We Belong Here: An Evolutionary Theory of Cities

Popular condemnation of humanity as a blight upon the Earth is incompatible with evolutionary theory.  Modern biology has a blind spot…

The Origin of Life
A common concept used in evolutionary theory is the “Tree of Life,” which illustrates the interrelationship of all organisms and represents the history of all life on Earth. Below is provided an example, the Tree of Life plot by David Hillis:

Tree of Life plot by David Hillis.
Tree of Life plot by David Hillis. The origin of life is at the center of the arc.

In suggesting the interrelationship between all living organisms, evolution suggests an original organism, the common ancestor shared by all living organisms. Tree of Life diagrams suggest this being (it is at the center of the Hillis plot).

An original organism is a difficult concept. Accepting its simplicity, questions remain. What was its parent? What were its ancestors? What happened just prior to its birth? Is evolution suggesting a creationist moment, a moment when non-living matter was <POOF> living?

The tree of life begs philosophical questions about a moment in time. Might the questions disappear if we challenge the validity of the moment? Perhaps it’s less a moment and more indicative of the boundaries of biology.  The fact remains that prior to the original organism, chemical and physical processes were cycling assuredly toward life as we know it.  Perhaps this too is “life” on some level.

Departing from a singular tree of interrelationship renders life an inclusive, universal force.  Consider the life force as a vibration, something at an atomic level that is cascading and infectious. Herein lies a perspective where tenets of pre- programming, comparable to DNA, might apply to every thing, perhaps even cities.

The purpose of the Urban Organism
Having considered the origin and nature of life itself, I suggest life is an inclusive, ever present force. It is from this basis that I suggest cities are living organisms. Unsure? First, note that if you zoom in enough to your body its many diverse, integrated parts would appear as inanimate as cars and buildings. Second, zoom out and look at our planet.

Earth City Lights 2012

The beautiful glowing sprawl is not only rapidly colonizing the planet, but emitting matter. At the pinnacle of civilization (e.g. knowledge, science, privilege) humans launch satellites into space, some never to return. Were you a visitor to Earth they might look less like scientific instruments and more like spores.

My conjecture about a visitor to Earth is scientific observation in pure form. Yet, this objective approach is rarely applied to our urbanized nature. This oversight represents a fascinating, unexplored opportunity in the biological sciences.

Humanity’s visual similarity to micro-organisms is no analogy. The instruments leaving our planet and solar system contain the vibration of life. In facilitating the emission of Earth’s seed, our civilization, however repugnant, facilitates something natural.

If it seems unlikely that a satellite from Earth could traverse the universe and find a fertile destination, consider this, you were comparably unlikely.  

A man produces billions, if not trillions of sperm in his lifetime. How many become human beings? According to the United Nations the average human male fathers 2.36 children in his life. Some scientific perspectives would conclude that sperm are waste products because the probability of them being anything other than waste is 2.36 out of billions. Yet the extremely rare, statistically insignificant human beings that come from these seeds are DNA pre- programmed outcomes. All life is based on these odds.

Our purpose in this moment of global civilization is to extend and advance our civilization so as to support the full blooming of the Urban Organism and ensure life carries on. This requires working toward sustainability and also the abandonment of value judgments that suggest we are inherently bad.

The notion of original sin still haunts science. We must extricate it from our tool kit. The judgment of modern humanity, as though we are created separate from and in conflict with nature is untrue. Importantly, it departs from evolutionary theory.

Art by George Wilkinson III
Art by George Wilkinson III

Mass Origination
It is natural for people to conclude humans constitute a blight upon the Earth. For example, there is compelling evidence of a human-created mass extinction, called the Anthropocene mass extinction. What is less popularly acknowledged is the living side of the phenomenon. What distinguishes this well documented mass extinction from those previous is that biomass is neutral.

Unlike previous mass extinctions, instead of life itself being under threat due to a meteor impact or the eruption of a mega-volcano, organisms going extinct today are being overrun by the booming populations of others (e.g. humans, mice, rats, cats, dogs, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, seagulls, deer, foxes, all invasive plants and animals, etc. the list is very long). This observation is rarely paired with discussions of today’s elevated extinction rates yet it is differentiating.

Something phenomenal and natural is occurring on Earth today. Are we too quick to assume it is “bad?” Indeed, biodiversity is decreasing, but to say diversity is “good” at all times is questionable. Furthermore, to suggest there is such a thing as stasis in nature, or a way environments should be, is fiction.

I offer the image below of a pruned tree with shoots to suggest this is how life works in the long term. Branches of diversity are pruned, yet their absence makes way for new branches. Thus, the Anthropocene mass extinction may precede a mass origination. Interestingly, many of the organisms being selected for by human civilization resemble the basic ancestral building-block organisms of said lost diversity.

A tree that has been pruned but exhibits many new offshoots from the stubs.

To the credit of its critics, the growth of modern civilization does indeed resemble a viral organism. Accepting this comparison and the information it suggests about the future, we should accept that our collapse is a matter of when, not if.

The question is, what will become of all the booming species when civilization collapses and they are released from the urban organism’s clutches? Again, in the context of thousands and/or millions of years, I suggest a mass origination is on the horizon.

The observations shared here are not yet popularly recognized and I suggest this illustrates how negative value judgments of human nature are inaccurate, misguided and counterproductive. True, we need to care about sustainability to survive as long as possible; sustainability is analogous to an individual taking an interest in their personal health and well-being.  That said, this does not concurrently require condemnation of our very nature.

Our modern urbanized existence is not without a natural purpose on this planet. We belong here. Should our purpose resemble what I suggest, while it is sad to see organisms go extinct, it may be a necessary aspect of life’s bigger agenda.

The Rose Seed
The idea that space craft might constitute Earth’s seed impacts how the origin of life on Earth is conceptualized. That is, perhaps the original organism was born of a creationist moment, when a metallic seed crashed into our planet setting off a chain of atomic, physical and chemical reactions. Billions of years later, humanoid organisms emerged, looking into the stars, wondering of their origins.

Consider this interstellar origin idea the next time you plant a non-indigenous flower in your garden. Isn’t it interesting that from a stiff, inanimate, small seed emerges the supple, bright, beautiful flower? Furthermore, no matter how far the seed is from its origin, the outcome is pre-planned. We often assume such principles don’t apply to our civilization. We are different. It is just us. We’re special. You can subscribe to this view, just don’t call it science. Every thing counts.

Movies like 2014’s Interstellar provide romantic and appealing visions of interstellar human conquest, yet we are fragile beings that depend on the biological foundations upon which we evolved. It is more likely Earth’s micro-organisms or perhaps its seemingly lifeless, cold, hard inanimate objects will be the first colonizers.

In March 2013 NASA announced that the space probe, Voyager 1, had exited the solar system, becoming the first man made interstellar object. We may be closer to achieving our extraterrestrial dreams than we realize. Sadly, given the unfathomable nature of time and space, our experience realizing that dream may never be more than a countdown to launch and faith in science.

Art by George Wilkinson III
Art by George Wilkinson III

We’ve only just begun
Earlier I suggested that the collapse of our civilization is inevitable. Despite this, I suggest that today the Urban Organism is very young.

Granted, collapse may be an ever-present threat to civilization that frightens to drive our advancement. If the urban organism has taught us anything it is that it defies expectation, spreading wider and taller than most could have imagined even a generation ago. Expect this to continue.

As scientists we must put down judgment and begin observing, studying and describing the fascinating urban organism. Our planet is glowing. Our planet is emits matter. We belong here.