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VIII. Pedia Sapiens: A New Genesis Future

4. Sustainable Ecovillages: Social Protocells

Robinson, Sarah and Juhani Pallasmaa, eds. Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015. These edited proceedings from a Minding Design symposium at Taliesin West in November 2012 cite a vital awareness for more humane, organic, ecological communities. Typical papers are The Embodied Meaning of Architecture by Mark Johnson, Toward a Neuroscience of the Design Process by Michael Arbib, and Architecture and Neuroscience: A Double Helix by John Eberhard. See also herein Vibrant Architecture by Rachel Armstrong for a companion take. But the chapter that most intrigued is Tending to the World by Iain McGilchrist as a capsule of his bicameral brain explanation, reviewed in A Complementary Brain.

Scott, Andrew and Eran Ben-Joseph. ReNew Town: Adaptive Urbanism and the Low Carbon Community. London: Routledge, 2011. As the book description describes, MIT architects provide through conceptual overview and by practical detail a program for the intentional retrofit of existing neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and so on, to achieve minimal impact, ecologically viable, future communities.

ReNew Town puts forth an innovative vision of performative design and planning for low-carbon sustainable development, and illustrates practicable strategies for balancing environmental systems with urban infrastructure and new housing prototypes. To date, much of the discourse on the design of sustainable communities and ‘eco-cities’ has been premised on using previously undeveloped land. In contrast, this book and the project it showcases focus on the retrofitting and adaptation of an existing environment – a more common problem, given the extent of the world’s already-built infrastructure. Employing a ‘research through design’ model of inquiry, the book focuses on large-scale housing developments – especially those built around the world between the 1960s and the early 1980s – with the aim of understanding how best to reinvent them. At the center of the book is Tama New Town, a planned community outside Tokyo that faces a range of challenges, such as an aging population, the deterioration of homes and buildings, and economic stagnation.

The book begins by outlining a series of principles that structure the ecological and energy goals for the community. It then develops prototypical solutions for designing, building and retrofitting neighborhoods. The intent is that these prototypes could be applied to similar urban conditions around the world. ReNew Town is the product of a collaborative design research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) School of Architecture and Planning, and Japan’s Sekisui House LTD.

Studdert, David. Conceptualizing Community. New York: Palgrave, 2005. An example of an academic exercise which to replace the Cartesian machine and its emphasis on individual or state in favor of cooperative human community. But I wonder by what philosophical stroke could this resolve be appreciated as a phenomenal microcosm of a greater creation.

Tanabe, Makoto, ed. Digital Cities II. Berlin: Springer, 2002. Technical papers explore the transition of urban areas into viable self-organized, autopoietic, semiotic systems by means of electronic communication.

Testa, P., et al. Emergent Design. Environment and Planning B. 28/4, 2001. From MIT, an example of the intentional employ of self-organizing “complex adaptive systems” wherein autonomous individuals are allowed to dialogue and interact so as to create emergent, viable architectures.

Tomlin, Sarah. Harvest of Hope. Nature. 442/22, 2006. A report on progress made in the Millennium Villages project of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Jeffery Sachs, Director. A dozen villages across Africa, in this case one in Rwanda, where chosen to demonstrate how a judicious blend of local initiative coupled with better health, appropriate, sustainable land use, minimum investment, basic education, and so on, could overcome extreme poverty, hunger, and disease. A critical factor is to empower African professionals such as physician Angelina Kanyange and agronomist Donald Ndahiro so they can lend their skills to the valiant effort.

Weisman, Alan. Gaviotas. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1998. On a high plateau in eastern Columbia, a remarkable self-sufficient village has arisen with a medical clinic, indigenous enterprises, renewable energy sources, reforestation, that could serve as a model for emerging peoples.

Wilson, David Sloan. The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. New York: Little, Brown, 2011. In the 1950s and 1960s, leading evolutionary scientists such as Julian Huxley, and especially Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”) endorsed a procession from matter to mind and morality was the standard version going back to William James, Henry Drummond, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, and earlier to Romantic and Greek persuasions. But in the decades since an opposite scheme has taken over. Due to Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, Richard Dawkins at Oxford, and outspoken deniers, any teleological drive, direction, or destiny akin to a “universal gestation” that Darwin actually held to, is rejected. As a result, a dichotomy stands between vast field and laboratory scientific proof of an ancient, sequential continuity from nucleotides to neighborhoods, and such an unwarranted, negative interpretation. Largely unnoticed, it sets up the polarity between an “atheistic” evolution and religious convictions.

