Published on Sustainable Cities

Have Humans Evolved to Manage Megacities?

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Ancient cities, like Mohenjodaro in modern-day Pakistan, emerged relatively recently in human history.
Ancient cities, like Mohenjodaro in modern-day Pakistan, emerged relatively recently in human history (photo courtesy of Saqib Qayyum used through a Creative Commons license.)​

The growth of large metropolitan areas around the world has been very recent and very rapid, particularly when measured against the duration of human beings’ existence as a species. For the first 95% of our time on earth, we built no settlements at all. Cities of a million people arose during only the last 1% of homo sapiens’ time on earth, and there are already 500 such cities in the world today.

If we have spent most of our existence as small wandering bands, does that mean we are ill-equipped to manage urban settlements of this vast size? The key to success in our current urban transformation may in fact be the same as the key to mankind’s earliest origins - our ability to cooperate.

A recent special issue of Scientific American magazine on human evolution makes the intriguing argument that what sets human beings apart from other primates, the factor that has accounted for our evolutionary success, is not simply our sheer brainpower, but our ability to use our intelligence to cooperate.

Chimpanzees have as much cognitive ability as human children, but have no ability to intuit the needs of other chimps in ways that can allow them to pool their talents. One of the researchers quoted in the magazine makes the remarkable observation that despite the intelligence of chimpanzees, “[i]t is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.”

The popular view of natural selection is that it encourages ruthless competition and selfishness. What is often missed is that for thousands of generations, various early human-like species competed for resources as groups, and that survival of one group over another depended in part on how well it cooperated internally.

This means that selfishness and cooperation are both deeply-held human instincts, selected for by nature through different mechanisms (which may explain our simultaneous instincts for kindness and cruelty). While the tendency for cooperation may have originally arisen to help one’s own group succeed, once it became an instinct we began to extend it to outsiders and strangers too. What separates modern humans from other intelligent primates, some researchers now believe, may be “[t]he capacity to engage in shared tasks such as hunting large game and building cities.”

Despite our long history of cooperation as groups, it is interesting to consider how recently in human evolution people have exercised that capacity to build cities. Early hominins started using tools some 2.6 million years ago, were cooking and building shelters by 500,000 years ago, and our species homo sapiens emerged 200,000 years ago. The advent of agriculture, which made life as we know it possible, only occurred very recently by comparison: around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age. For the first time, people could settle in one place, and build towns and cities.

The first known cities, like Uruk and Catalhoyuk, were built in modern-day Iraq and Turkey, followed by others in China and in the Indus Valley Civilization of India and Pakistan. These early cities are thought to have reached populations of 50,000 inhabitants by around 2000 BCE, and 100,000 by 1000 BCE.

The first city to reach a million inhabitants was either Rome or Alexandria, around 2000 years ago. Since then, a few different cities have held the title of the largest in the world: Istanbul, Baghdad, various Chinese cities, London in the late 19th century (6 million people), the New York metropolitan area in the early 20th century (10 million) and in recent decades the Tokyo metro area (20 million people in 1965, 30 million in 1985). Today, the Pearl River Delta in China is a vast, multinucleated urbanized region with over 40 million urban inhabitants, more than all of Canada (and more than the entire population of the earth when human settlement first began). 

On an evolutionary time scale, urban settlement has emerged and exploded in the blink of an eye. The population living in ‘megacities’ of over 10 million people is expected to increase by a quarter billion in just the next 15 years. An upcoming World Bank study finds that in East Asia alone, nearly 350 urban areas cross local administrative boundaries. Whether we are able to handle this rapid transformation in living patterns depends partly on the ability of the institutions managing metropolitan areas to cooperate, across local jurisdictions, municipal agencies, and tiers of government.

In the last few years there has been a growing body of research that explores the institutional and financial mechanisms that can help do this, along with international workshops to help share experiences between metro areas around the world. These include regional land use planning, consolidation of municipalities, revenue-sharing agreements, budgetary incentives from national governments, and a range of other approaches, none of which has yet emerged as a universal solution.

For many rapidly-growing metropolitan areas, coordination at this scale remains an insurmountable challenge. Ultimately, if evolutionary psychologists are right, and our ability to cooperate indeed defines us as a species, then that ability will be needed more than ever in our emerging urban era. 

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