The beauty of the black swan is obvious – but they also have an interesting place in Western history.
It was believed for centuries that such a creature was an impossibility. Rather like the phrase ‘rare as hen’s teeth’, the black swan was used as a symbol of that which could not exist. The poet Juvenal popularised the phrase ‘a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan’ (rara avid in terries nigroque simillima cygno) that was a common expression in 16th century London. “All swans are white” was a widely known truth.
Upon the discovery of Australia and the sighting of black swans by explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1697 this phrase became immediately redundant. In 1726 two birds were captured north of Swan River and transported to Jakarta to prove their existence to naysayers who held to old belief systems.
Governor Phillip observed in 1789 “A black swan, which species, though proverbially rare in other parts of the world, is here by no means uncommon…a very noble bird, larger than the common swan, and equally beautiful in form…its wings were edged with white: the bill was tinged with red.”
The black swan transformed into a representation of fragility of thought systems. It is also possible for any system to collapse with the emergence of a ‘black swan event’ that undermines its fundamental propositions.
Wall Street traded and finance professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb classifies many significant financial and historical events such as the invention of the Internet, World War One the September 11 attacks as ‘black swan events’ – unpredicted and influential events that shift traditional means of prediction such as standard economic theory.
The black swan is the principal charge on the shield in the coat of arms of Western Australia.