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How We Got to Now

Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

How We Got to Now reveals many of the hidden connections between innovations we take for granted in our modern world. It shows how innovations can have unexpected applications, and that the consequences of an innovation are almost impossible to predict. Ultimately, it illustrates how interconnected we are, as a single invention can have enormous repercussions worldwide.

Key idea 1 of 8

From aromatic flower to hovering hummingbird: Our world is more connected than you might think.

Evolution offers a clear example of how, as living organisms, we are all interconnected. A change in one sort of plant may lead to a change in another kind of plant, through a process called coevolution.

Usually evolution is seen as a competitive process, where one organism survives at the expense of another, less “fit” organism. Yet organisms that coevolve have instead a symbiotic relationship, in which the changes in one organism benefit the other, and vice versa.

During the Cretaceous Age, some 145 million years ago, flowers evolved scents and colors to signal the presence of pollen to insects. Over time, insects’ bodies changed to better extract the pollen from the flowers. In doing so, the insects pollinated the flowers, after which the flowers were able to produce energy-rich nectar, attracting the attention of ever larger organisms.

This symbiotic relationship between flowers and insects led to another remarkable evolutionary innovation: the hummingbird’s wing.

Hummingbirds were attracted to the flowers’ nectar, but to drink the nectar, they essentially would have to learn to hover, like a bee does. Early hummingbirds could not do this; yet gradually, the birds’ wings evolved to a shape where lift was created with each downward and upward stroke. With this development, the hummingbird could then hover in mid-air, and drink nectar from a flower.

Thus the coevolution chain proceeded as such: from colorful flowers to well-equipped insects, to pollinated flowers to hungry, hovering hummingbirds!

In the past, no naturalist could have predicted such a path. Today we have a much better understanding of how evolution and coevolution connect all the world’s life.

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