D. S. Wilson: can Darwin fix Binghamton?

June 16, 2011 • 3:26 am

David Sloan Wilson is best known for his vigorous defense of the evolutionary importance of multilevel selection, a variant of group selection.  His ideas haven’t yet become a part of mainstream evolutionary biology: although multilevel selection must operate in some instances (in evolution, every type of selection must have happened at least once!), I’m not convinced that it explains a great deal about the natural world.

In recent years Wilson, partly supported by the Templeton Foundation, has tried to apply some of his ideas about evolution to revitalize the depressed city in which he lives, Binghamton, New York.  His efforts are profiled in a piece by Emma Marris in the latest Nature, “Evolution: Darwin’s City.” As Marris describes, Wilson’s efforts are based on this evolutionary thesis:

Groups with high prosociality — a suite of cooperative behaviours that includes altruism — often outcompete those that have little social cohesion, so natural selection applies to group behaviours just as it does on individual adaptations. Many contend that group-level selection is not needed to explain altruism, but Wilson believes that it is this process that has made humans a profoundly social species, the bees of the primate order.

And so Wilson scurries around Binghamton, trying to fix it by encouraging prosociality, which means promoting competition between different groups.  He works on parks, school, and playgrounds, and he works hard. I really admire the man for his efforts to raise up his community.

My admiration is hedged, though by two things. First, Wilson is deeply engaged with local churches and religions: although he’s an atheist, he’s always been soft on religion, and has a strong belief in belief. Churches, he thinks, are one of the Darwinian fixes for his town. And that extends to churches whose agenda isn’t progressive:

One of Wilson’s students on the religion project, Ian MacDonald, says that Wilson has “temporarily” allayed his fears about helping religious organizations. But MacDonald is uneasy about what will happen when they try working with closed, dogmatic churches that condemn homosexuality or teach women to obey their husbands’ every command. Wilson says that he is “sympathetic to the ‘niche’ occupied by ‘closed’ churches”; he is not there to judge.

That’s disturbing.  How can one be “sympathetic to a niche” that makes women and gays second-class citizens?

Second, Wilson’s Darwinian agenda seems somewhat misguided—even a bit fanatical. And as Marris shows clearly,  the evolution bit hasn’t been a rousing success:

[Wilson] now spends his days in church basements, government meeting rooms, street corners and scrubby city parks. He is involved in projects to build playgrounds, install urban gardens, reinvent schools, create neighbourhood associations and document the religious life of the city, among others. Wilson thrives on his hectic schedule, but it is hard to measure his success. Publications are sparse, in part because dealing with communities and local government is time-consuming. And the nitty-gritty practical details often swamp the theory; the people with whom he collaborates sometimes have trouble working out what his projects have to do with evolution.

At the Lost Dog [a dog cafe], I ask city planner and frequent collaborator Tarik Abdelazim whether he understands why an academic scientist is taking such a proactive interest in the city. He leans against the bar, glass of wine in hand, and addresses Wilson. “I know you talk about ‘prosociality’, but how that connects to our good friend Darwin, I don’t know.”

Fellow biologists are also bemused. According to Wilson’s former graduate student Dan O’Brien, now a biologist at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many have reacted to Wilson’s work with “a mixture of intrigue and distance”. That, says O’Brien, “is because he’s not doing biology anymore. He’s entered into a sort of evolutionary social sciences.” Wilson has acquired the language of community organizing and joined, supported and partially funded a slew of improvement schemes, raising the question of whether he is too close to his research. Has David Sloan Wilson fallen in love with his field site?

I wish Wilson well, though he might be more effective if he abandoned the multilevel-selection approach. And maybe he should regard his efforts more as personal altruism than as a demonstration of his evolutionary ideas:

Mary Webster, a resident who has been working on a park-design project in her neighbourhood, says that she initially saw Wilson as a professor with all the answers. Now, she says she realizes that he is “flying by the seat of his pants”. That “sounds about right”, says Wilson and, paraphrasing Einstein, he offers, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

Oh dear.

38 thoughts on “D. S. Wilson: can Darwin fix Binghamton?

  1. So, is this “evolution” guided by a benevolent intelligence, or does it just have an intrinsic aim of its own?

    I don’t see how his social experiment ties in with the actual TOE.

  2. I think it is somewhat silly, and problematic, to apply the word evolution to this process. It is a social experiment, and probably better than top down efforts, but I’m unconvinced it’s much more than another cargo cult.

    1. Silly is the operative word. Wilson is an interesting and iconoclastic evolutionary biologist, but one has to get all fuzzy and squint hard to see how any of these well-intended efforts to help Binghamton have anything to do with evolution or Darwin. This is the sort of thing one expects from a social scientist with a cursory exposure to evolutionary biology.

