On Being with Krista Tippett

David Sloan Wilson

Evolving a City

Last Updated

October 17, 2013

Original Air Date

June 21, 2012

David Sloan Wilson believes that evolution is not just a description of how we got here. He says it can also be a tool kit for improving how we live together. He’s taken what he’s learned in studying evolution in animals and is now applying it to the behavior of groups in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. His goal is to help people behave pro-socially — at their best, and for the good of the whole.

  • Download


Image of David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.


June 21, 2012

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Evolution is not just a description of how we got here. David Sloan Wilson says it can also be a road map, a tool kit for elevating how we live together and shape our future. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and an atheist, who admires what religions do right in human societies. And he’s applying his knowledge to urban renewal in an American city. He has fascinating insight into why people behave in disorderly ways when they’re in a disorderly place. But he also explains why living in a wealthy neighborhood can make you a less caring person. And he tells us about a successful experiment in school reform that doesn’t begin with curricula or student self-esteem. It starts with what we know about environments that help human beings behave pro-socially — at their best and for the good of the whole.

DR. DAVID SLOAN WILSON: It’s very much for me a matter of managing the cultural evolutionary process in order to basically stack the deck in favor of pro-sociality. How can we make it so that pro-sociality wins the Darwinian contest? How can you get a population of 50,000 people to function adaptively? That’s quite the challenge and not many cities do it well.

MS. TIPPETT: “Evolving a City.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being.

I spoke with David Sloan Wilson in 2012.

He is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in upstate New York.

He first came to the attention of many with his book, Darwin’s Cathedral, where he analyzed religions as laudable examples of human group behavior. This inspired him to wonder how evolutionary biology might apply what it knows to real world, real-time problems.

He describes where that question took him in his book called, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. Here’s how David Sloan Wilson reflects on his formation as a human being and a scientist in those pages:

“I am a scientist who began my life as the son of a novelist. My father, Sloan Wilson, was certainly known in his own place and time, with novels such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit…that were said to define his generation… I did experience a torrent of words from my father as he tried to make sense of the world around him…For me, science is a medium for listening and reflecting on the human condition, much like religion and literature.”

MS. TIPPETT: I would like to start that I’ve deciphered what I can from your writing about your upbringing. I wonder, was there any kind of religious or spiritual background to your childhood?

DR. WILSON: My parents were not religious. We come from a Protestant tradition, but my father was a skeptic and he disparaged religion for the most part. My mom would call herself agnostic. I seldom saw the inside of a church. My dad loved to ridicule the more hypocritical aspects of religion and yet, at the same time, both were extremely moral people. So if you think of what we associate with Christianity and the desire to do unto others basically, that was very strong in my family. You can see it in my father’s book is that his characters are very intent on doing the right thing even though they often fail.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So as a graduate student in the 1970s, you thought you were going to specialize in the study of zooplankton, right? But then you discovered evolutionary biology?

DR. WILSON: Yeah, that’s right. What’s so interesting is that evolution is this passport to the study of all subjects, and you learn that when you’re a student in biology. I learned it as an undergraduate, but even more as a graduate student, that I could study any species, any aspect of any species, with this powerful tool kit. And the thought that you could then enlarge that to study all aspects of the human condition was just intoxicating. So from the very beginning, I was attracted to evolution for those two reasons.

MS. TIPPETT: You have this wonderful line. You talk about glimpsing the full scale of evolutionary theory is like reading a great novel that everybody resonates. You compare the initial stage as a scientific insight to a Woody Allen movie, a good experiment to a well-executed chess game and the effort involved to building the Great Wall of China [laugh].

DR. WILSON: Right. That’s my attempt to step into my father’s shoes as a storyteller.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And I also think it’s important to just, you know, spell out that when you talk about evolution, you’re talking about evolution both genetically and culturally, right? You’re talking about the sweep of our experience and our being.

DR. WILSON: Totally. And it’s interesting that that idea — that there’s more to evolution than genetic evolution — is something that we need to establish at the beginning of our conversation, but it’s something also that needs to be established among the professionals. What happened in the history of evolution was that, in the first place, Darwin knew nothing about genes.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. That’s a very important point to remember, yeah.

