David Sloan Wilson: Darwin in the City

As an evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson expected to spend his life studying zooplankton. But now his microscope focuses on a broader subject: his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.

March 1, 2012

Your book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (Little, Brown & Co., 2011), describes how Darwin’s theory can help solve community problems. What made you step up to improve the quality of life in Binghamton? 

There’s a personal and a scientific dimension. The scientific aspect is that I’ve been studying altruism and niceness, how groups learn to function well, and I wanted to study altruism in the field. The personal dimension is that I felt like a bit of a hypocrite studying altruism and what it means to be a community when I wasn’t participating in my own community.

What is the story of your town?

Binghamton is a downtrodden city. It was the birthplace of IBM and peaked in the 1960s and ’70s but has since fallen on hard times. The population has dropped from 80,000 to 50,000. It has all the problems of the Rust Belt: high unemployment, vacant storefronts. Most recently, it had the worst flood in its history. But on the positive side, it’s charming with beautiful Victorian houses and a great location.

The Binghamton Neighborhood Project, a collaboration between Binghamton University and community partners, uses scientific research to ignite community activism and improve human welfare. How is it progressing?

The basic mission is to improve the quality of life and make people more pro-social so they care more about other people in their society, including their neighborhoods. I wanted to make the city and neighborhoods function better. When people get involved on a volunteer basis, they find joy because they belong to this family-like group. We get store owners and local leaders to chip in by contributing paint [for public murals] and donating food for festive gatherings.

How do you empower a neighborhood—and why do you need to?

Empowerment is surely reflected in the values of the homes within the neighborhood. Neighborhoods are in part physical structures, but they depend on the social interactions of the people. Science tells us a neighborhood needs a strong group identity. People should manage their own neighborhoods as much as possible, not the city—that’s disempowering.

What are the signs of an up-and-coming neighborhood from an evolutionary point of view?

Mixed use can be a good thing. A neighborhood is like a village. A purely residential neighborhood has nothing to do. One with coffee shops and public spaces, somewhere to mingle, will bring people out of their yards and into the plaza. But there needs to be policing, informal social control, so the people feel a responsibility.

If a neighborhood has deteriorated, what are the first steps to fixing it?

Turn a vacant lot into a park. Clean up the litter. Decorate. You really need a leader to provide that energy and organize something.

Could real estate practitioners initiate parts of your program to help their towns?

That makes a lot of sense. They are in an excellent position to do this kind of work. They should know what’s going to make a good neighborhood: public spaces, bringing nature back into our cities, a neighborhood environment where kids can play by themselves.

Your initial work in the project was to create a series of maps that explore the city’s social patterns. One of these maps looked at the holiday lights. You wrote: “On a clear night, I could probably measure it from an aerial photograph: The more nurturing neighborhoods actually glowed more brightly during the holiday season.” What does this mean and what can we learn from it?

My first step was to just measure altruism, create maps to see the city in a new way. A lot of research shows that people take their cues from their environment. If it’s a well-kept environment, people will behave in a well-kept fashion. If it’s a neglected environment, people will act neglectfully themselves. It’s all taking place subconsciously.



For more information about the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, visit http://bnp.binghamton.edu/.


Learn about REALTORS® who are serving their community in extraordinary ways. Visit REALTOR.org/gna.

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.