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.”