Evolutionary Biology Hearts Typography

Writing, a cultural tool, has evolved to make use of the inferotemporal neurons’ preference for certain shapes. “Letter shape,” Dehaene writes, “is not an arbitrary cultural choice. The brain constrains the design of an efficient writing system so severely that there is little room for cultural relativism. Our primate brain only accepts a limited set of written shapes.”

—Oliver Sacks, “A Man of Letters”, The New Yorker (June 28, 2010)

Fancy that. A biological guiding hand for typography. This from Oliver Sacks, writing for The New Yorker. Starting with a case review of alexia, a neurological condition whereby otherwise fully-functioning individuals lose the ability to read, Sacks works his way onto the evolutionary roots of reading (and thus letterforms). orrowing terminology from Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discusses the nature of reading as an evolutionary “exaptation”: something our brain is incredibly well-adapted to do, but not necessarily what those adaptations developed in response to.

Supporting this is a Caltech study cited by Sacks, where it was concluded after an analysis of, “more than a hundred ancient and modern writing systems […] from a computational point of view,” that, “all (natural) writing systems seem to share certain topological features with the environment, features our brains have evolved to decode.”

In other words, typography has been shaped by the environs we’ve evolved to survive in comfortably as human beings over thousands of years. Letterforms and the landscape share a link via evolutionary biology, not just mere chance or aesthetic discrimination.

And there’s something quite beautiful about that.