Marris, E. (2011). “Darwin’s City.” Nature, 474: 146-149. [PDF]
David Sloan Wilson is using the lens of evolution to understand life in the struggling city of Binghamton, New York. Next, he wants to improve it.
O’Brien, D.T.; Norton, C.C.; Cohen, J.; Wilson, D.S. (2012). “Local Adaptation in Community Perception: How Background Impacts Judgments of Neighborhood Safety.” Environment and Behavior, in press. [PDF]
When observing an unfamiliar neighborhood, people use indicators of physical disorder to judge the local community (i.e., community perception), associating them with crime and weak relationships between neighbors. The authors argue that these judgments depend on people’s definition of disorder, which is adapted to their local community. This is tested with an experiment. Undergraduate students from across New York State rated the collective efficacy (i.e., social quality) of neighborhoods from a single city using images of physical structures. Participants reported which features they attended to when making these judgments. Participants were categorized as being from New York City (NYC), NYC suburbs, or the less densely populated upstate region. Images were from an upstate city. Those from NYC attended more to pavement than others. Ratings by those from upstate were most accurate and positive. These results supported the initial hypotheses and suggested that community perception combines heuristics and familiarity to make inferences.
Wilson, D. S., Kauffman, R. A., Purdy, M. S. (2011). “A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science.” PLoS One, 6(11). [PDF]
Improving the academic performance of at-risk high school students has proven difficult, often calling for an extended day, extended school year, and other expensive measures. Here we report the results of a program for at-risk 9th and 10th graders in Binghamton, New York, called the Regents Academy that takes place during the normal school day and year. The design of the program is informed by the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation and learning, in general and for our species as a unique product of biocultural evolution. Not only did the Regents Academy students outperform their comparison group in a randomized control design, but they performed on a par with the average high school student in Binghamton on state-mandated exams. All students can benefit from the social environment provided for at-risk students at the Regents Academy, which is within the reach of most public school districts.
The Design Your Own Park Competition
Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play on a Citywide Scale
Wilson, D. S. (2011). “The Design Your Own Park Competition
Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play on a Citywide Scale.” American Journal of Play, 3(4). 538-550. [PDF]
This article describes the thinking behind and the implementation of the Design Your Own Park (DYOP) Competition, a collaborative project of a university, a city, and a fund-raising organization to empower neighborhoods and restore outdoor play citywide in Binghamton, New York. The city makes vacant lots and other neglected spaces available for neighborhoods to turn into parks that residents design and build with the assistance of faculty and students from Binghamton University’s Binghamton Neighborhood Project. The United Way of Broome County assists with funding required for implementation. Neighborhood groups help maintain their parks, which increases ongoing interactions among neighbors and reduces city maintenance costs. While it is too early to access the DYOP Competition fully, it provides a science-based model for other cities seeking to coordinate efforts around large-scale community projects.
Community Perception: The Ability to Assess the Safety of Unfamiliar Neighborhoods and Respond Adaptively
OBrien, D. T. and Wilson, D. S. (2011). “Community Perception: The Ability to Assess the Safety of Unfamiliar Neighborhoods and Respond Adaptively.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100: 4, 606-620. [PDF]
When entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, adaptive social decisions are dependent on an accurate assessment of the local safety. Studies of cities have shown that the maintenance of physical structures is correlated with the strength of ties between neighbors, which in turn is responsible for the crime level. Thus it should be theoretically possible to intuit neighborhood safety through the physical structures alone. Here we test whether people have this capacity for judging urban neighborhoods with 3 studies in which individuals observed photographs of unfamiliar neighborhoods in Binghamton, New York. Each study was facilitated by data collected during previous studies performed by the Binghamton Neighbor- hood Project studies. In the 1st study, observer ratings on neighborhood social quality agreed highly with reports by those living there. In the 2nd, a separate sample of participants played an economic game with adolescent residents from pictured neighborhoods. Players exhibited a lower level of trust toward adolescents from neighborhoods whose residents report lesser social quality. In the 3rd study, the maintenance of physical structures and the presence of businesses explained nearly all variation between neighborhoods in observer ratings (89%), whereas the specific features influencing play in Study 2 remained inconclusive. These and other results suggest that people use the general upkeep of physical structures when making wholesale judgments of neighborhoods, reflecting a adaptation for group living that has strong implications for the role of upkeep in urban environments.
Sociality in the City: Using Biological Principles to Explore the Relationship between High Population Density and Social Behavior
Cities represent settlements with population densities that are unprecedented in human history. While such levels of population density can intensify competition for resources, the abundance of conspecifics also heightens their value to each other as resources. In our species, this can alter the optimal behavioral strategy for social interaction. The exploitation of cooperators provides the actor with an advantage, while damaging conspecifics, doubly enhancing one’s relative fitness. This same model can be seen in species that have cannibal morphs that develop only in the context of high population density. The effect of population density on humans has been studied by two groups, social psychologists and sociologists. These literatures combine to demonstrate that population density causes people to be psychologically aloof, while also being socially removed from many of their neighbors. The strength of social control mechanisms rests in their ability to deter undesirable behavior, and the inclination that individuals have towards these behaviors. Population density appears to exacerbate both of these, creating a context that both harbors and breeds self-centered behavior. We synthesize the theories of these two disciplines, providing new evidence that shows that population density not only creates detached social behaviors, but socially aggressive ones.
Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale
Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200. [Link; PDF]
Prosociality is a fundamental theme in all branches of the human behavioral sciences. Evolutionary theory sets an even broader stage by examining prosociality in all species, including the distinctive human capacity to cooperate in large groups of unrelated individuals. We use evolutionary theory to investigate human prosociality at the scale of a small city (Binghamton, NY), based on survey data and a direct measure of prosocial behavior. In a survey of public school students (Grades 6–12), individual prosociality correlates strongly with social support, which is a basic requirement for prosociality to succeed as a behavioral strategy in Darwinian terms. The most prosocial individuals receive social support from multiple sources (e.g., family, school, neighborhood, religion and extracurricular activities). Neighborhood social support is significant as a group-level variable in addition to an individual-level variable. The median income of a neighborhood does not directly influence individual prosociality, but only indirectly through forms of social support. Variation in neighborhood quality, as measured by the survey, corresponds to the likelihood that a stamped addressed letter dropped on the sidewalk of a given neighborhood will be mailed. We discuss the results in relation to evolutionary theory, the experimental economics literature and the social capital literature in an effort to integrate the study of human prosociality across disciplines.
Wilson, D. S., & O’Brien, D. T. (2009). Evolutionary Theory and Cooperation in Everyday Life. In Levin, S. A. (Ed.) Games, Groups, and the Global Good. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. [Link]
A rapid process of integration is taking place for theories of cooperation in both evolutionary biology and the human social sciences. It includes a return to the concept of social groups as like single organisms, which was once commonplace but was eclipsed by various forms of individualism that became dominant during the second half of the twentieth century. So far, the integration has taken place mostly within academia, but it is highly relevant to everyday life, as we show with our research on cooperation and its consequences at a city-wide scale in Binghamton, New York.