- Cities don’t die a natural death
When I was in Belgrade I read, in their official travel guide, that the city has been almost completely destroyed and rebuilt forty-four times. This means that if the chance of not recovering at each event was as unlikely as 5%, now after the forty-fourth time the city would have perished with a chance of 90%. It then occurred to me what kind of super-organism could possibly lose a considerable chunk of its mass and yet survive it so many times (spoiler alert: forests).
Or just look at Rome. It has lived under many different tyrannies, governments and religions, and has survived even paradigms from slavery, feudalism and capitalism. What is that essence that has kept Rome “alive” as long as there was a little flame left to burn
There isn’t anything special about the geographic coordinates of Rome or Belgrade, such that it gives them an exclusive access to some resource and encourages people to rebuild the city over and over from the same location. It takes only a bunch of survivors to rebuild the city from the existing ruins.
All companies die. But cities never die.
Says the physicist Geoffrey West presenting his flagship results. He claims that cities not only save energy per capita, but also create more wealth – also per capita. This leads to a positive feedback loop for growth of the cities that so far seems unprecedented in other super-organisms in nature. [I would be open to exclude forests and corals, but more on this later.]
According to his growth models, cities can be destroyed or wiped out externally, but they, unlike companies, people or animals do not die a natural death; A death that is planned by their nature. There seems to be a double synergistic effect to the growth pattern of the cities. Animals grow by adding building blocks (cells) to their body, but at some point, their exponential growth stops internally, and not due to an external exhaustion of resources. After they grow to a certain size and live up to a certain period, they die a natural and planned death. Companies have similar mathematics, West claims. This doesn’t seem to happen to cities.
2. Super-organisms are “alive“
Now here comes my reading of West’s work, blended with other ideas and some critics.
Just like biological organisms, super-organisms are formed based on smaller elements coming together to benefit from the economy of scale. From the perspective of network science, technological or social networks aren’t different from biological ones, and such similarities could make them in some sense “alive”. Cities, companies, forests (conceivably civilizations, empires, religious institutions, coral colonies, hives, etc.) can all be deemed alive in an objective sense, although not necessarily sentient or conscious, a very different [subjective] story.
Many of these networks have evolved to reach an equilibrium after growth, and the same planed mathematics that accumulates their mass, eventually kills them. They stop growing at a certain point, live up to a rather predictable age and they die a natural death. By doing so – independent of their mechanism of reproduction – they leave room for the new to repeat the cycle. Nature has favoured this code over a countless number of repetitions.
While there are many parallels one can draw between these networks, in one sense cities seem to be an exception. They by design suck up the resources around them with no self-correcting mechanism. At least in our current economic model and since the first human settlements, we have never seen a sudden systemic evacuation of a city or its split to smaller chunks, so they repeat such an organic cycle all over again. The economy of scale gives the cells, citizens, a double edge to accumulate. A city doesn’t seem to ever die under its own weight.
From this perspective, the similarity between cities and biological organisms is preserving energy; that the bigger the organism the less energy is consumed per cell. The difference, however, is that the bigger a city gets, the more it gives its cells, even per capita, a handful of advantages: “money”, “knowledge”, and “power”. Is this superglue unique to cities?
Although just similar to biology such surplus of wealth per capita translates to smaller homes and less stuff in the centre of megacities as opposed to the countryside, still because of the centralized rules of the monetary system the economic power that such wealth creates keeps attracting people to bigger cities, hence the cancerous growth.
We could relate to this effect on an individual and personal level. Those of us living in larger human colonies are closer to the power hubs and although we may live in denser areas with lower energy consumption per head compared to our rural counterparts (due to for example a lower surface to volume ratio), we still create more waste due to our superior economic power. We shop more, commute longer, fly higher, etc. A kidney sell does less of similar stuff compared to a free-floating bacteria. This is the essence that makes our embedding super-organism, city, different from an animal.
3. The superglue in the cities: Creativity and productivity driven by money and language
Let’s look at why people are not only more but also wealthier in big cities. Wages follow the rate of productivity, which is higher per capita in bigger networks. “Stronger input-output linkages, better matching of employees and employers, and invisible but active knowledge spillovers” are believed to increased productivity resulting in higher wages. The so-called “agglomeration” economies shaped in dense areas increase creativity (the number of patents, as well as wages, follow a super-linear fit, fueling the exponential growth of the city. In retrospect, among other tools, the advent of language and the invention of money is the factor that has changed the dynamics of our collective network. Without them, no matter how individually intelligent or creative in problem-solving us humans could get, our creativity wouldn’t be unleashed and our exponential civilization would not manifest on the blue planet.
4. What about forests?
What other networks may also enjoy such a double-edged growth patterns of the cities (super-linear gains at sub-linear cost). Could the exceptionally long lifespan of forests and reefs be related to their cancerous growth patterns, too? And more importantly, what drives this pattern?
Sure, forests and reefs can be killed off or shrink due to external reasons, but just like man-made cities, they are robust in their growth pattern. The main question is that, what is their superglue which brings them together?
In other words, if being in New York City exposes a human to more wealth, knowledge or impact than an isolated tribe, what do individual trees benefit from when they are in a bigger network? What’s in it for individual corals to be in a bigger reef than a small one when they can’t even move?
5. Is forest intelligent?
Also this is far-fetched, I think it could be inferred merely from the physics of the network, considering the emergent properties of a forest, that it is way more than a regular grid. I hypothesize that a forest is not a highly-clusterized network (i.e. having a large “clustering co-efficient”, i.e. to what degree neighbours of a node are connected to each other) but also with other properties of a small-world network.
This quite interestingly implies that without a deep knowledge of ecology or forestry, one could possibly show that trees have a sense of networking, collaboration and communication (likely even symbolic communication with an inventory of signs).
Also, trees have documented track record of “trade”. But do they have a sense of currency, property law, and ownership? Do such concepts necessarily follow the invention of a formal *phonological* language? Those who claim Capitalism is a product of nature, may have gotten something right.
In linguistics, “double-articulation” is known as the most crucial feature that made human language differ from other forms of communication in nature. This is the ability to exploit the combinatorics of dual patterns and is extremely powerful since it makes symbolic computation possible.
It is, however, in my opinion very arrogant and naive of us humans to assume that such phenomenon first evolved with our species. Both rainforests and reefs seem to possess similar network properties (amongst others self-similarity, small-world property and high-clusterization) that I argue could be an infrastructure for a phonological [alphabetic] mind capable of symbolic computation, given a random mutation of dual patterns.
This may be the hidden story behind any of the evolutionary leaps on earth, and not just the last one. And it could mean, with all the seriousness, that rainforests or reefs, as intelligent super-organisms have purposefully invented animals in the same way we invented cars. And for short-term or long-term reasons. I do understand the co-evolution of animals with their ecosystem, but do trees know who invented the automobile?
It’s a testable hypothesis to see if rainforests have evolved, say, their own stock market somewhere down in the ground. I just wonder if like ours it ever crashes once in a while in some million years! A bit more far-fetched than that, the urbanization and the human experiment, us, could be one of those.
Does vegetation have similar properties as urbanization? Do rainforests possess a collective intelligence comparable to that of Silicon Valley, Wall Street or Holley Wood? Are they creative, productive and experimental?
Is this postulate crazy? Nope.
Is it testable? I think so.