Richard Register

Ecocities + Evolution = Best of Emergence

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Written by Richard Register

I’d given a talk to 25 of Rosalia’s friends at the homey big house that serves as headquarters for her FIDAL Foundation. They promote better education for young people there in Ecuador, have several publications and lots of action projects on environmental themes. The location, on one of the many winding steep residential streets of hilly Quito, faces the 15,700 foot Mount Pichincha, from the top of which you can see several of the amazing snow covered volcanoes rising to 19,000 and even over 20,000 feet high, all very close to Quito. A gondola hanging from a cable goes up there, which is where I was the next day – of course.

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Scenes from the Galapagos – composite images from the internet


But that morning after I gave my breakfast talk, an agriculturalist from the Galápagos Islands stood up to explain his work there 600 miles out to sea. I’d just made a point of the connection between evolution and cities, as well as the importance of paying attention to ecology in designing and developing cities. Probably a little over half of my talks feature that discussion. So when José Merlo was standing there elaborating his vertical high-production containers for intensive production of salad greens for an outfit called Chakitra Lab, integrated with organic composting and earthworm culture I was thinking, “The Galápagos… that’s the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of evolution.” For the world of people curious about life in our universe, that’s the most famous place existing on the planet for thinking it all through. If not there, where? There the Earth and biosphere spreads out its chapter on Genesis for all to read in a brazen display of some of evolution’s most audacious of declarations: “This is the way it happened. Read it in the active volcanoes, see the giant tortoises, blue and red footed boobies, marine iguanas, batfish, Darwin’s wake-up-and-notice finches.” The Galápagos, the perfect place for a small and genuinely complete ecocity project, a small ecotown with all the appropriate design features on display, a model for the world. The two “ideas” would be complementary, “synergistic” in magnifying the message of each, together. The people are already pretty well tuned to the valuable nature of nature there, which translates into by far it’s largest fraction of the economy: tourism, and some of it of a serious yet very satisfying and inspiring sort.

I thought back on Pope Francis’ declaration on October 28, 2014 at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science, “We have always believed in evolution,” I read in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Really!” was my surprised and happy reaction. I was destined to remember that into evolutionary time, that is for all practical purposes, forever. And the Big Bang theory the good Pope believed in too. There was no conflict between religion and science there. In both versions we see God’s work succeed, which I thought was important to hold in mind in a Catholic country.

So I suggested it. Why not a small ecotown for the Galapagos that would serve as a model for the arrangement of built environments at all scales around the world? It could fit beautifully into the existing tourism and research work grounded there in several institutions I’d heard about earlier. The assembled were there around the outside of a composite table of about 12 folding tables, in a U shape focusing on the PowerPoint screen, with crisp while table clothes. They were winding up a magnificent main course of local breakfast you might dream of and well into a delicious fruity desert with a nice dollop of ice cream – so of course they were happy and receptive. They had just seen dozens of drawings and photos from around the world hinting at what something like that would be like. Sounds good! Smiles all around. Accidental perfect timing.

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The young Charles Darwin portrait by Ellen Sharples

Rosalia is a past President of Ecuador and had also set me up with three university lectures and a television show she hosts, as well as the breakfast where, for me, the light of a new idea dawned. She sounded supportive, sitting next to me and at the time translating for me, as my Spanish is rudimentary to say the least. In later correspondence she agreed to have her foundation host explorations into that idea and participate personally in future workshops and seminars as needed. José also was enthusiastic too, and so the project is busy being born, with draft funding proposals bounding back and forth in editing as I write and as I engage a crash course in learning about the Galápagos and improving my one-year of high school Spanish, as much of it as remains current anyway.

