Human Endoskeletons | Urban Exoskeletons | The Emerging Church Needs a Backbone

I mentioned in the title for the Blah… talk something about urban exoskeletons, but didn’t get to it, so I thought I’d just fill in here.

Manuel de Landa, in his excellent book 1000 Years of Non-Linear History talks about the evolution of species and cities in some really interesting ways. One of the comments he makes (page 26ff in the edition above) is that the development of the human endoskeleton was an enormous step forward.

“In the organic world soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 500 million years ago. At that point some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone.

“Primitive bone, a stiff, calcified central rod that would later become the vertebral column, made forms of movement control possible among animals, freeing them from many constraints and literally setting them into motion to conquer every niche in the air, in water and on land.

“About eight thousand years ago, human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton: bricks of sun-dried clay became the building materials for their homes, which in turn surrounded by stone monuments and defensive walls. This exoskeleton served a purpose similar to its internal counterpart: to control the movements of human flesh in and out of a town’s walls.

“Thus, the urban infrastructure may be said to perform the same function of motion control that our bones do in relation to our fleshy parts. And in both cases, adding minerals to the mix resulted in a fantastic combinatorial explosion, greatly increasing the variety of animal and cultural designs.”

I think there are two salient points to take from this. Firstly, we need to ensure that each of us individually has some backbone. If we are to embark on the project of a bottom-up, complex, self-organising, living system model of church – which I think God is calling us to do – then we are going to have to take our individual responsibilities seriously. Every-member ministry, being part of a body, does mean that individual (mature) members need to have a endoskeleton – some backbone to allow them movement control and ‘set them into motion.’ Jellyfish get blown about by the sea. No endoskeleton: no choice. Fish move around in it freely.

Secondly, the idea of the city as a human exoskeleton is a two-edged sword. Organising ourselves into communities, and constructing forms, boundaries, exoskeletons around them gives us the opportunity to do far more than we could on our own. The urban exoskeleton is the very thing that has allowed art, music, sport, technology to flourish as it has provided a secure place within which groups of people can specialise and make progress.

However, with this freedom comes restriction. A skeleton, as well as solidifying our bodies to allow movement, actually restricts one’s movement too. Try bending your leg the wrong way. So with the freedom, comes restriction. Coming together as communities in the church – creating a form around us which will allow us to flourish – will inevitably bring some movement restriction too. That’s part of the commitment to getting involved. If you want to be a Jellyfish floating round the sea on every current, fine. If you want to be a single fish, swimming where you will, fine. But you’ll be vulnerable too.

Our endoskeleton gives us the ability to move, decide, commit. The exoskeletons we come under increase the possibilities of what we can achieve exponentially… But with an inevitable price. Connecting back to recent thoughts on leadership, I suppose another facet of good leadership is the ability to create an exoskeleton that functions to maximize freedom and creativity while remaining a safe space, without being a prison so secure that it kills off all inside.


3 responses to “Human Endoskeletons | Urban Exoskeletons | The Emerging Church Needs a Backbone”

  1. Biologically speaking, and to continue the analogy, I wonder if it’s more important for individuals in an emerging situation to have an ENDOskeleton than an exoskeleton. This is a supportive inner skeleton rather than an outward one.
    The endoskeleton is perhaps analogous to an “inner life” – that supportive inner core where our beliefs, values, priorities, wisdom and so on reside … a place of “centredness” to which we can return and abide (as in John 15) a place where the Holy Spirit dwells.
    I’d see the exoskeleton as the way we interact with the world – the sum total of how that inner self “comes outdoors” and interfaces with the rest of creation. It’s analogous to Paul’s use of “body” (Greek ‘soma’, as opposed to ‘sarx’, or flesh) which is about much more than our physical frame, but is all about having a corporeal, physical existence, and usually represents the sum total of all the ways in which we interface with the world around.
    Does this take the analogy too far, or in a different direction?

  2. I think that’s entirely valid. Both views seem to work.
    And important how we get those to be linked, rather than seeing the exoskeleton as some form of shell to hide in, as a snail does!

  3. Have you ever read Hal Clements “Cycle of Fire”? The aliens were fascinated with our backbones because they just had 3 joints in their backs!