DR. WILSON: Darwin knew about heredity, yeah. But then evolution became very genecentric when we did learn about genes, so much that now most of my colleagues actually, at least many of them, when you say evolution, they think genes. Yet evolution operates in many different contexts. Whenever there is a mechanism of inheritance, that mechanism can be cultural in addition to genetic.

MS. TIPPETT: Now in your book Darwin’s Cathedral, you actually focused on religion as an organism, religions as in groups and as adaptive groups. Now how did you gravitate towards that subject in particular, which I suppose was probably kind of counterintuitive maybe to some of your colleagues?

DR. WILSON: Well, my career as a biologist has been centered on the question of how groups can evolve and function as adaptive units. Not humans and not religion, but any group, social insects or any social creature. That’s a fundamental problem and maybe I can just outline the problem, which is that when we contemplate groups functioning well as groups, that involves individuals doing things for each other. And those behaviors, call them solid citizen behaviors or pro-social behaviors, are inherently vulnerable. What it takes to be a solid citizen is just plain different than what it takes to be someone who maximizes your slice of the pie. So we’re faced with a puzzle or paradox. And I became attracted to that problem as a graduate student, and it’s been my main theme ever since. I was all set up basically to study those questions in human social groups and religion in particular.

MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve said that evolutionary theory can help explain why religion can look terrible and wonderful at the same time. It can have both of these faces in the world.

DR. WILSON: Well, absolutely. I think the most important thing to say about approaching religion from an evolutionary perspective is that you can take the entire tool kit that is used in biology and apply it almost without change to the study of religion. I think that there’s a growing consensus among my colleagues that, for the most part, most enduring religions are impressively good at creating communities of people that function well as groups. That’s why it’s possible for an atheist such as myself to be, in a sense, awestruck and inspired by religion because it is so good at forming groups of people into cooperative units.

I want to know how it works even though I’m an atheist because I would like other meaning systems to work that well, secular meaning systems to work that well. I have a commitment to be a scientist, so therefore I subscribe to methodological naturalism, but I admire religions for the positive that they do. And, of course, it’s part of the whole theory that I’m also aware that there’s a dark side to religion. In fact, several dark sides, as there is with all functional groups.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, composed of human beings, or other creatures, I suppose.

DR. WILSON: Absolutely, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: One thing I thought was interesting for you to discuss from an evolutionary perspective, something that people talk about, but it comes into focus in a different way, I think, is this fact that the religious communities have transcendent teachings, but also pay close attention to basic human needs and just creating structure and order. I mean, you went back and looked at the way people wrote about the early Christian churches, which were such socially transformative institutions, and, you know, what people saw then was how they loved each other, how they took care of each other. You also cite the water temple system of Bali as another example of this.

DR. WILSON: Right. One of the things that amazes me about religion is that it combines the sublime and the mundane. And this is one reason why we’re studying religion in the city of Binghamton, New York. In other words, as practiced in a real world population, that makes a positive difference in the lives of real people in the context of their everyday lives in order to be sustained. And yet at the same time, there is something philosophically profound and sublime about religion. I’d like evolution, for example, to be sublime and mundane. And at the moment, although evolution has many applications within the biological sciences, it is not applied to improve the quality of our lives in most human contexts and, until it can succeed at improving the quality of life in a mundane sense, then it is not performing as well as a religion.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, with On Being. Today, with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He’s a professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton. And in that city, he’s begun an experiment to apply the insights of evolutionary biology to the good of a real, post-industrial, human place. In his book The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson observes Binghamton’s architecture, institutions, and economy like fossil layers, in terms of evolutionary progression. He writes, for example: “Binghamton’s era of prosperity might have ended with the nineteenth century except for two men, George F. Johnson and John B. Watson. Johnson founded the Endicott-Johnson shoe company … Watson built a small company that made time clocks into the International Business Machine Corporation (IBM) … Both took a paternal interest in their employees that stands in stark contrast to the Enrons of today yet failed to serve their interests over the long term.”

MS. TIPPETT: Did you have a moment where you came to this realization about wanting to connect this science with life as lived? How did this come to you?

