The Butterfly Effect

andrews_tbe“The Butterfly Effect” is a book written by Andy Andrews. He starts off by introducing Edward Lorenz who presented a hypothesis to the New York Academy of Science. He is theory was that:

“A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules of air in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving other molecules of air – eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.”(1)

As you might expect, his ideas were laughed out of the venue. But thirty years later, his theory as revisited and found to be true ,to the point where it was accorded the status of a law, now known as “The Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions.”(2)

Joshua Chamberlain

In his book, Andrews demonstrates how the same phenomenon exhibits itself in people. He uses the story of Joshua Chamberlain, the commanding officer of the 20th Maine Regiment who was tasked with protecting the left most flank of the Union lines at the Battle of Gettysburg. His role was crucial in that should his position be overrun, the Confederates would be able to envelop the entire Union army from a tactically superior position.

Chamberlain faced a desperate situation in that his troops had been dramatically diminished and their ammunition was exhausted when the Confederates launched yet another attack. Without hesitating, Chamberlain gave the command to fix bayonets and charged down the hill. The Confederates were unnerved, expecting their opponent to be exhausted and compromised. They fell apart and Chamberlain’s forces captured over 400 enemy soldiers.

Historians view Chamberlain’s action as profoundly significant in that had he failed to hold his position, the Confederates may very well have won the battle and been able to push farther north and eventually won the war. If that had occurred, the United States would be more of a patchwork of individual territories, without the corporate strength of a unified nation. Had that occurred, there would’ve been no United States to combat the Nazi regime or the Japanese quest for power. The world would be a very different place today had it not been for the actions of a Professor of Rhetoric from Boudin College choosing to enlist in the Union army and assuming command of an unassuming collection of inexperienced volunteers known as the 20th Maine.

What’s significant about all this is the way it demonstrates how my actions and your actions have far reaching effects.  What could be construed as an incremental act can, and often does, have a dramatic impact – it’s just a matter of connecting the dots.

Everybody has heard of Billy Graham, but not  very many people have heard of Mordecai Ham. Mordecai was the evangelist that held the revival where Billy Graham went forward and got saved.(3) Consider the effect that Billy has had based on the work of a pastor that very few people have heard of.

The effect of a seemingly incremental act is even more vividly demonstrated when you consider the sequence of events leading up to April 2, 2004 when ABC News announced the “Person of the Week.” His name was Norman Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug

Who’s Norman Borlaug?

Norman Borlaug developed a kind of corn that flourished in arid climates that was disease resistant and produced an extraordinary crop. From the dust bowl of Western Africa to the southwest area of the United States…from South and Central America to the plains of Siberia…across Europe and Asia. Over the years, it’s been calculated that Borlaug’s work saved more than two billion lives.

But does Norman get the credit or does Henry Wallace?

Henry Wallace was Vice President under FDR. He only served one term, but as the former Secretary of Agriculture, he used his position to establish a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. It was Wallace who hired Norman Borlaug to run the station.

But maybe Wallace shouldn’t get the credit. Maybe it’s the nineteen year old student at Iowa University who took six year old Henry Wallace on “botanical expeditions” at the request of his Professor who was Henry’s father. The name of the student? George Washington Carver. Carver made his mark in history in agriculture by developing over 266 things from the peanut and 88 things from the sweet potato. Still, as substantial as his contributions were given those accomplishments, who’s to say that his legacy isn’t even more substantial given the seeds he planted in the mind of young Henry Wallace?

But then there’s the farmer from Diamond, Missouri.

Moses and his wife Susan Carver lived in a slave state, but they were unlike many Caucasians in the area in that they didn’t believe in slavery. One night, their farm was attacked by marauders who carried off Mary Washington, one of the black workers on the Carver farm who refused to let go of her infant son as she was being abducted. Susan was distraught in that Mary was her closest friend. Moses sent word out via his neighbors and people in nearby towns and was able to secure a meeting with the bandits.

At a designated place, he traded the last remaining horse from his farm for the dirty burlap sack that was tossed to him as the criminals rode off. In that sack was Mary’s baby boy. Moses walked the remainder of the night and into the morning, carrying the child to safety. He determined to raise the boy and to ensure he get educated to honor his deceased mother. He named him George.

So maybe it’s Moses who should get the credit…Or maybe…

Nothing is Common

You see where this is going? You never want to perceive anything that you do as merely common. We are part of an exquisite tapestry of events and gestures – all of which play a crucial role in the accomplishment of the extraordinary.

As you go about your day today, be intentional about your perspective. Acknowledge the significance of what you do and who you are. When you see how it all works together, regardless of what you’re doing and how it may appear, rest assured –  you matter and everything you do represents an essential piece of a magnificent whole.

That’s the Butterfly Effect. Let’s go make a difference!


  1. 1. “The Butterfly Effect”, Andy Andrews, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN 2009, p8
  2. 2. “The Butterfly Effect”, “Wikipedia”,, accessed February 19, 2014
  3. 3. “Mordecai Ham”, Wikipedia,, accessed February 19, 2014
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