Saturday, October 3, 2009


Pottersville is not the town of the most famous magician of contemporary literature. Pottersville is a dark village, lit only by neon lights and where looting, gambling and drinking reign everywhere. It owes its name to the owner of everything that exists in the city, Henry F. Potter, much like citizen Kane.

This is an alternative Bedford Falls without George Bailey, in the Capra’s film It’s a wonderful life! It is also the favorite example of S. J. Gould in his Wonderful Life to explain the meaning of contingency. In his book, Gould (whom some will remember as the mustache paleontologist that appears in The Simpsons) proposes a new conception of the History of life. On the one hand, he dismisses the traditional iconography and the cone scale, namely evolution as an inexorable progress of increasing complexity, in which the final and inevitable result is the human conscience. By contrast, Gould argues that life we know today is the result of the contingency. If the tape of life could be rewind and modify some variables. Then play it again, the film would be (completely) different.

Then Pottersville is not desired a city. It is consequence of contingency. Removing or changing one single factor and everything will be different. This recalls the chaotic or fractal models that simulate urban growth. These models are highly sensitive to the initial conditions, a minimum change and the system will evolve toward a different attractor. Thus, we could recreate several scenarios as alternative cities. Cities a la carte. Cities desired. Wonderful cities.

It turns out that not all Pottersville are possible. Our Orwellian imagination has deceived us. The game of life is far more restrictive than we thought. There are no man in the castle, or presence of mine enemies. But maybe Bush was beaten by that Iraqi shoe.

I would like to continue with more biological analogies. But instead of taking them from the field of evolution, I will pick them from the world of developmental biology. Both sciences share a directional meaning. The embryonic and postembryonic development is a continuous process of structure formation and modification. New advances in genetics have unraveled many of the keys to understanding the basis of this intricate process.

But one thing is to have the instructions for assembling the IKEA’s shelf GREVBÄCK and quite another to make it yourself. The final result will depend on internal factors (instructions, pieces) and external (you, environment). Similarly, agencies are developed under internal and external conditions. Regarding the latter, everyone knows the importance of a pregnant woman to feed properly. Concerning internal conditions, we have seen that genes are not everything (Not in our genes). A good example of that is the formation of the cap of Acetabularia, which is created according to a calcium gradient in its apical (morphogenetic field), and not by some nucleus biochemistry.

I would love to end this text with one of the most amazing structures in nature: the eye. The eye has always been the favorite object of study within this field. Its structural complexity has served as example of both Creationists and Darwinists. On the one hand, a wonder created by a bearded watchmaker and on the other hand, a complex functional structure made very patiently by a blind watchmaker. However, neither point of view is right (although the last one is far closer). The fact that eyes have evolved independently many times puts us in a different scenario. The shape of the eye is a powerful biological attractor; this explains the convergence in design.

So... is there convergence in the creation and evolution of cities? Are there only a few Pottersvilles? Which are the attractors for each city?

Pottersville in Spanish:

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