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The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time [Hardcover]

David Sloan Wilson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

24 Aug 2011

After decades of studying animals in their habitats, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson had a radical idea-apply evolutionary science to the study of a city. Cities are like organisms, so why not study them as such?

Inspired to become an agent of change in his post-industrial hometown, Wilson descended on its neighborhoods with a scientist's eye. What does bullying feed on? How can we give kids the best start in life? Is spirituality expanding into new areas, or shrinking? How does neighborhood quality affect test scores? After learning how these traits 'live' throughout a city, how can we improve the lives of its citizens?

Populated with original research and the latest science and written in an appealing, personal narrative, THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROJECT is a significant book that strives to define how places define us.

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The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time + Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (24 Aug 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316037672
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316037679
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 799,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Just as Charles Darwin had his finches and Jane Goodall her chimps, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has his city as a subject of study in what has to be one of the most unique projects ever undertaken in the history of science. Through the lens of evolutionary theory we see not just Wilson's city of Binghamton, New York in a new light, we view all of humanity and civilization from a perspective unique in the annals of research, and written in an engaging style that carries the reader from one chapter to the next. A compelling read. An important book." "Michael Shermer is the publisher of "Skeptic "magazine, a monthly columnist for "Scientific American," an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of "Why Darwin Matters" and "The Mind of the Market"""

Book Description

A top evolutionist uses his science to address the challenges of a typical American city.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a readable and inspiring overview of an important field. Wilson proclaims that insights from evolutionary theory can help us make the world a better place - and that, if we ignore them, we will have some nasty surprises as we select for characteristics that we do not want, or find that characteristics beneficial in the environment they evolved in are detrimental in different circumstances.

Wilson greatly enlarges the scope of biological evolution by considering all systems governed by variation, selection, and some sort of inheritance, which draws in the transmission of ideas and beliefs, systems influenced by human behaviour, such as economics, and even the ideas and behaviours of a single person, as they flourish or wither depending on whether they are rewarded or not.

Wilson also describes and applauds the rigorous empirical evaluation of evolutionary ideas, and their competitors - I would claim that the importance of such evaluation is the surprise scene-stealer of the book, except that Wilson is obviously a fan of it himself.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.3 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Tangled Bank, Hammer Blows of Natural Selection and Binghamton, NY 30 Sep 2011
By darwinst - Published on
David Sloan Wilson's has given us a terrific - and monumentally ambitious - new book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City One Block at a Time. Wilson, a Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton (Binghamton University) is suggesting that by reading the directions of our species, written in the language of evolution, we can create not just a better city (his city being Binghamton, NY) but in fact a better world.

Wilson is best known in the academic community for reviving the concept of "group selection." But as of late Wilson's efforts have been to expand the tendrils of evolutionary theory into the role it can play in everyday life. His most recent book prior to The Neighborhood Project was modestly titled Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think about Our Lives. Perhaps this recent offering could have been titled "Evolution for Everything" since myriad and seemingly disparate topics such as economics, early childhood education, and city planning are all skillfully brought under the umbrella of evolutionary theory. In fact he states that his goal is nothing less than to illustrate how using an evolutionary paradigm can "make the world a better place." For Wilson the group (tribe, community, neighborhood, city, nation, etc.) is in fact an organism in itself, the adaptive unit, and thus can be viewed as a product of natural selection. And that until we re-establish our ancestral human social environment our group will never feel at home.

He cogently argues throughout that we can use evolution to both understand and improve the human condition. That evolutionary science can and will (if he has his way) deliver practical answers to the problems of everyday life. "Evolutionary science will eventually prove so useful on a daily basis that we will wonder how we survived without it," says Wilson, and "one thing's for sure: our future is bleak if we don't turn our groups into organisms." Strong words from a passionate advocate. But would you expect less from a man who calls himself a plumber who is offering to fix our collective clogged drains with his evolutionary tool kit.

Wilson skillfully steers a course between genetic determinism and social constructivism by illustrating with numerous relevant examples that the true answer lies when both nature and nurture are used to best understand the human condition. Social constructivists have their heart in the right place, says Wilson, but often arrive at the construction site without the necessary evolutionary toolbox.

