Looking down on Earth’s surface from an airplane, whether by day or night, our cities look remarkably like cells—nucleated cells, with their obvious nuclear ‘downtown’ hubs, scattered smaller concentrations of buildings like cell organelles, flowing transport systems, extensions into the surround like the pseudopods of amoebae.
This has struck me again and again in flying around Earth as an evolution biologist and futurist seeking answers to our big questions on whence we came and where we are headed, all the while teaching my evolving take on them. Eventually I realized that cities were indeed living entities in their own right, and now undergoing a rapid evolution comparable to the origins of the nucleated cells they so resemble.
I became an evolution biologist, seeing myself as a deep ‘pastist’ fascinated by how our evolutionary trajectory could help inform my work as a futurist, working to envision the best possibilities for co-creating a future that works for all. The ancient Greeks had defined science as the study of nature for the purpose of seeking guidance in human affairs and had thus named it philos sophias—lover of wisdom, later renamed sciencia by the Romans. That suited me perfectly.
In my university training, however, I was only taught a scientific understanding of biological evolution within the framework of the Darwinian concept of competition among individuals in situations of scarcity. That cooperation within and among groups produced abundance, thereby trumping competitive rivalries in scarcity, seemed obvious to me, but that is only now, well over half a century since my post-doctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, coming seriously into our scientific purvue.
Darwin acknowledged that the theory best fitting the findings of his extensive researches came from his economist friend Malthus. This theory of fierce competition in scarcity was widely adopted and came to inform our very concept of human nature, as well as virtually all our prevailing economic (business and financial) theory and practice.
However obvious cooperation in nature has been to countless people all along, it took the gradual adoption of cellular synthesis and evolutionary group selection, along with the discovery of our wonderfully cooperative gut bacteria—all within science—to publicly acknowledge cooperation as the critical aspect of evolution it always has been.
Cities, unlike nation states whose artificial boundaries have been drawn and then redrawn by conquests or other shifting political decisions, have, unless built all at once by plan, grown naturally from beginnings as small cooperative villages, and their histories have surprising parallels deep in biological evolution.