Co-evolution of our Bodies, Brains and both natural and constructed Environments – Deeper meanings to “As we build so shall we live”

by Richard Register, President, Ecocity Builders

We are all in it together: we, our fellow travelers on this circling planet, the plants and animals, the very minerals and laws of nature in a constant dance of emergence and entropy, sometimes called evolution.

“As we build so shall we live” has been something of a mantra, slogan, directive, even philosophy for me over many long years. I’ve taken it to mean something rather simple, obvious, but, I’ve thought, profoundly important and worth thinking about quite seriously.

The notion is that we shape our constructed environment, and once we do, it locks us by influence and sometimes by force into actions and whole lifestyles that may produce results from wonderfully friendly to awesomely destructive. In our circles many of us see ecologically healthy cities as pretty wonderful, should we ever decide to build them, and the present city designed around cars and cheap energy to be more than a little damaging. We should build the ecocity choice for helping make us as full of life and appreciation of it as possible.

A little more subtly, beyond being either liberated to enjoy nature close in to our happily functioning life sciences-aware cities, towns and villages and beyond benefiting from a healthy environment and a creative, compassionate culture, our cities can deliver the awareness of a very friendly message: Those who designed, built and maintain the cities we live in did their work with love of us the beneficiaries as well as for their own money and hoped-for security. Or not!

In serious commitment to the future such as in building our long-lasting urban infrastructure, we have the opportunity to do it very rightly or wrongly. Or we might mush along somewhere in the middle. Imagine a city designed for cars – do we love them, that is the cars, more than each other? Imagine a city of brazen neon lights flashing, “buy, buy, buy” with no view to hills, water or even stars above in the nighttime haze and glare – do we love the things we can buy more than the gift of life itself and the glory of the heavens? Imagine the city to screw up our climate system and drive species around the globe into extinction while burning up the complex organic chemicals – fossil “fuels” – stored in Earth’s crust instead of carefully marshaling such gifts of past life for the highest uses we can sit down and think of – do we love ever faster, always “more” and impulsive “freedom” more than security and beauty for our children and the offspring of our fellow different species on our home planet, more than at least trying our hand at wisdom rather than whim?

I enjoy studying evolution, trying to learn where we all come from, maybe the better to understand how to get better into the future at whatever seems to make us, as a Yogi I once met called it, healthy, happy, holy. In my usage the “holy” means things done in “reverence for life,” as Christian theologian and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer might also interpret. In my study, among the most insightful books were two: Animal Architects – building and the evolution of intelligence by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould and A Brain for all Seasons – human evolution & abrupt climate change by William H. Calvin.

Brain and building

Gould and Gould trace the growing and ever more complex awareness of living entities from the single celled critters all the way through to us. That’s we who dream, plan and build, consider ourselves to be aware with ever so deep memories, emotions and profound layers of logic and theory, able to experience and appreciate the agony and the ecstasy, the longing for love and desire for life everlasting that we think characterizes our kind of… whatever sort of electro/chemical percolating seems to be pulsing through us, most concentrated in nerve fibers and brains. Is that “us” in there, in the mind, the soul, the total wholeness (from the same Greek root holos, also for “holy”) of the matter and energy we seem to be physically in the product of our parents’ DNA, in the processes of growing and changing, of fully living, of being and doing in awareness, at least partial, whatever awareness really is?

Their conclusion is that the very act of building – tools as well as habitations like nests, hives and buildings – has a powerful effect on our own total evolution. So does simply exploring natural surroundings, though much of those surroundings are themselves changing over time while being effected by lots of whoever we are and whoever the other living actors on Earth’s stage are. In the case of you and I that’s us humans in our stunningly large numbers, affecting everything else in our environment much more than, say, detritus nibbling millipedes or sauntering African lions. They, the Goulds, follow a sequence that I think is very helpful in developing some real understanding.

