"The Neighborhood Project" by David Sloan Wilson


Change is not necessarily for the better. Just as it is wrong to equate evolution with “slow”, it is also wrong to equate it with “progress”. Evolution doesn’t make everything nice. It results in the full spectrum of outcomes that we associate with good and evil, thriving and decay. The kind of change that we associate with progress can emerge as a robust product of evolution but only under certain environmental conditions. With the right conditions the world becomes a better place. With the wrong conditions, evolution takes us where we don’t want to go. That is why we must learn to become wise managers of evolutionary processes.
— from “The Neighborhood Project”


Ever since Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, the theory of evolution has been a key to understanding the natural world and a controversial body of knowledge sometimes dismissed as “just a theory”. Sometimes misrepresented as a notion that “man is descended from the monkey”, evolutionary science does harken back to a common ancestor while seeking to explain how, over the ages, biological creatures have adapted to their environment. This does include us humans, for whom the forces of natural selection may also be culturally determined.

Dr. David Sloan Wilson is one of the world’s leading teachers and proponents of evolutionary science. His books include “Evolution for Everyone” and “Darwin’s Cathedral”, and as SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University he developed the interdisciplinary program called EvoS that opened the realm of evolutionary understanding across many fields of study. He has long been a respected figure in academia, which he calls the Ivory Archipelago. He has participated in many of the leading international scientific gatherings. But he admits that till now he’s not been too involved in the civic life of Binghamton, NY.

“The Neighborhood Project” is subtitled “Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”. It is a detailed and personal work, acquainting the general reader with the workings of evolutionary science, opening with chapters on the traits and structure of water bugs and wasps before looking deeply into human organization. For this Dr. Wilson admits that he had to leave his intellectual comfort zone to “become a novice on the subject of community-based research.” The biologist had to enter the social sciences. But unlike Wilson’s research tours of early humanoid caves in South Africa or Darwin’s excursion to the Galapagos Islands, the setting and materials for his neighborhood project was at his doorstep, the city of Binghamton, New York.

Studying the evolutionary processes under way in Binghamton took careful preparation and cooperation from community leaders and EvoS students. Most of those who assisted in furthering the project earn a biographical sketch in “The Neighborhood Project”, and the book also is a detailed journey through a scientific research project. Rather than fossils and anthills Wilson and his collaborators studied community cohesion through tracing such phenomena as the presence of Christmas lights on houses and by testing students from neighborhoods that scored high and low in civic involvement for signs of personal cooperation. His inquiry carries him into related (and often contentious) fields of economics and religion. The challenge facing Dr. Wilson, his researchers and anyone who wishes to help Binghamton become “the first city with a nervous system” is the long economic decline that the area has suffered. A Gallup poll in March 2011 asserted that Binghamton is one of the least liked cities as judged by its residents. It’s a place that should welcome all the help in can get, especially after the recent devastating floods.

If the tools of science are required to see into a city, then the tools of evolutionary theory are required to reflect on it. It’s a Darwinian world out there at two levels: the fast-paced process of behavioral change and the capacity for rapid change that evolved by genetic evolution. If we don’t use the tools of evolutionary theory to reflect on a Darwinian world, then fuhgeddaboudit. Far from threatening, this should be looked upon as one of the most positive developments in the history of intellectual thought. Think of all that we are on the verge of understanding.
— from “The Neighborhood Project”

Professor David Sloan Wilson joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the process of turning Binghamton into an experimental site and the results of the project.

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