I wrote a few weeks ago about The Neighborhood Project, an interdisciplinary effort to affect positive social change in Binghamton, NY by applying evolutionary science. The underlying philosophy and story of this ongoing work is wonderfully recounted by its lead instigator, David Sloan Wilson, in his book of the same name, which I’ve just finished reading. I confess that reading about his work is the first time I’ve really explored evolutionary science since a very superficial introduction to evolution in a college humanities course. (Strangely, I don’t remember a thing about the actual science of evolution from high school. I have a sneaking suspicion that my biology teacher was a creationist and skipped over that evolution part in the textbook!) Sloan’s writing is exceptionally readable, and the territory he covers in establishing his and others’ research on evolution is expansive, cross-disciplinary, and without jargon. I also found his demeanor in the text to be humble (when faced with the experience and knowledge of others), generous (when debate those who disagree with him), and full of conviction and integrity (when secure in his own knowledge and methodology).
While there is a great deal of interest in Wilson’s projects, two ideas in particular have been most striking for me in this reacquaintance with evolutionary science through his work. First, understanding the degree to which evolutionary science can be applied to the socio-cultural milieu has been fascinating and helped to fill in certain gaps within a larger framework of changing human behavior. I think I was ignorant of this potential application in the social field because of a confusion between cultural evolution and that most reactionary and base (mis)understanding of evolution espoused in social Darwinism. The second insight — and it is this that makes the human cultural application so compelling — is the importance of context and environment in natural selection, which is the process by which certain biological traits become more or less common. (Duh, I know.) Evolution is site-specific. And so, when Wilson and his colleagues systematically study the residents of Binghamton, using both qualitative and quantitative information, they are approaching that analysis through a granular look at how blocks and neighborhoods function according to a wide range of data. The goal is to determine how urban environments shape attitudes and behavior so that targeted interventions can be implemented with community partners to create the environmental conditions (social, cultural, spatial, political, economical) for positive social change. As someone reaching for this same goal in my own city using the tools of socially-engaged art and design, there is quite a lot to learn from in Wilson’s project.
As might be expected in such an urban project, Wilson at times touches on educational issues — and the environmental aspect of evolution clarified, or rather expanded, some of my thinking about the importance of learning environments. Particularly, what if, amid all of the contentious politics and noise of the education “reform” debate, we focused more holistically on the environments in which kids learn? What if we looked at the question of educational environments as specific, particular contexts that needed to respond to very specific groups of people and their communities? With very few exceptions, it is difficult to claim that any school is an optimal environment for learning to flourish. Schools are mostly overcrowded, lacking resources, authoritarian and coercive, socially disfunctional, anxiety producing, homogenous. Yet, society needs places, environments, where kids can be safe, nurtured, challenged, and loved. Might Wilson et al’s evolutionary perspective with its nuanced study of environment help us cut through the politics of education and design learning spaces appropriate to a diverse range of people and communities?