Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes that evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also on the community level. He contends that evolution is among the factors that drive community involvement. Guest host John Ydstie speaks to Sloan Wilson about his new book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.


David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who believes that evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also at the community level. Wilson is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and he’s written a new book about a project he launched to illustrate that theory. It’s called “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.”

David Sloan Wilson joins us from member station WSKG in Binghamton. Welcome to the program.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Thank you very much.

YDSTIE: Tell us – why did you, essentially, leave the laboratory, I guess, to embark on this community project?

SLOAN WILSON: Well, all of my professional life, I’ve studied the puzzle of why altruism and cooperation – how they can succeed as evolutionary strategies. Evolution is not just about selfishness. It can also be about selflessness. But how can selflessness evolve? So that’s what I was doing as a scientist. And then it struck me that really, I should be doing in the real world. And what better place to start than my own hometown of Binghamton, New York?

YDSTIE: And give us an outline of how you applied these principles in this project in Binghamton.

SLOAN WILSON: So what I did in Binghamton was I – first of all, I measured individual differences and how prosocial you are. Prosociality is the scientific term for any other-oriented attitude or behavior. So I measured that…

YDSTIE: Any other – that is, where there’s concern about the other.

SLOAN WILSON: That’s right. I mean, ask the question, you know, I think it’s important to make my community a better place. The ones who agree strongly with that statement, and especially those who put it into action, we call them highly prosocial. So I measured that. I also measured the social support that everyone has, and also where there live. So if you’re a highly prosocial teenager, you’re likely to be surrounded with social support from family, neighborhood, school, religion, extracurricular activities.

So in essence, those who gave, got. And those who didn’t give, didn’t get.

YDSTIE: Where did you find enhances prosociality?

SLOAN WILSON: Number one, a strong sense of group identity, and a strong sense of what the group is about. If you don’t think of yourself as a group, and if you don’t know what the purpose of the group is, then it’s unlikely to function well as a group. Two, proportional costs and benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits. That’s not sustaining over the long term.

Three, consensus decision-making. People hate being told what to do, but they’ll work hard for a decision that they agree upon. Four, monitoring. Most people want to cooperate but there’s always a temptation to slack a little bit. And then a few people are going to actively to game the system. So unless you can monitor good behavior, forget about it. Next, graduated sanctions. If somebody does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down. You remind them in a nice and friendly fashion, and that keeps them in solid citizen mode. At the same time, you do need to be prepared to escalate in those rare cases, when necessary. Next, a fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it needs to be resolved in a fast and fair fashion, in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.

Seven, autonomy – for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs. Finally, in a large society consisting of many groups, those groups have to be put together using those same principles. That’s called polycentric governance, a very important concept which emerged from political science, but now has a more genuine evolutionary formulation.

YDSTIE: Give us an example of how you try to apply them in a practical way in your projects in Binghamton.

SLOAN WILSON: One’s called Design Your Own Park, which is an innovative collaboration with the city to turn vacant lots into neighborhood parks, basically. That’s entering its second year, and so I don’t have the numbers for that one. But the project which actually has fulfilled itself is a program for at-risk high school students, called the Regents Academy. To qualify for this program, you have to have flunked at least three of your classes in the previous year.

And we designed the Regents Academy so that after its first year, not only did the students do much better than the comparison group, but they actually performed on a par with the average high school student on the state-mandated exams. There’s almost no programs for at-risk high school students that do this, other than by taking over the lives of the students, with that extended day and extended school year and that sort of thing. But we did it in the context of the normal school day and year, simply by designing the program with evolutionary science in mind.

YDSTIE: Binghamton is a bit of a tough laboratory, according to the Gallup Poll. A March 2011 Gallup Poll found that Binghamton is one of the least-liked cities in the country by its own residents.


SLOAN WILSON: That’s true.

YDSTIE: It sounds like a tough row to hoe up there.

SLOAN WILSON: Binghamton is known for two benign and paternalistic corporations. The first was the Johnson Endicott Shoe Company, which for a time was the largest shoe manufacturer in the world. George Johnson was a great benefactor of the community. He built all the parks. His stamp is still very much everywhere in the community. And then he was followed by John Watson, who built IBM – which started in Binghamton – into the corporation that it is, and who also – like Johnson – took care of his employees. And I think that this actually led to a kind of a helplessness, and an incapacity to manage their own affairs, which when those corporations left, just kind of left the residents stranded. And I’ve been told that the ethos of the city, which is reflected in that survey, is basically one of betrayal. But in other respects, Binghamton is a wonderful city.

YDSTIE: David Sloan Wilson’s new book is called “The Neighborhood Project.” Thanks very much for joining us.

SLOAN WILSON: Thanks to you.


YDSTIE: You’re listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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