A New Humanism: Part 4

Natural selection: the “pleasure” of winning, surviving, prospering

The concepts “natural selection” and “survival,” in the evolutionary sense, ultimately mean competitive reproductive success – passing the genes on to other generations – and they are implicit in – in a sense they drive – everything we design, build, and inhabit.

In practice, every human choice is about “rewarding” ourselves with “pleasure.”  Scientist Steven Pinker puts it neatly “…(G)enes selfishly spread themselves.  They do it by the way they build our brains.  By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved.”  In other words, when our thoughts and actions trigger pleasure circuits – a reward system of connections and chemistry in the brain and body – we sense we are enhancing our odds for surviving and prospering – winning Pinker’s “lottery” – in whatever environment we encounter.  The “happiness” we’re in “pursuit of” is not an abstraction, but repetitions of these kinds of physical pleasures.

Naturally, “survival” – the word I’ll use to refer to “natural selection” or “reproduction of the fittest” – means staying alive and healthy, pairing with the right mate, raising a family and building a secure, nurturing habitat.  It’s built into innate predilections. Then, in practice, “survival” involves competing, winning and sustaining the independence to control “my” surroundings for “my” interests.  That, in turn, is likely to work best by acquiring the strength of more knowledge, better tools and more skills, multiplying them through trusting alliances, and exploring, migrating or trading to gain access to still more resources. It involves, too, constantly moving ahead, avoiding losses and anchoring security by storing-up and protecting the “wealth” that has been won, earning respites from challenges – in other words “prospering.”  The most valuable “wealth” was and is, of course, the accumulated knowledge needed to master the environments we encounter and to manage them in ways that maintain a constant competitive edge.

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Further, the natural in-born human limitations that can stand in the way of competitive success keep us searching for ways to transcend them.  And with our evolved creative imaginations we continually develop technologies – tools or weapons – that diversify and multiply our biologically constrained skill, time, and energy.  Equally important, innate predilections – reinforced by body chemistry – to advance by cooperating comes into play. 

Survival-of-the-fittest includes a propensity for the forms of moral behavior that make trust and collaboration possible. We’re prepared to volunteer to compromise a hard-earned independence of action – often enthusiastically – by merging our own personal projects into the survival and prosperity of larger and more powerful alliances – mating, friendships, a team, a community, a culture or ideology.  We exchange a measure of freedom for strength and diversity. And then those connections, in turn, become part of our identity. They draw their power from another innate level of pleasure we tend to call spiritual experience – the sense of entering into and sharing – belonging to – something larger than one’s “self” – a larger purpose and sense of destiny.  The ultimate reward comes from surrendering to a super-natural ally; joining in time cycles that exceed our lifetime and feeling our living essence achieve a form of immortality.  Some, of course, try to escape the rigors of earthly competition altogether by living in an imagined or virtual world.

Civilization and affluence    

Today the words “survival-based” may seem a crude description of the motivations that produce civilized environments and the enormous range of elaborated, refined knowledge, skills, ideas, arts, sciences, entertainment, and anxiously pursued “happiness.”  We evolved in conditions that seem, in a sense, to no longer exist.  Yet the connection is clear. Changing culture just shifts the baseline.

When a family’s or community’s successes produce surpluses of wealth and leisure time – or new materials and technologies – they naturally re-shape all facets of the environment into which each new generation is born.  We build new kinds of relationships with nature and each other and we free ourselves from old confining myths as we create new ones. Then facing a new environment of relative security and affluence, the terms of struggle for survival naturally adapted – until we became comfortable building cities without walls, elegant palaces along a Venetian lagoon or glass houses in a forest.  But we’ve also seen how we may re­-adapt back again in the environments of hardship, war or natural disasters. The essence of human nature is still there.

The competition/cooperation continues.  Within the changing culture, our in-born values still assign top priority to making basic survival secure. In a home or settlement, we still dedicate our combined resources first to well-defined, defended boundaries, and then to creating stable conditions and police-power for our personal health-safety-and-welfare – in other words, the protection of prosperity.  And we continue to exercise and display our “fitness,” transforming what were brute life or death struggles into more formalized cooperative/competitive arenas – the “civilized warfare” of governance, trade, sports, fashion, and status.  Then the settings we build for them shape the fabric of a village, megalopolis or a nation.


