A New Humanism: Part 3

What do our human origins have to do with the built environment?

Human nature

The experience of a built environment is, of course, different in each culture and in each of us. Yet we all share an evolutionary past – an experience that step-by-step created patterns of instincts, innate capabilities, and primal human values – a core of a human nature – that kept winning in a competition to survive. And we are all clearly enough alike to create cohesive societies, global ideologies, and designs – like those of classical Greece and Rome, the Taj Mahal or English landscapes – that have commanded respect and inspired imitation across continents, through revolutions and over millennia.

An evolutionary perspective

More from Metropolis

The scientists who study human evolution have assembled widely accepted evidence that today’s human genetic makeup has been formed through adaptations to natural and social environments that developed originally in central Africa.  Our ancestors’ minds and bodies evolved primarily in subtropical woodlands and savannahs, where cohesive family and kinship groups survived – as prey and predators – in shifting mixes of competition and cooperation, often in conditions of scarcity, exploiting sources of food and water, selecting and building secure, cost-effective habitats – or exploring and migrating to more promising land out in an uncontested territory. And in those environments they selected mates and raised generations of offspring, one after another becoming better adapted to interact productively and reproductively.

The specific qualities, the mind-body structures that survived through the millennia of individual encounters with victory and defeat, exploring and learning with fear or pleasure, became the physiological-psychological foundations of a “human nature” – the sapiens in homo sapiens.

They add up to complex interwoven systems that activated pleasure circuits in the brain and “rewards” in body chemistry when our ancestors made decisions – and were in places – that enhanced their “fitness” to survive – to win, advance and prosper. Civilization and affluence naturally enlarged the meaning of “survive”, but the structures created by natural selection still drive everything we design and build today. In the words of biologist E.O. Wilson, “We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world.”


At the most basic level we are born with what feel like instincts or phobias, instantaneous, appropriate survival-based responses to threats or the promise of pleasure. As they’re triggered we experience them as reflexes, instantaneous movement, fear and automatic recoil, disorientation and panic, and at other times, a kind of possessiveness or love-at-first-sight. They’re the first part of any first impression.

The more complex “instincts,” though, are multiple prepared pathways in a brain that we experience as predilections – predispositions to think and act in specific kinds of ways. We become aware of them as motivating impulses, desires, needs, craving or drives, plus the will to sort out priorities of the moment and the skill to make decisions and act effectively. Together they are the underlying source of primal human values: protection of life and health; connections to, and justice for family, friends and comrades; security and protection of what we are and have; plus the autonomy to continually control and advance our own interests – or in the shorthand words of documents that have founded national communities, “liberty-equality-fraternity” or “life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness.”

And what we call our own intuitions, tastes and world-views, are these basic evolved, prepared networks in the brain as they have been fleshed out by experience and memories over a lifetime.  They shape our cultures, “personal” projects – and all of our experience and behavior.

Critical to the genetically-prepared drive for continuity of the species, naturally, was selecting and winning a mate and then nurturing the next generations.  For both sexes that meant predilections to seek out mates offering a competitive edge in signs of health, fitness, and fertility, plus the capability to detect those signs in body shapes, skin, symmetry, proportions, and behavior. It meant – and means – detecting signs of “caring,” the empathy and generosity sometimes called “charm,” and in intelligence, wit or creativity, and, especially in men, the promise of strength, reliability and wealth to protect and support a family.  And in the mix were, and are signs of having won status in a community – the best genes – shown by an individual’s or family’s history of success and a continuing abundance of personal resources, or, more intimately, by the signs detected in faces, body language, ornament and speech that tell about reliability and authenticity.

The important point here is that these concepts and words – and others outlined throughout the following posts – that we use when analyzing or judging human qualities and person-to-person relationships are paralleled in our responses to architecture, landscapes, and urban places.  In a sense, we have a basic, innate pattern of evolved predilections and capabilities – a broad genetic architecture of a mind and body – that’s an inborn frame of reference for judging any encounter and responding to any experience.


The classic — Stourhead Garden in Wiltshire, UK — landscape, architecture and a unifying timeless narrative


Minds, memories, unique personalities

It’s not simple, of course, and I’m only touching the surface. An evolved mind is continually responding to feedback and continually developing. It’s fluid, a work in progress, and not every human quality or achievement has a survival value. And within its complex, shifting linkages, the flexible neural networks are repeatedly re-animated and reconfigured as we interact with people, places or ideas, making choices and learning.  Then all of those choices and encounters, unique for each of us, become the source of the memories that are filled with associations – some tied to powerful emotions.  And they, in turn, are structured into the internal maps, mental images and narratives we live by.

