Address given at EnvironDesign 3, Baltimore, MD, April 30, 1999
People who invite me to speak on occasions like this one are usually in for a surprise, because instead of delivering whatever happens to be my current lecture (or some modification thereof), they get an altogether new creation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they don’t get the kind of highly finished product that has been refined though a hundred repetitions.
The first thing one is asked to supply is of course a title. The speech hasn’t been written–hasn’t even been pondered–but the organizers of the event have announcements to make, brochures to put together, and so on. So the title comes first. The title in this case is a grand one: The Human Future: A Problem in Design. Having THAT all taken care of, one must then begin to wonder what one is actually going to say–and hope that, in the end, the result will sounds like it has something to do with the title. Sometimes one succeeds in this, sometimes not. You’ll be the judge.
Among the preoccupations of my work are anthropology, history, archeology, evolutionary biology, and sociology. This is of interest because, although I’m not a professional in any of these fields, I nonetheless seem to have succeeded in saying something useful to professionals in these fields. Design is also a preoccupation of my work, and we’ll see if I have anything useful to say to YOU about it.
Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn’t possibly be improved on by any means.
Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design–and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans–is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.
Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that’s working beautifully–because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however–and we had the leisure to watch– we’d see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.
Design change is a reaction to pressure–and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.
In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.
The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you’d be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools–and they didn’t, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic.