Sunday, April 19, 2015

Skyscrapers Evolved: Inorganic Evolution in Human Innovation

Skyscrapers are a perfect case-study of memetic evolution within the realm of technology.  To achieve these modern marvels, advances in steel manufacture, concrete pouring and glass  production were necessary.  Engineering and construction techniques had to be refined, including the use of blueprints and cost analysis.  As towers rose higher, they contended with intense wind.   This environmental pressure shaped their foundations and internal structures, much as the trunks and root systems of hardwood trees (instead of small shrubs) are shaped by wind intensity.

Large buildings also developed a challenge common to larger animals, the struggle to regulate internal temperatures. This was solved by borrowing technology first developed for food preservation (refrigeration) to cool air.  With the repurposing of refrigeration we see another aspect of evolution at play--the adaptation of one innovation to solve a different problem or fill a different niche in a changing environment.  

Skyscrapers are like the human eye or cell structures: intricate and impressive.  But unlike examples of evolution in the natural world, we cannot ascribe their origin to a mythic, instantaneous event.  We know they rose over time in locations determined by economic, environmental and cultural factors.  They were assembled by adapting previous technologies and new innovations to a new demand.  Not assembled by perfect & omnimpotent inteligence, they are instead a conglomeration of human products and resources...exceedingly well adapted and ever more efficient, yet displaying the quirks and flaws instilled by economic constraints, not always adhering to our idealized visions of what they could be.

Our buildings are still at the mercy of their environmental contexts, as the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and numerous other disasters attest.  These events not only have consequences on the personal, social and ecological levels, they shape the memetic evolution of archetectural technologies.  Buildings are being constructed to withstand the impact of terror attacks as well as earthquakes--they are adapting to environmental pressures.  That we are driven to cooperate in this evolution through our own economic and emotional motivations is an ancillary matter. 

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