Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Evolving the Neighborhood

D.S. Wilson, The Neighborhood Project. Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011). Hb $25.99 ISBN 9780316037679

David Sloan Wilson’s Neighborhood Project is a provocative read. It will outrage those who think that culture is too complex to be accounted for in terms of biology, and annoy biologists who think that Wilson’s adherence to group selection and pro-sociality is misguided.

The things that will offend are also exciting, however. Wilson takes the levels of selection debate into new territory, utilizing the people of his home town, Binghamton, New York, as the model super-organism in an ongoing social experiment. Whereas hitherto sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have roused opposition for their reductive portrayal of humans as driven by self-interested and often highly sex-specific instincts, here Wilson seeks to ground pro-social behaviour in our evolutionary history.
D.S. Wilson

Offering the ‘Binghamton Neighborhood Project’ as a model, he promises not only the revitalization of our neighborhoods, our cities, and of this and other nations, but most controversially, he holds out the prospect of facilitating the further evolution of human altruism. The point is not merely to understand the world, he argues, “but to change it”. We must become wise managers of evolutionary processes if we are to effect meaningful social change.

No mere recipe for the cookshops of the future, Wilson’s manifesto is a report from the barricades. The ongoing ‘Binghamton Neighborhood Project’ is based upon extensive surveys of school children, neighborhood reconnaissance, interviews with and genetic testing of respondents.

Measuring the sociality of neighborhoods by their participation in occasions such as decorating their houses for Hallowe’en and Christmas (the latter included to catch any Christians who might otherwise be highly social but object to celebrating Hallowe’en), and with the aid of GIS technology, Wilson has mapped the social (or anti-social) character of neighborhoods across the city to produce a map of hills and valleys. Wilson’s mission is to raise Binghamton’s anti-social valleys into pro-social hills and he is keen for others to follow his lead.

But can the social behaviour really be explained in terms of our biological evolution? Wilson offers four ‘parables’ from nature in support of his belief that it can. He offers the parable of the water strider (Aquarius remigis)—self interested individualism is certainly one possible outcome of natural selection, but it is not the only one.

The social wasp Polistes
In a second parable, that of the social wasp (Polistes), Wilson presents a very different behavioral strategy. It is unsurprising that Wilson should turn to the social insects, but even here he admits that the lesson they teach is not self evident. This has been exacerbated by their frequent misrepresentation as an analogy for human society. This was most famously—and most egregiously—the case in Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1705).

Mandeville used the hive analogy to portray mankind as a group of inherently self-interested “knaves” who were each concerned only to maximize their own outcomes (p.77). It seems likely that Adam Smith had Mandeville in mind when he wrote Wealth of Nations in 1776, his conception of the ‘invisible hand’ enlarged on the notion that the social good is best obtained by each attending only to their own self interest. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”—Smith had a way with words.

This resonates well with the nascent capitalism that Smith sought to promote, of course, but, as readers of this journal will recognize, it does so too with the predominantly individualist message not only of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), but of the ‘gene’s-eye-view’ account of evolution promoted first by William Hamilton in his 1963 and ‘64 papers on inclusive fitness, and which was subsequently repeated in John Maynard Smith’s interpretation of kin selection, Robert Trivers’s reciprocal altruism and most famously in Richard Dawkins’s popular metaphor of the selfish gene.

However, while the predominant theme in Origin was the unremitting competition of each against all, in chapter seven Darwin first discussed the social insects as an exception to this apparent state of nature. Darwin argued that in their case group selection prevailed - each worked not for its own good but for the benefit of the community (Origin 1859:238).

Unto Others, (1998)

In their Unto Others (1998) Wilson and the philosopher Elliott Sober made the case that we need to take Darwin's account of group selection seriously, and that post-Wynne Edwards formulations of group selection are more than just a fuzzy description of what could be more accurately described in terms of selfish genes.

Thus, and echoing Darwin, Wilson tells us that "the true fable of the bees is about a conflice between the levels of selection. Within-group selection produces individuals that are designed to benefit themsleves at the expense of their neighbors, the essense of knavery [,but] between-group selection produces individuals that behave for the good of their groups, the essense of solid-citizenry" (p.78).

In his third parable, draw from the human immune system, Wilson argues that it is wrong to presume that our genetic inheritance makes us inflexible in light of the hand that nature has dealt us—it does not. Recognition of its “innate flexibility” reveals its resemblance to “a social-insect colony inhabiting our body as its environment”, he argues (p.129). The speed with which antibodies respond to rapidly evolving disease is indicative of the sort of flexibility that can result from innate biological systems. “Alone among species we have the capacity to imagine new worlds and make them a reality”, he says. (p.139).

Wilson clearly wants to take this further, though. The parable of the crow is that we can evolve a new humanity. Despite the ‘apartheid’ that social scientists might insist upon between biology and culture the cultural adaptations of crows reveal corresponding genetic changes. The creation of “niches for niceness” in our own communities will make a difference of the same order, he argues, where cultural adaptation leads, genetic evolution will follow.

Teilhard de Chardin

The significance of evolution for our own behavioral norms was not missed by Darwin, of course, but surprisingly, it is not Descent of Man that Wilson cites to back his position, but the theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin. In The Phenomenon of Man (1959) Teilhard argued that we alone of all creatures have entered what he called the ‘Noosphere’, a term by which Teilhard—and now Wilson—denote not only the surface layers of the earth that reveal the paleo-anthropological evidences of our evolved capacity for culture, but also the period of mankind’s ability to reflect upon our own origins and history. If there is an ‘Omega Point’, as Teilhard believed, Wilson argues, it is us. We are “the process of evolution reflecting fully on itself” (p.113).

While Wilson notes Adam Smith’s treatment of praise and blame in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) as being significant for fostering change in our normative values, he seems unaware that Darwin utilized exactly these passages in his own account of human evolution to discuss the very issues that Wilson is concerned with—the conflict between the levels of selection and the evolution of altruism.

But what are we to make of all this? Does it work, or is this all just fantasy? Wilson has already started to use the Binghamton project in such a way as to effect changes in the map, to turn anti-social valleys into social hills, and thus to clearly improve people’s lives, but even if these cartographic changes do really reflect substantive behavioral change on the ground, the question remains how much they are the result of reciprocal self-interest and how much they are the result of the pro-sociality that Wilson is clearly keen to see.

Further, we would clearly want to see evidence of the claim that behavioral change is in any way significant at the genetic level, and it seems that Wilson’s project is set up to provide exactly this—one way or another. One thing is certain, however—the Binghamton Neighborhood Project is certainly a new chapter in the debate about the levels of selection and the evolution of pro-sociality, but it will expand rather than resolve the controversy.