Central Park in New York — affluent "survival"

Surviving, prospering, protected, and well fed, we still look for ways to compete by inventing new purposes and pursuing “rewards” in luxury – elaboration, play, and comfort.  In-born predilections lead us into rituals, games, and safe adventures, where victories are measured in terms of the quality, comradeship or aesthetics of experience. But they’re still combined with the primal pleasures of a reassuring sense of mastery. And in built environments we create the places where we accommodate and celebrate fitness – at “my” home and garden, of course, and also in continually updated, re-conceived social venues, like the predecessors and descendants of the Roman Baths – places where “my” presence would include membership in “my” world’s prospering, victorious, elite alliances.  Or they may be simply preserved, but no longer productive, historical styles and settings, ones that demonstrate the supposed superior wisdom, skill, dedication, and longevity inherent in “our” genetic heritage.  Then in all these cases, it’s in the nature of competition – the constant advance – to end in excess.

Fine-tuned detection and communication

Of the critical, practical survival skills that evolved in natural selection – language, imitation, tool-making – the most fundamental is an innate capability for sensitive, rapid, fine-tuned, detection-and-interpretation of complex patterns.  All the senses work together, alert to changes signaling survival-related threats or opportunities. We can rarely resist turning our attention to signs of danger, potential mates, food, or to learning from a cause-and-effect. The perception takes place in microseconds, primarily at an unconscious level; it’s what we tend to experience as instincts or intuition.  And it initiates that first basic decision in any encounter: approach-or-avoid. 

Most impressive is our extraordinary in-born ability to discover, quickly, without thinking, nuances of intentions or feelings expressed in human faces, sounds, and body language – and equally in biological motion and the direction of someone’s attention.  A brain has large specialized areas dedicated just to faces – to interpreting fleeting, intricate changes, remembering complex interrelationships and decoding the motives behind exaggerations. And few of us, in turn, can’t not communicate our own feelings the same ways.  Facial and vocal muscles are intimately linked to emotional circuits; even our own physical facial expression, a smile or skeptical frown can itself stir our own emotions.

Because nothing communicates as much information as quickly as a human face, especially when we sense moods or emotions, there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings or, in an exact parallel, experiencing a built environment first hand.  That’s when more channels of communication are opened for detection and understanding.  Naturally, with time, travel, maturity, and seasoning, this skill expands in scope and sophistication, but the interpretations of specific facial expressions and movements are still surprisingly similar across cultures.  The important point here, of course, is that this same highly developed, universal detectionandjudgment system is what leads any of us successfully and creatively through encounters with a built environment.  In the uncounted shapes, spaces, lines, light, shadows, textures, colors, rhythms, scents, movements or sounds, we search for clues, and we find them everywhere.

Self-expression.  The fine-tuned detection skill is matched by the predisposition to exploit it to express ourselves.  Starting with mate selection we have a propensity to display any distinctive competitive edge we think we may have.  And we naturally use what we think are solid, handsome, or stylish built environments to announce to competitors and assure everyone that they can have confidence in our superior fitness. With conspicuous or subtle signs in a home or headquarters, we augment our own “presence” using mass, space, ornament, learning, wit or ingenuity expected to communicate our potential as an adversary or ally – or to reassure ourselves.

Because it is a key to bringing people together and building trust, we are prepared both to detect and to learn how to stage and judge displays most likely to win – to intimidate or to attract and hold.  Further, because the competition – for status, mates, and allies – is right at the heart of natural selection, we are predisposed to build places that exaggerate, or “spin” and promote whatever eloquent fitness package we imagine to be most persuasive.  Likewise, on the receiving end we are predisposed to use our detection skill to probe deeply into the displays and “appearances” with skepticism, searching for credibility – for authenticity – in places as we do in people.


Architect Phillip Johnson's glass house in a civilized forest

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This is the fourth 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. Next, how does it work in practice? Architecture professor Grant Hildebrand’s convincing study of The Origins of Architectural Pleasure; and the power, in E.O. Wilson’s term, of “Biophilia”.

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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