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DARWIN, EVOLUTION AND RIPON

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 30th January 2009
David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, marks an important anniversary with some thoughts on Ripon’s past and future,

This year the world is marking the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary work ‘On the Origin of Species’. There will be – they have already started – celebrations and debates, television programmes and popular biographies, talks and arguments.

What has this to do with Ripon? Are there some indicators about how the city has developed in the past, and may evolve in the future? Can we see any correlation between what happens to the natural world and our urban and suburban environment?

It would be possible to comment on the development of Ripon by comparing it to the way some animals have evolved into communities that are self-regulating and self–supporting. Colonies of ants, where each worker knows its place and its role. Hives of bees in which the drones and the workers – and the queen – have their allotted tasks and can communicate with each other to ensure the survival of the colony. Or what about the chimpanzees and other primates, that live together in extended families and cooperate in some tasks.

But for the built structure of the city, such comparisons only work to a limited extent. Yes, like ants and termites we build the structures that we need at the time for our work, our leisure and our living. Like the bees we have places where we store our food (though our warehouses and supermarkets may not be as structurally perfect as the octagonal cells of the honeycomb). Like other primates we learn to cooperate with each other so that our civilisation runs relatively smoothly.

This is all to the good; such ways of living have come about – evolved – because as human beings we have found that cooperation is better than chaos. As the hero of G K Chesterton’s ‘The Man who was Thursday’ points out, ‘Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! It is Victoria.’

Yet despite this eminently sensible view of the world, places like Ripon have not developed on the smooth evolutionary curve that Darwin might have suggested for the natural world. We cannot say that we are always on an upward path, that what replaces one thing is necessarily an improvement on what went before. Indeed, there is a natural human tendency to suggest that what is new is usually worse.

There were no doubt people who complained when the monks moved in to Ripon in the Dark Ages, muttering that things were better under the pagans. When Wilfrid built his cathedral, there were no doubt people who said that he’d spoiled a perfectly good area of open ground. When the Square was laid out . . . there is no need to continue – the picture is clear.

We still have that today; the columns of this newspaper are often the home to such objections. Sometimes they are justified, and of course the Civic Society will object to unnecessary developments or the uniformed uses of our current buildings – like the plans for the Spa Baths. But we recognise that the city does need to evolve – even if its evolution is, as it has often been, by lurches and sudden expansions rather than by smoothly-planned transitions – as can be seen in the new science of ‘evolutionary developmental biology’.

The lessons we need to learn from Darwin and his followers are many, but among the main ones is that however much we may complain, the city must develop in some form – to stagnate is to regress. In this time of recession that’s a lesson worth remembering. We need to be ready to embrace good change, and encourage it in its best forms. The Civic Society has been doing so for the last 40 years, and will continue to do so.

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