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David Sloan Wilson

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Proof That Policies Informed by Evolution Can Succeed Where Other Perspectives Have Failed

Posted: 11/29/11 12:34 PM ET

Evolution, the theory that has already proven itself for understanding the rest of life, is equally relevant for understanding the human condition. With understanding comes the capacity for improvement. Thus, evolutionary theory can be used to improve the quality of human life in a practical sense.

I have dedicated the last five years of my life to demonstrating this claim, by getting involved in my city of Binghamton and by co-founding the Evolution Institute, the first think tank to formulate public policy from an evolutionary perspective. I also chose to write about my adventures in The Neighborhood Project as they were unfolding, rather than waiting for some kind of final proof. After all, there was an entire paradigm to convey, I was trying to apply evolution to many policy issues at once, and years might be required for any single project to reach fruition. As a result, reviews of The Neighborhood Project almost invariably wish me well, but note with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism that the proof is not yet in.

It is therefore with considerable pride that I can offer proof for one project: a program for at-risk high school students called the Regents Academy that the Binghamton City School District started in 2010 and invited me to help design. My consulting relationship with the School District began in 2006 and has led to several academic publications, but this was my first opportunity to help build a program from the ground up, using my evolutionary toolkit.

The problem was daunting. Improving the academic performance of at-risk students is difficult at any age, but especially for teenagers, whose habits, attitudes, and social networks are already established. Our program was targeted for 9th and 10th graders who had failed at least three of their classes during the previous year and would be very likely to drop out of school if nothing were done. Other successful programs for at-risk high school students appear to succeed only by expensive measures, such as extending the school day and year, which would be unavailable to us. We could do little to address the problems that most of the students faced outside of school, which were sometimes heartbreakingly difficult, as I would learn.

What were some of the tools in the evolutionary toolkit that might help to solve such a daunting problem? A school program is first and foremost a group of people that must cooperate to achieve certain objectives. Evolution has a lot to say about the dynamics of cooperation in all species and the uniquely human capacity to cooperate, based on our particular history as a species. Then there are the effects of existential security on psychological functioning. Finally, there is a need to make long-term learning outcomes reinforcing over the short term. Working with one of my graduate students, Rick Kauffman, and the dedicated staff of the Regents Academy, we tried to design the optimal social environment for cooperation, trust, and learning. We also employed the gold standard of assessment, the randomized control trial. Of 117 students who qualified for the program, 56 were randomly selected and the others were tracked as they experienced the normal high school routine.



What happened? The RA students responded so quickly to their new social environment that their grades rocketed up by the first marking period. The dropout rate plummeted. The most stringent test came at the end of the year with the state-mandated exams. Not only did the RA students greatly outperform the comparison group, but they performed on a par with the average Binghamton High School student. These results have recently been reported in the Public Library of Science's online public access journal PLoS ONE. They provide proof that a policy informed by evolution -- in this case educational policy -- can succeed at solving problems that have appeared difficult or impossible to solve from other perspectives.

When Thomas Huxley first encountered Darwin's theory, his response was "How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!" The Regents Academy has the same kind of obviousness-in-retrospect. All of its design features are familiar and within the repertoire of normal school practices. Yet, a certain theoretical perspective was required to bring them together. In the chapter of The Neighborhood Project devoted to education, titled "Learning From Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children," I observe that policies are like the wishes that people are granted in folk tales, only to end up regretting. All policies make sense based on their underlying assumptions; otherwise no one would be tempted to formulate them or carry them out. Yet, they often have unforeseen consequences that lead to very different outcomes than the ones imagined. Worse, unlike the characters in folk tales who end up realizing their mistake, the unforeseen consequences of policies are typically diffuse and indirect, therefore difficult to trace to their causes. In this fashion, we become lost in a maze of unforeseen consequences. Only a comprehensive theory and rigorous scientific assessment procedures can help us find our way out.

Time will tell whether the RA continues to succeed as well as (or better than) its first year, but its initial success is a hopeful sign that evolutionary theory can be as useful for public policy formulation as it is for the study of biology and the academic study of humans.

 
 
 

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