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

Overview

After decades studying creatures great and small, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson had an epiphany: Darwin's theory won't fully prove itself until it improves the quality of human life in a practical sense. And what better place to begin than his hometown of Binghamton, New York? Making a difference in his own city would provide a model for cities everywhere, which have become the habitat for over half of the people on earth.

Inspired to become an agent of change, ...

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

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Overview

After decades studying creatures great and small, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson had an epiphany: Darwin's theory won't fully prove itself until it improves the quality of human life in a practical sense. And what better place to begin than his hometown of Binghamton, New York? Making a difference in his own city would provide a model for cities everywhere, which have become the habitat for over half of the people on earth.

Inspired to become an agent of change, Wilson descended on Binghamton with a scientist's eye and looked at its toughest questions, such as how to empower neighborhoods and how best to teach our children. He combined the latest research methods from experimental economics with studies of holiday decorations and garage sales. Drawing upon examples from nature as diverse as water striders, wasps, and crows, Wilson's scientific odyssey took him around the world, from a cave in southern Africa that preserved the dawn of human culture to the Vatican in Rome. Along the way, he spoke with dozens of fellow scientists, whose stories he relates along with his own.

Wilson's remarkable findings help us to understand how we must become wise managers of evolutionary processes to accomplish positive change at all scales, from effective therapies for individuals, to empowering neighborhoods, to regulating the worldwide economy.

With an ambitious scope that spans biology, sociology, religion, and economics, The Neighborhood Project is a memoir, a practical handbook for improving the quality of life, and an exploration of the big questions long pondered by religious sages, philosophers, and storytellers. Approaching the same questions from an evolutionary perspective shows, as never before, how places define us.

Winner of the 2011 Books for a Better Life Award for Green

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wilson (Evolution for Everyone), an evolutionary biologist at the University of Binghamton, explains how Charles Darwin's concept of the "tangled bank," which describes how species are influenced by their surroundings, can be used to understand human psychology in order to build healthier societies. Arguing that the "Ivory Archipelago" of disparate disciplines—psychology, anthropology, sociology, urban planning, economics, even theology—should be united under the umbrella of evolutionary studies, Wilson brings various methodologies to his investigation of the city as a living, evolving organism much like a coral reef. The Neighborhood Project, an organization Wilson founded to rejuvenate his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., provides a test case—it uses evolutionary theories to analyze behavioral data and improve quality of life through a more holistic approach. Wilson searches for how our habitats can influence our propensity for civic engagement and environmental awareness, and our physical and financial health. Although the book meanders—Wilson gives a vivid, in-depth description of several scientific studies, and offers a biography for each scientist he cites—the tangents are mostly pleasurable and provide more evidence for how lives, like ideas, intersect in fascinating ways. (Aug.)
Booklist
"An evolutionary biologist applies his science to making the city of Binghamton, NY a better place to live, and in the telling, illuminates evolution and spells out his efforts to increase understanding of it....The side trips are...pleasurable, informative, and worthwhile."
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
"Once again David Sloan Wilson reminds us that wherever we look, whether deep in a forest, in our backyards, or in urban classrooms, evolutionary processes -- biological, psychological, or cultural-are at work and understanding these processes can not only deepen our sense of place but also improve the way we lead our lives."
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine
"Just as Charles Darwin had his finches and Jane Goodall her chimps, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has his city as a subject of study in what has to be one of the most unique projects ever undertaken in the history of science. Through the lens of evolutionary theory we see not just Wilson's city of Binghamton, New York in a new light, we view all of humanity and civilization from a perspective unique in the annals of research, and written in an engaging style that carries the reader from one chapter to the next. A compelling read. An important book."
Frans de Waal
"The city reflects the nature of the human species in the same way that the hive reflects the nature of bees. In his usual engaging style, David Sloan Wilson uses the prism of evolution to explain our role in and control over these larger organisms of our own making."
From the Publisher
WINNER OF THE 2012 BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE GREEN AWARD

"Imagine combining a moving autobiography, dozens of moving mini-biographies, accidental and intentional experiments in raising and educating children and planning cities, and explanations of what biology and religion are really about. Out of that mix comes this unique, beautifully written, wide-ranging book that will delight a universe of readers."—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author of books including Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

"The Neighborhood Project, an organization Wilson founded to rejuvenate his hometown of Binghamton, NY...uses evolutionary theories to analyze behavioral data and improve quality of life...pleasurable...provide[s]...evidence for how lives, like ideas, intersect in fascinating ways."—Publisher's Weekly

"An evolutionary biologist applies his science to making the city of Binghamton, NY a better place to live, and in the telling, illuminates evolution and spells out his efforts to increase understanding of it....The side trips are...pleasurable, informative, and worthwhile."—Booklist

"The city reflects the nature of the human species in the same way that the hive reflects the nature of bees. In his usual engaging style, David Sloan Wilson uses the prism of evolution to explain our role in and control over these larger organisms of our own making."—Frans de Waal, author of Our Inner Ape and The Age of Empathy

