A New Humanism: Part 8

The ways and means of social animals

While evolution’s natural selection is about competing individuals, a broader perspective on our response to built environments, another set of genetic preparations for survival – another set of innate pleasures – is seen in the ways we mate and settle in communities.  Both the biology and practical survival benefits are compelling – cohesive family groups, strength-in-numbers, extended expertise gained by learning from each other, trading, collaborating and specializing – and we are powerfully motivated to merge our competitive interests into a cooperating population when we can find like-minded people. 

Look again at the choice of a “good home.”  For those who can choose, it may well be on high ground, overlooking water and set in parkland.  But making choices based on limited resources, we most often live in clusters – compounds, hamlets, villages, towns, gated or not – where the comfort of refuge is in the presence of neighbors, and security is found behind a protective “wall” of social contracts – customs, laws, and patrols.

It’s a way we’ve been prepared to transcend the in-born human limitations that frustrate competitive success.  We volunteer to compromise our hard-earned independence of action – often enthusiastically – as we join in larger and more powerful alliances – friendships, a team, a community, a culture or ideology.  And those connections, like our connections to nature, tend to draw their power from the spiritual experience – the sense of entering into, belonging to – something larger than our own day-to-day material world.  We sense ourselves joining in time cycles that exceed our life, and the ultimate reward comes from surrendering to a super-natural ally and feeling our living essence achieve a form of immortality.

More from Metropolis

The significance of the commitment, submerging our own identity, what we are, into a group, can be read in the quick, often violent emotions evoked by – and the willingness to die for – such concepts as turf, ghetto, comrades, and fatherland and by the anxiety of personal separation or exclusion from the “refuge” of a group. These can be – they have been – life-or-death issues.  And forms of hospitality – of sharing food and warmth – are one of the defining customs of a family or a culture. Further, the most admired virtues in many societies are self-sacrifice, loyalty, and courage – deciding to overrule our other survival instincts on behalf of justice, fairness, “duty” owed to others – or instantaneously, without thinking, responding to people in distress.

 The underlying biology is in the mix of hormones stirred first by an initial encounter and then validated by repetition. Natural selection has made us a gregarious species, and while we respond to a threat with the well-known “fight-or-flight” impulses – aggression or fear – we may instead, in the same instant, detect a level of warmth or welcome. We’re prepared for the nuanced, often involuntary messages we receive from faces, body language, words, and voices to trigger a different body chemistry, one that induces a “tend-and-befriend” openness, curiosity, empathy and, ultimately, altruism.

We are quick to search out and detect capabilities and competence in potential allies and mates; we want to experience the pleasures of trust, of aligning our feelings and beliefs with theirs, and the sense of bonding outside ourselves.  And while the ease and intensity of person-to-person connections – the chemistry – varies from gene pool to gene pool, introverts and extroverts, and with gender and age, we all tend to mirror – to attune ourselves to – each other’s feelings and behavior. The result is the kind of emotional contagion that underlies both person-to-person empathy and the behavior of crowds or mobs. In other words, our brain networks – its structure – can be shaped by what other people do around us.


In practice, social relationships are our primary “environment.”  We are born into them.  They are part of our identity and shape an experience of the places we build in two important ways.  First, in the constant overload of received information we tend to single out and give first priority to social information. And the resulting pleasure or anxiety of person-to-person connections is often the strongest emotion feeding our responses.  It may be an ephemeral interaction between people and a place – in rituals, trade, sports, or public promenading – or more permanent, like selecting the refuge of a home in a neighborhood of allies and the prospect out onto a reassuring village street. 

The important information may also be based on the people associated with a place, as on Washington’s Capitol Mall where, through the skill of a designer, the decisive tone of an experience for many may be the primacy of George Washington in our alliance or the dignity and humanity of Lincoln, expressed in marble, bronze, and his words. Or at home and in a headquarters office we may respond first to associating our own stature with the functional power relationships expressed in architecture and landscapes or the distinguished artists who designed them. The important point is that virtually every pleasure has a person-to-person component. We, especially as designers, may admire photographs uncluttered by people, but our audiences’ experience and internal, mental maps integrate our social – just like political and spiritual – worlds, with the physical one.  And, while the physical places we build, and especially legal property ownership lines, are what endure out-there on the land, the human action and personal connections tend to be what endures in-here in memories.