They start out with the single celled organism. There is something neurologists and practitioners of neuroscience – people who study nerves and the signals that move through them – call Stimulus-Response or S-R reactions. Some string of molecules inside the organism or connecting to the cell wall, by the slow development of genetics producing variations in DNA, happen to be such that a slight electric and chemical change indicates some sort of change in the cell for good or ill, meaning for health or harm of the living cell. This becomes the earliest form of something like nerve tissue. As it actually does evolve into nerve tissue and retains some changes caused by the passage of the “signal,” something like the ghosts of early memory start to form. Of course the string of molecules or nerve tissue also connects with something that helps the cell in some way too, such as connecting with a contracting tissue – think muscle – such that a beneficial squeeze happens and, for example, the cell moves in an advantageous direction, toward food, say, or away from danger. All this is so painfully tiny in action, one would think such evolutionary progress would be next to meaningless. But the meaning, sure enough, does come when the staggering number of years involved sifts for changes to enrich the external and internal environments with ever growing complexity.

Beyond S-R reactions, very simple life forms might bump into a chemical that helps when absorbed. Call such chemicals proto “food” and the ingesting thereof the first effective “eating.” The same organism bumps into other things, probably similar organisms but with some differences, and gets damaged by them, maybe getting a chunk in the skin layer removed for someone else’s paleo-dinner. If nothing inside the cell changes in such a way that the organism can store some chemical/electric record of the stimulus there is nothing that could be considered some sort of interior “neurological map” or “sensory map,” terms the Goulds use more or less interchangeably. The genetic make up of the organism, including its DNA structure, may be such that the organism either accepts that which is good for it’s preservation until time to reproduce, and it either rejects or avoids somehow what it bumps into that is damaging or outright terminating. In the scenario where it somehow selects for the beneficial it may perpetuate its line into the future. If it fails in this its issue goes out of business – or, doesn’t even get started. In Darwin/Wallace terms, that’s one case of your basic “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest,” which is not the most violent and/or powerful, but that which fits into its total environment in such a way as to successfully reproduce and pass it’s DNA on down into the future, ever so slowly mutating thanks to rare cosmic rays and weird occasional chemicals.

The effective non-reaction kind of coasting on the accidents of what DNA has built that works up to reproduction time the Goulds call “Tier O.” Not much “consciousness” there. They call the next step up a rudimentary kind of awareness of some things going on inside and at the skin a “Tier 1” “neurological map” or “sensory map” – they use both terms. Imagine that the string of molecules I mentioned earlier or the nerve tissue that connects a stimulus with a response elsewhere in the living tissue is affected by a change that endures and you have the beginning of memory – I’ve already suggested that. More to the Gould’s point, in that that string of molecules or nerve tissue has a location in the cell or simple organism, it begins to taking on a literal shape in its configuration that records a positional pattern that evolves with ever more definition into something very much like a map – so they call it just that. Say a signal comes in from the left side. The nerve like transmitter of the signal toward a central location or toward a site for some sort of movement leads from where the S was received to where the R is affected. The result is a miniature representation of what’s going on in the larger body. That’s just the way it is with paper maps, or electronic for that matter, that represent a much larger geographic area. In this case we are talking internal geography however. So all this means something of the change caused by some form of stimulation is actually recorded in some way and of rudimentary usefulness. “Tier 0” to repeat has no “map” at all, just floats along as DNA has determined, maybe through many generations past, reacting S-R style.

“Tier 2” indicates there is a record in an internal neurological map of not just the body and skin but of the area outside the organism, now generally multi-cellular, that is, either internal signals or close enough to detect as a “tactile” stimulus. The Goulds also call Tier 2 the tactile tier. They like coming to understanding of their concepts from several directions at once so they also use the term “personal space” for Tier 2. Generally the boundary of Tier 2 is about as far from the body of the creature as the additional width and length of its body. You might call it wiggle room awareness, the beginning of some form of environmental awareness.

The boundary of “Tier 3” moves out into the environment beyond just touch and comes to include what can be received by touch remotely and remembered in the internal map, and what can be seen and heard as those two senses get off to a rocky start.

Interestingly however, the genetics of DNA just keep moving along, satisfied with the evolving internal map but in some ways oblivious to it. In many ways the organism just reacts to the environment and internal stimuli by route patterning that plays out, sensory input be damned. And often quite successfully. When things are happening fast and furious it often pays to react automatically without reference to experience and learning as there might be a brief period during which the organism decides it has to consider a few alternatives before acting – during which time the predator pops it in his or her mouth. Here’s an impressive example of a “motor program” as it is more often called these days, though closer to the time when it was first recognized to exist was called a “fixed-action pattern” by Konrad Lorenz.

