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David Sloan Wilson

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From Lecture Halls to City Streets: Putting Evolution to Work

Posted: 08/29/11 01:31 PM ET

America famously leads the world in its denial of evolution and politicians tremble at the word for fear of losing the vote. Even those who accept evolution typically associate it with fossils, dinosaurs, and nature documentaries. Here's an idea that's new for almost everyone -- using Darwin's theory as a practical toolkit for improving the quality of life at all scales -- from individuals who want to maximize their potential, to groups of all sorts attempting to achieve their objectives, to a city such as my hometown of Binghamton, New York, to managing the economy and environment at a worldwide scale. That's the subject of my new book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.

Examples include therapeutic methods that work in as little as three hours, ways to create a culture of cooperation in first grade classrooms with benefits that last a lifetime, and speeding the recovery of hospital patients merely by placing plants in their rooms. We can even keep kids from running out in the road or from picking up smoking, make good use of abandoned urban plots, and strengthen test scores from the ground up, all validated by the most rigorous scientific methods, and made comprehensible by a single scientific theory.

Using evolution as a tool for positive change is one of those ideas that first sounds strange but then becomes so sensible in retrospect that it can't be otherwise. After all, the theory of evolution explains how organisms change in relation to their environments. All species have evolved by genetic evolution to change over the short term in response to their environment -- what evolutionists call phenotypic plasticity. The human capacity for short-term change is exceptionally open-ended and makes use of learned information that is transmitted across generations -- what everyone calls culture. Not only did our capacity for culture evolve by genetic evolution, but it is an evolutionary process in its own right. The fast-paced change taking place all around us is not a mysterious suspension of evolutionary processes -- it is evolution at warp speed.

All policy experts who are not young earth creationists implicitly assume that their ideas are consistent with evolution -- yet the vast majority has no knowledge of modern evolutionary science. As it turns out, many of the ideas that inform current policies are not consistent with evolution. As exhibit A, I offer neoclassical economic theory, which is not even consistent with the dictates of common sense, much less modern psychology, which itself needs to be understood in terms of modern evolutionary science.

A public policy is an intentional effort to accomplish change that improves the public good. Every current policy on every topic worth caring about has a rationale that seems to make sense. Otherwise no one would be tempted to carry them out. Yet, like the wishes that people are granted by genies in folk tales, our policies have a perverse way of going wrong. Our current public policy experts are like the Wizard of Oz who calls out forlornly to Dorothy from his hot air balloon "I don't know how it works!"

Evolutionists don't know how "it" works either. I'd be the last person to claim that evolutionists have all the answers, especially since the modern application of evolutionary theory to human affairs is so recent. What evolutionists have is an exceptionally general and powerful toolkit for finding the answers, which has already proven itself for the study of the rest of life, is in the process of proving itself for the academic study of humanity, and needs to be used to formulate public policy without delay.

Talk of formulating public policy from an evolutionary perspective raises the specter of "Social Darwinism", a term associated with past efforts to justify social inequality in terms of the "survival of the fittest". Social Darwinism has been used to justify some very nasty actions -- not just in Nazi Germany, but in England and the United States. Before we rush to blame evolution, however, consider that these same nasty actions have been justified in other ways throughout history, such as nationalism and the religious principle of divine right. Consider also that the term "social engineering" has acquired a creepy reputation in all its forms, including the kind of brainwashing inspired by the "blank slate" tradition of behaviorism.

What makes social engineering creepy is the prospect of some people imposing their vision of the good society on others without their consent. People hate being told what to do against their will, for the best of reasons. Any form of social engineering that is based on what they want, and not on what we want, will be resisted.

If you're the kind of person who objects to social engineering, ask yourself the question "What is the alternative?" Doing nothing is not an option. Evolution doesn't make everything nice. It accounts for the full range of outcomes, from the good life to a life that's nasty, brutish, and short. If we want to achieve the good life -- defined in a way that we agree upon by consensus -- then the only way to do so is by becoming wise managers of evolutionary processes.

I speak not just hypothetically, but on the basis of experience trying to improve the quality of life in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, and by helping to create The Evolution Institute, which is designed to connect the world of public policy formulation to the world of evolutionary science. I've discovered that the evolutionary toolkit is not something that's inherently dangerous (although any tool can be used for dangerous purposes), and doesn't need to be incubated in the laboratory before being unleashed on the world. It begins proving its worth right away on real-life issues such as education, risky adolescent behavior, rethinking economics, quality of life, and nation building and failed states. The toolkit metaphor is apt: Imagine offering a carpenter or plumber a better set of tools for their jobs. They would want to start using the new tools right away -- and so should we for the construction of our public policies.

Using evolution to make a difference in my own hometown has been a special pleasure. For over 20 years, I worked and lived in Binghamton without giving it much thought, other than how to use it for my own purposes. I studied how groups evolve to function adaptively as a scientist, but regarded myself as too busy to get involved in local community affairs. All that changed when I had my epiphany about using evolution as a practical toolkit for accomplishing positive change. Suddenly, making a difference in my hometown became a grand experiment, not in a cold-hearted sense, but in a way that made me feel more a part of my community than ever before. I am pleased to recount my personal odyssey, in addition to the foundational scientific and philosophical issues at stake, in The Neighborhood Project.