This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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Constructing Our Niches: How Evolutionary Theory Is Useful for the Building Industry
Marcel J. Harmon
Marcel J. Harmon
is a licensed professional engineer, anthropologist and public education advocate.

Whether we’re talking about education, healthcare, manufacturing, NGO’s or the corporate world, there seems to be no lack of expertise, ideas, or opinions on how the organizations working in these or other sectors should be structured, nor how the environments housing them should be designed and operated. What does appear to be lacking is any cohesive framework for a) formulating such organizational structures and their physical environments, and b) evaluating their effectiveness to make improvements moving forward.

I believe that evolutionary theory provides such a framework. For those unfamiliar with the contemporary theoretical perspectives of cultural evolution or multi-level selection, likely most of the building/construction industry at this point, reactions may range from blank stares to downright skepticism. While some may be unable to fully articulate their skepticism, the following question probably captures it for many. Haven’t humans evolved to the point where the forces of evolution are irrelevant to the complex, fast-paced inner workings of modern human societies? To which I and many others would answer – No. Evolutionary theory is very applicable to contemporary humans and our social/cultural worlds, including the world of the building/construction industry.

In part this is because the human behaviors and intellectual traditions of design and construction, as well as the resulting built environments themselves, are part of the human phenotype – an individual’s set of observable characteristics (including behavior and the products of behavior) that result from the interaction of its genotype with its environment. They are part of our collective toolkit for adapting to the larger social/cultural and physical environments we live within, individually and as members of nested groups of ever increasing size.

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Understanding this, as well as how evolutionary forces play out from the level of the gene to the level of society, allows us to more deliberately create environments, or niches, that benefit everyone in the short and long term, as opposed to doing so more by “accident.” It will contribute to designing, building and operating more sustainable and regenerative built environments that better meet the productivity and health needs of building occupants and organizations, as well as minimize, and even reverse, the built environment’s contributions to climate change. I believe it will benefit building occupants, owners and society as a whole. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the first in a series articles that will seek to demonstrate why this is the case and lay out how it can be done. But you may be wondering why I’m the person for this task. What is it about my background, interests and expertise that qualify me to lay out the use of evolutionary principles in the building/construction industry? Fair question. So let’s answer that here before delving into the details in future articles.

My intellectual interests have long meandered among engineering, the physical sciences, social sciences and history. As a kid I bounced from interest to interest – astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, history, and the like. By the time I entered Kansas State University as a freshman in the fall of 1986, I had finally landed on obtaining dual degrees in Architectural Engineering and Anthropology (with an Archaeological focus).

Anthropology and archaeology certainly provide a broader context within which to look at how we construct, maintain, and operate our built environments. But at the time I thought my ultimate goal was to bring aspects of engineering into archaeology. Throughout its history, archaeology has fed off of other disciplines to help it survey, excavate and interpret the archaeological record. I hoped I could eventually offer methods and bodies of knowledge from the worlds of engineering and the building/construction industry, similar to what others have done.

With that in mind, I finished my dual degrees. I worked as an engineer to gain more technical experience relative to the built environment, designing mechanical, electrical/lighting and plumbing systems for a variety of project types. My wife and I also moved to Albuquerque, NM to establish residence with the intent of applying to the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) graduate program in Anthropology. And finally in the fall of 1996, while still working as an engineer, I entered the program as a graduate student.

I started out following my original goal. I worked with UNM’s mechanical engineering department to conduct impact analyses on replicated obsidian prismatic blades in an attempt to determine their use-life in battle. I used lighting design software to assess the impact daylight access may have had when prehistoric Puebloans laid out the locations of multiple mealing bins within a room or pit structure. I borrowed space syntax methodologies to examine similarities between European longhouses and megalithic monuments that have been used to support various theories of European Neolithic interactions. And I made use of close-range photogrammetry and ground penetrating radar at archaeological sites in southern New Mexico and Northern Mexico.