Part memoir, part biography, part history of science, and part scientific methodology the text is written in a relaxed conversational style that makes it accessible to both scientist and non-scientist alike.

There is little doubt that like Darwin's tangled bank analogy, used throughout the book, The Neighborhood Project does seem to meander from topic to topic and the reader may initially wonder how the social behavior of wasps and the solitary behavior of water striders as well as the philosophy of the great French paleontologist (and Jesuit priest) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin will all shed light on how we can make a better city and a better planet. And there are those who may feel that the book is, at times, too anecdotal. But for those who stick with it they will be greatly rewarded throughout.

So, who should read this book? The answer is simple. I would argue that anyone who has an interest in the future of our species - and wishes to experience a unique perspective on how we may solve the myriad problems we all now face - will be engaged, informed, and pleased.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant synthesis 29 Aug 2011
By Rebecca Moldover - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Dr.Wilson has done many things well, but nowhere is this better demonstrated than in "The Neighborhood Project...". Dr. Wilson writes science the way a master novelist writes fiction.. a telling eye for detail and narrative, a wonderful sense of humor , and the ability to bring enormous clarity to complex subjects ..To use his own metaphor, what can seem "a tangled bank" becomes a fascinating journey through moving memoir,fascinating scientific biography,and,most of all,an exploration of the many ways evolutionary theory can both shine a light on nature and be practically applied in our own lives...from creating better parks in our cities..and why that is important.. to creating an economic system( Evonomics) that actually works for all of us....a chapter that should be required reading for economists and well as for those of us who wonder "where it all went wrong". Dr. Wilson's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, his writing is as enthralling as the most skilled of novelists, and the range and skill of his scientific thought,seen through the lens of evolutionary theory, reveals the world in a new way... This book brims with ideas and images that will not only stay with you, but change the way you look at life...
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant stories of complex systems and how science happens, told through the lens of evolution 12 Feb 2012
By Lynn E O'Connor - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I skim many books and read very few. David Sloan Wilson's recent book, "The Neighborhood Project," is one that I read. And I didn't just read it. I purchased a second copy, just for my kindle reader, and gave it to friends and colleagues for Christmas because I knew they would read it, and I knew we'd have hours of conversation about it. We're in San Francisco and Berkeley, hotbeds of social activism, or so it is claimed. To have a book that examines contemporary society and spells out the need for change by using evolutionary theory is quite remarkable. To link the social systems of wasps, the immune system, attributes of neighborhoods, the culture of crows, and the larger economic system -to name a few-- is brilliant. In his many "parables" (the topics he covers) he is teaching us to think about systems, rules by which they operate across specific examples, the self-organization of complex adaptive systems, and the absolute significance of context in which they are embedded. He is teaching painlessly, by way of presenting numerous examples of this broad message, by telling stories.

The story of Wilson's research in Binghamton New York is an awesome piece of social science, seen through the lens of evolution. It's inspiring. It made me want to study San Francisco, using similar methods. I'm a social and clinical evolutionary psychologist and throughout my "fields" there is almost always the absence of the perspective of the ultimate purpose of individual, group, city and national behavior. The ultimate purpose -the evolutionary purpose--is what allows Wilson to ask: "Why?" That said, he doesn't always ask "why" enough, as he is looking for how to do things better, in line with our wired-in and cultural characteristics "hammered" into shape by evolution (I love the way he writes that). In some cases, for example education, he points to the possibility of a better system, one that takes into account how we learn, how we are wired to learn, how hunter gatherer children (and adults) learn, but he doesn't answer the question "Why do we have such a terrible system of education?" other than to point out the context. We have often fallen into dysfunctional patterns because the environment in which we operate is so different from that of our earlier evolution. Nevertheless, I think we need to know a great deal more about the "why" if we are to change our contemporary systems (of education, of government, of neighborhood organization, of health care -the list could go on). I want to badger Wilson with the "why" questions.

