Using evolutionary theory to shape neighbourhoods


Jason Collins


September 8, 2011

David Sloan Wilson has just written a book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, where he catalogues the use of evolutionary theory to improve life in Binghamton.

I haven’t read it yet, but a review by Mark Oppenheimer foreshadows the content. He writes:

Mr. Wilson argues — more controversially than he lets on — that “human cultural diversity is like biological diversity.” … For Mr. Wilson the main thing to understand is not that culture trends toward sublimity, but that it evolves, rather than merely changing, and that its evolution is subject to rules like those that govern biological organisms.

Our cultural forms adapt, Mr. Wilson says. They are shaped by a kind of natural selection. And once we accept that cultural evolution can be interpreted in this mechanistic way, we are better positioned to interpret the evidence we get from surveys, Christmas-light canvassing and so forth.

The chess passage highlights Mr. Wilson’s central conceit, inspiring without being fully persuasive: that evolutionary theory is the academic’s proper lingua franca, the terminology and indeed the theoretical framework that allows everyone to talk, and to plot the improvement of humankind, across disciplines. With a reasonably scientific understanding of any habitat and the animals in it — students in Binghamton schools, Christmas revelers in assorted neighborhoods — a shrewd scientist can develop tools to help the animals survive and flourish.

The real test of Wilson’s project will be whether it works or not. However, the use of evolution as a tool to assess cultural change without using it to analyse the motivations and actions of biological humans seems to sell the potential of evolutionary theory short.