Adaptation by Design
In 1859 Charles Darwin published his monumental work “On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection” with which he forever shifted our understanding of the creation of life. Darwin’s breakthrough did not lie in the assertion that life has evolved from simple to more sophisticated and specialized organisms, but in outlining the process by which it does so – natural selection. He argued that nature evolves by a series of tiny mutations from one generation to the next; random changes in form. Only those changes that result in a more functional adaptation to their environment survive for they give the organism or animal which hosts them advantage over those with which it might compete for survival. Thus the photo-synthesizing cyanobacteria that emerged three billion years ago from the primordial soup has become homo creator, the first species to circumvent the lengthy process of adaptation by natural selection in favor of the much quicker process of adapting our environment to suit our needs and limitations.
Darwin hinted at the role humans have played in shaping the world when he discussed domestication of species in the conclusion to “Origin of the Species”:
“[Man] thus adapts animals and plants for his own benefit or pleasure. He may do this methodically, or he may do it unconsciously…This unconscious process of selection has been the great agency in the formation of the most distinct and useful domestic breeds.”
Darwin recognized that we are engaged in the process of selection in a way that is similar to, but different than natural selection. We do have a method. We have proceeded consciously.
When we design, the forms between which we select are not random mutations, but deliberate choices generated by our imperfect, and uncertain imaginations. Designers produce a multitude of solutions and forms to the challenge they face. They generate ideas, sketches or prototypes, each suggesting the one form that might best fit their purpose.
And unlike natural selection, the process of choosing does not need to be random or unconscious, as Darwin suggests. We have gained knowledge of the conditions to be met for a form to succeed. Through trial and error, and with the precision of science we draw on a bank of design guidelines whenever we set out to create something new. The sciences of physiology, psychology, anthropology and sociology have given us powerful heuristics – rules of thumb – for predicting the potential fit of a form to the users for whom it is being adapted. We test and evaluate our most promising ideas to gauge how well adapted are to their intended purpose.
What forms survive the winnowing of the design method are re-formed and re-fined to be better and better adapted to the physique, psyche and passions of the intended user. So the design process goes in a recursive cycle between intention and form that the ancient Greeks called “praxis”. We have come to state this striving in the aphorism “practice makes perfect” which is fine as an aspiration, a Platonic ideal, but misses the point of human restlessness with the status quo. Nothing we create can ever be quite perfect, for everything that is made can be made better. Or at least it is in our nature to give it a try. The great American industrial design pioneer, Raymond Loewy in 1951 wrote “Never Leave Well Enough Alone” as a homage to the relentless pursuit of improvement of fit that lies at the heart of the designer’s ethic.
Unfit, maladapted forms that happen to make it through the design process are subjected to the ruthless filter of the marketplace that rejects more than it accepts. Opportunities for innovation in intention and form arise as forms fail or are rendered inadequate by changes in context. It is up to the astute designer to recognize these gaps and the opportunity they have to try fill them.
A Cautionary Tale
On each of the six days of creation, Elohim spoke his intensions into being. When he wanted illumination of the dark void, he said “Let there be light”. The lightness that appeared had unfathomable qualities and dimension – brightness, color and luminance that changed by time of day and season – from the delicate oranges of a winter sunset to the searing glare of the midday sun beating down on a desolate desert. It all found favor with Elohim who declared what he beheld to be good by giving it a name – day.
Intention precedes creation. In each instance Elohim’s intention stated in a declarative statement was followed by it’s embodiment in a form. “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds”. And it was so with the richness, beauty, abundance and variety of life. There are over 400,000 flowering plant species and over 100,000 unique varieties of tree, from the ancient, gnarly and stunted bristlecone pines that began growing 5,000 years ago to the majestic Sequoia sempervirens, the Californian redwood that reaches 379 feet towards the heavens where Elohim can view it with great pleasure.
Armed with a powerful imagination and a physique that allows us to make things with deftness and precision, we were not able to speak the world we want into existence. However we can give form, in stone, clay, bronze, iron, steel, plastic and silicon to that which we imagine and express. With our ideas we have created a world that consists of an unfathomable richness of artifacts and structures. We have created the means of creation – ochre paint kits, tapestry, masonry and Photoshop Sketch running on an iPad Pro. Using the tools we have invented, we have conceived of and built the the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the dome on the Florence Cathedral, the World Wide Web, and the Burj Khalifa, our tallest building (so far) which reaches 2716 feet into the skies of Dubai.
Generations after they left Eden the children of Adam and Eve conceived of an immense tower that reached to the heavens in the city they built called Babel. Their intention in building the city was to settle in one place from their lives as wanderers buy generic zithromax. Their intention in building a tower was to create a monument to their own magnificence. Elohim responded with apprehension at beholding the latter creative act of his creation. He feared what they might be capable of if they persisted with such hubris and callousness. So he put an obstacle in their way. He caused chaos and confusion by making them speak different languages so they would have to think twice before acting impetuously. They would be diligent in finding ways of cooperating and collaborating together to create things of sacred intent. They would need to work hard to learn the language of forms necessary for a world of order and beauty. They would learn to take seriously the awesome responsibility that comes with being a creator of the world we live in.
This book is an exploration of how we are doing coming to terms with that responsibility; how we are learning the language of form, and the methods we need to cooperate and collaborate with one another in creating it. I will explore how, over the past 75,000 years we have found ways of translating our words into built forms and how, in doing so, we limit the violence and damage we do to the world that already exists.