flight, so too could we “slip the surly bonds of earth.” Da Vinci’s drawing dates to the 1500s. In 1742, The Marquis de Bacqueville “probably glided about 120 ft. with most violent exertions, and fell when his strength became exhausted.” Otto Lilienthal (pictured) attempted flight in the late 1800’s. He had some success with gliding, but not so much in the flapping department. For much longer than 400 years, this logic held: the key to understanding and achieving flight lay in understanding and mimicking the birds, for they could fly already. The theory was sound, wasn’t it?
But it didn’t work.
The Wright brothers managed to build and fly the first viable, controllable fixed-wing aircraft not by studying birds at all. These days, it’s a fairly simple scientific matter — basic aerodynamics are taught to children in grade-school, enough so they can at least grasp the essential principle of what causes “lift” and allows airplanes to fly. The bird-mimicry idea seems solid, but for one little fact. Too obvious to state, its importance was nevertheless overlooked. In short, people are not birds. We achieved flight not by understanding the principles by which other living things flew before us, but by understanding the principles of aerodynamics. To put it another way, the thing to examine and extract the principles of flight was not the birds, but the air.
Despite the fact that birds had been flying for millennia before us, achieving flight required thinking in a new way, looking past the patterns of other fly-ers to understand the principles of aerodynamics. Basic, universal, unbending principles which could be applied to the goal of flight not by repeating what others had done and clearly not by attempting to break or bend these principles, but by fully respecting them and applying them to achieve the task at hand. Ultimately, flight was achieved through a means that looked nothing like those which had been attempted for the preceding several hundreds years, at least.
So the question is, where are we making attempts to achieve a goal through the repetition of patterns which haven’t worked or have met with limited success for hundreds of years? Are there deeper principles which we could seek to understand that could help us be more effective? Are there ways in which we continue to look at what we’ve done in the past while overlooking the environmental factors that hold the key to effectiveness?
Yes, I know it’s just an analogy that will eventually break down, and that you can’t overinterpret a metaphor… but what do you think?