Geese and some other ground nesting birds – ah-hah, we are now beginning to get to the built environment… – create a low mound to contain their eggs and male and female generally take turns incubating the eggs by sitting gently down on them with their soft down, utilizing their hotter-than-human body heat. If an egg rolls out of the nest the goose 1.) see the egg where it shouldn’t be at some distance from the rudimentary nest, 2.) gets up and waddles over to it, 3.) places its beak on the far side of the egg, and 4.) the egg rolls back toward the nest and over the slight hill of the nest’s rim by pushing the egg from its far side up the gentle slope of the nest and over and 5.) between the parent goose’s feet. Then the goose, 6.), scrunches down gently to continue warming the egg. The interesting part of the story is this: Once the goose has seen the egg in the wrong place a whole train of actions takes over determined by genetics, the “motor program,” and it goes through the entire sequence meticulously executing steps one through six even if at any point in the process the egg disappears. Experimenters have removed the egg just after first sight of the misplaced egg, and it’s a little spooky to watch every single step repeated with nothing there, finishing with settling down on the invisible egg and looking quite satisfied. Motor program happily completed. My observation, not the Goulds’, is that this may be the origin of dance and symbolism – not bad! Of course we like to see such higher levels of action and meaning of this sort as something only humans could engage in – if you fail to notice the impressive matting displays of countless animals, especially birds. So it goes way back, sometimes physically “actual” and sometimes “ritual” and can be either instinctual or well thought out and planned or both.

One differing example on our way up the Tiers: spiders can spy a target in front of them but have to find a round about path to get to it, say, an insect trapped far away in a complex web. Some species can look at the target, back up, move to one side, up and down and finally through a complex route make it to the morsel for lunch. The spider not only has an internal or “cognitive” map as to the layout of things seen but can make decisions that override the motor programs genetics installed. Here we have an arthropod with a level of neurological development, in this sense, though primitive in terms of when in evolutionary history it evolved, way beyond the “higher,” or at least later to evolve, vertebrate, the goose of our example.

Making cognitive maps that reproduce internal representation of the outside landscapes also apply to making cognitive maps of what animals end up building. Here too they can be produced either strictly by genetic command or by overriding such with giving priority to what is experienced from outside by touch, hearing or sight. Bees do their dance for communicating about where the nectar-soaked and pollen-rich flowers are located through engrained, encoded even, instructions about how to dance, while using an internal map just learned by the last successful foraging mission to manage the content of the instructions exhibited in the dance, communicating to the other bees where to fly for the happy honey hunting grouds.

Pipe wasp mud tubes
These tubes about three inches long, exemplify either “motor programmed” (by genetics) building exclusively, or, if the wasp species can grasp damage somewhere in the tube and fix it, motor programming to start, then a sense that something is wrong or off plan, and, working from such a “plan” in rudimentary memory or pre-programmed, adjust action to repair the damage. The latter represents another level in evolving of awareness encouraged by the activity of building. Source: Animal Architects.

That last example had to do with exploring the outside environment. Regarding altering it in the form of building structures for sheltering various activities of the various organisms in consideration we can see the same rote and “learned,” that is stored in cognitive maps gained from experience in different complex patterns of many animals. One hunting wasp species the Gould’s report, quoting an early researcher named Douglas Spalding writing in 1873, “brings grubs – food that the wasp has never tasted – and deposits them over the egg, ready for the larva she will never see.” That’s strict motor programming. Meantime the same wasp builds a mud tube in which to place the grub and the egg, sheltered from other critters that would eat either or both. That mud tube-building process is irreversible and proceeds quickly and methodically in the same old motor program. If an experimenter breaks off the top of the mud tube, or say a rock bounces down the hill and does the same damage, the wasp doesn’t notice and meticulously finishes the tube and places the grub and the egg under the sun and moon’s light, vulnerable to any insectivorous passerby. But… a wasp of a different species that builds mud tubes for the same protection notices the broken section of the tube and repairs it, responding to different genetic encoding and either setting off on a different motor program after noticing the break or actually accessing a higher level of overriding the motor program with higher priority altering of the structure. What is evident here is that the second species of wasp here noted has an internal map, literally knows what it wants to build and can actually “visualize” it and execute a “plan” based of action on it. This becomes another higher “cognitive Tier” of awareness and mental processing.