      1. This is the sort of thing one expects from a social scientist with a cursory exposure to evolutionary biology.

        Exactly my thoughts. And I see this idea of “applied evolution” (!) as more than problematic (as jay rightly calls it); I’d go with downright dangerous, in terms of planting just the wrong ideas in people’s heads about the ToE.

      1. La disparition ? It’s worship conforming to Oulipo constraints. Did you know that you cannot unjoin the Oulipo club ?

  3. “At the Lost Dog [a dog cafe],…”

    What ? I looked up Dog Cafés & discovered they are indeed for pooches. Only in America ! Anyway The Lost Dog Café, Binghamton, NY doesn’t seem to be a Dog Café

    JustForFun Section:
    According to the Rate My Professors site DSW scores higher than PZ Myers ~ the comments on each Prof are interesting…

    1. On PZ: “More worried about being a F list celebrity than teaching. As others have mentioned, never reachable. Thinks he is Carl Sagan or something.”

      Why do I think this is not one of the A students?

      On the bright side, if PZ moves up a few letters, Kathy Griffin will make jokes about him.

  4. Many contributors to the free-will debate seem happy that we either don’t have free will, or it’s not what we usually think of it being. And some who think this way seem happy to continue to use the term free will, to describe the extent of independence a complex autonomous system appears to have.

    In this context there seems to be a similar blurring of barriers in the use of terms. In one sense DSW appears to causing unnatural selection, like dog breeding, on a social scale. And yet, according to the above notion of free will, DSW is also just a product of his environment, and so all such human behaviours are part of a larger evolutionary process – just not Darwinian, biological, natural selection; not specifically genetically inherited (but to what extent do our genes dictate our altruism and our motivation to be interfering social busy bodies intent on social engineering?)

    I’d be interested hear views on what the boundaries of evolution are. What types of evolution are we participating in? Are we active participants, agents, in directing it, or, without free-will, are we just its products?

    1. “And yet, according to the above notion of free will, DSW is also just a product of his environment, and so all such human behaviours are part of a larger evolutionary process”

      … and all this is just quantum mechanics…. so ‘evolution’ is an unnecessary definition…

    2. Glad you said “views”, but I don’t mind the professionals beat mine to the ground later.

      I thought it obvious that biological evolution is defined as hereditary, to match neo-darwinian theory with actual process.

      While evolutionary mechanisms can be general. (They had to be, to get through pro- over proto- to hereditary biotic stages.) But then you may leave biology, or risk generalizing too much, as jay notes.

  5. Binghamton is a working-class drinking town. Without UOB, there would be no “elan vital” until one arrives safely in Ithaca. Nontheless, Wilson is a much better campus luminary than the alumnae Paglia.

  6. Wilson and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt have both argued that religion, even if false, is a necessary social glue, both in the evolutionary past and in the present. That DSW is collaborating with churches makes it seem as if he’s trying to validate his scientific hypothesis by proving it on the ground. But of course it isn’t clear that we need false beliefs to generate social cohesion, http://www.naturalism.org/enlightenment1.htm#secularism

  7. Groups with high prosociality — a suite of cooperative behaviours that includes altruism — often outcompete those that have little social cohesion, so natural selection applies to group behaviours just as it does on individual adaptations.

    I’ll certainly agree with the first half of that sentence — up to the comma.

    But the part that follows after only works if the groups are reproductively isolated.

    I mean, isn’t that blindingly obvious?

    It’s wonderful that Wilson is working hard to help his local town of Binghamton (though he’d do more to help if he didn’t coddle the would-be-zombie-fondlers). But that’s only going to leave an imprint in the genome if he isolates Binghamton from the rest of the population for a significant number of generations — and I think it’d be obvious that such an isolation would be far more detrimental to Binghamton than any sort of inter-Binghamton charity work.

    Just look to the Amish and other sorts of insulated, tight-knit communities.

    I’m kind of flabbergasted that an evolutionary biologist could miss something like this. I mean, isn’t the significance of the actual breeding population the sort of thing you cover in your very first lecture in an introductory class?



    1. What’s blindingly obvious, Ben, is that you’re in over your head here. I’m going to assure you here that DS Wilson understands evolutionary biology a weeee bit more thoroughly and deeply than, say, you. [evidence: your comments; Wilson’s course in Evolutionary Biology I took at Michigan State back in 1983]
      He’s not stupid; he’s worked for years on intricate mathematical models of population genetics that suggest how and under what circumstances group-selected altruism can evolve.

      Here he’s not trying to cause the evolution of prosocial groups, he’s trying to exploit what he believes to be group-selected aspects of human (biological) nature, the evolution of which is past history (to Wilson).

