Qualitative Leaps

      A qualitative leap is a major, relatively sudden change in the state or character of something.

      Typically, the way a major change or development happens is like this: Over a period of time a number of small changes occur in the thing, and when these small changes have accumulated to some critical threshold, a fundamental change or qualitative leap occurs. Thus, in a tea kettle the water is gradually heated on the stove until it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, whereupon the water suddenly begins to boil.

      But what about that gradual warming process itself? What is really going on there if we look at the situation very closely? What we find is that even there it is a matter of many small qualitative leaps occurring. When a water molecule bumps into the heated surface of the tea kettle, or into another water molecule which has more energy than itself, it may suddenly acquire more energy. With respect to the tiny water molecule this is a major qualitative leap; with respect to the entire mass of water in the tea kettle it is an extremely tiny change, and one of the many trillions of similar tiny changes that collectively occur as the water gradually heats up.

      Here is this same example summarized in the form of a nursery rhyme:

Each molecule of water
Receives a little boost
Each time it hits the kettle—
Just like it has been goosed.
The H2O gets hotter,
Until one hundred C
When suddenly it's boiling—
And we can have some tea.
So tiny leaps abound and
Accumulate in heaps,
Preparing things for major
New qualitative leaps.
      —JSH, "Reflections on a
         Hot Tea Kettle" (2001)

      Qualitative leaps seem to exist just about everywhere. In geophysics we have the gradual accumulation of strain in a fault zone, which finally snaps in the form of an earthquake. Or the accumulation of heat in the earth (due mostly to radioactive decay) which at some critical point leads to a volcanic eruption. In evolutionary science we have a number of small changes in the organism's genome, which finally result in a leap to a new species. According to the new theory of "punctuated equilibrium", these larger leaps often occur rather suddenly in relation to both geologic time and the length of time in which the new species then continues to exist. And in society, we sometimes have the accumulation of social strains and pressures leading to eventual social revolution.

      The recognition of the importance of qualitative leaps in nature and society is one of the subsidiary laws of DIALECTICS, and for this reason they are often called dialectical leaps. Coming to understand our changing world is often a matter of learning the conditions under which qualitative leaps occur.

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