But along the way I met a professor, Dr. Robert (Bob) D. Leonard, who would eventually become my dissertation chair, mentor and friend, and in the process changed the way I viewed the world. He introduced me to one evolutionary framework within anthropology synthesized in Robert Dunnell’s 1980 article entitled Evolutionary Theory and Archaeology (Dunnell 1980). This application of evolutionary theory has been labeled at times Selectionism, Evolutionary Archaeology, and Darwinian Archaeology. It seeks to explain the variation archaeologists find in the material record using evolutionary theory.

Such an evolutionary framework applied to humans rests on five assumptions that are spelled out by Leonard (2001:71):

  1. Humans are life forms.
  2. Natural selection operates on phenotypes, making evolution in part a phenotypic phenomenon.
  3. Behavior is part of the human phenotype, and it is transmitted partially through learning.
  4. Technology is the product of human behavior, and consequently a component of the human phenotype.
  5. The differential persistence of behavior will be reflected by the differential replication of technology through time.

And to clarify for those unfamiliar with some of these terms and concepts, the phenotype refers to all of the characteristics of an organism (or group of organisms) that “… include biological features, such as skin color, height, muscle strength, basic behaviors, etc., as well as cultural features such as tools, artifacts, dwellings, institutions, etc. that are the results of behaviors (Dawkins 1982, 1989; Dunnell 1989, 1995; Leonard 2001; Leonard and Jones 1987; O’Brien and Lyman 2000a)” (Harmon 2005:204). Given this, we can use Darwinian evolutionary theory to not only understand human biological change, but also human cultural change and transmission.

My understanding was deepened further with my introduction, through Sober and Wilson (1998) and Wilson (1998, 2002) among others, to a branch of evolutionary theory known as multi-level selection, or MLS. For those unfamiliar, MLS provides a framework in which natural selection and other evolutionary forces operate at all levels simultaneously – genes, cells, organisms/individuals, and groups of organisms/individuals. Sometimes environmental and social/cultural conditions are right for the evolutionary forces to be stronger at the level of the individual; sometimes these forces are stronger at the group level, resulting in highly cohesive groups. Uniformity among group members, high levels of cooperation, and functional integration become the hallmarks of successful groups. Change as a result of evolutionary forces may also be quite rapid if selection is operating at the level of the group.

Thinking back to my youth spent farming in southcentral Kansas, this view of human culture, including our tools and associated behaviors, as part of the human phenotype and subject to the forces of evolution made sense. Terraces are a farming adaptation, a behavioral strategy, for maximizing water retention in soils while minimizing water erosion. In response to the droughts and Dust Bowl era of the Dirty Thirties, more sustainable farming practices, including the use of terraces, were promoted throughout the plains, and my grandfather, James M. Harmon, was one of the first farmers to build them in the community of Penalosa, KS.

My grandfather, along with other area farmers, changed their farming behavior to adapt to changing environmental conditions. This new behavioral variant proved beneficial from an evolutionary perspective – it helped individual family farming units recover and conserve their farmland (with some governmental assistance), also benefiting the small, rural communities they were a part of. And the practice spread among the farming community populations as restoring and conserving soil, the life blood of these communities, became associated with the practice of terracing, or so goes the story I heard from grandfather (minus the references to evolutionary theory).

Essentially evolutionary forces, likely operating at some combination of the levels of the individual family farm, their larger communities, and potentially up to the level of the nation/state, selected for a specific farming behavioral trait (terracing), in a relatively rapid manner in response to ultimately a relatively rapid, drastic, physical environmental change. Once Bob Leonard (and other scholars) had given me these evolutionary glasses to view the social/cultural world around me I couldn’t take them off. I couldn’t un-see the world from an evolutionary perspective, and it led to my dissertation research (Harmon 2005, 2008).

The techniques, tools, and intellectual traditions of design and construction are all part of the human phenotype and subject to the forces of evolution. Therefore they can be studied relative to the selective advantage they offer the individuals and human groups that use them. In addition, intellectual traditions are essentially chains of replicated information, formed as a result of “…transmission directly from individual to individual (through some type of teaching and learning relationship) or indirectly from individual to individual (either by imitating a person’s actions or reverse engineering a finished product or concept)” (Harmon 2005:202). As such, phylogenetic analysis methods developed to study biological lineages can also be used to study cultural lineages (intellectual traditions) via an examination of the transmission of their traits across space and time, as well as the uniformity of those traits within a given intellectual tradition (e.g., Harmon et al. 2006; Lipo et al. 2006; Mace et al. 2005; O’Brien and Lyman 2000a, 2000b; O’Brien et al. 2001).

