# THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 38 /// Natura Non Facit Saltum: On the concept of Adaptation by Annick Labeca


OYSTER- TECTURE | © SCAPE Studio, 2010

Today’s guest writer is Annick Labeca, polyglot (!), editor of Urban Lab Global Cities, and great follower of the Funambulist. In this text entitled Natura Non Facit Saltum (Nature does not make leap), she explores the principle of adaptation through various discipline to finish with architecture.

The Funambulist Papers 38 /// Natura Non Facit Saltum: On the concept of Adaptation

by Annick Labeca

Several weeks ago, I was passively listening to a French radio, an evening economic programme in which two economists were polemically discussing France’s economic situation in times of economic crisis. As this discussion, as usual, smoothly shifted into a very cacophonie (in French in the text), my interest for this programme faded away…, when an unexpected comment came to my notice: one economist admitted that, in a period of economic depletion, when future is uncertain, we are forced to adapt to pressing issues. Yet adaptation being a short-term solution in contrast with resilience, we consequently have to redefine our economic model.

I shall be introducing with a definition of adaptation. While being disputed in the biological field, I shall propose a common definition from the biology side. In evolutionary biology, adaptation is defined as a trait, a process of the continuous adjustment of a system to its environments. Adaptation, then, contributes to the fitness and survival of individuals or organisms[1]. Environment, thus, is defined as a dynamic performative micro and macro milieus, which, in turn, together generate an ecosystem, a non-linear interrelationship of environmental topographical and structural intensities, and human and nonhuman activities. In few words, environment is made of stimuli that impact its components which, in turn, are forced to fit with these changes,… or go extinct. Human being, as an individual, is able to respond to environmental changes with socio-cultural physiological growth adjustments.

Biology is, evidently, not the only field that explores the concept of adaptation. Discussion on adaptation recently increased in social, economic, political, environmental, architectural-urban fields. In anthropology, adaptation has been coined by anthropologist and cultural ecologist Julian Steward, who employed the concept of “cultural adaptation” to examine the adjustment of “cultural cores”[2] to the natural environment through “survival” activities. Adaptation is commonly defined as patterns of behavior that enable a culture to respond to its surroundings. Consider human adaptations: the case of H. neanderthalisensis’ extinction as unable to adapt to environmental change. By contrast, H. sapiens’ adaptive capacity — physiological features[3] — allowed sapiens to evolve from environmental disturbance[4].

Adaptation is becoming implicit in a part of the architectural field. Morphogenetic design investigates the discipline of biology — evolutionary biology, genetics, synthetic life research, developmental biology —, borrowing its vocabulary such as adaptation, differentiation, cell growth, self-organization, mutation, emergence, so on. The introduction of biological field allows a shifting spatial paradigm and advanced sustainability that connect material systems with environmental stress, the resulting provisions and opportunities for inhabitants[5]. A part of research in morphogenetic design focuses on how an individual or organism responds, then adapts to environmental input. When a habitat is affected, three main consequences appear that will impact its population: habitat tracking, genetic change or extinction. By exploring adaptation of individuals or organisms to their environment, morphogenetic design explores different ways of strategizing morphological and ecological behaviors reliant on an evolutionary design process[6].

Adaptation is plastic; it enables change of an individual’s form in response to environmental conditions. It is also performative and multivalent; it is capable of absorbing, transforming, differentiating and exchanging external information with its environments to create complex, interrelated, self-reliant systems maintained by feedback loops at any scale: local (internal) and global (external). The evolutionary biology side provides a good example. Arne Hendriks, editor of the blog An Incredible Shrinking Man, quoted a research of Baldo Marinovic and Mark Mangel, titled “Krill can shrink as an ecological adaptation to temporarily unfavourable environments”[7]. Krill (Euphausia Pacifica) can be found throughout the north-east Pacific and is an important species in coastal-upwelling systems. The authors point out that Krill can’t afford rising ocean temperature that affects its metabolic cost through feeding. As a consequence, Krill progressively adjusts its size to support its higher energy needs[8]. Krill’s size adjustment, precisely its shrinkage, is used as a mechanism in response to ecological conditions including food, rising sea temperature, size and reproductive status[9]. But, Marinovic and Mangel point out that if shrinkage is formed as a mechanism, it, yet, would negatively impact the ecosystem as it “would cause total biomass to decrease, thus reducing the amount available to all krill predators.[10]