While some reviewers are saying they found the book scattered, and they objected to the personal stories about scientists and how they came to do the work they do, this may be one of the several unique qualities that I loved most about "The Neighborhood Project." "Science" is too isolated in our culture, perhaps too rarified -to the point that some of our presidential candidates make sure everyone knows that they are "anti-science." Wilson teaches using the method often cited as "the best" by education researchers, he teaches us through stories. When science is put forth without these stories of why and how research really happens, it loses impact for most students. Wilson dissects both the findings and the doing of science, he makes it human and social which of course it is. The parables each have a place in the overall story he's telling. He's writing about complex adaptive systems, complexity science, emergence and evolution. He is offering us an easy lesson in the hierarchical levels of evolutionary adaptation. He's writing about Gaia, a planetary ecosystem, where everything is connected and following principles of evolution. It is fabulous to read about the complexities of the immune system, the social life of wasps, the human-like behavior and culture of crows -it brings to us a new and exciting view of human ethology, our behavior in our natural habitat that may no longer be a natural enough habitat for optimal functioning, and how to change it by altering the context. The Neighborhood Project teaches evolution through stories, through Wilson's own research story and those of his colleagues, stories that I, personally, can't ever get enough of.

The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Approach this carefully and CRITICALLY 18 July 2012
By A. Biggs - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I don't usually write book reviews. I buy books to read for pleasure or information, get what I can out of them, and leave the reviewing to people who want to do that kind of work. But this book absolutely stinks.

First of all, the title is misleading. This is a rambling, shuffling collection of stories about David Sloan Wilson's life and the people with whom he works and lives -- almost never in the context of using evolution to improve his city "one block at a time", except that he may be describing the life of a person who is helping him with this Project. Don't get me wrong, I like that kind of story; I really enjoy seeing the connections between where people came from (genetically and/or culturally), where they are, and where they're headed. But, for example, you will not read a single word about the actual Project from page 162 allllll the way to page 300. I didn't buy this book because I wanted to get a better picture of David Sloan Wilson's life. I bought it because the housing market holds me prisoner in an absolutely terrible place to live, and since I can't get out of here, I must try to make it better.

In the 305 out of 390 pages I've so far read, I've found four things that might help me: decorate the outside of my house for holidays, bring peer pressure to bear (already do it), set my primarily European-descended neighbors up for success so that they'll work harder at community, and maintain/improve my property so that people feel constrained to act respectfully in its vicinity (already do it). Two of these I've been doing instinctively for seven years, but now I know there is a scientifically-proven correlation between my intuitive action and the result I'm trying to achieve! Gee.

I was so astonished at the disconnect between what the title promised and what the book actually delivered that I went to the front of the book to find the publisher, so that I can avoid books from Little, Brown and Company in the future. I've seen badly proofread books, but the lack of coherence in this work as a whole is something I've never before encountered: the "tangled bank" might make a great starting point for scientific observation and inspiration, but it makes an awful basis for book structure! The writing itself is confused as well; the author makes use of self-deprecating humor, referring to himself repeatedly as an "egghead professor", yet also uses words like "inflorescences" (p. 104). These two tactics clearly appeal to two vastly different types of audiences, without achieving any sort of universal appeal. As any musician, speaker or writer would happily tell you, with or without your "new set of questions informed by evolutionary theory (p. 81)": Know Thine Audience, Mr. Wilson!

The quality of the thinking demonstrated in this book is terrible. It's *terrible*. The logical leaps and errors made by this man are simply mind-boggling, especially in his crusade to disprove God. Why this scientist, this "what-and-how" man, felt the debunking of "why" was necessary in order to establish the validity of evolution as a basis for deliberate community change, I simply do not understand. I've just reached the section (page 306) where he's about to describe how much time he's put into studying religion, and I don't know if I can keep going. Frankly, it's clear he's never studied God: the arguments he's made to this point are like saying you can know the essence of a person whose profession is teaching by the shape of the building he teaches in. They are rife with logical errors, through which he continually demonstrates the falsity of his own statements about valuing truth and fact. As he himself wrote, "Talk is cheap (p. 298)"!

After reading 3/4 of this book, I know a lot I'll never need to know about water-striders, wasps, crows, and a passel of people I'll never meet or otherwise encounter. Yet I know basically nothing new about improving my community, and nothing about Binghamton and its "improvement" except some history and the apparent fact that this guy has done several studies done on its population in order to produce a few maps. Interesting maps though they may be, overall this book has been a waste of money and a colossal waste of time, which last I resent far more. If you decide to buy it, approach it carefully and with your critical-thinking cap turned to the Hi setting: *this book does not say what it purports to say.* And do not pay full price.