DR. WILSON: Well, in the first place, I think many people have an impulse to do good in one way or another and that my impulse was actually quite meager for most of my life. I was busy being a professor, so I was acting on that impulse when I started to study the city of Binghamton. I was also acting still in scientific mode because when you’re an evolutionist, you know, evolution is fundamentally about the relationship between organisms and their environments. You cannot understand the property of any species except in relation to the environment in which it evolved. Not even its present environment, but the environment that’s responsible for the evolution of all of those adaptations.

So as a field biologist studying beetles and fish and nonhuman species, I spent a lot of time in the field and everything I did in the lab was predicated on what was known about them in the field. Yet, when studying humans, I realized that the human-related sciences are not like that. So one reason why I started to study my city of Binghamton was to have a field site, just the way I did for fish and beetles [laugh]. That sounds kind of cold and objective, but, no, it’s extremely warmhearted. I mean, at the same time that I was filling this badly needed niche in a scientific sense, I was also satisfying my communitarian impulses. And I feel very much enriched as a person from having done this.

MS. TIPPETT: It was interesting to me when you start describing that project, there are all these pieces to it that kind of illustrate what an evolutionary biological approach gives you. So part of it is taking the past seriously, right? I mean, you tell the story of Binghamton, and I think you’ve delved into the story of Binghamton in the way you hadn’t before, this place you came from. But, again, not necessarily the way we do it culturally, where we tell our story as part of something we wear on our sleeve or we talk about the past as important to know so we don’t repeat mistakes. But I see you as you tell the story of Binghamton, it’s more about, no, this all makes up who we are. These are these layers upon which we’re built. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s a slightly different approach.

DR. WILSON: Well, I sure do. In the first place, thank you for putting it that way because it’s exactly what I intended and I’m glad that it was received in at least one reader. I think that this very much is an evolutionary approach. There’s a famous evolutionist called Niko Tinbergen. He wrote a famous paper in which he said that there’s four questions that need to be answered for every trait, and one of those is the historical question of what is the history of its origin and spread? So I actually took that question as part of my book and I told the history, as you know, in a number of ways. First of all, the history of individuals, then the history of cultures, and even the history of genes when you think of the city of Binghamton as a population with a collection of genes that came from all around the world.

Binghamton is a surprisingly diverse city for upstate New York. If I pluck a person from the city of Binghamton, that person’s ancestors could have come literally from any place in the world. So when I talk about a person, not only do I ask where they come from, my very first question is where did your ancestors come from and when did they arrive in North America and how did they wash up on the shores of Binghamton, New York? It turns out that the genes are important and the cultures are important. The reason we have, you know, Eastern European churches, Russian Orthodox churches, and so on is based entirely on the movement of people from these different places in the world. They brought their genes with them and they brought their cultures with them and both are in evidence on the streets of Binghamton today.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s kind of like they’re the fossil layers that Darwin would have looked at. And then — also, it’s one of these — it’s kind of a microcosm of American history, right? I mean, there’s the history of IBM in Binghamton and there’s a history of Joseph Smith in Binghamton. I think you could find a lot of interesting echoes in this exercise in many, many communities.

DR. WILSON: I do think of Binghamton as every city, every town. Of course, it has its distinctive features, but I do myself think of Binghamton as an emblematic human population. And one thing that I discovered when I researched the history of Binghamton was that just about every virtue and problem that you can find anyplace in the world, and that includes ethnic cleansing, by the way, which occurred just after the Revolutionary War — the Revolutionary Army was directed by George Washington, the father of our country, to frankly ethnically cleanse this part of the country. And Washington used the word “terror” in his directive. He said you will not accept peace under any circumstances. The peace that we get will be by the terror that we inflict upon the natives.

So what we deplore in other parts of the world took place. And yet at the same time, when the pioneers moved in after that episode, then there was this family-like love among families and even peace with the Indians is something which surprised me. Then it went on from there basically with IBM and religious movements. So I think of Binghamton as like a little Shakespearean stage. Just as Shakespeare’s plays speak to the human condition, I think the little city of Binghamton, New York, speaks to the human condition. That’s what I mean by combining the mundane and the sublime.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think you’re also doing it with an eye to evolution as something which is always happening and continuing to happen, right? Again, clearly that’s in the theory of evolution, but it’s not something that nonscientists are able to kind of keep present in their imaginations.

