Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The "Built Environment" By Any Other Name?

A while back I got into a discussion with a few archaeologists as to what other general terms could be used in place of the phrase "built environment." These particular archaeologists (myself included) subscribe to one of the discipline's multitude of theoretical perspectives known as Darwinian Archaeology - the application of Darwinian theory to the study of the archaeological record.

The core of the discussion focused around the already excepted definitions of terms such as "environment" and "phenotype" in evolutionary theory, and how the use of the term "built environment" could create some confusion in evolutionary studies of the built environment. Personally, I really like this term - its very comprehensive and descriptive - but I do understand other scholars' concerns. What follows below is a summary of my short-lived quest for an alternative term(s), a quest I did not complete. However, I would be interested if anyone wants to comment and make their own suggestions.

The traditional evolutionary definition of phenotype is the manifestation of the genotype as a result of the interaction of the genotype with its surrounding environment (Dawkins 1989:235; Sober 1984:106). The phenotype includes bodily features such as hair and skin, behavior, and the results of behavior that include the manipulation and/or fabrication of individual objects, groups of objects, social systems, etc. (Dunnell 1989; 1995; Dawkins 1982; Leonard and Jones 1987; Michod 1999:139; O’Brien and Holland 1995; O’Brien and Lyman 2000:7; Sober 1984:119).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes may persist over time differently from the individuals or lineages of individuals that use them. Leonard and Jones (1987) point this out in their discussion of the reproductive success of individuals versus the replicative success of items. Replicative success is simply the “differential persistence through time [of certain items]” (Leonard and Jones 1987:214) and does not say anything about the reproductive success of the individuals using those items. This difference is due in part to the fact that the rate of propagation of traits within a population is often more a result of frequency dependence and environmental conditions than individual reproductive success (Madsen et al. 1999:258; Neff 2001:32).

Phenotypic objects such as artifacts or individual attributes can also be classified as both interactors (“epicenter of effects that a collection of replicators has upon the world” – Neff 2001:26) and replicators (some unit of which copies can be made – Neff 2001:26) (Mitchell 1987; Turner et al. 1997:43), due to an issue of scale. For example, attributes of discrete objects may act as replicators, while classes of discrete objects may be classified as interactors (O’Brien and Lyman 2000:383).

The traditional evolutionary definition of environment is where an organism or group of organisms make its/their living; the environment allows access to resources needed by the organism(s) for survival and reproduction (Gould and Gould 1989:36). According to many researchers, this includes both the physical and social environments (Hejl et al. 1997:400-401; Kummer et al. 1997; Lekson 1990:124). However, I believe that Durham (1991) [and others] would argue that there is no social “environment”, only social systems which are phenotypic traits formed by the interaction of genes and culture with the physical environment (culture acting analogous to genes in that both provide a guide for behavior within a given environment).

It seems that the term “environment” is often used loosely in evolutionary studies. This is primarily due to two aspects of evolution. The first is that the phenotype itself, its fitness, and heritability are determined by the interaction of genes/culture with the environment and other phenotypic traits or artifacts (Madsen et al. 1999:257; Michod 1999). The other phenotypic traits (which may include tangible elements such as modified natural objects and constructed artificial objects as well as less tangible entities such as social systems) are often lumped together with the “natural” surroundings under the general term “environment”. The second aspect is that the nature of the environment can change depending on the scale of what is being looked at. For example, Hejl et al. (1997:424-425) states the following: “The environment of genes consists of organisms, that of organisms consists of social systems or the physical surroundings, and that of social systems consists of the genetic constraints of past evolutionary history.”

From the above distinction (and blurring) of phenotype and environment, it would seem that the “built environment" (consisting of both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment), is a potential problematic term. The physical forms of the built environment technically meet the above definition of environment in that they “provide a place where humans make their living by providing access to at least some of the resources needed for survival and reproduction”. However, the built environment should probably be viewed more as phenotypic traits that are the result interactions of genes/culture with the environment as well as players in the development, fitness, and heritability of other phenotypic traits through their interaction with genes/culture and the environment. Therefore, the use of an alternative term in place of “built environment” is perhaps warranted.

Most studies of the built environment, which are also non-evolutionary in nature, tend to either focus on the physical forms themselves, the behavior of the occupants, or the behavior of the designers/builders. Sometimes the studies focus primarily on these phenotypic elements alone, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to the surrounding environment, and sometimes they examine these elements in relation to other phenotypic systems, such as religion (though obviously not from a Darwinian evolutionary perspective). In some ways, many of these studies could be thought of as providing potential specific historical trajectories or solutions in larger evolutionary questions.

Given the above specific description of the built environment as phenotype and the above characterization of non-evolutionary studies of the built environment, I believe that most non-evolutionary scholars of the built environment could at least understand why the built environment should be considered as part of the phenotype from and evolutionary perspective. In fact, John Fitchen, an important scholar of the built environment, wrote the following in his 1986 text on pre-industrial building construction: “Building construction is analogous to animals ‘constructing’ their ‘dwellings’, and in fact has historically drawn upon these examples to help solve various problems” (pp. 22-26).

Given the above background/justification, most non-evolutionary scholars (and certainly Darwinian evolutionary scholars) of the built environment should at least be open to the use of an alternative term. The question then becomes what term to use. I personally do not think that architecture or architectural phenotype are acceptable alternatives to “built environment” (why is the subject of another post, but the jist is that I don't think its as encompassing a term). I have a few terms that I leaning towards: 1) Built Forms per Lawrence and Low 1990; 2) Designed Space; or 3) Constructed Space. This new term would refer to both the physical form and the behavior associated with its design, construction, occupancy, remodel, and demolition/abandonment.

In a future post I may cover more specifically various definitions of the built environment.


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