The Human Hive: The Evolution of Cities and the Dawn of the Anthropocene

The Tower of Babel 

Despite the sophistication of Aboriginal society, for a multitude of reasons, not least the barren nature of much of the Australian continent, their culture remained locked in time and tied to the fragile ecology of the outback. Elsewhere, the human superorganism followed the same pattern of data accumulation and networking, but on a larger scale. Beginning around 12,000 years ago, two dramatic and intimately related shifts occurred in human behaviour. One was that humans began settling in cities, mostly around the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean; the second is the emergence of agriculture. There is much debate on which came first, but each could not exist without the other and can be thought of as parts of the same self-organising process, perhaps stretching back to the cave cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic. Most certainly they were not part of an eureka moment and were, instead, the culmination of the long process of human interface with the environment, taken to its logical conclusion.

E.O Wilson describes human camps through most of prehistory as, essentially, nests; rings of people clustered around a fire or hearth which was, at once, an object of mystical significance as well as serving the practical purposes of cooking food to extract more calories. If camps were nests, then these first cities were more akin to hives. The largest and best preserved of the Neolithic cities is the strange underground citadel of Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, which is almost ten thousand years old and, at its height, housed around 10,000 people. However, it is not a city in the modern sense, and comparison to a hive transcends mere metaphor. Çatal Hüyük was a semi-subterranean honeycomb of individual nests that were packed in dense clusters and were entered through the roof. While bees coated their hives with propolis resin, humans did so with plaster. There were no such thing as roads or “blocks”, just an open expanse beneath which humans clustered in their thousands. In this sense, they are unlike any cities that still survive, and represent a strange, proto-city that vanished as soon as technology offered better alternatives. In another, the way they haphazardly cluster together would seem familiar from the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Brazil, or the medieval warrens of London and ancient Rome. Seething, chaotic, organic masses of humanity, out of which structured, organised entities would later crystallise.

From what we can piece together, the lost city of Çatal Hüyük represents a transition between nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures and agricultural, city-based dwellers. Despite language freeing us from proximity, it also set in motion a process of shared group identity and technological advancement that, ironically, led to the consolidation and concentration of human activity, while casting our geographical ‘footprint’ much wider. There is something almost preordained about agriculture in that it was invented independently in 8 locations across the world. While the exact origins in each case are lost to time, the innovation-density feedback loop would made it more likely to be invented as time progressed and more environmental data was harvested. This process has a number of consequences; despite the backbreaking labour that agriculture implied, it also led to a hugely increased food supply and massive population growth and, therefore, hunger for greater resources.

Cities, in the words of philosopher of technology, Kevin Kelly, “seem like machines eating the wilderness” and are “the largest technology we make”. From strange origins in places like Çatal Hüyük, they have evolved into titanic engines of re-organisation that shape our understanding of the world as they simultaneously transform it. And while Kelly might call them ‘technologies’, they also follow patterns of organisation that are distinctly organic, even today. Physicist Geoffrey West wanted to know if Kleiber’s Law – the power law that correlates an animal’s metabolic rate with their mass – also applied to Cities. As science author Stephen Johnson notes;

“The number of gasoline stations, gasoline sales, road surface area, the length of electrical cables: all these factors follow the exact same power law that governs the speed with which energy is expended in biological organisms”

What was most interesting, however, while energy usage was more efficient as the city scaled – as predicted in Kleiber’s Law – the rate at which ideas were generated (as measured by metrics such as patents) followed a different power law, and increased as the cities scaled in size: a pattern that fits with both van Schaik’s primate observations and Powell and Thomas’ social network hypothesis of technological innovation. As Johnson notes; “[a] city that was ten times larger than its neighbour wasn’t ten times more innovative, it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative”. Innovation led to technological advances, that led to a growth in the power of a city or, in later time, networks of cities, until such time as the overall process ground to a halt by reaching agricultural limits, suffering unforeseen environmental catastrophes, being destroyed by rival city-networks, or a combination of all of the above (as is thought to be the case with the Bronze Age Collapse).

