How Humans Came to Construct Their Worlds

Friday, October 11, 2024


To provide a novel perspective on architecture, the meeting opens with a discussion of the construction of bird nests as a model for human construction (of buildings, drawing and language) – a case for this approach has been offered by (Arbib, Fragaszy, Healy, & Stout, 2023).

As distinct from the buildings of termites (interesting though these are), bird nests offer a more apropos point of comparison for human buildings – they are conducted by single vertebrate (or a few) and can be adapted to varied circumstances, with even a small effect of social learning (Healy, 2023; Healy, Tello-Ramos, & Hébert, 2023). However, the basic Bauplan remains species-specific, unlike the creativity of the human architect. 

Since nonhuman primates lack much in the way of flexible vocal control and learning, birdsong has become a powerful model for brain mechanisms of human vocal learning – even though birdsong lacks the syntax and compositional semantics of human language. Similarly, nonhuman primates lack interesting building skills, and so we suggest that bird nest construction may come to play a similar comparative role for architectural design. The static Bauplan of birds can be compared to the near-stasis of human tool use until the end of the Paleolithic, challenging us to assess the changes in human practice that unlocked an increasingly rapid process of cultural evolution.

So-called implicit compositionality assumes that protohumans and humans may come upon a way to construct an object by subtractive construction (as in chipping stones to make tools) and by additive construction (combining pieces to make a useful construct) without a general concept of alternatives. By contrast, explicit compositionality presupposes that humans would have the ability to discuss and evaluate diverse ways to form new constructs. The issue is whether the first emergence of composite tools (Barham, 2013), including development of adhesives, was itself a mark of explicit compositionality, or whether subsequent cultural evolution was required that accompanied the evolution of language from protolanguage. The evidence for the earliest structural use of wood at least 476,000 years ago (Barham et al., 2023) provides a dramatic extension of the time base for this assessment of the emergence of construction.

A key to anthropogeny as expressed in both language and architecture is that of construction – both the mental construction of ideas and the physical construction of tools, habitations, and in due course diverse buildings and, in some cases, towns and cities (Arbib, 2012, 2021). The framework for all this is EvoDevoSocio – the idea that biological evolution yields biological mechanisms for both development and adult function of members of a species, but that social interaction is an important part of that environment, and that in humans cultural evolution has played the crucial role in changing the social, physical and increasingly symbolic and technological environments in which most humans now develop.

This presentation will briefly trace 70000 years of cultural evolution from the ancient crossing from Sunda to Sahul, via the swift continental colonisation during the Ice Age, through the severe impacts on survival during the Last Glacial Maximum,  and the socio-territorial reconfigurations during Holocene sea-level rise. The Australian Aboriginal world had become  characterised by low environmental impact habitation, complex social organisation systems anchored within constructed sacred origin histories, the persistence of relatively simple dwelling types situated within complex settlement sociospatial structures, and a high quality of life for most, with institutional dispute resolution mechanisms to contain conflicts (Memmott, 2022).

Hunting and foraging groups began to use caves as the first base-camps around 500,000 years ago in southwest Asia. From 120,000 years ago, both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals began to bury members of their groups in their base-camps, marking their historical relationship to (and cultural ownership of) repeatedly used places. Burial within the settlement or within the house became in increasingly important feature of the place-making and the making of social memory through the Neolithic period (9600-6000 BCE).

From around 22,000 BCE we can trace a trend toward reduced mobility and seasonal transhumance and, from around 13,000 BCE, permanent settlement. From the beginning of the Neolithic (from 9600 BCE) these first settled communities created and maintained built environments that were designs for social living and arenas for the rituals and ceremonies that sustained resilient communities. The transformed cultural niche was the prime example of “energized crowding”. Over the three and a half millennia of the Neolithic, it supported and facilitated exponential demographic, cultural, technical and economic growth.

The site of Göbekli Tepe is well known as a settlement of the transitional phase in SW-Asia, in which the greater mobility of the Palaeolithic increasingly gave way to the more permanent settlement of the Neolithic. This talk uses the example of Göbekli Tepe to explore the linkage of buildings with ecology, climate, economy, cultural, political, symbolic systems, and creation of networks between dwellings. The central question is to what extent it is possible to understand how people in the Neolithic constructed their world. Based on this, the talk will challenge the regnant hypothesis that Göbekli Tepe served as a central ritual site and meeting place that acted as a driving force for the spread of Neolithization. This provides an important addition to developing a perspective on the precursor forms of habitation for buildings whose architectural remains we can examine today.

The transition from Neolithic villages to early cities marked the greatest social transformation faced by our species before the Industrial Revolution. Our ancestors had to learn how to live in new settlements that had more people, higher densities, and more activities than had been known previously. The new adaptations to urban life involved changes in society and social processes, not just individual learning. Some changes came about through social interactions in a process called energized crowding; these include innovations in housing and the use of space, and the establishment of neighborhoods in cities. Other changes were driven by powerful new institutions, including formal governments and social classes. Cities had both negative effects (crowding, crime, and poverty) and positive outcomes (cities quickly became the generators of economic change and prosperity). I ask whether ancient cities—and they ways they responded to shocks—might hold useful insights for the development of urban adaptations to climate change today. This talk expands on themes from my recent book (Smith 2023).

Every building – from the Parthenon to the Great Mosque of Damascus to a typical Georgian house – was influenced by the energy available to its architects. This talk offers a historical perspective on a topic of great relevance today, the linkage of architecture and energy (Calder, 2021). It thus provides a useful complement to the non-urban perspective on ecology offered by the talk on “The indigenous architecture of Australia.” Architecture has been shaped in every era by our access to energy, from fire to farming to fossil fuels. The talk will discuss a range of buildings of the past fifteen thousand years from Uruk, via Ancient Rome and Victorian Liverpool, to China's booming megacities. 40% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from the construction and running of buildings. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change one important ingredients is to design beautiful but also intelligent buildings, and to retrofit - not demolish - those that remain. A related issue is to understand recent developments that have improved the mortality rate of city dwellers. A crucial role has been played by the development of utilities that provide water, sewage, gas and electricity to the majority of city dwellers. With a nod to the final talk, we may ask what will be the impact of the new digital utilities, including the Internet of Things, on future human well-being.

This talk explores the needs of the poor and homeless around the world, charting the interplay between formal and informal settlements (Stiphany & Ward, 2019; Werthmann, 2021). The key example for this talk will be the favelas of Saõ Paulo in the context of a broader concern with Latin American urbanism and the role of individual initiative, social forces and politics as agencies of urban transformation. Built environments are to be seen not only as technological artifacts but also as providing a spatial politics for transforming where and how vulnerable communities immigrate to cities. Key questions arise concerning the relation of informal housing to the formal infrastructural systems of cities, including access to utilities.

The mass production of steel and ferroconcrete supported the advent of skyscrapers and their role as symbols of progress and advancement in various parts of the world. This evolutionary trend has continued at an unprecedented pace with industrial and technological discoveries and the consequent cultural transformations in people and their habitats within cities and beyond. 

The integration of computers, IoT devices, and artificial intelligence (AI) supports the development of intelligent/smart buildings where specific levels of automation can be tailored to every building type of use and occupancy. This talk will emphasize smart architecture as being based on insights into how buildings may affect human well-being whether or not novel technology is employed. This involves a critical assessment of when and where AI and related technologies should be incorporated into the built environment. A complementary concern is with how AI will affect the way humans see their place in their social and “natural” worlds , when we can no longer see humans as the only possessors of “intelligence.” In particular, we explore how today’s concepts of smart buildings could go hand in hand with an eco-friendly yet human-centered architecture.