Be that as it may, given the vulnerability of its habitat to rising ocean temperature, Krill demonstrates adaptive capacities. This mechanism calls for two concepts closely linked with adaptation: Adaptive capacity and Vulnerability. Adaptive capacity, first, is analogous to a set of concepts: adaptability, coping ability, management capacity, stability, robustness, flexibility, softness, feedback loops, and resilience. Vulnerability is a function of the exposure and sensitivity of any system individual to address, absorb, transform, adapt or calibrate the impacts of external conditions[11]. Allow me for going back to human adaptations. As issues are increasingly pressing, a question is raised about human ability to adapt to climate change. Some researchers attest that as temperature rises, human shrinkage may be a tactic as response to multiple stressors. According to Philip Gingering of the University of Michigan:

[W]e’re going to be walking around 3 feet tall if we keep going the way we’re going. Maybe that’s not all bad and if that’s the worst it gets, it will be fine. You can either adapt, or you go extinct, or you can move, and there’s not a lot of place to move anymore, so I think it’s a matter of adaptation and becoming smaller[12].

Providing human being shrinks, what would happen to its habitat? How can the architectural-urban field address these changing issues? Numerous observers have alerted us about the urgent task to redefining our approach to building, from material systems to fabrication, from buildings to infrastructure, as current infrastructure and approach to building are too obsolete, inert to face changing conditions. Consider infrastructure. Unpreparedness will be becoming critical. As Doctor Rachel Armstrong wrote, “the infrastructure of today’s cities follows — rather than anticipates — the needs of its dynamic population.[13]” Rachel Armstrong has recently published a book titled Living Architecture in which she reminds us the importance of rethinking our approach to building, yet with a material shift. Namely: materials based on protocells, or a self-assembling chemical structure, enclosed by a membrane that carries out some life activities, such as growth and division[14]. Put it in a simpler way: Armstrong promotes an infrastructural model of the future — as well as buildings — made up of performative, soft living structures. A responsive self-sufficient soft infrastructure with adaptive capacities.

The hurricanes Irene (2011), Sandy (2012), and the Cyclone Xynthia (2010), that hit respectively the Caribbean, East Coast of the United States, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States, and Western Europe, have reminded us fragility of landscape in face of man-made pressures. These events revealed that coastline areas necessitate a specific approach to building. Far beyond this dispute about whether or not these hurricanes are manmade — namely the result of interaction of climate change and human activities —, architects and landscape architects put a raw light on the vulnerability of coastal landscapes to repetitive human activities. As mentioned, these post-industrial coastal sites necessitate a specific language to make them become more responsive, adaptable to pressing issues.

Adaptive design promotes the integration of soft[15], adaptive structures that allow for re-articulating sites from disturbance as well as the management of human-ecological interactions[16]. SCAPE Studio showcased a research named Oyster-Tecture in the framework of an exhibition at MoMA in 2010[17]. This project addresses consequences of the growing issue of rising sea level and temperature. SCAPE, founded by Kate Orff, uses oyster culture to mitigate issues of water quality, rising tides, and community-based development around Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Gowanus Canal. Oysters, according to Kate Orff, are able to reduce the effects of surging storms; they act as “nature’s wave attenuators” or natural water filters: “a single one can clean up to 50 gallons of water a day.[18]” The creation of an armature for oyster and marine life allows for maintenance for this flood problematic zone creating a soft and adaptive infrastructural system. This project of Oyster-Tecture leverages the adaptive capacity of soft structures in order to remediate an existing landscape.

Adaptation can be associated with a behavior of defense against environmental, social, economic, political or, even, architectural-urban factors which we call “survival”[19], as Gregory Bateson wrote, or, to put it simply, “resistance.” As mentioned earlier in this paper, adaptation is reflective of a question of scale. I mentioned local adjustments to interacting sets of climate and nonclimate changes, such as growing drought, flooding, natural disasters. To this list I add: economic liberalization, conflict, urban migration, biodiversity loss, population expansion, non- or limited access to basic facilities and infrastructure, water quality, with impact on regional, then global scales. Observers argue that affected localized systems — neighborhood, city, natural landscape, ocean — as we have seen with Krill’s ecological shrinkage — will have strong effects on a global system. If an ecological system is impacted by given change, this, thus, will profoundly, impact its components — human and nonhuman habitats. Designers Liam Young and Kate Davies of Unknown Fields Division with a team of students, researchers, editors, architects, designers, filmmakers, and urban explorers, explored the site of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 2011. This site is abandoned since April 1986 due to a nuclear explosion from the reactor number four of the nearby VI Lenin nuclear power plant. This site is also best known as exclusion zone including the town of Chernobyl, and 74 villages. Unknown Fields Division surveyed irradiated landscape of the site. While being an example of ‘guilty’ landscapes, this exclusion site, however, seems to stabilize itself. Biodiversity has increased in the following years after the disaster. Wildlife occupies the site — flora and fauna, birds, storks, wolves, beavers, or eagles. The team found pocket of illegal re-settlers with daily activities[20].

