The Darwinian analogy with the ‘evolution’ of artefacts: its promise and perils

Wed, 2016/11/16
London, UK

It took a very short time, following the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, for Darwin’s theoretical framework to be transposed to the ‘evolution’ of artefacts including buildings. Some of the earliest in this field were the archaeologist General Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and the anthropologist Henry Balfour. They equated the random variations in the forms of organisms that provide the raw material for natural evolution, with slight differences between man-made objects of a given type, produced by hand. They equated heredity in organisms with copying in the handicraft process. And they equated natural selection with the ‘artificial selection’ of designs of artefact that were seen to perform better once put to use.

The analogy was helpful and productive especially in studies of the development of useful tools, and decorative designs. It continued to bear fruit in the work of 20th century archaeologists like David Clarke. But it had its dangers. It implied, in a strict interpretation, that variations in the forms of artefacts were introduced at random. In effect, it removed human foresight and intention from the process; indeed, paradoxically, it removed any role for designers. The consequences can be seen in some uses of evolutionary analogy in theories of architecture and urban design, notably Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form.

Biological analogies can be extremely illuminating for the theory of design and planning. But they need to be handled with great caution.

Philip Steadman is Emeritus Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at the Bartlett School, University College London, and a Senior Research Associate at the UCL Energy Institute. His research interests are in the geometry of buildings and cities, and their use of energy. With colleagues he is currently building a 3D model of the UK building stock, for use in energy analysis. He has published two books on geometry and architecture: The Geometry of Environment (with Lionel March, 1971), and Architectural Morphology (1983). His study of The Evolution of Designs: Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Artswas published in 1979 and republished in an updated edition in 2008. Vermeer’s Camera, his investigation of the Dutch painter’s use of optical aids, came out in 2001. Most recently he has published a book about building types, considered from both historical and geometrical points of view, with the title Building Types and Built Forms (2014).

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salustri's picture

True but unfortunate

It's true that strict adhesion to the claim that product development is analogous to evolution removes the particular capabilities of the human designer from the loop, but that very statement has a couple of pretty flimsy assumptions built into it.

1. Analogies are by definition only partial or abstract similarities. Strict adhesion to an analogy is a strawman argument (or, alternatively, extremely naive). As it happens, Damian Rogers's whole thesis was based on this type of analogy, except he intentionally took into account designerly intent and cognition. Damian's thesis, for those who are interested, is available at

2. It is not necessarily the case that human cognition is that much better than "random" mutations in natural evolution. It should be abundantly clear from the sorry state of human society and the generally crappy products we produce in ever-increasing quantity, that all the wondrous power of the human mind really isn't much to be proud of.

Since humans suck at predicting the future, there's very little we can actually do to influence future events in any significant way. As such, the "human element" doesn't really change much about how products "evolve." Where we are pretty good - better, at least, than nature - is in dealing with mistakes so that they don't happen again. Evolution is littered with millions of species who went extinct and the individuals of which often died slowly and in agony - failed designs by nature - not because nature couldn't predict the future, but because it didn't learn from its own mistakes.

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