A real city will ban lawn mowers. They are not only a waste of time and resources, but they represent so much that's so awful about the middle-class frame of mind, which is directed at every point by a notion of respectability that has no other function than its signification to others who are of the same class. One does not love a mowed lawn for itself; one instead loves to see others can see that they have done as others of the same class are expected do: cut the lawn. And this sorry game of appearances, of course, has its roots, like so much of the US's tiresome middle-class culture, in the habits of England's pre-industrial elites.
From Planet Nature:
Closely shorn grass lawns first emerged in 17th century England at the homes of large, wealthy landowners. While sheep were still grazed on many such park-lands, landowners increasingly depended on human labor to tend the grass closest to their homes. Before lawnmowers, only the rich could afford to hire the many hands needed to scythe and weed the grass, so a lawn was a mark of wealth and status.
And there you have it. The main theme to the middle class's story has been an absence of a spine or the imagination to create its own codes or values; instead it takes every opportunity presented by the producers of mass goods (the carriage/car, the manor/single-family home, the servants/kitchen with all manner of appliances) to adopt the most banal customs of the agrarian elite of old. As a result, our cities are stuffed with millions of these useless but stubbornly popular machines that, in many cases, spew global-warming waste into a sky that the directive of endless wealth accumulation has transformed into a sewer.
Now that I've gotten all of that out of the way, I will begin the point of this post, which concerns the biological reason for banning lawn mowers (a tool that only the city should own and use in the interest of the greater good rather than the vapid tastes of the middle class). It is this: Urban gardens need to be left alone to grow. The reason for this is explained in the last chapter of Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, a 2018 book by Dutch biologist Menno Schilthuizen.
But first I must point out that Schilthuizen is a conventional biologist whose subject, the new and world-changing biotic/abotic systems of the city, has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of evolution. What I mean by this is that Schilthuizen, as the title of his book implies, is still committed to a strict Darwinist interpretation of evolution while exploring scientific reports, research, and records of a field—urban synanthropic adaptations—that leave much of Darwinism in the dark. Like so many conventional biologists, Schilthuizen cannot depart from the gene determinism established in the 1930s and 1940s by the synthesis of Charles Darwin's natural selection (which never departed the gradualism of Charles Lyell's geology), and Gregor Mendel's garden genetics.
This serious synthesis, which constituted the air of Schilthuizen biological education, is rendered silly by the speed with which animals and plants evolve in the city. If we are to believe that random mutations that are acted upon by the cold machine of selection, death, are mostly responsible for the terrific pace of urban evolutionary change, then we must conclude that modern biology is no longer a science but a religion.
Schilthuizen, however, knows that there is much more to evolution than natural selection, and even points out that Darwin was so blinded by Lyellian gradualism that he completely missed Industrial melanism when it was right under his nose (or at least in his mailbox). Darwin, writes Schilthuizen, "did not actually believe that natural selection could be observed in real time."
Darwin, one of the greatest European minds of the 19th century, got a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. He also borrowed heavily from the political economy of a pastor, Thomas Malthus, to frame his concept of "survival of the fittest," a term he borrowed from one of the nuttiest Victorians of his times, Herbert Spencer. The pastor and the nutter (both apologists for an economic system that has its roots not in scientific culture but political culture) form the basis of much of the thinking you still find in university textbooks for the main disciplines of biology. And so, in a textbook like Molecular Biology of the Cell, which claims to be the leading cell biology textbook for a quarter of a century, you find a total mess—Lynn Margulis' symbiosis, Ludwig Boltzmann's laws of disorder, Barbara McClintock's natural genetic engineering still in the shadow of these dusty Victorians.
Schilthuizen repeats this confusion in the chapter "But Is It Really Evolution," where he has to admit that strict Darwin evolution cannot be the whole picture. Indeed, it may play even a minor role in the evolution of animals observed in the city.
When having to explain this real possibility (the importance of other mechanisms of biological change, which he calls "weak evolution"), he writes, apologizing to the reader and, of course, biological orthodoxy:
Then there is epigenetics. I apologize for littering this chapter with new terms, but I promise that epigenetics is the last one. It might be an important one. We don’t really know, because epigenetics is still such a new thing in evolutionary research. The meaning of the term “epigenetics” was only cast in scientific stone at a conference in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2008. It denotes a change in some characteristic of an animal or plant that is the result of “changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence.” Now that may sound strange because chromosomes are made of DNA, right? Well, yes and no. Chromosomes contain the DNA, but they are much more: they also contain proteins and other molecules that package the DNA like bubble wrap. And only when the packaging is peeled off to reveal the naked DNA, can a gene do its work. As it turns out, some of this packaging material can be added or removed during an animal or plant’s life to muffle or amplify a gene’s voice, as it were.
What he fears is that letting go of Darwin means surrendering to "rabid creationists." But biology needs to let go of this fear fast. Fear of Christian metaphysics might be doing more harm than good to the field. The safety of Darwinian materialism is producing a confusion in textbooks that's clearly impeding scientific progress.
But, back to those blasted lawn mowers. The reason why we should let gardens grow wild is explained in part in this almost interesting passage by Schilthuizen, which describes one of his four guidelines for "how to harness the power of evolution to assist in the evolutionary maturation of those urban ecosystems":
Let it grow. We humans are incorrigible gardeners. We want to plant, to weed, and to arrange. And green urban design is no different... [But we should] let the green spaces assemble naturally from species growing abundantly elsewhere in the city. This would entail not planting anything, perhaps not even adding soil, but simply leaving the beds empty [and lawns free] and letting the urban ecosystem colonize it under its own steam.
The passage could have said much more about why lawn mowers are bad, but Darwin held it back.