With this in mind, I attempted to obtain a better understanding of the degree of centralization within the Casas Grandes region of Northern Mexico during the Medio period (A.D. 1200 – 1450), by examining the regional manifestation of the Native American rubber ballgame. The ballgame, which ranged from northern South America to the American Southwest in various forms, is generally considered to have played an important political, economic and religious role in the societies in which it was found. Using both phylogenetic analysis and seriation, I examined the transmission of ballcourt characteristics across the region (spatially and temporally). These characteristics encompassed aspects of design/construction, gameplay, and the court’s relationship to its overall settlement.

By interpreting the transmission of these ballgame and court characteristics within a multilevel selection theoretical framework, I was able to reconstruct the region’s apparent three ballgame intellectual traditions, as well as reach some conclusions regarding the nature of the region’s centralization, centered on the site of Paquimé. It was, I believe, an important use of evolutionary theory to better understand the social, religious and political makeup of a past society. And if it could be used to understand past societies, why not contemporary societies?

As I neared the completion of my dissertation, the confluence of a few factors caused me to rethink my post graduate career. During graduate school I continued working as an engineer, and I began to see the potential benefits of applying aspects of anthropology and evolutionary theory to the design, operations and evaluations of our built environments. I found that a contextual understanding of occupant needs and behaviors was often a secondary concern of designers, facility managers and building owners compared to such things as construction costs, building operations and maintenance costs, and design aesthetics. Frequent conversations with Bob Leonard focused on how anthropological methods, such as ethnography, various statistical analyses methods and an evolutionary interpretive framework could better account for those contextual needs and behaviors, as well as justify a greater level of focus on them.

With a desire to move back to Kansas to be closer to family, consulting work appeared the easier path than academia to make that happen. After a relatively short-lived attempt at running our own consulting business (Human Inquiry), made more difficult by being located in different states (Iowa and Kansas), Bob Leonard and I decided to dissolve the business and part ways professionally. At that point I was fortunate to find a high performance consulting engineering firm, M.E. GROUP, who shared my vision of a building/construction industry that a) more systematically conducts post occupancy evaluations, b) provides a greater focus on the occupants’ wants, needs, productivity and health (including a recognition of the influence of our evolutionary history), c) incorporates social science methodologies as part of the programming through post-occupancy process, and d) recognizes all three of these impact a facility’s successful incorporation of sustainable or regenerative design strategies and ultimately the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions it contributes to our atmosphere.

And so I joined the Forte Building Science division of M.E. GROUP in 2007 to help ensure the occupants’ perspectives are accounted for from early planning through post occupancy. In my current position, I gather occupant stories and personal narratives to help ensure projects account for their contextual wants and needs. I quantitatively estimate the built environment’s impact on occupant productivity/performance and health, as well as the occupant’s impact on building performance. We use this understanding to influence and inform the decisions made during the programming/planning process, help develop owner project requirements (OPR) documents, conduct design reviews during enhanced commissioning, help assess facilities post occupancy, and conduct research.

Over the last decade evolutionary theory, and the evolutionary history of our species, have influenced the recommendations I’ve made and some of the research I’ve conducted. But my explicit reference to evolutionary theory, while appearing in some of my writings, has been fairly limited on a day-to-day, project-by-project basis. Frankly, the reactions from many in the building/construction industry whom I’ve had such conversations with over the years have ranged from blank stares to slightly hostile resistance. The relevance of evolutionary theory, particularly the much less well known multilevel selection theory, to contemporary human society is not widely understood or accepted.

