The concept of “design specifications,” in brief is that while humans were evolving,[1] their biological selves became “designed” to (a) receive, and respond to, certain stimuli from the environment (defined broadly—to include both a physical and human environment), and to (b) engage in certain behaviors (e.g., acquiring food, defending against predators, interacting with one’s fellows, etc.). These “design specifications” developed while humans were gatherer-hunters[2], with the activities associated with that mode of “production” guiding the direction of human biological change.

With the Agricultural Revolution (of about 10,000 years ago), however, ways of life began to change (but most notably after the Industrial Revolution, which dates to about 1750 CE), whereas human biologically did not, basically. As sociobiologist David P. Barash has put it, there occurred the “hare” of way of life change and the “tortoise” of biological change. In consequence, there developed an increasing “discrepancy” between the way of life for which humans had become “designed,” and the way of life they actually lived (which, in most cases, was one imposed upon them).

One could argue that virtually all of the problems that humans have had, and have currently, are responses to this Discrepancy; so that, e.g., “blame the victim” explanations lack a scientific basis, and are, rather, ideological rationalizations rather than explanations. My purpose here, however, is not to expand on the Discrepancy concept (see, however, René Dubos’s So Human An Animal, 1968, as an example of such research), or analyze alternate explanations; rather, I wish to discuss “design specifications” in an urban context, and specifically develop some of the implications of rural depopulation (to urban areas)—for those emigrating.

Although most agricultural societies of the past have been strongly hierarchical, with elites who have exploited their society’s “lowers” (who often have had the status of slaves), my starting point is more idyllic—what might be thought of as an approximation of USan (i.e., United States) society prior to the Civil War (excluding the South—where slavery existed).

My “plan” here is to begin by (a) identifying salient characteristics of that rural society; to then (b) note that the occurrence of technological developments, and deployment of technology-based products, led to (i) certain urban developments, on the one hand, and (ii) the emigration—to urban areas—of some rural people, on the other hand; and, finally, to (c) comment on some of the effects that emigration had on those who left their rural residence for an urban one.

The Rural Society

At the “starting point” here I assume the level of technology to be low, meaning that the ships that pass between the mother country and the rural society in question are sailing vessels, land transport is by walking, horse, or horse- (or oxen-) driven carriage; and internal waterways (rivers, lakes) are used for transportation so far as possible. Most of the population is engaged in agricultural activity, using tools and implements manufactured (in the literal sense—i.e., made “by hand”) locally—either by the farmer himself or by local craftsmen. Furniture, utensils, etc. are either imported from the mother country or (and mainly) produced by local craftsmen.

The settlement pattern initially is highly dispersed, for most of the population is rural, with but the beginning of a hierarchy of settlements (à la Walter Christaller [1893 -1969]). Over time, however, as more and more indentured servants[3] fulfill the terms of their contracts, an increasingly high percent of the population becomes “free,” with some of the newly free hiring themselves out on farms (with some eventually accumulating enough money to buy their own farms), some establishing themselves as traders, craftsmen, etc., in the villages/towns that exist. But even with these developments, little change occurs in the distribution of population, and after a certain stability is achieved in the society, that stability is maintained over time.

The significance of the achievement of that relative stability—in conjunction with population dispersion and the fact of agricultural dominance—cannot be understated:

  • Given that humans, in their evolution, became “designed” for a gatherer-hunter way of life, their bodies becoming designed for the stimuli and activities associated with said way of life, and that an agricultural/village way of life (as I am presenting it here) involves stimuli and activities that approximate those associated with gathering/hunting, the way of life of the inhabitants of this rural society approximates a “natural” one.
  • One would interact with many of one’s near neighbors, for both business and social reasons, and in the process gain certain perceptions/judgments regarding each—with those neighbors, in turn, doing the same regarding oneself. As a result of developing certain perceptions/judgments of others, one interacts with a given other in a manner most “fitting” to that other.
  • In addition to that latter fact, given that one wants to be treated well by the others with whom one interacts, one chooses (if but unconsciously) to treat others well. If one does mistreat others, one finds that one develops a bad reputation, which affects how others begin to treat oneself. One thereby learns that it is not advisable to treat others badly because doing so has a “rebound” effect on oneself.
  • One unconsciously seeks a positive self-image (because one is so “programmed”), and accomplishes that end by striving to gain the respect, even admiration, of those with whom one interacts, and by perceiving oneself as a productive member of the society. Note here that one does, in fact, come to perceive oneself as an integral part of the society, not as a mere isolate (á la Silas Marner, e.g.).