The details in all this are really fabulous and go on to the master non-human builders of all by the end of the Goulds’ book. These master builders are the beavers. In the book we learn that certain species, many species, would not survive at all without the shelter of what they build and that building comes from both genetics and learning, sometime called nature and nurture. One thing interesting here though is that beavers are way ahead of humans, modern ones anyway.

I’ve been promoting building towns and parts thereof on “elevated fill” or “artificial hills” for some years now. The Sumerians of the Tigris and Euphrates Valley figured this one out 4,500 years ago and beavers have know all about it for a few million years. But it is only just beginning to reemerge as an alternative for low-lying areas in the world of us humans. I was ignored in New Orleans advocating that solution after Hurricane Katrina. But after Sandy in Highlands, New Jersey the citizens there are finally beginning to take the alternative of raising the flooded section of town seriously thanks to an Environment Commission Member, Steven Szulecki by name. (He is our newest Board of Advisors Member in Ecocity Builders, by the way.)

What do the beavers do? Knowing the seriousness of the problem of water levels they meticulously adjust their dams to exactly the right height that their lodges, accessed by underwater tunnels, are exactly the right height above the water surface so that they and their kits can stay dry between swims. They do this by building their lodges at the right level, elevating them when necessary, for the eventual level of the water behind the dam. And if the dam is holding too much water, they alter it to release more water. If the level of water in the dam goes down exposing their otherwise secret passage to their lodge, they plug up leaks so that the dam can catch more water and raise the surface level. They even build side canals up across the landscape, some of them hundreds of feel long, and stepped with small dams of their own, to regulate the speed of water flow and keep careful control of the volume of water. They thus divert water, draining wet places to augment water behind their dams when higher levels are needed. In winter they alter their dams to let more water drain out to provide an air space under the ice for breathing when they venture out into their reservoirs. I think all this is amazing. Do the young learn from this that we might call care in building? You bet! They have some innate skills that appear to be in-born, but, according to those humans who study them, they also learn by watching and adopting trial and error as well.

Our brains evolving as we build tools and whole environments

Recent evolution chart
This chart is from A Brain for All Seasons and shows the pattern in the last 8 million years of evolution toward my brain that finds it easier to remember charts like this my marking them up.

William Calvin in A Brain for All Seasons – Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change traces evolution way back. There is a divergence from the main line of primate evolution about 8 million years ago when gorillas went off on their path and the ancestors of chimps and humans went off in another direction.

About six million years ago there was what’s called “Pan prior,” the theorized ancestor of chimpanzees and their close relatives the bonobos on one branch and human ancestors on the other branch. Like the gorillas, the chimps and the bonobos stayed in the forest. The other evolutionary branch, ancestors in our line, is known as the bipedal apes meaning the ones on two legs that began to walk about more than swing through the trees, which was kind of like four legged transportation, if in a three-dimensional environment, the mode of the chimp line. They and the bonobos are very closely related, by the way, the latter looking very similar to the former, but with pinker lips, longer hair on the head and parted in the middle. They are noticeably smaller, too. They also are less aggressive than chimps, spend a lot of time sharing sex almost conversationally and, unlike chimpanzees, would never think of warring with next door bonobos, killing and eating them, a practice that unnerved Jane Goodall when she got unpleasantly surprised but much more knowledgeable about chimps. One side of the species got stuck on the north side of the Congo River, the bonobos, and the other on the other on the other side and for 2.5 million years approximately, they slowly diverged – but not much.

Meantime on the other branch variations were greater, and our ancestors were relatively quickly getting larger and better shaped to walk about and throw things. One assumes something was cultivating better vocal chords as our prehensile toes were disappearing while the dexterity of our hands was improving.

