The following is an expanded version of a review originally published in this month's BioScience, published here with the permission of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, is many things. It is an account of the genesis and early development of the ongoing Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP), offered as an inspirational metaphor and a model for academics who want to engage in improving the neighborhoods and cities where they live. It is a personal account of an evolutionary biologist’s efforts to make his own work relevant to his city and the world. It is a collection of stories illustrating the diverse life pathways of people engaged in science (evolutionary or otherwise) and in other ways of making a difference in our world.
The book also contains a set of parables drawn from evolutionary studies of the lives of other organisms in an attempt to illuminate our own social lives. These culminate in actual Commandments designed to initiate new behavioral norms that are supposed to let us take control of our own evolutionary processes, to guide us towards becoming more “virtuous” prosocial group-organisms exhibiting cooperation on a planetary scale. In the middle of all this, there is also a curious revival of the deservedly long-forgotten and abandoned ideas of the spiritual biologist, Teilhard de Chardin, and of B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism.
Ultimately, this book is another brick in Wilson’s ongoing project to build an alternative understanding of human social evolution through his particular lens of group-level selection as a driving force of evolution that overrides individual-level selection.
Thus, The Neighborhood Project is an ambitious mix of many elements pulled together to service the broad goal of understanding—and transforming—human social behavior in a group-selection framework. It contains an anthology of well-told stories arranged just so (naturally, or by the hammer blows of the author’s narrative drive) on a scaffolding that is meant to support nothing short of an inspirational “shining city on the hill” where evolutionary biology gives us the tools to control our collective destiny. It is a grand vision, and Wilson is clearly a very passionate and zealous prophet of this grand vision.
In this, he is a somewhat unusual scientist who, while professing his own humanistic atheism, does not shy away from assuming the mantle of leading us on this spiritual, even religious, quest. He would take us down a new path that is informed by the religion of naturalistic science in order to transform human society from its current state of disparate groups of individuals engaged in the struggle for existence into a superorganism engaged in planetary cooperation That is what his vision of evolutionary biology has revealed to him about human nature, imparting considerable zeal to his preachings.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Wilson repeatedly invokes “the hammer blows of natural selection” as part of the toolkit of evolutionary biology he wants to use to understand and transform everything in the world, especially in the realm of human society. Is this the only toolkit we have to examine our world? No - but Wilson is convinced that it can, and must, transform the thinking of everyone from every discipline who aims to understand humanity and solve our problems. More importantly, this conviction has motivated him to initiate a number of practical projects that put the idea to the test in the real world. This application of evolutionary thinking to solving practical problems may be the biggest strength of the BNP—and therefore, of this book—but the zeal for pushing just one vision is also its greatest weakness.
The genesis of the BNP and this book lie in the EvoS program that Wilson built on the Binghamton University campus to impart evolutionary thinking to students and scholars from all departments on campus, and in the process, to bridge some of the gaps between isolated disciplinary islands in what he describes as the “ivory archipelago”. It is a pleasure to read about the origin and success of this program which has now become a model for many campuses around the country. One cannot overemphasize the role such a program can play in transforming the United States at a time when public support for science—evolutionary biology in particular—may be at a historic low point. Wilson therefore deserves to bask in the success of EvoS. He is also to be commended for putting his ideas on the line in this and other projects that grew out of it within the framework of his grand vision.
The Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP) started with the EvoS-induced epiphany that the city might be studied as a superorganism of social individuals, using participatory research methods that could also improve the lives of the citizens. Using simple (indeed, simplistic) tools to measure human behavior, the BNP is building a GIS (Geographical Information System) database of information about its citizens and mapping the data to understand and transform the way the city might work as a superorganism.
The ambition is to create a “nervous system” that integrates information from all sectors of the city (“health, social services, environment, crime, school”) to monitor and improve quality of life. If the thought of such a “central nervous system” tracking everything about the city sends chills up your spine, Wilson reassures us that the “rules that govern scientific research on humans” will protect privacy and human rights better than any other system can. Just trust the egghead professors who have our best interests at heart - where and how often have we heard that before?
The Evolution Institute grew out of the early success of the BNP to take on problems far bigger in scope, using the evolutionary framework to address policy issues (in education, economics, etc.) on national and global scales. Wilson devotes an entire chapter to make the case that evolutionary thinking can even help us solve our current global economic crises - with some help from the late Lin Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning insights. It is nice to know that Wilson enjoys breaking disciplinary boundaries and learning from colleagues in other disciplines - but it is also clear that he believes there is an inherent asymmetry in this exchange of perspectives, because his evolutionary theory has much more to offer other disciplines than they might have to offer in return.