Another form of adaptation is socio-economic-architectural-urban adaptation. A composite word that reflects a multiple effects: population expansion, urbanization or de-urbanization, conflict, economic growth, then, climate change. With a series of consequences: housing shortage, water and air pollution, decreased natural lands, disease, biodiversity loss, urban migration, energy, so on. Informal settlements are a good example of adaptation to socio-economic stressors. A large number of essays, lectures, and architectural projects have showed impact of these variables on population. What is interesting here is the residents’ ability to absorb, then instrumentalize these critical spaces into forces. As Pier Vittorio Aureli, Maria Giudici and Platon Issaias noted, informality can also promote a way to stimulate participation from the inhabitants themselves in building their own environments[21]. In this context, adaptation to a web of constraints by implementing do-it-yourself laws, reciprocal agreements, create a space within space.

I would posit that adaptation is bottom-up as it promotes more horizontality. It is also tactic[22]. The plasticity of tactic is similar to that of adaptation; it uses adjustments, trickeries to adapt, assimilate, transform constraints into forces, creativity. Citizens living in the informal spaces use tactics to create their own space within space. Tactic allows for sharing, exchanging; it encourages conversations, participation of all the actors, from the expert (architects, planners, influential political actors, activists) to non-practitioners. Even dissensus[23]. Tactic is smooth, multivalent, scalable, disruptive. Put it in the simplest way, tactic, as a form of mediation, of adaptive capacity, is bottom-up.

I would like to conclude with two more points. Adaptation promotes a set of linkages, non-linear interrelationships based on and/and/and… It problem-addresses, in contrast with today’s architectural-urban approach that problem-solves. As future is unpredictable, uncertain, problem-solving is becoming inadequate. When problem-addressing an issue, the solution is not the final target. Failure is becoming a creative key. Problem-addressing an issue is to accept that failure can be a force; it is also to accept that from failure will arise something new, mutable. Problem-addressing is smooth. So is failure. Each presupposes the other. Failure is consequently another concept closely linked with adaptation. It frees any system from inertia. It is not static. So is adaptation.

[1] Kitano Hiroaki, 2002, Systems biology: a brief overview. Science, Vol. 295, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/295/5560/1662.abstract. See also: Krimbas Costas B., 2004. “On fitness. Biology and Philosophy”, Vol. 19, Issue 2, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FB%3ABIPH.0000024402.80835.a7.

[2] “Culture core” has been coined by Julian Steward as the characteristics of a society that are the most intimately related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements. Furthermore, the core includes political, religious, and social patterns that are linked with such arrangements. See Steward Julian, 1990. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press).

[3] While particularly subtle, adaptive features must be distinguished with adaptation. Adaptive features may be physiological (secreting slime), structural shape, body covering) and behavioral (instincts, learning) as main characteristics. They also include growth, temperature regulation, and other aspects of homeostasis. Distinction with adaptation is subtle. On

[4] For an introduction on the question of human adaptation in Paleoanthropology, see the blog Anthropology, in particular the following post: “Is the Neanderthal nose adapted to cold?” http://anthropology.net/2011/01/06/is-the-neandertal-nose-adapted-to-cold/; Also: Harvati Katerina, Harrison Terry (eds.), 2007. “Neanderthals Revisited”, Springer, http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/anthropology+%26+archaeology/book/978-1-4020-5120-3.

[5] Hensel Michael, Menges Achim, Weinstock Michael, 2006. “Towards self-organisational and multiple-performance capacity in architecture”, in Architectural Design, Vol. 76, Issue 2.

[6] Menges Achim, 2004. “Morpho-Ecologies: Approaching complex environments”, in Architectural Design, Vol. 74, Issue 3.

[7] Marinovic Baldo, Mangel Marc, 1999. “Krill can shrink as an ecological adaptation to temporarily unfavourable environments”, http://people.ucsc.edu/~msmangel/MM.pdf.

[8] Hendriks Arne, 2012. “Krill Adaptations”, in The Incredible Shrinking Man, http://www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net/?p=4350.

