Evolution is the ultimate hacker

Hacker News LinkedIn Facebook Twitter by Abby Fichtner

I think if you’re interested in pushing the edge on what’s possible. If you’re thinking about changing the world. Then you should look to evolution as a role model,

because evolution is the ultimate hacker.

Where good ideas come from

There’s this amazing book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. And in it, author Steven Johnson talks about these parallels between innovation that occurs in nature – like how we evolved and or how our planet evolved, and innovation that’s human made –- like the lightbulb and the steam engine.

In the book, Steven Johnson talks about this pattern we see when we study innovation, which he calls the adjacent possible. This is the notion that, at any point in time, there’s a set amount of what’s possible in this world. Things that can be done with the technology and resources and knowledge that we possess today.

Therefore, all successful innovation is going to happen at the adjacent possible. Meaning, just BEYOND what’s possible today.

(try to go too far out and you get Charles Babbage inventing the computer in the early 1800’s. Which is fucking brilliant. Only, we didn’t have the pieces – literally – available to us at that time to actually make his invention real)

In nature, evolution is the embodiment of the adjacent possible. As Johnson says,

Evolution is a tinkerer, not an engineer.”

(I think that might be one of my favorite quotes ever).

Evolution as tinkerer

Evolution doesn’t wake up one day and say, “I want birds to be able to fly, so here’s my detailed step-by-step plan for how we’re going to take to get there.”

Remember we talked about how entrepreneurs, being the good tinkerers that they are, don’t actually start off with any idea where they’re going?

Well, there’s no causal reasoning going on here. Evolution has NO IDEA where it’s going to end up.

What evolution does have is this awesome innovation engine called sex that it uses to throw a bunch of different pairs of DNA together to see what comes of it.

And through that mechanism, evolution advances by taking the resources, skills, and attributes that are available to it today & randomly throwing them together to see what happens.

Druid by Gustavo Rinaldi
(Druid by Gustavo Rinaldi)

Stayin alive, stayin alive (ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhhh….)

In dinosaurs, their wrist bones evolved in a certain way because it gave them more flexibility. The dinosaurs that were more flexible were able to survive by getting away from their enemies.

The ones who weren’t flexible… got eaten.

These flexible wrist bones in turn evolved over time into what now constitutes the wings of a bird. And along the way feathers evolved in birds for temperature regulation.

Bird landing on water

It wasn’t like evolution said, “HEY, I want to create wings so that birds can fly.”

It was more like evolution stumbled into the fact that, one day, it had all of the pieces to allow for flight. And so therefore, flight became possible.

And the realm of what was possible expanded a little.

Playing god

Johnson’s premise for the book is that man-made innovations follow the same patterns as those innovations that occur in nature (aka from evolution).

And, sure enough, when we really look into the history of some of the greatest man made inventions we see this same pattern of the adjacent possible – and things evolving little by little, not in leaps and bounds.

When we look at the 50 years leading up to the invention of the telephone, for example, we can see a series of discoveries and innovations. Each one building upon one another until suddenly, one day, Alexander Graham Bell had all of the pieces in place to allow him to create the telephone.


(the first “telephones” actually started being developed in the 1660s! 220 years before Alexander Graham Bell patented the device we use today)

But it’s hard to see that with innovation.

We see these shiny things and we think they somehow just… popped into existance.

Okay, sure – but what about, like, self driving cars?

Well, what if we look at something that’s totally brand new, like self-driving cars?

I mean, nobody was doing self-driving cars before Google and Tesla started to. Right?

Trump. WRONG


The first driverless car was built in 1925.

An actual Full Size Car. That was driven via remote control. Up and down the streets of New York City during rush hour.

First Driverless Car

I feel like that would be frowned upon today.

In the 1950s, General Motors built a driverless car that traveled off of electrical impulses in the road.

GM self driving car

And by the 1980s, computer vision had advanced to the point that Mercedez Benz built a driverless car – in the 1980s (!) – that used computer vision to navigate.

We’re all wrong

I feel like we get this very skewed view of innovation that

a) people have this great idea and just go do it, and

b) we totally miss the past 90 (or 220!) YEARS inventions and discoveries that led up to it.


If you want to learn more, there’s a great history of self-driving car innovation on inhabitat.