We were just above describing six million years ago. Now in the next four million years those walking and maybe talking structures were steadily improving bipedal ape anatomy for our own later human anatomy, but rather suddenly in evolutionary terms things sped up. What happened? Much more rapid climate change as a series of ice ages commenced about 2.5 million years ago. About 20 big freezes developed lasting generally something under 100,000 years each with much warmer spells of 10,000 to 20,000 years between. These relatively sudden changes meant that warm wet environments of dense forests and even swamps and jungles turned into open savannas and woodlands, with much smaller residuals of the really wet warm areas taking up much less room. As glaciers pushed warmer ecological regimes south (the ice ages had much less effect in the southern hemisphere which has only about 1/9 of the Earth’s land area in it, that is, south of the equator) dry areas squeezed wetter acclimatized species into smaller and often divided zones. Like the split between chimps and bonobos by the appearance of an enlarging river, so many species saw their member separated and isolated one ice age to the next.

100,000 years begins to be significant for separated groups to do some significant diversion. The mechanism, though, is interesting. And the resulting period of speciation experimentation and fast changing results played into building tools and eventually buildings and cities. What Calvin points out is that the human brain in this period, the last approximately 2.5 million years, increased in size three times over.

First, he points out the mechanism for speedier speciation. Then he describes the influences that increased brain size and, roughly, complexity and ability to gain the full range of thinking abilities, “cognitive maps,” planning etc. all the way up the “Tiers” of consciousness.

Calvin emphasizes that in large populations, the genetic pool keeps averaging out; when a variation becomes emphasized among a small number of individuals in a particular area, mixing with others generally weakens whatever changes would have evolved. But when the larger population is fragmented by, say, advancing ice or deserts spreading across highlands isolating separate river valleys, something interesting happens. Some groups with shared traits diverging from the species “average” may be isolated and not diluted any more by mixing occasionally with others of the species, now on the other side of the arm of desert. He points out it is like random selection of a jury that turns up all women or all men, rather than a proportion closer to 50/50. Over many generations the new feature gets locked in and when the ice retreats and the climate changes again, the new variants have something advantageous to certain environments and many of them just don’t feel like crossing with the others for who knows how many various reasons.

As to the growth of the human brain, going back to Pan prior something more than the 2.5 million years before both our divergence from the chimps and the coming of the ice ages, our line began using broken stones with sharp edges as tools, or even learned how to break them for such use. Calvin hypothesizes that the evolution of such proto-tools into projectiles called “hand axes,” and their use in hunting, had a great deal to do with the selective pressures favoring brain growth and the development of the many forms of knowing explored by Gould and Gould. These factors all work in concert after receiving from the bipedal 4 million years:

1. The cognitive and creative needs for strategy in effective hunting, a most advantageous adaptation in a world of forests turning to grassland – that means meat eating from the grazers as much of the diet as fruits and vegetation was shrinking back to smaller areas, some going extinct.

2. The habits of sharing, aka appearance and development of altruism within the group, which has a great deal of utility in positive evolutionary selection and also is greatly facilitated by…

3. Development of language.

4. Then there is the making and use of tools for hunting, first the flung rock or stick, then the shaped rock with sharp edges, then the spear, the atal atal (spear accelerated to extra high speed and long range with throwing stick) then bow and arrow.

5. Uses of fire.

The altruism part is especially interesting and most important, remember that the multiple fragmentation of environment by climate change gave maybe just enough time for genetic and cultural adaptations and inventions related to all five factor above to stick. But enough already for a newsletter essay of reasonable length. You can always read the two books I’ve herein referenced, which I most highly recommend.

Emergence happens

I’ll end with a kind of wrap up in the concept of emergence, that “self-organizing” pattern in evolution for which Ilya Pirogine received the Nobel Prize. For those in the tradition of building cities, Tielhard de Chardin and Paolo Soleri loom large, de Charin in exploring the pattern, and Soleri in seeing what cities had to do with evolution, which is basically a description of how emergence works.

I remember in earlier times of my study of such things, back in the 1960s and 1970s say, evolution theory more or less accepted the dominance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, bowing to the mathematicians and physicists, that the universe was headed for a heat death of dispersed everything. Maybe we all felt intimidated and awestruck by their power – they had after all produced the atomic bomb just a few years earlier, which was hard to get out of our heads, living under such a threat.

