Entertainment » Books

Darwin Comes to Town

by Chris Delatorre
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Mar 7, 2018
Darwin Comes to Town

When Karl Chu said "the future is literally a brave new world," he was hinting at how architecture, with the help of AI and natural ecology, would transform cities and the way we coexist with the natural environment. To Chu, architecture is governed by our changing views of everything around us, what he calls "the genesis of possible worlds." In other words, we're all just another part of an ever-expanding and evolving universe.

An urban ecologist might argue that the first step to understanding this coming paradigm shift is to bridge the gap between the manmade and the natural. In "Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution," we're advised that "with a little evolutionary reasoning, it may be possible to come up with a few guidelines on how urban design may harness the power of evolution to assist in the formation of those ecosystems." Whether or not the word "Anthropocene" means anything to you, the emerging field of urban ecology puts global urbanization into helpful perspective: Cities aren't going anywhere, so it's our job to envision (and build) them as natural environments.

And why not consider human cities as natural? The book begins by comparing humans with ants, something anyone who's seen "A Bug's Life" has done but with an important biological twist. Ants, which are sophisticated "ecosystem engineers," have used their chemical language to function as what Schilthuizen calls a "social immune system," where tribal instincts protect against invaders and drive the development of expansive underground cities, causing whole ecosystems around them to adapt.

As it turns out, humans aren't so different. Understanding how the natural world has adapted (and continues to adapt) to urban sprawl would no doubt allow urban planners to design our cities more responsibly and inclusive to all biological life.

The main problem with imagining cities of the future is that most of us can't make the connection between computation and "genetic architecture" (manmade structures that can think with their surroundings, and essentially build themselves). "Darwin Comes to Town" is a step toward understanding this emerging relationship, where we see the true nature of nature - the ability to thrive against all odds. Whether it's moths turning the color of soot during the industrial revolution, or birds learning to sing above the chatter of urban traffic, or fish reconstructing their bodies to withstand the toxic environments of urban waterways, there are signs of optimism in the natural world.

You'll have to finish the book to see if all of this dense urban development has a happy ending. But the science-lover's journey between the covers, with its softly winding prose, history and humor, and commentary that calls for its own Netflix series, will make the suspense well worth it. In the end, "Darwin Comes to Town" is a delightfully engaging look at nature's diplomatic dealings with the otherwise inhospitable spaces we've become so accustomed to.

"Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution"
by Menno Schilthuizen

Chris is a comms geek and brand engineer for science, tech and social good.
He tweets about cities, data and diversity at twitter.com/urbanmolecule.

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