Applying evolutionary biology to the city

Biologist David Sloan Wilson has taken an interest in better understanding Binghamtom, New York. His lens: evolutionary biology.

Differences in prosociality, Wilson thought, should produce measurable outcomes — if not in reproductive success, perhaps in happiness, crime rates, neighbourhood tidiness or even the degree of community feeling expressed in the density of holiday decorations. “I really wanted to see a map of altruism,” he says. “I saw it in my mind.” And with a frisson of excitement, he realized that his models and experiments offered clues about how to intervene, how to structure real-world groups to favour prosociality. “Now is the implementation phase.” Evolutionary theory, Wilson decided, will improve life in Binghamton…

Binghamton is hard to love. Established in the early nineteenth century, it has long relied on big industry for its identity and prosperity — early on through the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company and then through IBM, which was founded in the area. But the manufacturers mostly decamped in the 1990s, and since then the city has taken on an aimless, shabby air. Dollar stores and coin-operated laundries fill the gaps between dilapidated Victorian houses and massive brick-and-stone churches. A Gallup poll in March 2011 listed Binghamton as one of the five US cities least liked by its residents. “It is a town that knows it is badly in need of a revival,” says Wilson. Even its motto, ‘Restoring the pride’, speaks of a city clinging to its past and ashamed of its present…

So Wilson decided to see whether he could raise up the prosocial valleys by creating conditions in which cooperation becomes a winning strategy — in effect, hacking the process of cultural evolution. He set about this largely by instituting friendly competitions between groups. His first idea was a park-design project, in which neighbourhoods were invited to compete for park-improvement funds by creating the best plan.

But Wilson soon found out that field experiments in real cities can take on lives of their own: different neighbourhoods couldn’t get their acts together on the same schedule, so the competition aspect largely disappeared. Instead, he is now working on turning multiple park ideas into reality. The dog park is one. Another is Sunflower Park, the most advanced project to date, but still a sad, mainly empty lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Children don’t spend a lot of time playing here. Undaunted, Wilson is raising funds and laying plans for a relaxing community space flush with trees and amenities. “In a year,” he says, “we will serve you a hot dog from the pavilion.”

The rest of the article describes how Wilson acts more like a social scientist, taking surveys, making observations, interacting with residents, trying to understand local religious congregations. Some of this discussion is amusing as it rehashes debates about how close researchers should get to research subjects – social scientists would describe it as participant observation.

This reminds me of some of the work of early sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and the Chicago School who based at least some of their ideas on biological principles. Spencer viewed society as being like an organism and the Chicago School viewed competition for space as a primary driver of urban development and action. But evolutionary thinking has generally faded away in sociology (outside of sociobiology). Could sociologists, and urban sociologists, again view evolutionary principles as a boon for the field or simply a distraction from the better work that is going on in the field? Wilson is also interested in the topics of altruism and prosociality, topics that have attracted the attention of more sociologists in recent years. It would be interesting to hear what happens when Wilson comes to some conclusions about social and city life and then presents them to social scientists.

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