The dignity and humanity of Lincoln, linking the North and the South – the Capitol and the Custis-Lee House across the Botomac border


Further, we are drawn into communities by both the soft chemistry of empathy and the hard-headed competitive edge gained by joining together to live in fortified places, or under the protection of the walls of law in a policed empire like Rome’s, Britain’s or our own. We seek out the like-minded people who share, or at least seem to share inferences about what we each have on our mind, and then place our individual survival prospects into a social structure – in geographic, ethnic, economic, or ideological alliances – that enlarges the dimensions and diversity of our home “territory” and further defines “us” by who is excluded as “strangers”.  


As we join with others the social structure appears on the ground – a family home, a compound, and then a village. We cluster our homes in a refuge of clearly marked boundaries, connected by a fine-grained circulation system that links us to each other and to a shared symbolic center – at a crossroads or country store, commons or green, or sacred meeting place – and then, through physical or implied gateways, reaches toward the outside world. And we tend to be uneasy and combative when the boundary – like town/country or a zoning district – is blurred. 

Internally, as a village grows, and streets remain scaled for their original use, frequent nodes and destinations weave an overall fabric that invites interaction, and it tends to be distinguished by architecture and landscapes that share a like-minded palette of materials, colors, styles, scale, and symbols – originally because that was what’s available and practical. Then in that continuity of street scenes and clusters we experience the complexity of reality simplified into a circumscribed way-of-life that’s rooted in a functioning pattern of land, water, and the founding legends. It’s that comfortable, predictable, purposeful complex order – the array of distinctive personal actions, including our own, that can be sensed as a cohesive vision – that we fuse into our own identity.  


The functioning pattern land, water and purposeful, circumscribed domestic life – Castle Combe in the Cotswolds, UK


As our alliances prospered, technology advanced and settlements grew into civilizations, and as we transcended villages’ inherent social and economic limitations, their forms, their refuge still remained embedded in the commercial structure of a larger town or city. At our industrialized scale of community building – in the culture of cities – we romanticize villages, of course, but the impulse to maintain their qualities at all scales – neighborhoods, retail malls called town center or open-plan offices – stays very much alive. The symbols of those qualities keep turning up in market research, in the “branding” of real estate and in its market value; and as we spend more and more social time on screens and keyboards, the idea of villages – and a “global village” – keep surfacing in cyberspace as well.

City building is implicit in our genetic heritage, too. As the changing technologies and social structures continued to create new frontiers, our predilections for exploration and constant advance drove us to exploit natural resources – rivers, oceans, plants, and minerals – and to trade at larger scales. We entered into broader alliances with re-defined strangers and new kinds of habitats naturally emerged. Our competitive, cooperative, predatory energy was transferred from the countryside and concentrated. Then the density of collisions and connections set up the classic conditions – the size, diversity, and efficiency of exchanges – for whole new levels of cascading, creative thinking. Minds unmoored from traditional cultural settings, mirroring and adopting new, diverse skills and ideas kept opening up surprising opportunities. Then harnessing them with new forms of transportation and communication technology and creative destruction, we expanded the density and dimensions of urban space across the land and into cyberspace.

Once again, we see primal human nature mastering and adapting to changing, challenging environments – ones that magnify opportunities for practical survival and prosperity. In a sense, it’s an urban “ecology” marked by a new level of freedom and a culture called civilized, urban, and polite – words whose roots are in city life. Naturally, it generates a never-before-seen magnetism.

The end results on the ground – plus the bewilderment and alienation that can accompany size, diversity, and very high densities – and the enormous scale of the infrastructure of city life are often called inhuman. But they’re not; just the opposite. Urban ecosystems are intensely human artifacts; they’re the product of priorities we give to conflicting, innate predilections for exploiting natural systems and each other. And our brain networks continually adapt – within the biological limits of their flexibility – to the turbulent world we’re each born into. Just as it takes a village to discover and realize our native potential, it also takes a city.

Our next post will look at city building, “belonging,” and alienation, plus “economic man” and the cost-benefit calculation in every human decision.

*          *            *            *

This is the eighth 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.

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.

Recent Projects