The Neighborhood Project
Author: David Sloan Wilson
Review written by: Michael Blume, Religion Editor
Applying evolutionary studies to human politics? Socialized as a German scientist, I winced on the spot. But then, I began to read "The Neighborhood Project" - and became more than convinced. For years, the eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has embarked on adventurous quests to broaden evolutionary studies into classic humanities - working together with scholars of literature, education and religion. In the captivating, autobiographic parts of "The Neighborhood Project", he is explaining why - his father has been the great novelist Sloan Wilson, who remained deeply curious about human emotions and behaviors throughout his life. After decades of doing scientific studies on plants and animals, his son finally came home.
And this "coming home" should be taken literally: While the biologist worked and studied behaviors of various places and times, he remained almost ignorant of the very city he lived, loved and taught in: Binghamton, New York. In a range of good-natured descriptions, David Sloan Wilson is introducing the scientific colleagues and students who finally introduced him to the delicate web of evolved behaviors in his hometown.
Thus, the idea not only of studying but of improving city life by evolutionary sciences began to captivate the professor, his colleagues and students and it will captivate most readers. How did Binghamton evolve - and which effect does its history have on today's perceptions and lives? Why and where do people trust each other? How could education be improved? What kind of projects could bring the people together into new and sustainable forms of cooperation?
David Sloan Wilson does not rest on theories to address these and many more questions. Drawing on the activities and interests of his colleagues and especially students at the interdisciplinary Binghamton EvoS (Evolutionary Studies), Wilson and his teams did real empirical work, bringing science and communal practice into fruitful dialogue.
"The Neighborhood Project" is not another variant of social darwinism, arguing for political action from half-understood biology. It is taking the opposite approach: Accepting the rights and duties of democratic societies to find their values, evolutionary studies are presented as a way to see chances and problems from a scientific and respectful perspective. For example, figuring that holiday decorations could be a good proxy for civic health, Wilson and his students explored Binghamton neighborhoods on Halloween and Christmas to see which neighborhoods were lighted most decoratively. “On a clear night,” the evolutionary biologist writes, “I could probably measure it from an aerial photograph: the more nurturing neighborhoods actually glowed more brightly during the holiday season.” In fact, "The Neighborhood Project" is not only about perceiving Binghamton, NY from a different angle - it will change the way you will see the community you live in!
And what about religion?
Starting in the Introduction, David Sloan Wilson is addressing the issue of scientific and religious "knowledge", opting for a scientific perspective on our world and all living beings. But throughout this book, he remains true to the evolutionary perspective of religion he worked out in "Darwin's Cathedral": Wilson is not bashing religion(s) or the religious, but he is perceiving and respecting religion(s) as part of the evolutionary history and traits shaping our lives, discussing the thoughts of evolutionary theists such as Teilhard de Chardin on the way. He is bringing a message home: No religious person should be afraid to get a better understanding of evolution - and no evolutionist should be afraid to get a better understanding of religion.
"The Neighborhood Project" is one of the rare scientific books that is not only informative and captivating, but also wise and moving. I enjoyed every page and read some chapters twice for the sheer delight. One wants to join the evolutionary quests on the spot, bringing evolutionary sciences and our troubled societies into new heights of dialogue. This author is a scientist and a novelist, indeed...