In this society each household performs work to enable its continued existence, but no pressure exists to acquire more than one needs. Little giving to others occurs, for the simple reason that no one is in need of assistance. If, however, a given household does require assistance (e.g., the husband has an accident, and is temporarily incapacitated), when neighbors learn of a neighbor in need, they “spread the word” and that need is addressed quickly: An ad hoc “committee” is established, and efforts to help the neighbor in need are coordinated.

Crime is absent from the society, because no one is so desperate—or so deviant—that they need to engage in crime. Mental illness is absent, because all experience the (positive) human contact that they need to maintain good mental health. Accidents occur occasionally, resulting in temporary incapacity—or death in some cases. And diseases may at times spread through the population, temporarily incapacitating individuals, and in some cases killing them. Thus, although the society is relatively problem-free, its members do experience some problems. But so long as serious external threats do not occur, the society is able to continue as a stable, relatively problem-free society.

What especially enables the stability is the lack of technological development and its deployment (e.g., in the form of products). Insofar as technological development arises as a product of a pathological personality (as Philip Slater has argued), the fact that such personalities are rare in the society means that the motivation for technological development is lacking in the society. However, even in a society of perfectly healthy individuals, there will be variation in how curious and creative individuals are, and therefore some technological development is likely to occur.

The Occurrence of Technological Developments

Changes in technology typically result in societal disruption because they involve (a) changes in the amount of labor required to produce a given output (by reducing the amount) and (b) changes in a society’s occupational structure—in that new occupations emerge, old ones fade away.

Like other innovations, technological developments by one person tend to become known by others, and to be adopted by those others who can use them—the diffusion of innovations being a well-studied research topic. Thus, to say that innovations result in societal changes is not to say that those changes occur simultaneously throughout the society. Rather, it is to say that they diffuse through space in a patterned way—both spatially and temporally.

As technological developments occur in an agricultural society, what typically happens is that fewer people are needed to produce a given amount of food, and a migration from rural areas is precipitated—speeding up the process of the development of a hierarchy of settlements. And if technological developments also occur in the production of goods—as new uses are discovered for “raw materials,” new products are invented, new production procedures are developed, etc.—and such developments have implications for developments in transportation (e.g., development of the railroad, the automobile, the truck), the location of production is changed (along with its magnitude), so that changes in occupational distribution bring about changes in population distribution. And as changes occur in production, such changes typically result in the emergence of wholesale, retail, and “service” activities—i.e., new occupations.

In a sense, a sort of “balancing act” occurs in that as some “push” occurs in rural areas, that push is counterbalanced by a “pull” that is occurring in other areas.

The changes that are occurring represent not merely change; they involve disruption. And as the term “disruption” implies, the changes have various sociological and psychological consequences—which consequences, in turn, have further consequences. Given this latter fact—which reflects the fact that societies are systems, whose various components interact one with another—it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify all of the socio-psychological consequences that are associated with the disruption associated with technological development, and the deployment of technology and products resulting from technological innovation. Let me, however, identify some of those socio-psychological effects, using an evolutionary approach.

Effects on Those Who Emigrate

The emigration for a rural area to an urban area would involve “situational change” (by definition!), and the disruption associated with that emigration can be thought of as involving at least three aspects:

  • They would be deprived of stimuli that they had received formerly, and forced to receive new ones.
  • They would be deprived of the human contacts that they had had previously, and would be forced to develop new ones.
  • They would be deprived of the behaviors that they had engaged in relative to their former economic activities, and would be forced to develop new behaviors, ones relevant for, e.g., their new economic activities.

Stated in more concrete terms, we could say that the situational change associated with emigration from our hypothetical rural area to an urban area would involve:

  • Living in a setting dominated by the man-made—buildings, streets, vehicles, etc.—the previous setting having been relatively more “natural”—or at least more open, and with less bustle.
  • The loss of human contacts, with virtually all of one’s contacts being with people one knew, the new situation involving numerous contacts with others, but most of them of an impersonal nature. Indeed, one is likely to find, in the new setting, that most of those whom one meets are reluctant to develop relationships with depth. Thus, one finds that one’s need to develop deep relationships with other humans is frustrated.
  • A factor that hinders the development of close relationships with others in one’s new environment is that those in the new environment tend to have interests that are more narrowly “economic” than one is used to encountering. Not only are their interests narrow; they seem to be guided by the belief that they must make as much money as they can. Why? Because acquiring things will make one happy; and in the anonymous situation provided by urban areas, “conspicuous display” (to borrow a term from Thorstein Veblen [1857 – 1929]) is necessary to demonstrate one’s worth—and to be able to display “conspicuously,” one needs to maximize one’s income (unless one is willing to steal[4]).
  • The need to accept a job involving a low level of skill. Although as a rural dweller one may have acquired a variety of skills, one will find that most of those skills lack a market in an urban area—except, perhaps, for skills in construction or as a mechanic. Therefore, because one lacks the preparation that would qualify one for a “profession,” and lacks the “savvy” that would enable one to start a small business, one finds that one must take a low-paying, low-skill job to make a living.

