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Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time

by David Sloan Wilson

Pub Date: Aug. 24th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-03767-9
Publisher: Little, Brown

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.