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Home is where the yurt is...

Dylan Evans is a scientist who thought the future lay with designing emotionally intelligent robots. Now he has turned his back on technology to set up a commune where he and 15 volunteers will live as primitive a life as possible — the route, he believes, to Utopia

Dylan Evans used to think that technology would deliver paradise on Earth: “We’d be in this magical world predicted by H. G. Wells, where robots did the dirty work and people had masses of leisure time.” Which is why he ended up at the University of the West of England building clever robots capable of recognising human emotions.

But the closer he came to crafting this perfect future, the less attractive it seemed. Now he is renouncing his university career — and technology — to fashion his own primitive paradise. Next month, he will head to a secret location in Scotland to prepare the groundwork for the Utopia experiment, in which he and others will imagine themselves to be survivors of an apocalypse. They will grow and kill their own food, shun television, draw water from a nearby stream and ration their use of electricity.

A changing cast of about 15 people — strangers who have contacted Evans through his website and who profess skills such as butchery or gardening — will wander through Utopia, staying in the moneyless community for a maximum of three months.

The haven will welcome men and women, young and old, singles and couples. There will be public dormitories and private areas, and perhaps even a “love yurt” in which to snatch romantic moments. So far, applicants include a former RAF training officer, a graduate in peace studies, a human rights lawyer, a couple of teenagers anxious to occupy themselves on a gap year, a professor of engineering, and self-sufficiency enthusiasts. Utopia will disband after 18 months.

One wonders how Evans — a personable lecturer who has written popular science books (one was required reading for Keanu Reeves and other actors in The Matrix) and contributes opinion pieces to broadsheets — conceived such an odd idea. He laughs when I ask if it is the product of a midlife crisis; the 39-year-old, who was married briefly in his twenties to an Argentinian archaeologist, is recently out of a long-term relationship, with no professorship on the horizon (although a chair “wouldn’t tempt me in the slightest”).

His explanation, instead, is a mix of intellectual and personal justification. Humans, he believes, were designed by evolution to live in small, primitive communities and this experiment will test the theory.

He wanted out of conventional academia anyway because “the kind of intellectuals I admire operate at the margins” and he aspires to join them. There’s a fivepossibly-six-figure book deal in the pipeline plus a gaggle of television companies on the scent of an upmarket reality television show (although a poll of would-be Utopians reveals little enthusiasm for being filmed).

In any case, he’s now a pariah in academic circles for condemning much of science as trivial. Take this, from one of his Guardian articles in 2005: “There is nothing wrong with dedicating your life to collecting rather trivial facts, just as there is nothing wrong with earning a living by cleaning toilets. But nobody pretends that cleaning toilets is the most noble activity to which man can aspire, while there are many who say that about science.”

That, he admits, “pissed people off”. There is a strong whiff of burnt bridges; Evans has no real choice but to turn his back on academia. And, given his media experience and intellectual aspirations, Utopia begins to look like a shrewd exit strategy.

We are sitting, on a hot, sunny day, in the garden of Evans’s small but characterful Cotswolds pad. He is the picture of the relaxed, trendy academic — dark jeans, black T-shirt and gold-rimmed glasses — and happily allows me to direct the tea-making in his kitchen. He has sold up to a neighbour, and will use some — all, if necessary — of the £90,000 profit to fund the 18-month Utopia experiment. Socrates, Evans’s black cat, who prowls around my feet, will accompany his master north.

While on a lecture tour in Mexico last year, Evans visited the stone cities abandoned by the Mayan civilisation. “They’re such mysterious, eerie places — you can’t help but wonder what happened to them,” he says, snacking on Bombay mix. “They weren’t invaded — their civilisation just imploded because they overexploited their environment. I began to think: could the same thing happen to our industrialised civilisation? So far, hundreds of civilisations have collapsed — why do we think ours is immune?

“And what would life be like in the aftermath? It suddenly struck me that such a collapse might not actually be a bad thing. It would be terrible while it happened because millions of people would die, which is obviously horrible, but those who survive might have the best chance of creating Utopia that we’ve ever had. I realised that if I was going to explore this issue, I’d have to act it out.”