This may explain why he picks and chooses tools and concepts—rather uncritically—from other disciplines mostly when they fit within his paradigm. Borrowing Ostrom’s brilliant framework of rules for the governance of common pool resources is great; replicating Milgram’s lost-letter survey to measure “civic virtue” is not. One also suspects that Ostrom’s approach to economics, which is based on detailed analyses of many informal and formal systems of resource governance across human cultures, has little to gain from Wilson’s group selection paradigm. Indeed, alternative models based on social contracts and policing may explain human society better than do innate prosocial tendencies or group-level selection.
Wilson eloquently recounts the epiphanies and serendipitous connections in the “pinball machine of life” that led him to start studying the city of Binghamton as a single organism subject to the same evolutionary processes that have been observed in other organisms, as exemplified in the parables of the water strider and the wasp, and the human immune system. He uses these parables to present his framework of how evolution works, with “the hammer blows of natural selection” operating hierarchically at multiple levels (cells, individuals, groups of individuals), resulting in diverse outcomes ranging from the nasty, brutish, selfish lives of the water striders to the cooperative social groups of wasps, to the even more harmonious cooperation of cells (such as the immune system cells) within our own bodies.
Any particular outcome depends on the contingent path in the evolutionary history of the organism concerned. Given the key role Wilson has played in sustaining and reviving the theory of group selection (through multilevel selection theory), it is not surprising that the argument is put forth quite compellingly. Given its centrality to the framework of the book, this idea is likely to influence the thinking of many lay readers. Under this model, altruistic cooperation, under certain circumstances, helps group-level selection overcome the individual-level selection favoring selfishness, which would tear groups apart.
Accordingly, cooperation is the key to the success of social insects and other social groups, going all the way back to Lynn Margulis’ scenario of how eukaryotic cells evolved through endosymbiosis among bacteria and other early single-celled organisms. Sounds like a neatly comprehensive explanation, doesn’t it? Yet, in invoking cooperation as the metaphor for the evolutionary success of our own multicellular bodies, Wilson doesn’t say much about the genetic relatedness among the cooperators, which can also align their selfish evolutionary interests in such a way as to favor altruism, i.e., kin selection theory. All of the cells in our bodies are, after all, genetically identical, so where is the conflict between altruistic cooperation and individual selection? While the merits of group selection are still subject to heated debate among evolutionary biologists, The Neighborhood Project basically ignores the potential critics of the theory, not even bothering to anticipate/answer their criticisms.
Even more troublesome is Wilson’s invocation of the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, reviving his theories about the Noosphere and human cultural evolution. Teilhard’s religious convictions resonate greatly with Wilson’s own spiritual leanings, as seen in this passage comparing his journeys to those of Darwin, which might raise some eyebrows: “As Teilhard traversed the vast Asian continent on his collecting expeditions, he observed geology, nature, and culture at a scale rivaling Darwin’s voyage around the world on the Beagle. Even better [emphasis mine], Teilhard combined all of this with his vast knowledge of Catholic theology and a personal spiritual quality so strong that it was hardened rather than broken, by the cataclysm of World War I, personal tragedies such as the death of his beloved siblings, and his status as marginal within his own church.” Even better than Darwin, whose own personal tragedies, along with detailed empirical research on evolution, led him away from the church. No wonder Wilson, who also takes issue with the New Atheism movement, is so well-supported by the Templeton Foundation whose mission is to reconcile religion and science.
Not unlike some others, Teilhard regarded the individual human capacity for reflection as a key evolutionary development, which set us on our unique path of social and cultural evolution into the Noosphere (and eventually to his spiritual woo of the Omega point). Wilson inverts the sequence of events to argue that cooperation and trust among members of a social group is necessary for reflection to evolve. Trust based on altruism leading to the protective envelope of a cohesive social group is therefore a precondition for the evolution of reflection in humans. Yet, this ignores much research in primatology emphasizing the role of tactical deception in the development of a ‘theory of mind’, which is also a crucial element of reflection. There is also the curious claim that small-scale human groups are necessarily “aggressively egalitarian”, and foster mutual trust, unlike social groups of chimps (and other apes) where individuals are driven by “an obsession to achieve social dominance”. Are dominance hierarchies, and the use of aggression and deception to maintain them through social exploitation, really not a feature of human social groups?