DR. WILSON: There’s indeed a strong association that evolution is a slow process. Darwin thought this also for genetic evolution, that it took thousands of generations and that you could only study the product. You could not study the actual process of evolution because it was too slow. And at least two things have happened to overturn that assumption. The first is the discovery that genetic evolution is much faster than we thought. In fact, genetic evolution can take place in a single generation. This was discovered or began to become prominent for the study of nonhuman species roughly around the 1970s and it’s accelerated since then. So we know now that evolution — genetic evolution operates on ecological time scales and that we also know that this is true for our own species in addition to other species. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that genetic evolution is taking place faster now than ever before.

MS. TIPPETT: Is it because of technology, the pace of technology, change in culture?

DR. WILSON: Well, of course, you know, evolution is rapid when there’s a big mismatch between the environment and the current population. We’re always changing our environment so much that we’re creating the mismatch.

MS. TIPPETT: Constant mismatch [laugh].

DR. WILSON: We’re creating constant mismatch. It’s amazing discoveries that are taking place, all of this just for genetic evolution. But then when we begin to think about culture as an evolutionary process, and also psychological change, individual psychological change is also a revolutionary process. So each and every one of us is an evolving system in its own right. So these nongenetic evolutionary processes, of course, they’re faster still. So that’s why we haven’t escaped the orbit of evolution. We’re experiencing evolution at warp speed.

MS. TIPPETT: In his book The Neighborhood Project, David Sloan Wilson writes: “Change is not necessarily for the better. Just as it is wrong to equate evolution with ‘slow,’ it is also wrong to equate it with ‘progress.’ Evolution doesn’t make everything nice. It results in the full spectrum of outcomes that we associate with good and evil, thriving and decay. … With the right conditions, the world becomes a better place. With the wrong conditions, evolution takes us where we don’t want to go. That is why we must learn to become wise managers of evolutionary processes.”

You can listen again and share this conversation with David Sloan Wilson through our website, there you can also find out how to subscribe to our podcast. That’s onbeing.org. And like us on our facebook page at facebook.com/onbeing. Follow us on twitter our handle @beingtweets.

Coming up…the original and captivating lessons David Sloan Wilson and the city of Binghamton, New York have learned by taking on urban renewal, community building, and school reform in terms of managing the evolutionary process.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He believes evolution can be a force for social good like the best of religion. In fact, in his book Darwin’s Cathedral, he analyzed why religious groups survive and thrive in evolutionary terms. But as he’s been telling us, he became frustrated with the way science studies human groups, unlike animal groups, in unnatural laboratory conditions, mostly using college students as subjects. And he helped create a project of urban renewal driven by a collaboration among the social scientists and the citizens of Binghamton, New York. They have mapped neighborhoods for levels of what David Sloan Wilson calls “pro-social behavior.” These maps chart the relative health of communities in terms of hills and valleys which take predictable statistics into account, like crime rates, but also consider more unconventional data like garage sales and Halloween activity.

Of choosing that as a variable, David Sloan Wilson writes: “Everyone remembers as a kid that some neighborhoods are better than others for trick-or-treating. From an adult perspective, decorating one’s house, buying treats, and staying at home are an expression of interest in one’s neighborhood. … Best of all … we could count the kids, weigh the candy, score the decorations, and count the smashed pumpkins and toilet-papered trees the day after. … Some people find quantification distasteful, as if the true essence of something like Halloween can’t be turned into numbers. On the contrary, in my quest to understand the nature of civic virtue, I was studying the wellspring from which Halloween, and much else, emerges.”

MS. TIPPETT: I want to spend the rest of the time we have really talking some more about the Binghamton Neighborhood Project — I might call your applied evolutionary biology.

DR. WILSON: Great. You know, another person I identify with is John Calvin, who I learned about when I wrote Darwin’s Cathedral. I actually identify very strongly with him because, after all, he tried to organize the city of Geneva, and I’m trying to organize the city of Binghamton. I think that it’s very much for me a matter of managing the cultural evolutionary process. Basically knowing what I do about evolution, how can we structure our social life in order to basically stack the deck in favor of pro-sociality? How can we make it so that pro-sociality wins the Darwinian contest? And how can we cause a human population such as a city to function well at the scale that it must?