[9] Id.

[10] Marinovic Baldo, Mangel Marc, 1999. “Krill can shrink as an ecological adaptation to temporarily unfavourable environments”, Ibid.

[11] See: Smithers John, Smit, Barry, 1997. “Human adaptation to climatic variability and change”, Global Environmental Change, Vol. 7, Issue 2, PDF: http://www.uoguelph.ca/gecg/images/userimages/Smithers%20&%20Smit%20%281997%29.pdf; Adger Neil W., Kelly Mick P., 1999. “Social Vulnerability to climate change and the architecture of entitlements. Mitigation and adaptation strategies for global change”, Vol. 4, Issue 4, PDF: http://ideas.repec.org/a/spr/masfgc/v4y1999i3p253-266.html; Brooks Nick, “Vulnerability, risk and adaptation: a conceptual framework”, Working Paper 38, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich, http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/content/vulnerability-risk-and-adaptation-conceptual-framework.

[12] See: Hendriks Arne, “Hot Adaptations”, in The Incredible Shrinkage Man, (http://www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net/?p=5406).

[13] Armstrong Rachel, 2012. “Combined advanced technologies and flexible urban infrastructures: Mapping the landscape for agile design”, in Organs Everywhere, Material Shifts, (Issue 4, http://issuu.com/organseverywhere/docs/oe_4_material-shifts).

[14] “[P]rotocells, which are self-assembling chemical systems without DNA, are a bottom-up form of synthetic biology that spontaneously arises when oil and an alkaline solution are mixed. They exhibit a range of lifelike behaviors such as movement, sensitivity and the production of microstructures. Protocells have been chemically programmed to make crystalline microstructures that are composed of soap, magnetite or calcium carbonate. Protocells are not thought to be alive, since they do not possess DNA, and do not pass any specific information to their “offspring.” See: Armstrong Rachel 2012. Living Architecture, (New York: TED Books); Id., 2011. “Is there something beyond ‘outside of the box’?”, in Architectural Design, Vol. 81, Issue 6. See also: Rasmussen, Steen, Beday Mark A., Chen Liaohai, Deamer David, Krakauer David C., Packard Norman H., Stadler Peter F. (eds.), 2008. Protocells: Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press). In particular: A living system can be operationally defined as a system that integrates three critical functionalities: “First, it maintains an identity over time by localizing all its components. Second, it uses free energy from its environment to digest environmental resources in order to maintain itself, grow, and ultimately reproduce. Third, these processes are under the control of inheritable information that can be modified during reproduction. These properties enable selection and thus evolution as part of the reproduction process. Living systems are sometimes said to include various further essential properties, such as autonomous information processing, sensitivity to the environment, self-organization, and purposeful behavior.”

[15] About softness, another concept that I associate with adaptation, I refer to an increased literature, among others: Kwinter Sanford, 1997. Soft Systems, in Boigon Brian, Culture Lab, (Princeton: Princeton Architecture Press). The forthcoming second issue of Bracket (Actar Editorial) explores physical and virtual soft systems as they refer to infrastructure, ecologies, landscapes, environments, and networks. Its publication is announced in the following weeks.

[16] See: Lister Nina-Marie, 2010. “Insurgent Ecologies: (Re)claiming ground in landscape and urbanism”, in Mostafavi Mohsen, Doherty Gareth (eds), Ecological Urbanism, (Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers).

[17] Scape Zone 4: Oyster-Tecture, MoMa, 2010: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/rising-currents/scape.

[18] In a recent interview I had with Kate Orff, she said about Oyster-Tecture, that, as nature’s wave attenuators, oysters have the ability to filter, then purify water.

[19] Bateson Gregory, 2010. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[20] Young Liam, Davies Kate, 2012. “Unknown Fields”, in Volume Magazine, Guilty Landscapes, Issue 31. See also: Wiles Will, 2012. “The irradiated zone”, in Icon Magazine, Issue 105.

[21] Aureli Pier V., Giudici Maria, Issaias Platon, 2012. “From Dom-ino to Polykatoikia”, in Domus, Issue 962.

[22] Tactics as Michel de Certeau termed, namely: “are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time — to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation, to the rapidity of the movements that change the organization of a space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogeneous rhythms, etc. (…) [T]actics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundation of power.” De Certeau Michel, Rendall Steven F. (trans.) 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life,  (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[23] On this discussion, see: Miessen Markus, 2012. The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a mode of Criticality), (Berlin: Sternberg Press).