Nature-inspired Urbanism seminar series:
‘The Darwinian analogy with the ‘evolution’ of artefacts: its promise and perils’
It took a very short time, following the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, for Darwin’s theoretical framework to be transposed to the ‘evolution’ of artefacts including buildings. Some of the earliest in this field were the archaeologist General Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and the anthropologist Henry Balfour. They equated the random variations in the forms of organisms that provide the raw material for natural evolution, with slight differences between man-made objects of a given type, produced by hand. They equated heredity in organisms with copying in the handicraft process. And they equated natural selection with the ‘artificial selection’ of designs of artefact that were seen to perform better once put to use.
The analogy was helpful and productive especially in studies of the development of useful tools, and decorative designs. It continued to bear fruit in the work of 20th century archaeologists like David Clarke. But it had its dangers. It implied, in a strict interpretation, that variations in the forms of artefacts were introduced at random. In effect, it removed human foresight and intention from the process; indeed, paradoxically, it removed any role for designers. The consequences can be seen in some uses of evolutionary analogy in theories of architecture and urban design, notably Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form.
Biological analogies can be extremely illuminating for the theory of design and planning. But they need to be handled with great caution.
Philip Steadman is Emeritus Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at the Bartlett School, University College London, and a Senior Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute. His research interests are in the geometry of buildings and cities, and their use of energy. With colleagues he is currently building a 3D model of the UK building stock, for use in energy analysis. He has published two books on geometry and architecture: The Geometry of Environment (with Lionel March, 1971), and Architectural Morphology (1983). His study of The Evolution of Designs: Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Arts was published in 1979 and republished in an updated edition in 2008. Vermeer’s Camera, his investigation of the Dutch painter’s use of optical aids, came out in 2001. Most recently he has published a book about building types, considered from both historical and geometrical points of view, with the title Building Types and Built Forms (2014).