How do ecocities fit into evolution? Those who have heard the story maybe many several times since the tale has been vintage fare for me since 1965 can skip this paragraph. But for those new to the subject matter, the universe does apparently appear with the Big Bang of Pope Francis, Charles Darwin (implied), Albert Einstein (assisted) and such cosmologists as astronomer Carl Sagan and physicist theorist Stephen Hawking (very specifically explored and stated). The fit is like this: the universe since the beginning has been undergoing a pattern of change from simple and super-large-scale phenomena to the ever more complex and compact. Also, much more strictly organized and activated in intricate chains of cause and effect and networks of cross influence. Unimaginably immense volumes of thin gasses, almost all being hydrogen, by mutual gravitational attraction, coalesced into stars, which fired up their thermonuclear furnaces, cooking up the heavier elements under conditions of intense pressure and searing heat. Countless stars blew up (and many still are blowing up) in supernovas scattering those new elements and all sorts of combinations of elements and complex molecules out into space, leading to that material gathering together to form a second generation of stars (intermingling with a gradually diminishing number of first generation stars) with these new forms of matter gathering into planets, moons, asteroids and comets. The larger of these “heavenly bodies” accreted by mutual gravitational attraction, just like the first stars, as they formed. They were the planets and moons. These more-complex-than-anything-before creations were much smaller than the stars. The Earth for example, is about 1/millionth the size of our sun. On some planets – one at least – life in all its complexity to a degree never before existing, appears at microscopic scale and then some of the supposedly smarter ones (though you wonder by some quirks and turns of politics) evolve consciousness that is yet more complex and miniaturized to the point we know its there mostly by what it does rather than what we can find of it luring somewhere in… our bodies, our selves. (This is a side point on my above snide point about politics but I think we have celebrated our consciousness in our aware evolutionary development in history but neglected our conscience, dividing that off as less important than “practical matters.” So I see as a better description of that last step mentioned in evolution to be the emergence of conscienceness, not just consciousness.)

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Alfred Russell Wallace contemplates Charles Darwin, in Wallace’s later days.

Ecocities, then, are built environments that, like living organisms, are part of an overall cosmic pattern in evolution, being a stage in miniaturization/-complexification as it is working itself out in the changes of the cosmos, the galaxy, the solar system, the planet, the biosphere and ourselves evolving.

The thumbnail description, in these electronic pages familiar to most, would then be compact, very pedestrian-friendly cities at “human scale” and pretty much three-dimensional in form rather than scattered out and dependent on cars, asphalt, concrete, and profligate use of energy to keep us all connected. On the other “ecocity” hand, we could be walking, bicycling and taking transit around town, and mostly rail between towns and cities. Nature has to be respected in those basics, and in relation to sun angles, local precipitation and temperature regimes, soils, local native biology and the whole thing, the whole town or city, running mostly on renewable energy while materials are recycled assiduously and biodiversity and biomass are preserved as a scientific and religious commitment and even sacrament. I like talking about such details as rooftop and terrace gardens and places for socializing, eating and drinking while enjoying the views over farm and wild lands and waters, solar greenhouses for cool climates, breezy shade structures in hot places and bridges connecting buildings. I like talking about such places because I think they’d be a pleasure to live with and in and on top of – and it would all be a long step in harmony with the miniaturization/complexification process of the universe itself evolving.

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Life evolving – according to a post card from the Peabody Museum, Yale University


You might say I’ve been a fan of evolution practically my whole life, probably starting with my little boys’ fascination with all things prehistoric and dinosaur-related at around age five or six. At 21 I met architect/philosopher Paolo Soleri and heard for the first time about the miniaturization/complexification pattern in evolution. He got the idea from Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin, and added to it the observation that cities could tune up to what evolution was hinting at in that pattern of transformation. Cities could become manifestations of just that. Like complex living creatures they could be complex, miniaturized and basically three-dimensional rather than flat (flat being the better to serve cars as sprawl, than serve people well). I got tired of those 32 letters scattered out plus a forward slash. So by 1975 I started using the condensed term “miniplexion,” which I like largely for the unusual and entertaining “x” which also stayed true to its source word. Eleven letters, saving 21 and a forward slash seemed to me a case of less being more, a case of miniaturization in its own right and a well tuned complexification revealed in its meaning at the same time.

