When you think of helping people in the inner city, do you think of Darwin? Probably what comes to mind are religious missions, government social workers, the Red Cross, the Peace Corps, or UNESCO. David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone, who has spent a lifetime studying evolution, had a “Damascus moment” a few years ago; the idea that Darwinism is so powerful and productive, it can improve people’s lives. Like an apostle, he has taken his faith to the streets of Binghamton, New York.
We only have his account of his mission work. He told it in New Scientist on August 29.
My new mission was not a complete break from what I had been doing before. Throughout my career, I have studied the fundamental problem of how altruism, cooperation and other traits that are good for the group can evolve in any species. I have also studied the evolutionary origins of human characteristics such as gossip, decision-making, physical attractiveness and religion. But that was all academic research: how would my ideas fare on the streets of Binghamton?
Wilson had an apostolic team to go door-to-door and take measurements of “prosociality,” the kind of altruistic good will that seeks the good of the community, and to promote more of it. “We did this using a variety of methods, including experimental games, door-to-door surveys and questionnaires aimed at schoolchildren, and by observing the frequency of spontaneous prosocial acts such as people picking up and posting a stamped addressed envelope left on the sidewalk, or the extent to which people decorated their houses during Halloween or Christmas.” Measurements were duly taken and maps were made of prosociality.
The maps showed that altruism is not evenly distributed around the city, but is clustered in hotspots, forming hills and valleys and rugged terrain. Not surprisingly, the communities doing well mutually followed the Golden Rule: “As an academic evolutionist, I knew that prosociality can evolve in any species when highly prosocial individuals are able to interact with each other and avoid interacting with selfish individuals – in other words, when those who give also receive.” These communities also got the most social support from multiple sources, including “family, neighbourhood, school, religion, and through extracurricular activities such as sports and arts.”….
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