So Binghamton’s a small city nearly — actually a little less than 50,000 people. How can you get a population of 50,000 people to function adaptively? That’s quite the challenge and not many cities do it well. So what can we do and how can we use our evolutionary tool kit in order to cause a city to function well as a unit? Of course, that requires everything below the level of a city: The neighborhoods, the groups, the churches, the groups of all sorts, the schools, the businesses all have to function well in order for the city to function well, and then there must be coordination among those groups.

MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve said about the Binghamton Neighborhood Project that it’s become your anchor to reality. I’d like to understand that and I’d also like to understand what it’s taught you about evolution that maybe you didn’t know before, that you now know differently.

DR. WILSON: Well, when you’re an academic, you know, they call it an ivory tower for a reason. You can have your theories and think your thoughts and there’ll be no corrective basically. I mean, obviously there’s the corrective of empirical science, but I could have spent my life talking about the evolution of cooperation and pro-sociality without ever knowing if it could work in the real world. The Binghamton Neighborhood Project is my anchor to reality because I am working with real people, real groups, and I tell you, it’s humbling; it’s just humbling. I think that’s a good thing basically. It’s the ultimate crucible for testing your ideas.

MS. TIPPETT: Again, this is another thing that you point out that just makes logical sense, but it’s a thought that I hadn’t quite conceptualized before. You know, you say cities decay like other organisms and Binghamton, as you said before, is a place that’s like many places and has some of the same issues now that many American cities are struggling with, unemployment, an industrial base that’s shifted. You say cities decay like other organisms and also the people take their cues from environments and that they behave in disorderly ways when they’re in a disorderly environment.

DR. WILSON: Yeah, that’s a great point and there’s a lot of science which is showing that our instincts for what we do are largely subconscious. So our conscious decisions about how to behave are the tip of an iceberg of decisions that take place below the surface of consciousness.

Let me describe an experiment, not my own, but a wonderful experiment which involved a mailbox and a letter stuck halfway into a mailbox as if someone had tried to put it in and it hadn’t gone all the way in. Clearly, this envelope has a little bit of money in it. So the passersby, the question is whether they do the right thing and put it into the mailbox or whether they do the wrong thing and take it out. The experimental manipulation was whether it was a kind of littered environment with litter and graffiti and stuff like that or whether it was a clean environment. That difference made the difference in the behavior of the passerby. The very same person, depending upon the cue, as provided by the environment, would either behave pro-socially or not.

We’ve done experiments where we show college students who don’t know much about the city of Binghamton photographs of the neighborhoods and we ask them to rate the neighborhoods and then we check that against the opinions of the actual neighbors. There’s a good correlation so that you can tell a lot from a photograph. Then we actually have these college students play a cooperation game with someone from the neighborhood whose photograph they are viewing. And what we discover is that, if it’s a nice-looking neighborhood, then the college student is in a cooperative mood. And if it’s not a nice-looking neighborhood, then the college student is in an uncooperative mood. And all of this takes place basically instantaneously. That’s the new degree to which we respond to our environment. Of course, knowing that, there’s much that you can do to improve human behavior merely by changing the cues of the environment.

MS. TIPPETT: I guess that helps explain this other observation that really struck me that children growing up in high- and low-quality neighborhoods experience, as you said, different faces of human nature. You’re saying that that’s a way people are responding to the environment even subconsciously, not even realizing how they’re presenting, comporting themselves.

DR. WILSON: Well, there’s actually several aspects to that. Some of them are quite unexpected. So one aspect is that, if you live in a tough neighborhood and especially if you have a tough persona, then that’s automatically going to be mirrored back by the people. Before the first interaction, that’s going to be mirrored back. So it’s truly the case that someone standing in a tough neighborhood or with a tough persona is going to be experiencing a different human nature than someone standing in a good neighborhood or with a more friendly persona. They will see a different face of human nature.