      1. Just because he has a broader and deeper knowledge of the subject doesn’t mean that he’s applying that knowledge in a rational matter.

        Here he’s not trying to cause the evolution of prosocial groups[….]

        That’s sure not how I read Jerry’s take on it:

        And so Wilson scurries around Binghamton, trying to fix it by encouraging prosociality, which means promoting competition between different groups.

        Maybe I’ve misunderstood Jerry or maybe what Wilson is doing has gotten lost in the game of telephone. But the whole thrust of the article to me sure seems to be about how Wilson has turned into a community activist and that he draws his inspiration for doing so on his ideas about prosocial evolution.



        1. I’m afraid Ben that Jerry’s presentation of DS Wilson’s work, and then your interpretation of that, are both flawed. I get a real sense that many posters on here are eager to jump down on people who are ‘deviants’, irrespective of how they deviate. Jerry’s version of evolution and what happens in the field is one man’s take, it isn’t all correct. For example, he says somewhere that George Price and Bill Hamilton gave us Inclusive Fitness theory–that’s about half right, as George Price gave us the Price equation, which among other things showed Bill Hamilton that inclusive fitness can be parsed into individual and group components. Bill Hamilton acknowledged this as far back as 1975, but you wouldn’t know it from several leading evolutionists, even today. Which also means that Jerry’s statement that he isn’t sure that multilevel selection gave us anything useful is very debatable, both because IF can be converted to MLS and because MLS was considered heretical for so long that few scientists use it. But it certainly provides a useful model/framework for those who grasp it.

          As for David Wilson’s work in Binghamton, it’s kinda sad to see so many here down on it. Sven is right to point out that “he’s not trying to cause the evolution of prosocial groups, he’s trying to exploit what he believes to be group-selected aspects of human (biological) nature”.

          David sees humans as having evolved psychological mechanisms that facilitate altruism under certain conditions, but that modern cities often break those conditions. So he is looking at ways to re-create suitable conditions, as he would predict them. As a spin-off, he’s working hard to implement them in an applied setting, and if they work, then it makes a positive contribution to a city that needs it (full disclosure: I am a former grad student of David’s and lived in Binghamton for a while). Too often, evolutionary theory is seen as something that is useful to understand life, but in the case of humans, we have a chance to apply lessons from using ToE to improve life–our lives! That is something that EvPsych does too little of. Of course, EvPSych is a young science and we are finding our feet, but the rush to condemn is sad.

          By the way, the portrayal of David Wilson as some kind of quixotic scientist, to quote Jerry, “even a bit fanatical”, is misplaced. The best scientists are always a bit fanatical, that’s what makes them throw themselves into their work. It doesn’t mean that they are deluded (though of course they can be!). But why does it follow that “he might be more effective if he abandoned the multilevel-selection approach”? I don’t see IF proponents doing any similar community-boosting work. I just see them blogging about why religion is evil. So, why aren’t you out building the community structures to replace the churches? Or do you think you can just whip away that particular scaffold without somehow weakening the edifice?

          Jerry seems somewhat disgusted because David has engaged with churches, but in a community like Binghamton (or indeed, like many in the US), churches are one of the social structures within communities that often bind them together, for better or worse. To develop a more prosocial community on a large scale, churches are a tool to usefully leverage.

          And think of it, an evolutionist works with churches to apply findings from evolutionary theory to improve the quality of life in a conservative town! Can’t anyone else enjoy the sweet irony of all that? 🙂

        2. For a well balanced introduction to this intricate issue, I can recommend Okasha’s “Evolution and the levels of selection”. You’ll see that the multilevel selection scheme termed MLS1 is not depending on reproductive isolation of groups but, on the contrary, on frequent dissolution of group-structure and reshuffling of genes/individuals before group structure is reformed. That way, cheats can only gain their within-group benefit for a while and, in circumstances, between-group averages can statistically prevail over within-group advantage.

  8. In evolution, every type of selection must have happened at least once!

    Jerry, would you mind expanding on this a bit?

    I would think it safe to say that, early enough in the Earth’s history, only a very limited number of the currently-known forms of selection would have happened. For example, before the invention of sex, sexual selection never happened.

    I would also rather doubt that we’re yet aware of all possible forms of selection…and I would even go so far as to suggest that there’s more than ample opportunity for some novel forms of selection to arise — if not on Earth, then perhaps in other biospheres.

    So, clearly, there were some qualifiers that there wasn’t room for in the parentheses…and you’ve got me really curious as to what those might be.



  9. I’m originally from that area, and I’ve never heard of that guy. I wonder if he’s only become active since I left high school?

    When I was a kid, the Binghamton area seemed to be full of engineers working for IBM (IBM was founded in the area). There were also lots of parks that were originally founded by Endicott Johnson for families of the factory workers. So I’m assuming these are the parks he’s talking about.