“Who we are” is ultimately defined by a genetic heritage and then what we’ve experienced and, naturally, what we remember. In the simplified sense that I’m using the term, “memory” refers to three overlapping parts of an experience in a built environment.  First are the “long-term” memories, physical changes in cells and networks that over a lifetime have recorded conscious and unconscious experiences, linking them to each other and to events, people, and feelings.  They include the familiar ability to replay earlier episodes in life – a kind of autobiography – but also the ability to recall at will more generalized knowledge of facts, histories, science, law or construction.  They include, too, the trained mind and body processes that become professional, artistic or sports performance – or simply day-to-day habits of coordinated movements of a mind and muscles; at one extreme they’re the automatic “conditioned reflexes” that perpetuate stereotypes and conventional design.  There’s another form of long-term memory called “implicit.”  It’s what we “absorb” when immersed in a culture and a language – or a place.  We don’t notice that our brain is being re-wired. We can’t explain it. We just learn through experience patterns of customs or grammar and the basics of how architecture, landscapes, and urban places are going to touch our lives.

A second part is “working memory,” a mental process that lets us reach into those vast, intricate unconscious networks and connect them into conscious awareness of the moment.  That’s when the buried seeds of past events spring to life and are held in the mind and put to work – to anticipate, plan, solve problems, understand, navigate, create – to respond in ways that we think advance a “personal project.”  In the sense that memory is part of who-we-are, “working memory” is part of who-we-are-right-now.

Our capacity to store long-term memories is enormous, but “working memory” is constrained by the limitations on conscious attention.  Focusing involves filtering-out. And search, retrieval, and coordination takes time. Further, the recollections it works with are inevitably error-prone, partial, malleable, and biased by contexts in the past and present.  The components of memories are stored in different parts of the brain, too; each time we remember we have to reconstruct some of the specifics.  As a result our subjective “life stories” are inevitably useful fictions. Still, they’re what we have. 

A third system, called “sensory memory” works in a different way.  Every “raw” sensation – image, sound, touch, scent – lingers for seconds, sometimes less or longer, and before fading overlaps with the next.  In this way fragmented pictures gathered by the darting eyes can be assembled into the fluid, continuous motion that we “see.”  Then over those few seconds responses originating throughout the body are coordinated into an illusion of complete sequences of seamless, “whole” experience of people or places.

Memories, knowledge, and skills naturally mature and change throughout a life.  Further, as predilections and their insistent messages continually conflict, jostling for control, we attend to some at the expense of others.  But as experiences, and reflections on them, repeat and accumulate, they open well-travelled paths-of-least-resistance, and our individualized patterns of memory, thought and action emerge.  Then at any single moment, biology, experience, learning, culture, “personal projects” – interacting nature and nurture – all held together in memory systems are resolved into a coherent one-of-a-kind personality, a total, unique, unified organism that perceives and responds to the places we design.

In this sense the “past” is never really past.  It’s in each of us and every place we’ve built.

The lens of culture

In practice, what each of us “sees,” the actual rich “content” we perceive in a built environment is naturally filtered through the lenses of both our restless personal learning and the more settled flows of wisdom accumulated in the cultures that have framed and focused them.  The ideas and practices we share with others add a sense of stability and solidity to our fragments of experience and most of us, most of the time simply accept them as part of our own identities. In a sense, culture is what we take for granted.

As a result, a clear awareness of the roles of a culture and personal expressions within it, are already effective parts of design education and practice.  In architectural historian Vincent Scully’s words “…human beings see…what the conceptual structure of their culture permits them to see…”  And thanks to his work, and others, the design professions have learned how cultures – through our innate skills in imitation and language – hand on patterns of thought and behavior, social systems, rules, traditions, complex skills, knowledge, roles and stereotypes – shaping the places we build and how we, in turn, respond.  In design, we know there is no substitute for that kind of “local knowledge.”

Back behind “culture  But, again, I’m trying to take one more step back and explore beyond what into why.  And, again, that’s not a new idea.  Artists, scientists and philosophers have discovered – or conceived of – systems and secrets of proportions, a pre-ordained mathematical harmony or, at least, an order of the universe.  Others have discovered physical archetypes, primordial images or symbols that reappear across cultures and over time.  All produce useful ideas. 

But I believe we can go back to more useful sources by looking inward – back behind cultural evolution – sorting out what drove us from the start to create the forms-and-functions or archetypes in succeeding cultures – the primal biology, the evolved hereditary human nature that keeps reappearing.  Architect Louis Kahn, as usual, is able to put it into the simplest words: “What will be has always been.” And it starts with understanding our origins in “natural selection”.

This is the third of a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do. The next post looks at how natural selection – “survival of the fittest” – drives everything we design, build and inhabit today.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing.

Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton's New York office.

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