In his new book, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson takes a scientific approach to improving his community.For decades, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson specialized in studying the evolution of beings such as the water strider, an insect with cleverly developed feet and a brusque approach to reproduction. Then, after an epiphany at the annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Binghamton, the New York town where he lives, Wilson realized that the evolutionary perspective could — and should — be applied to cities. By assessing how cities continuously change, he figured, he could make them better places to live, starting with his own.
Wilson explores the fascinating results, which reveal everything from a correlation between ?enthusiasm for ?holiday decorating and good citizenship to the environmental factors that foster “niceness,” in The Neighborhood? Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (Little, Brown and Company, $26).
Wilson’s project used an interdisciplinary approach, with the city as its field site. While his approach may sound academic, Wilson (whose father, novelist Sloan Wilson, wrote 1955’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit) is a friendly writer, able to make scientific data comprehensible through his use of straightforward language and pop-culture references. He relished the idea of getting involved in the local community because, as he notes in the book, “My ?professional career was all about how groups and communities can evolve into adaptive units, but in my own community I was a slacker!”
Though the project began as an academic undertaking, as it progressed, the findings began to take concrete form, such as the Design Your Own Park Competition, in which a neighborhood group works with a facilitator to come up with a design for a local park and a plan for maintaining the area. Wilson reports that the initial designs are currently being built in Binghamton. That’s just one example of how, as Wilson writes, “If evolutionary theory can be used to understand the human condition, it can also be used to improve it.”