I’d read three, maybe four books about Charles Darwin’s life and work, plus his Voyage of the Beagle, and about the same number about Alfred Russell Wallace who independently came up with virtually the same basic thinking as Darwin – they had a joint reading of their papers at the prestigious Linnaean Society of London to introduce their notion of evolution to the world – and submit themselves to the attack of the religious interpretations of the day that wanted to take religious stories literally instead of “the best we can do at this time,” which is, interestingly, the best the sciences can ever do too, and in all cases an honest attitude of high integrity and honor. Why not admit it? (You can see that Pope Francis sees it that way…)

I’ve also read many other versions of the evolution story getting more refined over the years and more recently dug into the thinking of Lynn Margulis. She fits in, in a key way, with her ideas of endosymbiosis. That just means living things getting along together to mutual advantage – symbiosis – such as we see in lichens, which are made up of a plant and a fungus living together “helping each other out.” More specifically the plant is an alga (singular of algae) with its nice green chloroplasts making sugars with sunlight and sharing its product with a fungus that delivers dissolved mineral content to its micro plant partner. “Endo-,” means inside of, though, in addition to being together. With lichen the two are joined and intermingled at their surfaces, not inside one another as a single new entity. Margulis liked to dramatize and humorize the union saying “1+1=1”. (I know “humorize” is not a word – yet.)

Though she wasn’t the first, Margulis refined and defended this concept on the cellular level from the late 1960s on. The notion didn’t really get broad endorsement in the scientific community until the early 2000s and now it’s in all the text books. The idea was that simple cells of earliest evolution on Earth had no nucleuses, mitochondria, chloroplasts or other “organelles” floating about inside their juicy cytoplasm within their cell membranes early on. They got those interior organelles (like tiny organs contributing some particular services to the whole cell) not by mutations of a single line of life evolving, one generation after another, but by a larger cell engulfing a smaller cell, or a smaller cell invading a larger cell, but over hundreds of millions of years, some of them learning to… live together as one living cell. This went on, she ventured to say, for about 3.9 billion years.

Most evolutionists meantime, such as Stephen J. Gould, in his wonderful book Wonderful Life, 1989, went back 550 million years to a geological period called the Cambrian, but not much farther. At that time something happened called the Cambrian Explosion in which enormous numbers of fantastically varied designs for life popped up and replicated about the Earth and were trapped and preserved in various marine mudslides, desert sand dunes, volcanic ash falls and other rare but accumulating traps for future paleontologist to delight over. Most of the ones that would look exotic to us disappeared and those that changed and changed again and again and managed to survive as a long, long line, ended up being the living critters we see all about us today – and many of them going rapidly extinct as I write.

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Paolo Soleri at the favela of Moro Azul during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 1992. photo Richard Register

But most of the evolution theorists didn’t go much further back than 14% of the way to where Lynn Margulis’ action started with cells invading one another and… ultimately actually not just getting along, but becoming one from two sources. “Lateral transfer” of genetic material amounts to another means of change and “origin of species,” in addition to evolution based on what changes managed to survive the mutations Darwin and Wallace were noticing must be happening: “survival of the fittest.”

Thus she said, cyanobacteria, which are also called blue-green algae, invaded or were engulfed by other simple cells to become the chloroplasts of plants using sunlight to produce sugars, starches, cellulose and such, becoming the much more complex plant cells with their chlorophyll. Microscopic forerunners of animals got together too: Her notion was that spirochetes – corkscrew shaped simple cells that wiggled about their environment absorbing chemicals as needed from their medium, pointy at both ends with neither head nor tail – were plentiful among simple single celled life forms similar to today’s thermoplastids. (I don’t know what those are all about either, other than being simple single cells, but Margulis knew.) In one of her favorite pairing-ups she suggested that over the billions of years of sharing space some of the wiggly spirochetes joined up with the other cells and the combo got a “head” and a “tail” and with that had new options as the tail became, that is, the spirochete partner became an “undulapodium” meaning an undulating foot, which when moving propelled the new combo-critter “forward.” Thus she said “living beings gained direction,” along with a head end and tail end. We are talking a couple billion years ago at least.

