Our very consciousness as human beings likely evolved from a continual urge to explore and tinker with the world, contributing to the critical development of our cognitive, emotional and motor skills. The groundwork of human imagination lies in repeatedly investigating a range of possible futures, envisioning, initiating and taking responsibility for one’s endeavours. ‘Our ancestors, like us, took pleasure in various modes of undirected selfexploration, stimulating oneself over and over again and seeing what happened’, comments Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained. ‘Because of the plasticity of the brain, coupled with [our] innate restlessness and curiosity … it is not surprising that we hit upon strategies of self-stimulation or self-manipulation that led to the inculcation of habits and dispositions that radically altered the internal communicative structure of our brains.’ He concludes: ‘These discoveries became part of the culture – memes – that were then made available to all.’10
Our basic faculties derive from the way our species transformed itself through a slow genetic alteration as our forebears responded with ingenuity to a wide range of environmental forces. The response to these forces by our ancestors helped shape what humans are, just as the environments of contemporary cultures act as selective forces that will continue to adapt people – at what may prove a serious cost – to an increasingly technically sophisticated but also lifeless and disembodied world. For now, we retain many attributes inherited from the evolutionary past, including our basic anatomical and physiological characteristics, as well as a primeval impulse to create and confirm ourselves in action.
The human body itself would have never developed on a ground as desolate as the modern world, a terrain so safe and comfortable, but correspondingly flat, mundane and uneventful, that it is crippling in its deprivations. A monotonous topography robs us of any chance to exercise our limber biological endowment, to perform minor miracles of agility as we move through space, innovating through our responses to challenging floors underfoot. Our powers for nimble motion are founded on aeons of daring manoeuvres by our ancestors in the high-canopy rain forests, and then the open woodlands and grassy savannahs of East Africa where Australopithecus roamed, followed by the treks of prehistoric cave dwellers over glaciated landscapes in the Ice Age, all uneven terrains filled with hazards. ‘If man had originally inhabited a world as blankly uniform as a “high-rise” housing development, as featureless as a parking lot, as destitute of life as an automated
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factory’, notes Lewis Mumford in The Myth of the Machine, ‘it is doubtful that he would have had a sufficiently varied experience to retain images, mould language or acquire ideas.’11 While this is aimed at the austere and degrading environments of which Foucault also speaks, the squandering of our basic human traits could be applied as well to the visually stunning and disabling effects of today’s more ostentatious decorating.
Our astonishing ability to scrutinize the world, interpret and improvise among various choices in the terrain, examine and uncover puzzling aspects of spaces around us, is born from millions upon millions of archaic deeds that assisted natural selection at the time the biological identity of Homo sapiens was being formed. Each challenge was slightly different from the next, calling for an inventive response to unexpected problems in the landscape. We are beneficiaries in our genetic codes of the efforts of our ancestors to survey and roam on a changeable landscape whose every point may have been filled with terror and threat, but also sustenance and joy. The marvel that we know as the human condition originated in part from living in a dynamic relationship with a world that was varied enough for people to innovate moment to moment, giving full play to their genetic potential to evolve as adaptors instead of specialists. By slipping back now and then to the untamed conditions of a primal world, we keep in touch with our sources by continually emerging from them.
Much the same point is made by Rene Dubos when writing about the evolutionary origins of human nature. ‘The ability to choose among . possible courses of action may be the most important of all human attributes,’ he writes in So Human an Animal. ‘While every human being is unprecedented, unique and unrepeatable, by virtue of his genetic constitution and past experiences, his environment determines at any given moment which of his physical and mental potentialities are realized in his life . Since the physical and social environment plays such a large role in the exercise of freedom, environments should be designed to provide conditions for enlarging as much as possible the range of choices.’12