Wilson also makes much of Teilhard’s notion that human cultural diversity is somehow akin to biological diversity, and is subject to the same evolutionary processes. I find it curious, though, that despite emphasizing cultural diversity, both Teilhard and Wilson nevertheless find one cultural model, the European/Judaeo-Christian one, superior (or at least capable of faster evolution) to all others. Both also want to suggest a more singular pathway towards controlling future human evolution on a planetary (noosphere) scale rather than promoting a diversity of ways to solve our problems in different parts of the world.
A particular model of evolution is thus Wilson’s version of Maslow’s golden hammer, with which to solve most of humanity’s problems. Maslow’s own work, though, merits no mention at all in the book despite so many of its pages dwelling on understanding the psychology of human motivations and applying them in schemes to reinforce prosocial behavior to improve people’s lives. Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, for example, has proved useful in devising interventions to improve student retention and development. Moreover, the hierarchy of needs should fit in well with the notion of reflection evolving only after basic levels of social belonging and trust have developed. Perhaps another “lost island” for Wilson to discover?
The Neighborhood Project is not just a theoretical manifesto promoting the application of the evolutionary toolkit to solve humanity’s problems - it is also meant to be a practical manual demonstrating how this works through the Binghamton Neighborhood Project after which the book is titled. The project started off attempting to map civic virtue, i.e., altruistic or prosocial (as opposed to antisocial) behavior, across the city of Binghamton, using some very simple tools borrowed from other disciplines, and perhaps misapplied or over-interpreted to fit Wilson’s paradigm.
The biggest tool is the Developmental Assets Profile (DAP) survey used by educators, which has questions that can (so we are told) measure aspects of “civic virtue” or prosocial behavior of schoolchildren. Inferring that children’s pro-(or anti-)social tendencies must be a result of their home and neighborhood environments, Wilson mapped the DAP scores of children against their home addresses to produce a topographic GIS map showing “hills” of civic virtue and “valleys” of prosocial behavior. This map has become a primary motivating metaphor for the project.
When he first created the GIS map, using kriging (a technique that uses measurements from a few sample locations to create a contour map covering an entire area) to interpolate DAP scores across the entire city based on the sample locations, “it was intoxicating to roam the map with my eyes, trying to relate the hills and valleys to what little I knew about the various neighborhoods.” From there, this map became the means by which “the egghead professor and local deadbeat had provided a new way of seeing” for the school district superintendent and other city officials.
The map became a touchstone for the BNP, redefining its big goal as one of “raising the valleys” to get everyone onto the virtuous hills, and the DAP became a core element to be monitored on a regular basis to gauge the success of the project’s interventions. The Neighborhood Project ends on a sentimental note reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru, about a dying bureaucrat’s efforts to give meaning to his life by helping a poor community in his city get a neighborhood park. The egghead professor, like that Japanese bureaucrat, has managed to bring together a diverse group of people to help develop a neighborhood park - all because of his map and his vision to raise the valleys in that map into thriving prosocial hills. When Wilson shares his thrill at having become a catalyst for transformation in his city—something more of us scientists should really aspire to— he “could almost feel one of the valleys of my GIS map rising beneath my feet.”
Poetic and poignant as that ending may seem, the reification of the map data—a limited survey result—is quite problematic. Sociologists and psychologists more familiar with the DAP may be better judges of whether it can be used to measure altruism in the evolutionary sense that Wilson uses it - I have my doubts. The basic map of DAP scores was reinforced by subsequent measures of behaviors through surveys of Halloween and Christmas decorations, and a replication of Milgram’s lost-letter experiment - each of which raise their own questions about methodological validity and reification of metrics.
Maps are powerful tools, of course: for finding patterns, for identifying issues and solutions, and for conveying information—and misinformation. GIS techniques such as kriging produce pretty-looking maps, which can strongly influence one’s perspective - but their reliability for informing research and policy depends on the quality, meaning, appropriateness, and spatial resolution of the underlying data and metrics. How valid is it to read the kriging-smoothed contours on a map of DAP scores or lost-letter return rates as a real topography of civic virtue when we don’t know how those measures relate to the actual psychological motivations of the real people living under those contours? There is hardly any discussion (let alone critique) of the validity or reliability of these techniques, which were developed in a different context to address rather different questions than ones about group selection and human social evolution.
Nor are we given much of an idea of the underlying texture of Binghamton’s human community: urban ecologists have found cities to be very heterogeneous at a fine scale, forcing them to rethink and revise the application of canned GIS techniques that do not always capture such heterogeneity. Given how much Wilson invokes the maps, it is surprising that the book does not contain a single map of Binghamton, with or without the overlay of its civic virtue topography! It is an odd omission in a book about a real place, given how much people love to pore over maps even in fictional stories.
