The May 20th Issue of Science is entitled The Urban Planet. The lead article starts out:
In 2014, 54% of the world’s population, or 3.9 billion people, lived in urban areas. That’s up from one-third in 1950, and forecasters say the proportion will rise to 66% by 2050. More than half of urbanites live in cities of fewer than 1 million people, but there are 28 megacities of more than 10 million.
Of interest to the blog is an article by science writer, Greg Miller entitled The Roots of the Urban Mind. He points out that the classical theory is that material culture, such as pottery, architecture, etc., was the result of the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago and that urbanization simply followed suit. The article is about a theory that has been proposed by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, from the U.K. (Dunbar is well known for correlating the size of primate’s brains to the sizes of their groups.) He claims that the modern human brain is constructed to deal with approximately 150 people in a group.
Very briefly, Dr. Dunbar, along with others, feels that the most stressful problem in modern life is living with strangers. Prior to the agricultural revolution, hunter-gatherers lived in relatively small circles of people, all of whom they knew all their lives. Dunbar and others feel that changes in material culture, notably architecture, happened first, which then enabled much larger groups in the agricultural revolution.
For example, private living spaces appeared with multiple “cues,” such as types of pottery and jewelry, to signal the status of people entering a dwelling. He also feels that the function of religion along with participatory rituals such as singing assisted in the bonding of large groups of people. The originator of this idea is Klaus Schmidt, who is the lead archeologist at T-shaped pillars in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey constructed by hunter gatherers with no traces of habitation. He “argues that the site’s antiquity and the lack of domesticated animal and plant remains is strong circumstantial evidence that symbolism and religion led to agriculture and domestication, not the other way around.”
This theory “frees up” religion and material culture from the vague notion that they were the result of the agricultural revolution, and clears the way for the Blog to step in with answers: Material culture is at least 100,000 years old in the form of shell trade in Africa, and a fundamental tenet of the Blog is that the roots of religion have been at the heart of hominin evolution since the very beginning 6-million years ago. But let’s leave out religion here and focus the cause of material culture in our own species:
The Blog holds that what led to the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species, from our very beginning 200,000 years ago, was the development of motivations for behaviors that are analogous to sexual display, such as birdsong and bright feathers.
Vital to note is that the motivation caused the behaviors, not the other way round
However, unlike birds, in humans this very powerful desire to elicit the admiration of others is not limited to sexual interactions, but it is a global social drive, referred to as vanity in the Bible. And it is not just the display behavior that has evolved in this process. Just like peahens evolved the capacity to select the feathers in that peacock up there to the right, so too has been naturally selected the collective desire and ability of human “audiences” to appreciate and “select” a given individual’s superior displays (art, singing, rhetoric, etc).
The fact is that our species is most characterized by our intense give-and-take-desire for attention from one another:
so the Blog proposes that:
it is the force of this desire that has been behind a relentless process of cohering ourselves together—gradually during the first 100-thousand years at the end of which time there is trade—and then reaching a “critical mass” about 45-thousand years ago when the “explosion” of material culture took place (cave painting, bone carvings, etc.), and finally on through to agriculture and now with urbanization. So this cohering of life into cities is only the most recent act in a far larger drama.
The bigger picture is this:
DNA→bacteria→nucleated cells→multicellular organisms→ agriculture→urbanization
This process is the result of larger, transcendent laws underlying the relentless cohering of life. This was expressed by the great Jesuit priest-paleontologist-geologist Teilhard de Chardin’s law of the sum of evolution’s direction:
attraction → connection → complexity → consciousness