The Single-Frame Picture of a Caterpillar Does Not Foretell Its Transformation Into a Butterfly

Buckminster Fuller? Helen Hayes? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The full potential of a person or an idea is not visible in a nascent state. An ingenious analogy expresses this viewpoint:

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.

This remark has been attributed to the inventor and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, but I have been unable to find a citation, and I suspect that the phrasing is inaccurate. Would you please help me?

Quote Investigator: In November 1969 R. Buckminster Fuller delivered the Third Annual Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, India. In 1970 he published an article based on his speech titled “Planetary Planning” in the journal “The American Scholar”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Our Universe as defined is finite but nonsimultaneously conceptual. The single-frame picture of a caterpillar does not foretell its transformation into a butterfly. Nor does one picture of a butterfly tell the viewer that the butterfly can fly. Universe as defined is a scenario.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1973 “The Berkshire Eagle” of Pittsfield, Massachusetts reprinted an excerpt containing the quotation from Fuller’s article in “The American Scholar”. Thus, the statement achieved further circulation. 2

In June 1973 “The Province” newspaper of Vancouver, Canada reported that Buckminster Fuller delivered an address at the Third Canadian Educational Communications Conference. He employed a different phrasing for the quotation: 3

He spoke of “synergy” — which he said means the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by their integral parts — as part of the challenge facing today’s educationists.

“One picture, one frame from a motion picture of a caterpillar doesn’t tell you that it’s going to turn into a butterfly,” he said. “And one picture of a butterfly doesn’t give you proof that it can fly ….”

In February 1974 “The Charlotte Observer” of North Carolina presented a group of Fuller’s quotations from a recent series of lectures. The inventor used another phrasing to express his notion: 4

The universe is a scenario. If you stop one frame, it doesn’t explain the universe at all. A caterpillar doesn’t tell you it’s going to become a butterfly. It takes a lot of frames to show you that the butterfly can fly. You can not think in terms of one frame.

In 1983 a columnist in “The San Francisco Examiner” of California discussed Buckminster Fuller’s legacy shortly after his death and presented another version of the quotation: 5

He liked to quote Einstein’s idea that life is an aggregate of non-simultaneous events, and describe the universe as a scenario, not a single-frame picture.

“A single-frame picture of a caterpillar doesn’t tell you it will be a butterfly; a single-frame picture of a butterfly doesn’t tell you it’s flying,” he explained.

In 1984 the prominent actress Helen Hayes published “Our Best Years” which included a chapter about Buckminster Fuller. The chapter began with the popular modern version of the saying: 6

“There’s nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly. Who knows what man can become?” The man who said that became a scientist, inventor, historian, philosopher, engineer, poet, mathematician—but also cartographer, cosmogonist, designer, choreographer—all in one lifetime of eighty-seven years.

In conclusion, R. Buckminster Fuller deserves credit for the version of the quotation he wrote in the 1970 article titled “Planetary Planning”. He also employed slightly different versions of the quotation during his lectures. QI does not know whether he ever uttered the popular modern version of the saying.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of a butterfly together with orange flowers from Larisa-K at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1970-71 Winter, The American Scholar, Volume 40, Number 1, Planetary Planning by R. Buckminster Fuller, Start Page 29, Quote Page 30, (“Planetary Planning” was presented by Fuller as the Third Annual Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on November 13, 1969), Published by The Phi Beta Kappa Society. (JSTOR) link
  2. 1973 May 14, The Berkshire Eagle, Other Opinion: Defining Universe by R. Buckminster Fuller in American Scholar magazine, Quote Page 20, Column 1, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1973 June 14, The Province, Bucky batters basic beliefs by Tony Eberts, Quote Page 15, Column 5, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1974 February 6, The Charlotte Observer, Fuller—‘What The Average Human Being Can Do’ by Louise Hickman Lione (Observer Womens Editor), Quote Page 6A, Column 6 and 7, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1983 July 3, The San Francisco Examiner, Buckminster Fuller’s legacy: ideas worthy of Leonardo by Jim Wood (Examiner staff writer), Quote Page B5, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1984, Our Best Years by Helen Hayes with Marion Glasserow Gladney, Chapter: Buckminster Fuller, Quote Page 150, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)