"Once again David Sloan Wilson reminds us that wherever we look, whether deep in a forest, in our backyards, or in urban classrooms, evolutionary processes — biological, psychological, or cultural-are at work and understanding these processes can not only deepen our sense of place but also improve the way we lead our lives."—Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, author of Mother Nature and Mothers and Others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding

"Just as Charles Darwin had his finches and Jane Goodall her chimps, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has his city as a subject of study in what has to be one of the most unique projects ever undertaken in the history of science. Through the lens of evolutionary theory we see not just Wilson's city of Binghamton, New York in a new light, we view all of humanity and civilization from a perspective unique in the annals of research, and written in an engaging style that carries the reader from one chapter to the next. A compelling read. An important book."—Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of Why Darwin Matters and The Mind of the Market

Jared Diamond
"Imagine combining a moving autobiography, dozens of moving mini-biographies, accidental and intentional experiments in raising and educating children and planning cities, and explanations of what biology and religion are really about. Out of that mix comes this unique, beautifully written, wide-ranging book that will delight a universe of readers."
From the Publisher
WINNER OF THE 2012 BOOKS FOR A BETTER LIFE GREEN AWARD
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
"Once again David Sloan Wilson reminds us that wherever we look, whether deep in a forest, in our backyards, or in urban classrooms, evolutionary processes — biological, psychological, or cultural-are at work and understanding these processes can not only deepen our sense of place but also improve the way we lead our lives."
Kirkus Reviews

An evolutionary biologist applies his science to making the city of Binghamton, N.Y., a better place to live, and in the telling, illuminates evolution and spells out his efforts to increase understanding of it.

Wilson (Biology and Anthropology/Binghamton Univ.; Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, 2007, etc.) argues that the evolutionary paradigm can explain cultural as well as biological diversity, and by applying science one can use evolutionary theory to solve everyday problems. He has chosen his city of Binghamton to demonstrate how regularly analyzing a city as a multicellular organism can provide the information needed to bring about effective changes. His first task, gathering information, involved putting results of an attitude questionnaire into a geographical information system in order to create a civic virtue map showing the relative well-being of neighborhoods—that is, how social and supportive they were. To test the map's validity, Wilson and his colleagues also took photographs, conducted lost-letter experiments and tallied the number of Halloween and Christmas decorations and garage sales. Further research is now adding genetic information to his database, and he plans to include a study of spirituality and religion. To create the environmental changes needed to initiate behavioral changes in neighborhoods with low well-being ratings, he launched the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, a collaboration between the university and community partners to improve the quality of life on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. A current initiative is the Design Your Own Park competition. In this wide-ranging and highly readable account, Wilson also regales readers with chatty essays on social insects, gentle profiles of colleagues, a capsule history of Seventh Day Adventism and stories of professional growth and accomplishment: his launching of an evolutionary studies program at Binghamton University, his role in founding the think tank Evolution Institute, even his wife's research on crows.

The city of Binghamton tends to get lost in the many detours, but the side trips are mostly pleasurable, informative and worthwhile.

Mark Oppenheimer
Much of The Neighborhood Project is an inspiring panorama of Mr. Wilson's partners, from the energetic superintendent of Binghamton's schools…to his beloved graduate students…Many books present science or social science to the curious layman, but none make the actual work of research sound this invigorating.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316037679
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 8/24/2011
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 764,741
  • Product dimensions: 9.34 (w) x 6.42 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is widely known for his fundamental contributions to evolutionary science and for explaining evolution to the general public. His books include Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (with Elliott Sober). In addition to his own research, Wilson manages programs that expand the scope of evolutionary science in higher education, public policy, community-based research, and the study of religion.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Listener 3

Chapter 1 Evolution, Cities, and the World 9

Chapter 2 My City 27

Chapter 3 The Parable of the Strider 40

Chapter 4 The Parable of the Wasp 59

Chapter 5 The Maps 80

Chapter 6 Quantifying Halloween 92

Chapter 7 We Are Now Entering the Noosphere 102

Chapter 8 The Parable of the Immune System 125

Chapter 9 The Reflection 139

Chapter 10 Street-Smart 163

Chapter 11 The Humanist and the Ceo 181

Chapter 12 The Lost Island of Prevention Science 192

Chapter 13 The Lecture That Failed 216

Chapter 14 Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children 229

Chapter 15 The World with Us 253

Chapter 16 The Parable of the Crow 272

Chapter 17 Our Lives, Our Genes 289

Chapter 18 The Natural History of the Afterlife 305

Chapter 19 Evonomics 332

Chapter 20 Body and Soul 353

Chapter 21 City on a Hill 379

Acknowledgments 391

Notes 393

References 405

Index 421

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2012

    Informative but Disappointing

    I came to this book after reading Haidt's "The Righteous Mind," which had transformed my way of thinking about morality. I was hoping for something similar. Instead I read a lot of self-congratulatory biography, some coming of age stories about friends and family (interesting, but written in a condescending tone), and a screed against economics. This author must have been deeply offended by some economists who failed to see his utter brilliance. His review of the field is naiive. Nevertheless, I took away from the book an understanding of the principles of cultural evolution. Not one word, though, about any success in changing the trajectory of the city of Binghamton. That was what it was supposed to be about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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