Something a little less expected is that what we’ve found, and there’s a lot of other research to support it, is that where you find the most cooperative people is not in the most wealthy neighborhoods, but in the low-income neighborhoods where people actually have to cooperate in the context of their everyday lives. So in some of the more wealthy neighborhoods, because people have so much money, they don’t need to cooperate, and so they don’t, and they’re not even in practice. So pro-sociality basically is not all about money.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And also, you can have a high-quality neighborhood that does not have a high median income, right? So you don’t necessarily equate those things. I think somewhere you said the kids who are most cooperative tend to come from neighborhoods that are high in quality and low in median income.

DR. WILSON: Exactly right, exactly right. And this is also true worldwide. One of the great messages here is that everything we’ve been talking about replicates an all-social scale. So there is famous research that’s been done on small-scale societies around the world, I should say, different cultures around the world, seeing how cooperative they are.

What was discovered on a worldwide basis is that there’s huge variation in cooperativity and that variation can be explained basically by how cooperative these cultures are in the context of their everyday lives. So a culture where people have to hunt whales, for example, and it’s extremely cooperative, is going to cooperate much more than a culture in which they just families practice slash-and-burn agriculture and don’t really cooperate outside the context of the family. So we’ve discovered that all of that also happens among neighborhoods within the city of Binghamton.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, with On Being. Today, with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. The Binghamton Neighborhood Project has resulted in a number of initiatives with evocative names like: Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play; the Binghamton Urban Ecosystems Initiative; the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project; and the Design Your Own Park Competition.

MS. TIPPETT: What else has surprised you that you might not have guessed about a city as an organism?

DR. WILSON: Well, oddly I’m surprised that some of what we’re doing is working [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Because you’re a skeptical scientist?

DR. WILSON: Well, when you have a theory, it’s always conjectural. And to have your theory confirmed is a joy. I mean, there can be no greater pleasure for a scientist than to have your theory confirmed. When the astronomers found that light indeed bended around the sun, that was a great confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. The confirmation of my theories are much more modest. What that means is, we can confront a real-world situation such as a school program for at-risk students or a disadvantaged neighborhood or these sorts of problems, and we could devise a solution, which is what everyone’s trying to do.

Basically, we’re just bringing a different tool kit to the policy table. In every other respect, we’re like anyone else who’s trying to make a difference, trying to come up with new solutions. We want to sit at the table with our evolutionary tool kit. And if we can devise a plan and for that plan to work, it’s a huge thrill and a surprise in a sense. And I feel lucky to have had some surprises. To the point where it becomes intuitive and in retrospect, you look back and you say, “Well, of course, this would work. Why wouldn’t this work?”

MS. TIPPETT: So give me an example. Give me an example of a situation to which you applied this evolutionary tool kit and you are pleased with the results.

DR. WILSON: My favorite example is the one that’s best documented. Because a part of this is that, in order to do this well, you have to do state of the art assessment. Not only does it have to work, but you have to prove that it works in a sense, and that can be very difficult in a real-world setting. So our biggest success story is the Regents Academy, which is a program for at-risk high school students that I was asked to advise. So this is a program for kids that are almost certainly going to drop out of school. To get into the program, they had to have flunked at least three courses in their previous year. We designed this program with the help of the principal and teacher to, as I said earlier, to stack the deck in favor of pro-sociality. I won’t try to — this is published research, so I won’t go through all of the details. But we created a very highly pro-social environment and a good learning environment.

MS. TIPPETT: So what does that look like. Creating a highly pro-social environment, what are some of the components of that?

DR. WILSON: OK. We have been able to derive a list of designed features that cause just about any group to function well, including a school group. This is based a lot on the work of Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. Her contribution was to show how groups of people attempting to manage their common resources, such as farmers or fishermen or forestry people managing forests, how they’re capable of managing their affairs pretty well, but only if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are very conciliant with what we know from an evolutionary perspective about pro-sociality and cooperation.

So I’m going to reel off eight design features and then I’m going to add a couple of extra things to show you how we created a school program that works. Now as I’m listing these ingredients, ask yourself the question, how well does the typical school satisfy these ingredients, embody these design features, especially from the perspective of an at-risk student? OK?

