The "Surprisingly Sophisticated" Fallacy

Earlier this month I noticed, twice, writers describe pre-modern* architecture as "surprisingly sophisticated."  This caught my attention in part because I was just wrapping up an experimental seminar course which explored how pre-modern architecture worked in terms of heating, cooling, lighting, and structural systems.  We looked at a lot of sophisticated pre-modern buildings; it stopped being surprising pretty quickly.

On Treehugger.com, in an article called "What is a smart home anyway?", Lloyd Alter --- who I respect quite a lot --- said the Native American wigwam was "surprisingly really sophisticated" because of its layered insulated wall system and central heat source.

I replied in the comment section:

"Good subject! I just finished teaching a class on what can be learned from pre-modern buildings. The word "surprisingly" strikes me funny because we found pre-modern buildings to be consistently intelligent and clever, given the tools available. But ultimately we concluded these kinds of buildings, while fascinating, should not be romanticized. They allowed survival, perhaps barely. (Think about the air-quality!)
It's important to acknowledge that life improved tremendously in the machine age, even as we proceed with course-corrections."

Then some other commenters also chastised Alter for the word "surprisingly," and to his great credit he rescinded it, as the page now shows.  (Nobody disagrees with the word sophisticated.) 

Then in a (completely unrelated) New York Times op-ed called "How to Rebuild Architecture," Steve Bingler and Martin C. Pedersen offered a critique of contemporary architecture by claiming:

"For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population."

I'm calling it the "Surprisingly Sophisticated" Fallacy.  You're only surprised if you presume that people from the past were less intelligent than us today --- and that's a basic error of historical thinking, because they certainly were not.  Again, it doesn't take much exposure to history before getting this.  A few minutes with the Parthenon will do.  You can certainly call old buildings or old practices sophisticated, just don't act surprised.

Incidentally, Aaron Betsky wrote a scathing retort to Bingler and Pedersen's larger argument, and though he didn't exactly address my point head on, he reacted to the passage above by saying: "I do not know what fantasyland these authors live in."

Finally, to forestall any misunderstanding, none of this contradicts the undeniable fact of technological progress.  A house built today is more technologically sophisticated than a wigwam or country manor, because materials, tools, and techniques generally get better as time accumulates.  And this progress is clearly reflected in our excellent standard of living.  We should not, however, take that to mean that we're more intelligent, or that people in past periods were less capable.  They were invariably clever!

*In the class we generally took "pre-modern" to mean those buildings built before central heating, or air-conditioning, or electric lighting (depending on which subject we were interested in at the moment).