Circles and Squares (re: applied evolution)

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 27 Sep 1995 15:50:43 +0900

Like Matt Tomaso, I am not opposed to evolutionary thinking per se. I
am concerned about the facile application of evolutionary biology as a
metaphor for cultural history. I am more eager, still, to get beyond the
all-too-easy game of a priori criticism and, to borrow Matt's phrase,
"put it on the ground" with some cases. So I offer one of my favorite
puzzles to see what people will have to say.

The idea of building cities in ways that mirror a culture's cosmology is
very widespread. In Asia, there are two distinct regions. In the Chinese
oikumene in East Asia, the ideal city plan is square, with the palace of
the ruler against the back (ideally North) wall. In the Indian oikumene,
the ideal plan is circular, with the palace of the ruler in the center.


(1) There are circles and squares. Why are there no cities build to
mirror other geometries: triangles, say, or hexagons?

(2) Is there an evolutionary explanation for why the ideal is different on
opposite sides of the boundary where the two regions abut each other in
Southeast Asia, where Vietnam belongs to the Chinese oikumene and
Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to the Indian oikumene? To be
more precise, are there evolutionary reasons over and above the
accident of history in which two expanding civilizations collide in this

(3) In traditional Chinese cosmology the square is earth, the circle is
heaven. In contrast to Indic civilizations where rulers were conceived of
as literally divine, in traditional China the ruler is only "the child of
Heaven" who rules at Heaven's discretion. Can the Chinese plan be
seen as a structural transformation of a pan-Asian (or pan-Human)
pattern in which the squareness of the city plan reflects the more, shall
we say, "down to earth" proclivities of traditional Chinese political
institutions? If so, is it possible to explain this transformation in
evolutionary terms?


John McCreery