Big idea: evolutionary theory can make our lives better
Post on 31-Dec-2016
28 | NewScientist | 27 August 2011
A FEW years ago, it struck me that Darwins theory of evolution could be used to make our lives better in a practical sense. As someone who has spent a lifetime studying evolution, this was a road to Damascus moment. Reborn, I left my ivory tower to see if I could make a difference in my own city of Binghamton, New York, and worldwide through the creation of the Evolution Institute, the worlds first evolutionary think tank.
My new mission was not a complete break from what I had been doing before. Throughout my career, I have studied the fundamental problem of how altruism, cooperation and other traits that are good for the group can evolve in any species. I have also studied the evolutionary origins of human characteristics such as gossip, decision-making, physical attractiveness and religion. But that was all academic research: how would my ideas fare on the streets of Binghamton?
My teams first goal was to measure prosociality any behaviour geared towards the care and welfare of others or the promotion of society to see if we might encourage more of it. We did this using a variety of methods, including experimental games, door-to-door surveys and questionnaires aimed at schoolchildren, and by observing the frequency of spontaneous prosocial acts such as people picking up and posting a stamped addressed envelope left on the sidewalk, or the extent to which people decorated their houses
Can we use evolutionary biology to help improve peoples lives? David Sloan Wilson believes so, and hes putting his ideas into action on the streets of his home city
From ivory tower to city streets
ProfileDavid Sloan Wilson is a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state. His latest book, The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time, is published this week (Little, Brown)
during Halloween or Christmas. The data was geographically referenced, which enabled us to generate topographical maps depicting prosociality across the whole city.
The results were striking. If prosocial individuals had been evenly distributed throughout the city as you might expect then the maps would have looked like a flat plain. Instead, they revealed a rugged landscape with hills representing concentrations of highly prosocial people and valleys for areas where people appeared to care little for others or society.
Why is prosociality clustered in this way? This is where evolutionary theory can help. As an academic evolutionist, I knew that prosociality can evolve in any species when highly prosocial individuals are able to interact with each other and avoid interacting with selfish individuals in other words, when those who give also receive. Our surveys show that this is what is happening in Binghamton. The most caring and altruistic individuals receive the most social support from multiple sources, including family, neighbourhood, school, religion, and through extracurricular activities such as sports and arts. Groups that satisfy this basic condition for prosociality are likely to thrive.
That doesnt explain why prosociality is common in some areas and rare in others, though. Do people who are genetically predisposed towards altruism tend to flock together? Or do people become more altruistic when they interact with others who display this trait? Or are external environmental conditions the major influence? Research shows that all three factors play a role. Whatever genetic predispositions people have, their prosociality changes according to where they are and who they are with. Much depends on their social environment.
We demonstrated this in Binghamton, when we surveyed dozens of young people whose families had moved home between 2006 and 2009. Some moved from valleys to hills, others from hills to valleys. In each case their prosociality changed to match their new environment: those moving to neighbourhoods with greater cohesion between residents became more inclined to put the interests of others before their own, those moving to more splintered neighbourhoods became less so.
Promoting prosociality is a good idea not only as an end in itself, but because living in a caring, supportive neighbourhood carries many additional benefits, from lower crime rates to a healthier developmental environment for children. With this in
OPINION THE BIG IDEA
27 August 2011 | NewScientist | 29
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mind, we have started several experiments to test whether we can turn Binghamtons valleys into hills. In one ambitious project, the Design Your Own Park initiative, were giving residents the opportunity to cooperate with their neighbours by turning neglected spaces into parks of their own design. Most people scarcely know their neighbours, but theres nothing like a common goal to bring people together.
The science behind Design Your Own Park is based on work by Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel prize in economics for showing
in contrast to conventional economic wisdom that groups of people are capable of managing common resources when certain conditions are met. The conditions, in a nutshell, are that the group and its purpose must be clearly defined; costs and benefits must be equally shared; decision-making must be by consensus; misconduct should be monitored; sanctions should start out mild and escalate only as needed; conflict resolution should be fast and fair; the group must have the authority to manage its affairs; and the relationship of the group with others must be appropriately structured. Ostroms work is relevant to any group striving for a common goal, including designing a neighbourhood park. One year into our initiative, five schemes are up and running
and showing great promise, though it is too early yet for a real assessment of success.
In another project, we are advising the Binghamton City School District in the design of an educational programme for high-school students who are at risk of falling behind to be eligible they must have flunked three of their classes during the previous year. Called the Regents Academy, it too makes use of the Ostrom principles, since schools are also social groups whose members must cooperate to achieve their objectives. As well as these principles, we draw on research into how people function in safe and harsh environments and how they respond to short-term and long-term goals.
A group that functions well is a bit like an organism with numerous organs: remove any single organ and the organism dies. The Regents Academy has all the necessary organs to function as an effective group, and it seems to be working. During its first year, not only did its students greatly outperform an equivalent group of at-risk high-school students, but they also performed on a par with average Binghamton high-school students on state-mandated exams.
This proves that educational policy informed by evolutionary theory can make a difference on the ground. Indeed, I am convinced that a Darwinian perspective can improve policy in many arenas. At the Evolution Institute we are using evolutionary science to help address a whole range of issues in addition to education, such as risky adolescent behaviour, failed nation states and human regulatory systems at all scales.
This kind of work is what evolutionary science should be all about. Evolution is fundamentally about the relationship between organisms and their environments. Field studies rather than lab-based research should form the foundation of research on all species, humans included. Yet the vast majority of studies in the human-related sciences are not based on field research, and the most field-oriented disciplines, such as sociology and cultural anthropology, have been least receptive to the modern evolutionary perspective.
What we have done in Binghamton is to establish a field site for human-related evolutionary research. It could prove as useful as Tanzanias Gombe national park has been for the study of chimpanzees and the Galapagos Islands for the study of finches. n
Theres nothing like a common goal to bring people together
David Sloan Wilson hopes Binghamton communities will become more cohesive