Evolution and foresight are not usually considered in the same sentence, except in the area of conscious evolution, but both disciplines consider how things change and what forces shape that change. Classical evolution has long been seen as glacial and thus not especially relevant to humanity’s social, economic, or political dynamics. Darwin believed that natural selection was a very slow, almost imperceptible process, proceeding in evolutionary time. However, recent arguments in The Ecological Theater and the Evolutionary Play by G. Evelyn Hutchinson have stimulated some rethinking on this assumption.
Accordingly, recent studies of ecological change in urban settings, where shifting forces of change are proving more compelling than in the wild, offer a new perspective on utopian dynamics. And the acceleration of 21st century change across a range of measures lends weight to a review of the nature of the perfect society or community.
One long-held assumption in utopian thinking is that, for an ideal social community to be sustainable, it should be isolated from and untouched by broader society. Then strife and uncertainty (the 18th century concept of Sturm und Drang, or storm and stress) did not interrupt the aspiration to perfection that it hoped for. And once that goal is reached, this community remains largely unchanged (even static), as some have depicted the Christian and other heavens.
What if, in the highly dynamic 21st century, a more functional utopian ideal was not merely true harmony and social equity, but also a functional and even robust adaptation to a constantly unfolding future? This evolving discipline of postmodern evolutionary biology seems to offer insights into such a discussion. The developing concept of human-induced rapid evolutionary change (HIREC) is a very interesting one here, especially in a 21st century global setting, where urban living is becoming the norm.
Accelerated evolutionary (often genetic) adaptation to urban environments can occur through either anagensis (change within a single species) or speciation (the splitting of one linage into more than one). Not many recent speciations have been found, but one interesting example of anagensis, from Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen, is a small bottom fish found on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard that has genetically adapted to survive industrial pollution, including PCBs. Another involves one type of mosquito, which after centuries of broad-based feeding habits, is now found only in the London Underground system, genetically adapted to prey solely on humans. These are changes occurring in human time in response to distinct environmental forces and suggest what functionally adaptive, intentional social groups might need to consider.
But to imply that utopian endeavors should also consider adaptability does not mean that their aspirational nature should fall by the wayside. Foresight in general needs to understand system dynamics in order to have practical utility. How change occurs, what factors are involved, how existing conditions shape incoming trends, and, most importantly, how human factors will shape change are all critical questions. While new technologies are part of these incoming trends, the future is largely driven by people dynamics and how they behave in groups, cultures, and nations. Since utopian endeavors are basically about groups of people, their psychology, mores, and beliefs are critical to understanding how (or whether) they will adapt to change.
While some scientific utopians, especially those anchored in Silicon Valley and its global culture, have considered moving to Mars or building island nations to avoid non-utopian interference with their aspirational goals, this seems unlikely to offer long-term success. The outside pollution from global communications technology alone would be a factor even on Mars. And if such a community were successfully sealed off, its dynamic health would likely suffer, as would its political stability. In contrast, one promising possibility might be the more flexible digital utopian community, connected by evolving virtual reality and holographic conferencing technologies.
Like classic evolution studies, many utopian discussions have proceeded along at a macro level, including many 21st century scientific utopian proposals. These were often aspirational versus pragmatic, unwisely ignoring the dynamics of both internal and external systems. Likewise, evolutionary thinking has long ignored the appearance of apparently accelerated (one hundred years or even one hundred generations) evolutionary transformations.
Accordingly, it seems appropriate to look at more episodic data to inform utopian thinking, even outside the urban setting. Almost a decade ago, I spoke to an organization of vice-president-level corporate communications officers in Philadelphia about communications futures. But when the Q&A period arrived, their concerns were not focused on broad professional issues, but instead on an item from my introduction: I had mentioned that I was retiring soon to an island in Puget Sound.
In the flurry of questions that arose from the floor, the common theme was what did I know (as a foresight specialist) about the coming “End Times,” since I appeared to be preparing for them. Was an island safer through its isolation? What about West Coast earthquakes? Had industrial pollution taken its toll there as well? And so on, leaving me to feel that I was speaking to a gathering of “Preppers.” I answered those questions in as detailed a manner as possible, including that I was not personally aware of any specific approaching catastrophe (having completely missed the possible Trump election). But now, it seems to me that the audience back then was engaging in a type of utopian thinking.
The question, “How can we be safe?” can be seen as a search for communities that would be safer, less stressful, more resilient and humane. It was of a much more immediate scale than “What is the perfect society?” or “What is the ideal life?” and focused more on “What does an individual want their future life to be, and what steps can they take to reach aspirational goals?”
Around this time, I was also becoming aware that my personal choice of a future residence did in fact display what I would term utopian thinking. As a result of the community’s relative isolation, a range of proactive nonprofits had arisen over time to fill in safety-net gaps, including food services, farmers markets, transportation, mental-health counseling, and elder support. Accordingly, the presence of communal communities; high social congeniality; graphic, fiber, and dramatic arts; and even lower crime rates indicated a culture that I would term resilient and even robust in nature. And this brings me to another aspect of utopian thinking, that of intentionality.
Another aspect of island life here is the unusual number of land trust parcels (now over 9,000 acres) that have been created over the years as a counterforce to development and urbanization. This intentional action, the end result of significant legal battles, lies at the center of what many hope foresight can be: aspirational, forward thinking resulting in effective action for a better future. It should also be noted that an island-scale political and social system works at a level of greater manageability (sometime termed a human scale) than a large urban setting might (bypassing a longer discussion of the “smart city” concept). Also evident in a smaller setting is a significant number of intentional cooperative residential groups that have arisen over the years.
While those questions back in Philadelphia expressed individual concerns, these local actions do seem to reflect some degree of the cultural isolation long felt to be essential to the crafting of any utopian undertaking. A history of self-help on a more isolated island community displays the meeting of articulated problems with community-scaled problem solving, outside of conventional political structures, and raises the question of whether utopian undertakings are underway all around us, as part of the human endeavor.
While this discussion began with how the enhanced environmental pressures of urban areas may have accelerated the rate of change in evolutionary terms, it appears have come full circle to nonurban settings. However, the most interesting part of this journey may be a shift from “what if” to “what is” and whether social problem solving now underway in nonurban settings may also offer new approaches to urban utopian thinking and what that might mean for forward thinking in general. At this point, I have no answers, but I would welcome any thoughts or observations. In Voltaire’s vision in Candide of cultivating one’s garden, each garden seeds the one next door.
In closing, I would offer the thoughts of W.H. Auden, from the “Vespers” section of his poem Horae Canonicae, where he contrasts the Arcadian, “whose favorite daydream is of Eden,” with the Utopian, “whose favorite daydream is of New Jerusalem.” Eden is a past world in which the contradictions of the present world have not yet arisen, while New Jerusalem is a future world in which they have at last been resolved. While this bipolar model seems simplistic, it also suggests that the modern world is a complex place, and getting more so daily.
Adam Gopnik, “What Can We Learn from Utopians of the Past?” The New Yorker (July 30, 2018).
David Quammen, “The Concrete Jungle,” New York Review of Books (November 8, 2018). [review of Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen. Picador, 2018.
Michael Robertson, The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy. Princeton University Press, 2018.
Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. and former president of the World Future Society (2004-2014). Contact him at email@example.com.