And so my focus over the last decade has been more on increasing a) the frequency of pre- and post-occupancy evaluations, b) a focus on the occupant, and c) the use of anthropological and social science methodologies. Such methodologies are used to better understand a) the contextual wants and needs of the building/occupant organism, and b) how to structure the environment to meet those wants and needs – how to best build their niches. We’ve made progress in generating greater acceptance among building owners and those who work in the industry. While it’s been slow, the rate of acceptance has increased over the last few years with the growing recognition of the impact of occupant productivity and health on the building owner and/or organization’s bottom line. The creation of the new WELL Building Standard™, with its focus on the occupant, has also contributed to this growing acceptance.

Now the stage has been set to more formally operate within an MLS framework. The contextual understanding of the building/occupant organism is the starting point for understanding how adaptive aspects of our physically constructed and social/cultural environments, or niches, are relative to individual, organizational or societal needs. It’s the starting point for understanding how those nested levels of needs are in or out of alignment with a) one another, b) the physical environment’s operational capabilities, and c) organizational policies and procedures. And ultimately it’s the starting point for determining the environmental changes required to optimize alignment and maximize positive impacts on productivity and health, as well as aspects of sustainability.

In the forthcoming six articles, I will be laying out in more detail why evolutionary theory, and MLS in particular, is applicable to the building/construction industry and how it can be applied to more effectively construct our niches. I’ll draw on my own experience and expertise, as well as that of other researchers, industry professionals and “applied evolutionists.” Stay tuned.


Dawkins, R.

1982    The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

1989    The Selfish Gene. New ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Dunnell, R.C.

1980    Evolutionary Theory and Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory. Vol. 3 (1980), pp. 35-99.

1989    Aspects of the Application of Evolutionary Theory in Archaeology. In Archaeological Thought in America, edited by C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, pp. 35-49. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

1995    What is it that Actually Evolves? In Evolutionary Archaeology: Methodological Issues, edited by P. A. Teltser, pp. 33-50. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Harmon, M. J.

2005    Centralization, Cultural Transmission, and “The Game of Life and Death” in Northern Mexico. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

2008    The “Game of Life and Death” Within the Casas Grandes Region of Northern Mexico. In Touching the Past: Ritual, Religion, and Trade of Casas Grandes, BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures Popular Series No. 5, edited by G. Nielsen-Grimm and P. Stavast. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Harmon, M. J., T. L. VanPool, R. D. Leonard, C. S. VanPool, and L. A. Salter

2006    Reconstructing the Flow of Information Across Time and Space: A Phylogenetic Analysis of Ceramic Traditions from Prehispanic Western and Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. In Mapping Our Ancestors: Phylogenetic Methods in Anthropology and Prehistory, edited by C. P. Lipo, M. J. O’Brien, S. Shennan, and M. Collard. Aldine Transaction, New Brunswick and London.

Leonard, R. D.

2001    Evolutionary Archaeology. In Archaeological Theory Today, edited by I. Hodder, pp. 65-97. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

Leonard, R. D., and G. T. Jones

1987    Elements of an Inclusive Evolutionary Model for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 6:199-219.

Lipo, C. P., M. J. O’Brien, S. Shennan, and M. Collard, editors

2006    Mapping Our Ancestors: Phylogenetic Methods in Anthropology and Prehistory. Aldine Transaction, New Brunswick and London.

Mace, R., C. J. Holden and S. Shennan, editors

2005    The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: A Phylogenetic Approach. Left Coast Press, Inc. Walnut Creek, CA.

O’Brien, M. J. and R. L. Lyman

2000a   Applying Evolutionary Archaeology: A Systematic Approach. Kluwer Academic Press/Plenum Press, New York.

2000b Evolutionary Archaeology: Reconstructing and Explaining Historical Lineages. In Social Theory in Archaeology, edited by M. B. Schiffer, pp. 126-142. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

O’Brien, M. J., Darwent, J., and R. Lee Lyman

2001    Cladistics is Useful for Reconstructing Archaeological Phylogenetics: Palaeoindian Points from the Southwestern United States. Journal of Archaeological Science 28:1115-1136

Sober, E. and D. S. Wilson

1998    Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London

Wilson, D. S.

1998    Hunting, Sharing, and Multilevel Selection. Current Anthropology 39(1):73-97.

2002    Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.


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