Lynn… I’ve read so much about her I think of her as if we were on first name basis. It’s also because she was an extraordinarily vital and personable character, dear open-minded friend to countless colleagues and her admiring students, who she’d take slogging through the mud in search of microbes to study, all in the smiling happy spirit that will infect most people just looking at pictures of her you can find on the internet. Lynn said most of the biologists interested in evolution were swept away with the post-Perecambrian larger plants and especially animals. And most microbiologists like herself, were less interested in the ideas of evolution than she was herself. Another reason there was relatively little attention given to life at the bacterial single cell level, in the context of evolution, had to do with the history of the “germ theory of disease.” That is, bacteria were so generally seen for the harmful effects of a small minority among them, that investigation as if they could be “good” were prejudiced, ignored partially for that reason.

As I became ever more interested in evolution it struck me curious that none of the more recent and sophisticated among the evolutionists mentioned much about the “miniplexion” phenomenon, which struck me as extraordinarily important, connecting the whole swath from cosmic beginnings to the leafy, fleshy right now. I’d come to see ecology and evolution as one and the same phenomenon, with its dynamism of natural selection – extinctions creating a world of the survivors – and endosymbiosis also creating, but by adding together to create new life forms. In both cases where the rubber meets the road (with bicycles as well as cars…) evolution and ecology are one and the same thing. But the whole process is looked at in two vastly different time scales. We see ecology operating pretty clearly over the years and decades stretching to a few centuries, but evolution is understood as patterns over many millions to billions of years. If we design cities to relate in healthy ways to the “ecology” of contemporary life forms, and it’s actually one and the same as evolution, shouldn’t we be paying attention to the larger evolutionary lessons too, like the miniplexion pattern that says – Hey! Cars and sprawl are a mess from that perspective. Get with it. Build compact, well-ordered cities, towns and villages “like” complex living – and successfully surviving, thriving – organisms at that.

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Microbiologist Lynn Margulis

Even almost all books on and by Lynn Margulis, and on and by other evolutionists don’t mention the de Chardin and Soleri miniplexion and seem oblivious to what city structure and design have to do with their work on evolution. And I recently ran into some new physic ideas that clarify the miniplexion pattern and enrich it with explorations into “emergence.” So here below is my not complete but I think helpful list of some of the most important evolutionists. I’ll start with Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus. He had something of a bad rep as a larger than life relative who relished a bit too much good, rich food and had too many women who seemed to like him too and thus was a bit disreputable in his world of landed gentry in the late 18th century. His “transmutation” poetry contained an idea that was going around his circles, that species do seem to be changing on the face of things. If you can breed dogs and cattle to such wide variation, couldn’t doing that over a much longer time span give you really different animals? But digging into his ideas freed from his poetry is something of a task. It most have had some influence on his grandson… Though young Charles seemed to be something of a failure when his father sent him to study surgery where the operations of the time without anesthetic were bloody and horrible and he hated it, and the acceptable alternative was becoming a country gentleman preacher, which bored him to the point he’d wander the landscape collecting beetles and hunting with his dog and gun, which interested him much more. There was a base curiosity there, just waiting for an opportunity. That came with the invitation to join as captain’s gentleman companion and assistant on the voyage of the Beagle – and the rest is history, literally. I think his brash, smart, bawdy, happy grandfather’s ideas must have been gestating all the while.


