Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

The Beauty of Evolution, part 2

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Drawing by Katarina Countiss

Excerpt from What Technology Wants by Kelly, Kevin (Book – 2010) page 318-320

Real cities display this same principle of evolutionary beauty. Throughout history, humans have found new cities ugly. For years people recoiled from Las Vegas. Many centuries ago the first few versions of London were considered heinous eyesores. But over generations, every urban block was tested by daily use. The parks and streets that worked were retained; those that failed were demolished. The height of buildings, the size of a plaza, the rake of an overhang was all adjusted by variations to suit current needs. But not all imperfections were removed, nor can they be, since many aspects of a city—say, the width of streets—cannot be changed easily. So urban work-arounds and architectural compensations are added over generations, upping the city’s complexity. In most real cities, such as London or Rome or Shanghai, the tiniest alleyway is hijacked and then utilized for public space, the smallest nook becomes a store, the dampest arch under a bridge is filled with a home. Over the centuries, the constant infilling, ceaseless replacement, renewal, and complexification—in other words, evolution—creates a deeply satisfying aesthetic. The places most renowned for their beauty (Venice, Kyoto, Esfahan) are those that reveal intersecting deep layers of time. Every corner carries the long history of the city embedded in it like a hologram, glimpses of which unfold as we stroll by.

Evolution is not just about complications. One pair of scissors can be highly evolved and beautiful, while another is not. Both scissors entail two swinging pieces of metal joined at their center. But in the highly evolved scissors, the accumulated knowledge won over thousands of years of cutting is captured by the forged and polished shape of the scissor halves. Tiny twists in the metal hold that knowledge. While our lay minds can’t decode why, we interpret that fossilized learning as beauty. It has less to do with smooth lines and more to do with smooth continuity of experience. The attractive scissors and the beautiful hammer and the gorgeous car all carry in their form the wisdom of their ancestors.

The beauty of evolution has put a spell on us. According to psychologist Erich From and famed biologist E.O. Wilson, humans are endowed with biophilia, an innate attraction to living things. This hardwired genetic affinity for life and life processes ensured our survival in the past by nurturing our familiarity with nature. In joy we learned the secrets of the wild. The aeons that our ancestors spend walking in the woods finding coveted herbs or stalking a rare green frog were bliss; ask any hunter-gatherer about their time in the wilds. In love we discovered the bounty each creature could provide and the great lessons organic forms had to teach us. This love still simmers in our cells. It is why we keep pets and potted plants in the city, why we garden when supermarket food is cheaper, and why we are drawn to sit in silence under towering trees.

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Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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