The Parable of the Caterpillar and the Butterfly

Ben Kadel
3 min readMay 17, 2021

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Nature parades her wisdom in front of us, if only we have eyes to see.

Take the curious tale of the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. We modern folk toss away the metaphor as something to do with a beautiful butterfly emerging from the cocoon that the ugly caterpillar entered. It’s a far more fabulous story than that.

It starts when you realize that inside that caterpillar from birth were these tiny things called “imaginal cells.” These cells carry the image of the butterfly in them and are embedded in the caterpillar from the very beginning.

The fifth molt of a caterpillar

But to the caterpillar, these are a threat. The caterpillar’s immune system often attacks these imaginal cells as foreign bodies, seeking to destroy the idea they carry. Sometimes, the caterpillar wins and no butterfly ever emerges from the cocoon.

In the normal course of events, though, the imagine cells are able to lie low and avoid the attacks from the caterpillars. Meanwhile, the caterpillar grows and explores the world. Soon, he needs to shed his skin to grow. So, he releases a hormone that allows that to happen. He does this five times and each time something called the juvenile hormone controls the process so that it only allows the skin to molt, but keeps the center viable — it keeps the growth in check.

But the next time, that hormone is no longer effective. The growth is uncontrolled. The larva is forced to seek a cocoon. To him, it probably feels like finding a safe place to weather the storm. Little does he know, he’ll never emerge again. To the caterpillar, this is the end of the line. He is dying, dissolving as a result of uncontrolled growth.

At about the same time, the imaginal cells start to find themselves. They have been slowly building throughout the early life of the caterpillar, but the unsuitable environment the caterpillar offers impedes their growth. Now, as the caterpillar starts to break down, the imaginal cells start to develop into imaginal disks.

Each disk develops like a single celled organism, but each one is different than the others. Isolated in different parts of the caterpillar, they are unaware of the existence of other disks and are following their own development trajectory. They don’t know it, but they are each developing to become a different organ of the butterfly. Of course, they have no idea what a butterfly is.

Then there’s a shift — a watershed moment. The caterpillar’s disease progresses to the point that it’s body is simply dissolving into goo while the imaginal cells are growing stronger. The tables are turned and now that the defenses of the caterpillar are done for, the imaginal cells start to feed on the goo that once was the caterpillar.

At some point, the imaginal disks heed a silent call to unite. They seek each other out and, somehow — magically — sort out how they fit together. Slowly, the imaginal disks begin to stitch together the connective tissue that supports the different functions each one represents.

A butterfly about to emerge

Eventually, that loose confederation of imaginal disks is ready to emerge from the cocoon as a butterfly.

When you think about it, each organ is like an organism — a whole with a function and structure of its own, but they fit together to create something emergent — something more complex than simply the sum of the parts. The organism is simply a collection of organs that have surrounded themselves with a permeable boundary that allows them to create the ideal conditions for each one to thrive.

But, of course, each organism is really like an organ — part of something more complex than itself, a higher order organism with characteristics and motivations that are more than, but connected to the character and motives of the organs that constitute it.

So this is the lesson that Nature teaches us about how transformation happens. Something to ponder as you’re reading the news these days.

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