Well, looking ahead maybe hundreds of billions of years and watching entropy play out might be educational but how about useful in the meantime? It’s a pretty long meantime. After all, evolution creates planets and life while stars burn like crazy cooking up all sorts of heavier elements and it turns out at least 61 elemental particles smaller than atoms all in the mix. Life careens on to ever more diversity and, short of encounters with asteroids and exterminating species like humans, the pattern of new entities is emerging biologically constantly, sometimes gradually and sometimes goosed into action by major climate changes or other events.

Robert B. Laughlin, another Nobel Prize winner, does something interesting in his book A Different Universe – Reinventing Physics for the Bottom Down by, finally, apply emergence to physics itself. Yes, at the “Big Bang” extrapolated as best we can from evidence, it appears most elemental particles, along with time, came into being (that’s a hard one to grasp, but let’s go on anyway – it remains very difficult to even grasp commonly experienced gravity, how what attracts a dropped ball downward also holds the planets, stars and even galaxies in their ever shifting, even hurtling positions). Exactly then as the Second Law kicked in, so also did the emergence of new phenomena begin. Sub atomic particles, mainly the protons, electrons and neutrons, took their positions in hydrogen and helium atoms and according to patterns that there would be no way of expecting by the preceding condition of matter and energy. Before the stars cooked up the heavier elements and exploded their contents into space, there could be no chemistry with the elements uniting and repelling in various ways. Until biological material gathered itself together in organisms, no biology. Until nervous tissue or strings of molecules with analogous function formed up, no interior “cognitive maps” leading outward through “tiers” of various kinds of awareness toward data accumulation, knowledge, planning, creativity, genius and wisdom. All these cases, down to the level explored in physics, says Laughlin, are cases of both physical matter in form and in action through time exemplifying emergence. Do-si-do, emergence and entropy – welcome to evolution and our role in it, inseparable from what we build.

With something of a sign of relief, maybe as early as the 1980s, I began to feel comfortable with the notion that the phenomenon of emergence, something of an ultimate creativity in the universe, exists with exactly the same reality and value for whatever we might think of as normal or healthy evolution, as entropy. I began cooking up an idea that there are “dimensional pairs” that define reality. “Dimensional pairs” are interesting because if they don’t both exist then there’s no such existence at all. Each without the other nothing. Here are some such pairs: time and space, matter and energy, the unique and the universal, among much living matter male and female and likewise entropy and emergence, and much else. This is no news to ancient Oriental thinkers debating the Yin and Yang of reality, but the mathematicians, physicists and astronomers were now joined by the biologically based and more intimately detailed whole systems theorists exploring emergence, which has many parallels with what on the human scale we tend to think of as creativity, the other dimension of which is destructive.

Beaver dams and canal
Beavers have a wide range of built structures for regulating water levels and a rich environment for their lives and work, notably, dams, canals and secret underwater tunnels to their high and dry lodges. From Animal Architects.

So what might all this mean when we start thinking of what we build and its influence upon us? And us upon it and round and round we go and what we build changing “each other” through time.  First, building is tools as well as buildings and the layout and design and operation of whole villages, towns and cities. I didn’t here get into much detail on the likes of the mud nests of cliff swallows up under roaring waterfall ledges, the towering termite mounds, to them as 14,000 foot tall buildings, seven times taller than anything we’ve constructed would be to us, the “motor programmed” shaping of the cells of the bee’s hive, the really specific bracing of the beaver’s supports for his or her dams holding back the water pressure of many acre feet or the effects those built environments might have on not just protecting the security and very lives of those who build such constructed environments. But I have suggested their importance in shaping life’s internal maps and our ability to manipulate such maps into planning tools and the fonts of creativity and perhaps even the self awareness that makes us think we actually exist, consciousness emerged, the idea of self and soul. The leads are all here; as usual the rest is, as I sometimes say at the end of my articles in this newsletter, up to you.

Richard can be reached at

Emergence into existence of heavier elements
Dust and the Helix Nebula, a telescopic photograph from the University of Arizona Steward Observatory. We see here a star at the center and the heavier elements it has thrown out into space in a nova or super nova explosion (not differentiated in the accompanying text).


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