The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time

David Sloan Wilson

448 pages, Little, Brown and Company, 2011

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Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s latest book is accessible, engaging, and wide-ranging—taking the reader from the dynamics of cooperation among crows to the “prosociality” of kids in Binghamton, N.Y., to the reasons why economics came to be dominated by such a rarefied and self-centered view of human behavior. If only the book were more convincing—and appropriately titled, too.

In earlier books, such as Evolution for Everyone and Darwin’s Cathedral, Wilson brilliantly explained evolution to the general public. He managed, as the best scientists rarely do, to demystify the science without dumbing it down. The Neighborhood Project, which likewise celebrates the richness and reach of science, charts Wilson’s efforts to “[use] evolution to improve my city, one block at a time.” But this approach is suspect in two ways.

First, most of the book isn’t about a neighborhood project but rather about Wilson’s larger intellectual agenda: to apply evolutionary science to a host of complex social problems—from Binghamton’s crime, blight, and other urban problems to war and environmental sustainability and even religion and conceptions of the afterlife.

Engaging chapters about how evolutionary processes are reflected in specific biological phenomena—for example, how insects called water striders hunt and reproduce—are interspersed with installments about Wilson’s “discovery” of his hometown. He heads off the State University of New York at Binghamton campus to launch a survey of schoolchildren, gathering their perceptions of their neighborhoods and their interactions with each other and adults, and then exploring correlations between these perceptions and patterns of crime and blight. These local scenes are interspersed with chapters on questions about how to reconcile religious and scientific understandings of reality or why the jolt of the global financial crisis led to soul searching in the world of elite economics.

Think Jared Diamond meets Hunter S. Thompson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who makes an extended cameo). Even for the intellectually adventurous reader, it is a scenic route, with mind-bending digressions that make the main thread hard to follow.

The second problem is with the book’s premise—that we should use evolutionary theory to illuminate and tackle urban problems. This is questionable and far more risky than Wilson seems aware. “If the tools of science are required to see into a city,” he writes, “then the tools of evolutionary theory are required to reflect on it.” But this does not follow. A host of cooperation and conflict patterns and other dynamics in which community organizers, mayors, philanthropists, and others routinely engage may or may not reflect evolutionary processes. It is a complicated question, over which Wilson’s own and related fields are divided. Wilson never makes a convincing case for his premise, and he shows little understanding, for example, of real estate markets and how they shape residential settlement or public and private disinvestment. When he comes across such complexity, Wilson tends to reduce it to “the tangled web” of evolution. Case closed.

As a result, Wilson’s analysis risks becoming a diversion from other ways of understanding what can produce and sustain collective action to improve a block, neighborhood, or entire city—and what strategies should follow. Had Wilson’s analysis included community development and the forms it takes over time, especially in older industrial cities similar to Binghamton, he might have asked whether evolution can teach us something about defining smarter goals. If you’re involved in revitalizing Detroit, for example, it matters whether you’re aiming to return the city to an industrial powerhouse of 2 million people or creatively pursuing a different future, with a smaller and greener human footprint, as the current mayor and many community leaders have decided to do.

In sum, and in spite of how Wilson advertises his book, The Neighborhood Project is not a measured inquiry into what evolutionary theory adds to the many fields that shed light on urban problems or problem solving. Rather, it reimagines our behavior and its consequences as though human evolution were the grand and heretofore missing link, a “panacea for the world’s ills,” as ecologist Jerry Coyne wrote in his New York Times review.

The few parts of the book that examine what social science, as opposed to evolutionary biology, has taught us about effective cooperation—notably, Wilson’s laudatory discussion of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s findings—is limited to public goods, such as clean air. Many local problems simply aren’t centered on public goods, important as they are. Many problems result instead from intense and highly unequal competition for private goods, such as land or decent wages, and sometimes from market forces and political choices about those goods that are set in motion far away from locals. It’s tempting to boil down local problem solving into a set of small-scale cooperation challenges, but it isn’t wise, certainly not as the sole play in the playbook. And it’s less wise still to project the habits of wasps onto human cooperation before one has made a stronger case.