He is convinced that a return to “primitivism” — a more basic way of life — is the route to human happiness and possibly even its survival. Participating in cutting-edge robotics research only confirmed his belief: “One of the main applications of my work is social robotics, such as building robot companions for old people. But is this really the best solution to loneliness? Why not get people to talk to each other? Why do we look for technological fixes, a pill or a robot, to solve problems that are fundamentally social in nature?”

Evans, a graduate in linguistics from Southampton University, was also deeply influenced by his time at the London School of Economics in the early Nineties, during which he collected a PhD in the philosophy of science. At that time, the LSE was the epicentre of the evolutionary psychology movement, which theorised that aspects of human behaviour were hardwired relics of our ancestral past.

From this flowered Evans’s belief that humans were no longer living in the kind of society that suited them: “We evolved over three million years — we spent 99.9 per cent of that time living in small hunter-gatherer bands with minimal technology, such as bows and arrows.”

Then, 10,000 years ago, came farming and an explosion in food production, which could suddenly sustain huge populations and fuel progress: “The dominant view is that our current lifestyle is indisputably better,” Evans says. “I’m beginning to think it’s not indisputable — in fact, our modern lifestyle is something we’re extremely badly adapted to. No society has more leisure time than the hunter gatherers. On average they spend two hours a day gathering, preparing and cooking food. The rest of the time they sleep a lot, play a lot, make love, and tell stories. The concept of working to survive is unknown, as is the concept of hierarchy.” Primitive cultures, he says, report lower rates of mental disorders, and have more control over their lives.

Evans compares human beings to animals that have been taken out of their natural habitat and reared in captivity. The result is high rates of stress, disease and psychological suffering. “I think of this (the Utopia experiment) as gradually ‘re-wilding’ people,” he laughs.

He has banned TV and mobile phones, but sanctioned the internet (because he believes that the web could re-knit itself after a disaster). Medicines are fine (“this is play-acting, not religious cult”), and if the community collectively decides to import other conveniences, that’s OK too. The important thing, Evans says, is that the Utopians actively think about what they need, rather than taking it for granted.

The first Utopians will arrive in March 2007 — between now and then, Evans will be converting a barn (on farmland belonging to a friend) for communal living, erecting yurts, and installing toilets and solar-powered showers. He has already visited eco-villages, ashrams and monasteries to see how other “intentional communities” operate. He is planning get-togethers later this year, so the Utopians can meet before joining him.

Evans has an extremely rosy view of how the community will sort out disagreements: “Our wild, or primary, nature, which has been stunted by the way we live today, is much more trustworthy than we think. And it flourishes brilliantly in our natural habitat. Look at the way hunter-gatherers make decisions, punish transgressors and counter dominant people — they know how to put people in their place. I want to explore whether those social mechanisms will work.” The community’s revolving-door policy, he adds, should prevent boredom and stop cliques forming.

What about a relentlessly disruptive individual? “The community could, of course, decide to eject someone.” He probably wouldn’t mind the odd showdown — he views modern life as lacklustre and insipid, with people resorting to soap operas or violent video games for an injection of synthetic passion.

Isn’t Utopia going to be a seething hotbed of sexual tension? One potential participant, who is perhaps wedded too literally to the postapocalyptic scenario, has pointed out in the online discussion group that survivors will need to repopulate the planet. “Sex will be another subject of discussion. Every society has a way of regulating sexual behaviour. Humans are not monogamous and not promiscuous — we form fairly stable pair bonds but they’re not unbreakable. Then again, the short stay might mean those issues don’t become prevalent.”

Evans plans single-sex dormitories and a “quiet” yurt, in which each community member can spend, say, one night a week. “You could take in a lover with you, or just a friend, or be on your own. We need to get the right balance between privacy and community.”

Is he secretly hoping to find the woman of his dreams in Utopia? “The idea of a bourgeois existence, with a wife and kids, appals me. But if I met a woman who could live in a yurt?” His face brightens. “I don’t think I’d mind.”