    IBM has left the area, and ever since then the area’s economy has been poor. The middle class shrunk as IBM workers moved to other towns. I’ve also heard rumors of drug dealers moving in from downstate, but I’m not at all certain it’s true. The crime rate and unemployment rate have grown since I was young. I suspect job growth would make a bigger difference than this guy’s projects.

    Also, I love the Lost Dog Cafe, but I’ve never seen a dog there. It’s just a cafe.

    1. Bailey, I’m still in Binghamton, and have read a bit about DSW’s work. The parks he’s focusing on aren’t the big EJ-donated parks, but smaller, neighborhood parks. He’s getting people together to design and get built new spaces, or re-doing old, pretty well abandoned ones.

      IBM still has a presence, and in fact is starting a new division here. But it’s a shadow of its former self.

      Drugs and crime, yeah, some. But it’s not the massive infestation that some people claim.

      It is a struggling area. Conservative in many ways, with pockets of liberalism. An interesting place to live.

  10. Instead of Wilson saying that he is “sympathetic to a niche” of the closed churches, it might have been better to say that he recognizes the influence those churches could wield in beautifying the community.

    But then again, maybe he really does sympathize, which is really too bad because, as you say Jerry, “How can one be “sympathetic to a niche” that makes women and gays second-class citizens?”

  11. I would recommend, in connexion with David S-W’s views on group selection, Nicholas Wade’s ‘The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures’, which draws on S-W’s views; it has been praised by such as Edward O Wilson, Frans de Waal & James Watson, and its writing and publication were assisted by a grant from, alas, the Templeton Foundation. It’s a mixed bag, with a number of important questions not adequately addressed, it seems to me; the arguments for the evolution of traits that specifically favour religion were not entirely convincing, and the criticisms of atheists’ arguments, for example, those of Dawkins, are not nearly so telling as Wade thinks they are. Wade likes the idea of religion a little too much. But there is a lot of very interesting material and ideas in the book – in particular that morality and altruism, which originally applied only within the group, ultimately derive from the constant wars between small groups of hunter-gatherers, wars which were more likely to be won by the more united and ruthless groups. So Ben Goren’s point above about the reproductive isolation of groups being important to group selection seems to have been something that was to an extent true of the early days of mankind – although Wade doesn’t address the matter of slaughtering the male members of a hostile group and seizing the women, which would, I should have thought, have weakened any tendencies towards the selection of more religious, united and ruthless groups. But it is a book that is well-worth reading.

    1. I read the book and found it wholly unconvincing; dissappointing particularly since his previous book Before the Dawn was much clearer and more evidence based. Too much of the book seemed to be speculative hand waving.

      Religion as byproduct theories seem to be much better supported by the evidence. See Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust, for a much more convincingly argued (if still not complete) case.

      1. I’ve read ‘the Faith Instinct’ and I thought that it was a mixed bag too. I can’t imagine religion as a byproduct actually explains the pernicious influence it has. Religion has major costs that must be balanced by major benefits, otherwise the first group that dropped observing religion would have taken over.

        I did like the chapter dealing with the origin of the 3 Abrahamaic religions, including the one about Mohammed not actually existing. Mohammed is the messenger of god should have been translated in the earliest form it exists in the mosque on the dome rock in Jerusalem as he who is to be praised is the messenger of god and actually referred to Jesus. Nicholas Wade is summarizing the view that the early Muslims were actually Arab Christians in Palestine and Syria of one god, not three, type and there is one god was their rallying call as opposed to the trinity.

  12. The word I use when I stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or have just figured out some insanely difficult math problem is “AWE.” I stand in awe. It’s not spiritual or not of this earthy, it’s just “AWE.”

  13. As a (proud!) SUNY Binghamton alum, I can’t deny that the town can use all the help it can get. IBM used to be the largest employer in the region (it still has a presence there, though not nearly as large as it once did), and the area never fully recovered from its departure. I’d suspect that SUNY Binghamton itself is one of the major employers in the region these days, as the campus itself is thriving, and enrollment is growing quite rapidly.

    Still, I agree with the other commenters: the connection between what Wilson is doing and evolutionary theory seems tenuous at best. I mean, really, is creating more public green space and establishing incentive programs for high schoolers the most revolutionary ideas he can come up with? This seems like 101-level community organizing, and even if it does work, there are plenty of ways to explain why other than tendentious notions of group selection. And more important, in what sense is he even doing science anymore? Does he have a control group, for example? Some neighborhood where he’s not investing any effort in creating prosociality?

  14. As Nietzsche mentioned long ago, it is an all to human quality to project your own personal philosophy onto nature as a whole; something to always double down to resist at all costs.

Leave a Reply