Ingredient number one: There has to be a strong group identity and a sense of purpose for the group. So a person has to think that they’re a member of a group and that group has to be a purpose that’s clear to everyone. OK?

Number two: a proportional cost in benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work and some people get all the benefits. There has to be some sense in which the benefits are scaled to what you do for the group. OK?

Number three: consensus decision-making. People hate being bossed around and told what to do, but they’ll work hard to implement a consensus decision. Right there, ask yourself what the average at-risk kid thinks about whether they’re being consulted about what they do in school.

Number four: monitoring. Most people are cooperative, but some people misbehave. Unless you can monitor that, then the group will not function well.

Number five: graduated sanctions. If someone does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down immediately. You correct them in a nice friendly fashion, but you also must be prepared to escalate.

Number six: fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it must be resolved quickly and in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.

Number seven: local autonomy. In order for the group to do the previous things, they must have the ability to make their own decisions and to organize their group their way in order to make those decisions. There’s another thing. If you look at the average school program, not only are the students not allowed to alter the routine, but even the teachers are not allowed even when they know it’s not working.

MS. TIPPETT: And the students are aware that the teachers are not allowed to alter their routine.

DR. WILSON: Yeah. Finally number eight is called polycentric governance. When groups are nested within larger groups, then there must be coordination among groups which mirrors the same principles. Now there’s two more principles that we added to this school group. The first was a safe and secure environment. Fear is good for helping you escape from a fearful situation over the short term. It’s toxic over the long term. So therefore, if you don’t feel safe and secure, if you’re not basically in a playful, relaxed mood, you’re not going to do the kind of learning that you need to do. And finally, learning in any species does not take place when all of the costs are in the present and all the benefits are in the future. So if you tell someone you’ll get a good job if you slog four years through school …

MS. TIPPETT: Right, or you’ll get into college four years from now.

DR. WILSON: Yeah. So there’s a wonderful study by the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who’s best known for his work on “flow,” peak psychological experience. In this study, he and his team followed a group of gifted high school students that were identified as gifted in the ninth grade, followed them through their high school and asked how many of them remained gifted by the 12th grade. What he discovered was, only the kids that enjoyed what they were doing on a day-to-day basis fulfilled their talents. So even the gifted kids had to have this short-term reward for what they were doing in order to realize the long-term reward. So if school isn’t fun and something you want to go to on a day-to-day basis, then forget about it.


DR. WILSON: Now, having listed these ingredients and compared them to the average school experience, you can see how deficient many school environments are especially from the perspective of an at-risk student.

MS. TIPPETT: You didn’t mention self-esteem or teacher-student ratio, right? Well, you’re starting your deliberation from such a different direction.

DR. WILSON: That’s a perceptive point on your part, although those things enter in.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, well, right. They’d be implied, but you’re not starting there. You’re getting there through creating the environment to create those things.

DR. WILSON: Yeah. Thank you for making that point. What it underscores is the fact that evolution is fundamentally about the relationship between the organism and the environment. The organism, including you and me, are fundamentally reflections of our environment. That sounds environmental and it is and yet you can make that statement more powerfully as an evolutionist than in any other way. As it turns out, in order to implement these things, it did need a pretty good student-teacher ratio, so that was important. Lots of love was required for that safe and secure environment.

These kids have had a very tough life. It breaks your heart to hear some of their stories. So one of the things they needed most was just old-fashioned TLC. That’s what caused them to be unfearful and to be relaxed and playful in the school environment, despite the fact that the rest of their lives were harsh. So we created this environment, and during its first year, it just worked spectacularly well. And I was surprised and delighted — surprised even though it was what we intended, but it had to be one of the greatest thrills in my professional career.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, what you just said a minute ago about it ends up needing old-fashioned TLC. I mean, that’s also something that runs through your reflection on this. One place you write: “I don’t claim to have a fix for every problem, but some solutions such as breastfeeding and welcoming nature back into our cities are no-brainers when you view them from an evolutionary perspective. We merely need to do what is manifestly good for us.”

You know, I hear a lot of stories that resonate with that in my work. I mean, we took a trip to Detroit this year, and part of what people were doing who were rebuilding lives in neighborhoods there is rediscovering things they’d forgotten, like growing your own food and knowing what you’re eating. I just wonder, though, as an evolutionary — from an evolutionary perspective, this act of rediscovering what we used to know and forgot would look like a backward step from the outside.

