GettyImages-103163925.jpg
Richard Newstead/gettyimages.com

Before there was Charles Darwin, there was French zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). His name is now attached to the idea of "inheritance of acquired characteristics." What this means is that an animal's experiences can be transmitted to its offspring. The classic example of this is a giraffe stretching its neck to reach leaves during his/her life, and this stretching causes the necks of his/her children to be extended. Darwin agreed with Lamark on evolution—species do change over time—but of course, he thought death was the motor of this change, not lived experiences. Slower rabbits are easily eaten, and so slowness is removed from the species' pool of character traits. This is natural selection. It is not a surprise that the cradle of capitalism, England, named this form of evolution "the survival of the fittest."

Sponsored
Tickets for the 14th Annual HUMP! Film Festival On Sale Now!

In the end, natural selection became a theory and Lamarckian inheritance was thrown into the dust bin of 19th century junk science. Natural selection was also reinforced by a monk's (Gregor Mendel) theory of heredity, which was rediscovered and popularized at the beginning of the 20th century. Genes were life's transmitting of and shaping materials. In the books of scientists like Richard Dawkins, they were even given the status of Plato's forms: the realest things out there. Biology was dominated by this kind of thinking, gene determinism, until fairly recently.

Our times, however, are seeing a great transition from Darwin back to Lamarck. The rise of epigenetics has forced science to reconsider the dismissed ideas of the French evolutionist. Darwinism explains a lot of things, but far from all things. The famous example of limits is found in the scientific study of pregnant women who survived the The Dutch Hunger Winter (late 1944 to spring of 1945). It revealed that the experience of the famine was directly transmitted not just to the children of the pregnant women but also their children.The offspring had never experienced hunger, but the memory of their mother's (and some cases grandmother's) long period of hunger significantly shaped their bodies and lives. This is something that could be explained by Lamarckian inheritance (a living machine open to the environment), and not by Darwinian survival (a death machine locked in the body).

But I also think Lamarck can be useful for explaining certain urban phenomena. Remove humans, and what we have is just stuff, a bunch of buildings and roads, cement and rocks, bricks and plate glass, wood and steel. The things made from these materials can be torn down or replaced without much of an impact. The city as a city is just inert. Consider how New York City's former Chief Urban Designer, Alex Washburn, described NYC in an interview with the American Society of Landscape Architects:

I think I would take the point of view of saying a lot of what we do in urban design and infrastructure and the streetscape – what we try to do, is put down a trellis for growth. We could use a natural analogy in the sense that we have to provide the right substrate, the right structure to allow something as glorious and living as a city to grow around us, and grow healthily and well.
The image or analogy is pretty cool, yet there is something inert about this trellis. It is just stuff that can be shaped in one way or another. I want to point to an urbanism that is more than just materials on one side and humans on the other. A beaver's relationship with wood is deeper than just a beaver here and a piece of wood there, the same goes for an ant and dirt. A part of my thinking is leading to niche construction, and another part to Richard Dawkins's extended phenotype, but without those eternal, inert, and god-like genes—the trellis of a city.

A Lamarckian urbanism might explain why, for example, the memory of the former state highway persists and appears to play a role in the high rate of car accidents on Rainier Avenue. Or why the certain spots or spaces appear to be cursed for businesses (check out the northeast section of 12th and Pike Street). And it's not just memories that persist, it's also emotions. Philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel (1899–1990) had a theory that saw abstraction as not only the product of the mind, but of physical conduct. And so abstraction did not just move from inside the head to the outside world but also the other way around. An exchange of money for a good or the exchange of labor (constructing a road or building) for a wage is as abstract as anything you will find in the mind. I propose that the same might be true for emotions. They can be external or exist outside of the body and have a Lamarckian persistence through a city's spaces or materials.

I'm thinking of 23rd and Union. There is an unusually high concentration of negative emotions at this spot that no amount of change or demolition can dispel. The intersection, and its businesses and surrounding area, has long been gentrified. But unlike other gentrified intersections in the Central District—the intersection of 23rd and Madison or 23rd and Cherry or even 23rd and Jackson—the bad mood here only seems to be getting worse. What kind of psycho-geography is this? Why wont these feelings clear? They are as much in the older buildings as the new ones and the ones not yet built. Even now, there is a lot of noise being made about the Portland-based New Seasons Market moving into 23rd and East Union. It has upset BLM activists, old school black nationalists, and a local Rabbi. The black population in the area has collapsed, and those who have survived the process most likely are well to do. Yet the New Season, a grocery that sells expensive food to mostly well-to-do white people, is seen as a sign of what has already happened: gentrification.


The emotions here are strong and feel more external than internal. The persistence of the bad mood on 23rd and East Union must be explained in more than one way. My thinking on the matter, which admittedly is inchoate at this point (I first presented the idea to my Writing the City class last night at Hugo House), is that interesting answers might be generated from a Lamarckian urbanism.