It is not possible to find a distinction between the worldviews and the technologies city and city-network societies developed, as the two are self reinforcing and interdependent. The flora, fauna, geography and climate of the local environments carved the thought processes and intellectual frameworks of groups. Through interaction with the environment via the framework of language, new technologies were developed that, in turn, led to new ways to manipulate it. These tools then themselves became part of the symbolic environment inhabited by the group, and inspired new metaphors and ways of thinking about the world. This, in turn, gave rise to a new generation of ideas and technologies. This process is akin to the idea of the paradigm shift outlined by Thomas Kuhn, reaching what appear to be meta-stable states for long periods, under which ideas seethe and percolate until they burst through into the mainstream, both developing and aiding technology.

A calendar is a good example of how a technology influences how we think of the world. Developed by correlating certain astral phenomena with seasonal changes as signals for when to sow and harvest crops, through continued ritual behaviour they became overarching psychological models of how to imagine the world. Calendars were developed in all of the eight regions where agriculture was independently developed, and can be thought of as the cognitive technology that allowed and facilitated the manifest technologies of the plough and sickle. In forming so much of the backbone of a society’s conception of the world, they also acted as a framework for other ritual behaviours; seasonal harvest feasts, for instance, that we still celebrate in the modern age under different guises; notably Christmas.

The Mayan calendar – the most sophisticated system developed by any early society – was also used to predict where spiritual realms would intersect with the material realm, opening the door to potential disasters. As such, rituals were performed based on this faulty causality in order to offset this imagined cosmic threat. Today, after being elaborated on, redesigned and reiterated over thousands of years, calendars are so much a part of the cognitive landscape we inhabit that the concept of their invention is invisible. Sunk deep into the collective undermind and taken for granted, they are nevertheless an artifice; a shared cognitive tool on which we construct our shared past and future over the fleeting and hallucinatory Now.

The wheel is another example of how a technology affects our perception of the world. Historian Jacob Bronowski talks of how the wheel, invented around 3600 BCE and eventually ubiquitous across Eurasia and North Africa, led to a ‘rotational’ way of thinking about nature that influenced Euclid’s geocentric ‘epicycle’ explanation of the rotation of the planets. The Mayans, who had agriculture and sophisticated calendars but not wheels (other than in toys) struggled to grasp the motions of the planets, even in the beautiful but flawed manner of Euclid. Indeed, throughout time, technologies of the age have supplied the metaphors with which we both comprehend reality and understand ourselves. During the Enlightenment, we imagined the mind as a mechanical device; today we see it as a computer processor. Our collective imagination is inseparable from technology.

As the technologies we inhabit become ever more complex, so does it inspire new ways to understand and reorganise the physical universe. The matter that composed the environment we evolved in has over the millennia been reduced to its component elements and used as the raw materials of a New Ecology that now spans 83% of the planet’s surface. The rest is walled off in porous reserves, where the dominant life forms of the last epoch are picked off by corporations, mercenaries and desperate peasants alike. The species absorbed into the New Ecology; dogs, cattle and crops, have had their evolutionary destiny hijacked by the new system. Globally, the combined amount of biomass that constitutes humans and their domesticated life forms is now in the region of 3 billion tonnes. Compare this to one of the bedrocks of the ocean ecology; krill, which number a mere 379 million tonnes.

Those not consciously incorporated into the process or driven to oblivion have filled the evolutionary vacuums and fed from the abundant waste and surplus of the New Ecology, such as Rats, Pigeon and Cockroaches. Chemical waste, such as CO2, has raised the average temperate of the planet to invoke changes to the biosphere we have yet to fully comprehend.

This titanic reordering of the physical world at which we find ourselves at the epicentre has occurred just 50,000 years since we evolved language, and 10,000 years since we founded the first cities. The process of urbanisation, pioneered by our remote ancestors in Çatal Hüyük, is ongoing and accelerating. In 1912, 10% of the global population lived in cities, now it is over 50% and growing, with 19 cities now boasting over 10 million inhabitants. With the feedback loop of concentration and innovation growing exponentially, and our understanding of our impact on the Environment comes I to sharper focus; our solution will be to save the Old Ecology by incorporating in into the New Ecology. Whatever process we began in the dank catacombs of Çatal Hüyük, is far from complete.