UPDATE: I did finish this book, and toward the end learned what it was actually about. If it had been titled, "David Sloan Wilson: The Manifesto of an Atheistic Humanist Evolutionist", the whole book would have made a lot more sense. I would even go so far as to call the actual title of this book false advertising. In the process of slogging through those last few chapters, all I could think of were those internet ads that run for 30-45 minutes: you know, those ads that start out with a few basic pieces of information that most people will agree with, then slowly start to wind down into something totally ridiculous? I am bitterly disappointed. I was looking for real information about improving my *community*, and instead got hundreds of pages of SELF-absorbed preening. YUCK. If it had been titled appropriately, I wouldn't have been misled and wouldn't have picked it up; or if I had, I would have laughed my way through it and never thought about it again. As it is, I feel cheated.
30 of 42 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A tedious, self-indulgent, self-promoting ramble that never gets to its purported topic 17 Sep 2011
By Douglas B. Moran - Published on
I have a long involvement in neighborhood associations, not just my own but trying to help other neighborhoods strengthen theirs. I have seen neighborhoods with very similar demographics have very different characteristics and maintain those characteristics for decades. The _title_ of the book, and much of the description, led me to believe that this book would provide insights and different ways of thinking about community-building. The book never rose above promoting this as an interesting research area, rather than reporting what had been discovered.

The most tedious portion of the book -- and it is a big portion of the book -- are the trivialities of the professional and personal lives of the author and the people around him, their distant ancestors, pets, treehouses,... For example, I learned the details of how the author selected a photographer--it was a relative of a co-worker-- but I didn't find a discussion of the associated research _results_. And the author decided that the readers' understanding of the topic would be enhanced by a myriad of details such as him stopping for coffee on the way to give a talk at a particular conference, the _content_ of which didn't warrant inclusion. These may be the sort of stories that are told and re-told among the people intimately involved in the activity as a way of social bonding, but they are not something you inflict on strangers.

Another big portion of the book are the chapters inaccurately labeled "parables". What they are are standard stories of the diversity of life, with some tidbits of evolutionary theory tossed in. You probably heard those or similar stories in high school biology class or the corresponding college remedial course or in a nature TV program, except that in this book they are padded out with digressions on various people -- mostly irrelevant trivialities -- or marginally related topics. The analogies to the advertised topic of the book are few, obvious, and shallow.

The remainder of the book is digressions on a wide range of issues in psychology, sociology and education. In a technical sense, they are related to the purported topic of the book, but they are presented so briefly and so haphazardly that they contribute nothing, although someone encountering them for the first time would likely find them interesting. However, a college student will encounter most of these ideas and issues in various introductory and survey courses, but with more detail, insight and context, including connections to other work in that field.

My impression is that the science in the book is yet-another repetitions of oft-told stories from his lectures and that the topic that he is most interested in is himself. I have seen lesser cases of this happen when a good scientist becomes a lab or institute director (as the author has) and is forced to focus on fund-raising -- they develop a sales pitch that treats themselves as a brand, rather than just the "face" of the group.

I read the book until about page 60, when I started skipping forward 2-4 pages at a time, reading at least a few sentences to see if the book was finally going to get down to the advertised topic. At pages 88-90, I found a description of how they produced an initial map of neighborhood characteristics, but after that, nothing. My suspicion is that the author's approach is still trying to get off the ground and has no significant results to report.

Furthermore, the book fails to demonstrate its thesis that the field of evolution provides useful tools -- terminology, analogies, perspectives on how to organize issues,... -- for thinking about social organizations. Consequently, the author's thesis may be simply a case of the "Law of the Instrument", aka "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

-- Douglas B. Moran

PS: I created my review title, with the word "ramble", before I saw that "Rambling" had been used in the title of an earlier review (which I would recommend to you). Consider that 2 of the first 4 reviewer found this problem so prominent that it needed to be in their titles.

PPS: I also recommend the review by Mark Oppenheimer in the Books section of the 31 August 2011 New York Times, but pay attention to the nuances of the writing (selective praise, abbreviated criticism). Be aware that the research results he spends several paragraphs on are the ones I cited as occurring on pages 88-90.
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