So, my partial list:

Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather) with his “transmutationist” poetry, and no doubt his influence on his grandson,

Alexander von Humboldt, explorer, geographer and first real ecologist,

Charles Darwin, co-founder of the species origins basic theory and popularizer


…Alfred Russell Wallace regarding the competitive part of the theory of evolution,

Vladimir Vernadsky, who very early linked biology to geology as a major builder of the lithosphere (limestone, marble, iron deposits laid down by living organisms) and radically altering the atmosphere and hydrosphere,

Teilhard de Chardin, with his identification and emphasis on “miniaturization/complexification” at the cosmic scale of evolution,

Paolo Soleri, recognizing human’s place in cities miniplexion,

James Lovelock, who gave Vernadsky’s idea a name: Gaia and filled in some gaps in the theory and promoted it pretty well with…

…Lynn Margulis, microbiologist and evolution theorist – and here’s a micro coincidence: her original last name was Alexander, von Humboldt’s first name – and who had the cooperative half of down cold in “endosymbiogenesis, (the origin and evolution of endosymbiosis)

The geneticists and microbiologists who worked out the radiological, chemical and biological origins of mutations – I don’t know if anyone really represents them in a particularly spectacular way – while I see all the above and below as spectacular thinkers.

And finally…


…Robert Laughlin, representing the physicists and mathematicians explaining and expanding on the element of “emergence” in evolution.

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Physicist Robert Laughlin

That terminology is just another way of saying new things and functions emerge without being able to predict them as the universe continues to change. That’s that ongoing second creation the universe seems to be defined by. From the beginnings of sub atomic particles to black holes and dynamics of dark matter and dark energy that the cosmologists cogitate these days with their exotic tools and high math, they could swear new things and processes are coming into existence – but you don’t know what they’ll be, do you Mr. Jones? Laughlin is a Nobel Laureate in physics who in a book called A Different Universe – Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down explores all this, and that’s about the latest development in evolution I know anything about.

Of course I’d say this too: ecocities need their own emergence and where better than in the clear context of an ecotown genuinely complete conceptually by design and buzzing along doing its daily life and spinning out the best of evolutionary theory?

But that’s not what I wanted to end with. That would be Darwin’s interest in earthworms, not unlike José Merlo’s, which is where I started thinking about a project in the Galápagos, while he was talking about worm composting. Darwin loved worms obsessively. In fact most of what he did could be called obsessive. Seven years on worms wasn’t quite as single-minded as the eight years he spent on barnacles, but a good evolutionist of the scientific sort he definitely was. If I could be called one, I’m more the reporter theorist sort picking up on the hard work of the Darwins and Magulises (and maybe therefore skating on thin ice? But since Darwin himself said to Thomas Huxley once, “I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work,” so I won’t worry.)

But worms, Darwin’s worms… Working away he said to himself something like, “no one’s going to be interested in this, but I am. And the massive quanta of data will help convince people evolution makes sense.” He noticed the earth under his feet was fairly seething with worms. He even thought he noticed that over the years it seemed some large rocks were sinking into his back yard field – v e r – r y s l o – l y . Could that really be? So he rolled out some large rocks on his back yard sod, drilled holes through them, drove a steel rod through and down to bedrock and went about his usual business and every so often would see exactly how much the rocks might be sinking. And they were: 2.2 mm a year, or 3/32nds of an inch, or 30/32nds of an inch, which is just a little short of an inch every decade. The worms were churning up the soil and their tunnels slowly collapsing, partially stuffed with new castings, but also largely air down there – “castings” being the worm excrement which is chemically enriched processed soil material itself. Give a hundred years a nice big rock will disappear.

He estimated his free-range worms would be moving 7.5 to 18 tons of soil per acre passing trough their bodies every year, with much of the castings appearing on the surface, their neatly created aeration tunnels slowly collapsing, rocks moving slowly downward.

He labored seven years on worms. Only barnacles bested that record at eight years. But he got his data. He gave this title to his book on worms: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. He was stunned. In short order it had outsold The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species.

As for me, I think an ecotown where we study things like this, where the great tortoises roam free and the marine iguanas swim, would be great.


About the author

Richard Register

Richard Register is an eco-pioneer and founder of Ecocity Builders. He lectures and consults internationally and has authored several books of illustrations and ecocity design principles. Get his latest book, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build online or directly from the author by emailing ecocity (at) igc (dot) org.