About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, February 13, 2012

#8: The Neighborhood Project

The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, by David Sloan Wilson (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2011)

"After decades of studying creatures of all kinds, 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, the habitats for over half 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 strengthen neighborhoods and how best to teach our children. He combined the latest research methods from experimental economics with naturalistic studies of holiday decorations and garage sales. Drawing on examples from nature as diverse as water striders, wasps, and crows, Wilson took a scientific odyssey that led him everywhere from a cave in southern Africa that preserved artifacts from 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 and 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. By approaching the same questions from an evolutionary perspective, Wilson shows, as never before, how places define us."

Table of Contents:
  1. Evolution, Cities, and the World
  2. My City
  3. The Parable of the Strider
  4. The Parable of the Wasp
  5. The Maps
  6. Quantifying Halloween
  7. We Are Now Entering the Noosphere
  8. The Parable of the Immune System
  9. The Reflection
  10. Street-Smart
  11. The Humanist and the CEO
  12. The Lost Island of Prevention Science
  13. The Lecture That Failed
  14. Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children
  15. The World with Us
  16. The Parable of the Crow
  17. Our Lives, Our Genes
  18. The Natural History of the Afterlife
  19. Evonomics
  20. Body and Soul
  21. City on a Hill
My Take:
A promising but ultimately frustrating book. As the jacket summary above indicates, it's impressively broad, all right. Ever since that systems thinking class I took in grad school and the occasional behavioral economics book I've read since, I've grown a bit more used to this sort of unorthodox synthesis, but it still impresses me; I wish I could do it. (I tried in a recent job interview, and while I don't know that I failed spectacularly, I certainly didn't succeed well enough to get the offer.)

And there's so much potential here. Using the principles of evolution to study not just natural, biological phenomena, but the evolution of cultures and cities? Trying to figure out when and why what Wilson incessantly calls "the hammer blows of natural selection" select for selfish, water strider behavior and when they tend to favor the more cooperative wasp hive activity? Noting that both nature and culture resemble the immune system, with innate, inherited components that evolve very slowly and reactive, learning components capable of responding to one's environment? Assessing neighborhood quality based on how much candy kids get on Halloween? This stuff is different, fun, and entertaining to read about -- especially in Wilson's clear, well-worded prose.

And then somewhere in the middle of the book, things bog down. While I understand that setting up a whole new cross-disciplinary institute is A Big Thing, the details and name-dropping around this conference and that workshop get to be a bit tedious after a while. More irritating, in spending most of the last half of the text (with the hilarious exception of the chapter on crows) on such minutae, Wilson devotes an entire book to talking about how evolutionary principles and data gathering might be used to improve city and neighborhood quality of life without actually getting into any details about what distinguishes "hill" and "valley" neighborhoods, what interventions might help transform the latter, and whether they worked. The closest we get is a few reminders that yes, park space and nature within city limits appear to be A Good Thing ... but the concrete recommendations for improving life quality and empowering neighborhoods the promotional blurb promises are never delivered.

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