DR. WILSON: Oh, I wouldn’t call it a backward step, but there is such a thing as a backward step.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, so what is it if it’s not a backward step?

DR. WILSON: Well, life is complex and there’s all kinds of ways that you can simplify in the wrong way. It is not the case that we want to go back to nature in every respect. We don’t want to wear loincloths. We like our modern medicine. That’s not the point. There are some aspects of our minds that are sufficiently adapted to certain environments, that if you remove the elements of those environments, then we’re not going to adapt. We will be permanently stressed.

MS. TIPPETT: So we do things that stop evolution as progress and that we have to restore those environments to keep growing.

DR. WILSON: Well, we inadvertently create environments that are like a fish out of water. So if you put a fish out of water, there it is on land flopping around, it’s going to die soon. Put it back in the water. That’s not regressing.

MS. TIPPETT: [Laugh] OK, OK. Yeah, that’s really interesting.

DR. WILSON: And so I think that what we do when we try to reassemble small groups, when we put nature back in cities …

MS. TIPPETT: Where you say recreating ancestral environments.

DR. WILSON: … then this is basically putting the fish back in water, and that’s not regressive.

MS. TIPPETT: So once I was talking to a geneticist who is also an Anglican priest, so a scientist and also a religious person. He said that he sees the spirituality of a scientist as something like the spirituality of a mystic, which is always seeking to discern truth and to know what one can know and then always knowing that there’s much more to discover. I wonder how you, from your life, your way of seeing the world and your work as an evolutionary biologist, if you would think about if you had to define the spirituality of a scientist, how you might describe that.

DR. WILSON: Well, I agree with that person, and I actually enjoy thinking of science as like a religion that worships truth as its god. I think that there is two aspects of that. The one that the person you described focuses on is like an individual aspect of being a scientist, which is like spirituality. We even call it the spirit of inquiry, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

DR. WILSON: The spirit of inquiry. You know, the fact that we’re impelled to use that word “spirit” in our everyday lives tells you that it’s an important word and that it’s referring to something tangible, as intangible as it might seem. But I think the other thing about science that warrants comparison with religion is the sociological aspects, the fact that individuals are hopelessly biased, they cannot perceive the truth by themselves.

Science is not just an individual activity. We expect our scientists, we exhort them, to be as objective as they can and a good scientist tries to do so very earnestly, but still fails. So therefore, there must be a social process that causes science to work to be a truth-discovering process. And that’s also similar to religions in which a person basically does the right thing not only because they want to, but also because they’re in a system that locks them into it. A good religion is bristling with social control mechanisms [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Right, and science is too in its way, huh?

DR. WILSON: And science is bristling with social control mechanisms. We need those. So I think that we could make science stronger by stressing these comparisons with religions. Then, of course, there’s the crucial difference, which is that science worships truth as its god — factual truth as its god, and other religions do not.

MS. TIPPETT: David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He’s also editor-in-chief of Evolution: This View of Life — an online magazine examining the relationship between evolutionary science and everyday life. David Sloan Wilson’s books include Darwin’s Cathedral and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. In the final chapter of that book, he concludes: “In some respects, I’m like a plumber, here to fix our collective clogged drain with my evolutionary tool kit. But I’m also reflecting on the most profound issues that have ever been pondered by religious sages, philosophers, and storytellers throughout the ages. … For evolutionary science, the best basic research is on people from all walks of life as they go about their daily lives, which is also the best applied research. Understanding and improving the human condition go hand in hand.”

You can listen to this show again or my unedited interview with David Sloan Wilson at our website, onbeing.org. On Facebook, we’re at facebook.com/onbeing. On Twitter, follow our show @beingtweets.

The best way to follow everything we do is through our weekly email newsletter. It’s fast and easy: click the newsletter link on any page at onbeing.org

On Being is produced on-air and on-line by Chris Heagle, Lily Percy and Stefni Bell.

Our intern is Megan Bender. Trent Gilliss is senior editor.

Books & Music

Recommended Reading