David Sloan Wilson is Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is the author of Evolution for Everyone, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and with Elliott Sober Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, indeed a welcome spokesperson for a kinder, truer appreciation. The son of author Sloan Wilson, he writes with an engaging clarity to tell this brave story of trying to organically reinvent and reinvigorate his home city by way of local, convivial, community projects. To set a scene, we introduce Wilson’s contributions to a 21st century evolutionary synthesis. Many of his books and papers, often with colleagues and students, can be found herein. For a recent synopsis, he wrote “Evolution of Selfless Behavior” for The New Scientist (August 6, 2011). Along with biologists John Maynard Smith, Eors Szathmary, Eva Jablonka, Marion Lamb, and a growing number, the temporal course of earth life is now understood to unfold over a sequential, multi-level scale from microbes to cells, modular components and processes, organisms, communities, and linguistic people. A view known as “major evolutionary transitions,” it portends something going on beyond chance mutations.

Another tenet of an inadequate neoDarwinism is its emphasis on competitive behavior, so as to spread one’s own genes. In actuality, a predilection for and prevalence of cooperation is being confirmed, see Cooperative Societies. As the Abstract to DSW’s chapter in Henshilwood (search) makes clear, mutual support and sharing serves the formation and viability of every stripe of animal community. Now Wilson’s special project has been to articulate, defend, and promote its social phase known as “group selection.” Long in dispute and denial, this theory contends that as social assemblies across Metazoa from invertebrates to fish, birds, mammals, primates, and human beings evolve they proceed to form at each nested stage the typical characteristics of an organism. At certain complexities, a modicum of physiology, anatomy, and even cognitive intelligence arises.

Meerkat Manors and successful clans are thus graced with a diverse balance of individual wants and community contributions. As newly accepted, “altruistic” behavior is of advantage for both self and group, and prevails over internal conflict. In strife between bands, the better organized usually triumph. Indeed, the gist of Wilson’s work, this subject volume, and the streets of Binghamton, could be to paraphrase that “Nothing in Culture makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Wilson, David Sloan. This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. New York: Pantheon, 2019. This latest work by the SUNY Binghamton University biological anthropologist is extensively reviewed in Anthropo Opus. A prime recommendation for a better future is a wide spread turn to ecovillage communities.

Wilson, David Sloan and Dag Olav Hessen. Blueprint for the Global Village. Cliodynamics. 5/1, 2015. In this Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, SUNY Binghamton and University of Oslo philosophical biologists advocate the recognition and avail of an independent, natural wisdom that this website tries to document. Life’s embryonic evolution can now be appreciated as a repetition in kind at each nested scale of a mutually beneficial reciprocity between individual members and coherent groups. The social and environmental viability of Norway due to smaller villages within larger assemblies is given as a prime example, as the quote explains See also Wilson’s new 2015 book Does Altruism Exist? (Yale University Press).

In this essay, we have sketched a surprisingly simple solution to the apparent conflict between self-interest and mutual benefits at all hierarchical levels. We are suggesting that the social dynamics that take place naturally and spontaneously in villages can be scaled up to prevent the ethical transgressions that routinely take place at a large scale. Why is such a simple solution not more widely known and discussed? Although we immediately realize this solution when it comes to cell-organism relationships or individuals within villages, we do not realize that the same principles also hold for companies or nations. One reason is because of an alternative narrative that pretends that the only social responsibility of a company is to maximize its bottom line. Free markets will ensure that society benefits as a result. This narrative makes it seem reasonable to eliminate social controls—precisely the opposite of what needs to be done. Governments have been under the spell of this narrative for nearly 50 years despite a flimsy scientific foundation and ample evidence for its harmful effects. We can break the spell of the old narrative by noting something that will appear utterly obvious in retrospect: The unregulated pursuit of self-interest is cancerous at all scales. To create a global village, we must look to real villages. (130)

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