Despite the brief description of the history of the city, and repeated references to these maps, one doesn’t get a clear picture of the extent of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, or racial diversity in Binghamton - yet these must all be important elements shaping the psychology of individuals living there. Knowing the diversity of the human population of the city is also critical, surely, for the success of policy interventions attempting to “raise the valleys”. For a scholar of religious diversity, it is surprising that Wilson chose to focus only on Halloween and Christmas decorations as measures of prosocial behavior. Are there no other options in Binghamton? Is participation in either of these really a good indicator of prosocial behavior in general? I ask as a fellow atheist who doesn’t follow either, but does occasionally light lamps outside my suburban California home during the Indian festival of Diwali. Am I dragging my neighborhood down into an antisocial valley?
Later in the book, there is extensive discussion of religions, especially the motivating idea of an afterlife - but this too focuses exclusively on the Judaeo-Christian branch of humanity’s religious phylogeny. One hopes that future studies from the Evolution Institute expand a comparative approach to other branches as well. For, although I am more inclined to agree with the rationalist critiques of religion from the New Atheists, the evolutionary origins and persistence of religions are intriguing and worthy of study.
The book is stronger when addressing human connections with nature in the city, and the need to revive and reinforce those connections. The parable of the crows provides some insights into the challenges other organisms face in dealing with or adapting to human habitats such as cities, although the emphasis remains on the implications for the evolution of social groups. A number of other studies are also looking at cities through an evolutionary lens - but focusing on other organisms, using the city as a laboratory in which to study their evolutionary responses to novel selection pressures. Wilson’s focus remains on the humans, with urban biodiversity being discussed primarily in terms of its value for human psychological wealth.
Appealing personal stories of the citizens of Binghamton are woven together with those of scientists throughout Wilson’s broad narrative, but trouble arises when these individual stories are filtered by the author’s overarching vision in ways that distort their essence. I was particularly struck by the tale of the student Omar Eldakar, who was a proud outlier among EvoS students on the prosocial/Machiavellian graphs. Wilson depicts Omar as a “street-smart” minority (dark-skinned) kid who performed poorly in grade school, excelled at athletics, exhibited antisocial traits, but grew (under the good professor’s benevolent influence) into a brilliant scholar of human social behavior and evolution. All this sounds great, until you contemplate Omar’s background. He is also the well-loved son of well-educated Egyptian parents. His mother is an engineer with a PhD; his father is a caring parent, who imparted his love for biology to his son and migrated to the United States for a better life. That doesn’t exactly jive with the stereotype of a street-smart minority kid who inherited his father’s pugilistic instinct “to never give an inch”. Couldn’t Omar’s poor performance on standardized tests simply be a result of different cultural backgrounds and expectations rather than innate (or culturally conditioned) Machiavellian tendencies? Or simply another example of a smart kid bored of standardized tests in public schools that failed to challenge his mind? Doesn’t his story also raise questions about how the schoolkids in the DAP and other surveys might be responding in willfully inaccurate ways to yet another survey that doesn’t mean much to their grades? Even more bizarre is the paragraph devoted to a gushing description of Omar’s physical attractiveness, which brings to mind a kind of orientalist perspective that would have raised Edward Said’s eyebrows, and may yet spin him in his grave.
It is not easy to review a book that covers so many weighty topics and tells so many tales. I have attempted to highlight elements that struck me as particular strengths or weaknesses. The real strength, in the long run, may be the Binghamton Neighborhood Project itself, because it is an experiment in implementing Wilson’s grand vision. Given the urgency of social / environmental problems facing humanity these days, any new experimental approaches must be welcomed and their performance closely observed and measured using the naturalistic scientific methodology championed in this book.
If science works hand in hand with community development, so much the better also for us egghead professors searching for larger meaning in our lives! Karl Marx observed that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Evolutionary biologists have only recently begun to interpret the city, and in doing so, many are also beginning to change it. For in the city, where most of us now live, it is possible, even necessary, to engage in philosophy and action at the same time, because we need both a deeper understanding of urban and human social systems, and ways to make a better world for ourselves and fellow lifeforms. We must, however, also guard against the hubris of thinking that our particular disciplinary approach holds the key (let alone the Commandments) to unlocking human potential when a diversity of tools, perspectives, and policies may be more adaptive in a heterogeneous world.
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