The situational change associated with emigrating from a rural area to an urban one can be thought of as involving:

  • Subjective reactions—i.e., how one feels, thinks, etc.
  • Objective reactions—i.e., behavioral changes that occur in response to one’s subjective reactions.

Next, then, let us make a few comments on each of those two types of reactions:

Subjective Reactions

  • A feeling of disorientation—i.e., a feeling of disconnection, both with reference to one’s new physical environment, and one’s new human environment.
  • The experience of stress—because one is no longer in the “comfort zone” that one had occupied previously.
  • A feeling that, rather than being an equal of the others in one’s society, one is now in an inferior status. One was used to living in a society that was rather egalitarian, and now one finds oneself in a different sort of society, and finds oneself in a low position in that new society.
  • One finds one’s values challenged, in that one prizes good—and deep—relationships with others, one does not value striving for wealth/fame/power, etc., but finds oneself in a situation that strikes one (and rightly so!) as simply “unnatural.”
  • Because one finds the new environment so foreign, so unnatural, one’s own sense of self-worth is diminished

Over time one may learn to adjust somewhat well to the new environment; and one’s children—because they grow up in that environment—will adapt even more readily to the new environment. But before that adaptation occurs, one may respond behaviorally to the new situation in a variety of ways:

Objective Reactions

  • The stress may weaken one’s immune system, so that one develops various physical ailments, with some developing mental orders—ranging from personality changes to mental breakdown.
  • With some the stress may cause one to turn to alcohol for relief. Unfortunately, if this is carried to an extreme, so that it results in alcoholism, that problem is likely to lead to other problems.
  • Some may be tempted to turn to (illegal) crime, thereby exposing themselves to the possibility of arrest and incarceration.
  • Those who are better able to cope with the change in environment may engage in “compensatory” behavior as a means of gaining a better sense of self-respect. This can take various forms, such as becoming a “super patriot,” a sports fanatic, one who identifies strongly with his nationality, a religious zealot, etc.

Over time, one becomes better adapted, and this will be even more true of one’s children. But the important question that arises here is: Are urban places desirable places to live?

Some will answer this question in the affirmative—arguing that urban areas offer cultural opportunities not offered in rural areas, they have good restaurants, they offer good entertainment, etc. If, however, one looks at urban areas from a broader perspective, one will observe that crime, poverty, physical and mental illness, unemployment, deviancy, etc., are seemingly inevitably associated with such areas. So that if one is bothered by the virtual perpetual presence of such problems in cities, one will conclude that we must create a better way of life for our people.

The most fundamental reason for so doing, however, is that with global warming rearing its ugly head, those living in urban areas are the most vulnerable—the most likely to perish. Perhaps the process of urbanization has been useful for humans—so that some of the “goods” of civilization can be retained by the New Society—it appears that urbanization’s time has passed. What’s needed—urgently needed, I might add—is for humans to begin creating a new way of life—one that simultaneously “addresses” our “design specifications,” and enables us to survive global warming. James Lovelock would argue that it’s inevitable that most of the world’s population will not survive global warming, so that the world’s population by 2100 CE will be but a fraction of what it is now. It should, however, be possible for at least some humans to survive; but that possibility will not be realized unless actions are taken soon—by individuals acting as individuals and in groups, not by governments—to adapt to the changes that are in the offing because of global warming.


  1. The responsible factors being sexual selection and predation—and with Darwinian “natural selection” playing no role whatsoever.
  2. Paul Shepard in his brilliant The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973) stated (e.g., p. 5) a preference for “cynegetic” to suggest that their lives involved much more than just “economic” activities.
  3. In effect, I assume here that “in the beginning” the area was a colony, and that many of the original settlers were indentured servants.
  4. There are two categories of stealing—illegal (practiced by “lowers”) and legal (practiced by “uppers”—whose control of the political system enables them to give their crimes a legal status as non-crimes).

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.