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The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to…

The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at… (edition 2011)

by David Sloan Wilson

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Title:The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time
Authors:David Sloan Wilson
Info:Little, Brown and Company (2011), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 448 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time by David Sloan Wilson



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I wish I could do a review that is as thorough and expansive and enlightening as the book. But no. I expect to stumble randomly as I praise Wilson's efforts. Bear with me, or read other's reviews, you determine your choices & consequences. ;)

He didn't stumble. He obviously used an outline, and several patterns (biographical sketches of notable individuals, for example), and a handful of illustrative leitmotifs (Ivory Archipelago, hammer blows of natural selection, Frodo's quest) that worked together to keep the narrative coherent.

The Neighborhood Project itself is terrifically ambitious. He tries to make it seem easy enough - but a lot of things will need to happen throughout, as they happened to get him well enough begun to justify writing the book. And that's the thing, he has room for extensive materials about the background and context of the project because he actually hasn't done much to help his city but collect some cool data.

So, not a whole lot that's practical; but many very interesting bits. And he is a professor - and despite protestations (and some evidence) that he's trying to unite fields of study for practical good, he still has little understanding of what it really means to be blue-collar. But the book is easy enough to read if you have a high school understanding of biology, psychology, and Darwinism, though it does get a little boggy in bits and a reader does have to make an effort. Moreover, he makes a particular point of reaching out to people who are religous - but even then he has a certain sense of what it means to be spiritual, and he disses both creationism and 'angry atheists.'

In other words, a review could be organized point by point on a balance sheet. 'This aspect was a strength, but on the other hand....' I don't think I understood every bit, nor do I agree with all his claims, opinions, or predictions.

One bit I liked was the idea that we tend to like to use fireplaces because we have an inner hunter-gatherer who liked nothing better to sleep safely & warmly by a fire after the day's adventure, and similarly plants in hospital rooms help patients recover because we've evolved to feel plants = life, barren = famine.

Another bit refers to technology as a gift of cultural evolution operating over a process of many thousands of years." The thing is, evolution isn't necessarily slow, which is one of the points I wish he'd expanded on a bit more.

Another statement helps us remember to read Gladwell and his ilk carefully, "If you don't take context into account, strong patterns cancel themselves out and seem like meaningless noise." If you read one chapter, read this one ('Our lives, our genes'). You'll never read the magazine articles that say "Studies show..." the same way again. The take-away example are lactose and gluten intolerances - basically, there are genes for them, depending on our ancestry. Some people can be nourished by wheat & milk, others' bodies react more as if to poison.

Another thing that I had no inkling of is that the Swedish prize for Economics is *not* a Nobel. It was established over 70 years later "In Memory of Alfred Nobel." Wilson has no respect for economics. He says, among lots other provocative stuff in this exciting chapter, that the innacurate perception of the prize makes it seem that the winner "has done something comparable to discovering the structure of DNA." Well alrighty then - tell us how you really feel, David.

I do respect that he wants us to create our own paths in cultural evolution. Stumbling along isn't going to help more kids achieve their fullest potential nor is blind faith going to help us avoid destroying the biosphere.

Overall I'm very glad I read it, and I do recommend it to anyone who reads popular books about evolutionary biology, early childhood education, behavioral economics, neo-Skinnerian psychology, etc. etc.

Actually I won a First-Reads Uncorrected Proof, so it's a paperback, sans index and other finishing touches. It looks like the ideas in it have potential, but may be more theoretical than practical for me." ( )
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 6, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I was excited about this book; it seemed like the kind of social science/social engineering commentary on urban design I could really geek out over. But this reads more like a rambling semi-memoir. I found myself utterly uninvolved and uninterested in the book. The evolution of neighborhoods is a fascinating idea, but the author never delivers on his promises. "Had he written the book he claimed he would, I would've loved it; as is, don't bother."
  yggdrasil | Jun 27, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Wilson does a good job combining applications of evolutionary theory with a readable and entertaining narrative about his own development as an evolutionary theorist. The most valuable quality of this book is its ability to spur you to see problems differently as well as to potentially draw from the well of evolutionary thought in analyzing problems and developing solutions. ( )
  kbondelli | May 19, 2013 |
This was a recommended book from the bibliography and notes in the back of _No Impact Man_. Although at times the writing got a bit bogged down, there were many more interesting parts that held my attention. I enjoyed the chapters on the water striders and wasps, and how his team designed the different data surveys for the Binghamton Project. I also liked how he gave a mini-bio on each person that plays a role in the Project.
My least favorite chapter was about the relating of evolution to religion - it got confusing at times for me, and I wasn't inspired to go back more than once and figure my way through. [Which I was surprised by, seeing as how I've taught religion and been closely related to religion and education for a number of years.]
Overall, I liked the book, - impressive enough to rack up a whole week's worth of overdue fines... [bad me]. ( )
  sriemann | Mar 30, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really like this book. As other reviewers have said, it does go on a few tangents and is less practical than the title suggests but it was enjoyable to read about the various trials and tribulations the author went through to get his various projects completed. If you enjoy sciencey biographical books (like Feynman's "Surely You're Joking..." ( http://www.librarything.com/work/5655 ) then you'll enjoy this one. ( )
  mmzthomas | Mar 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I applaud Wilson’s aspiration to improve his town and his world, but the evolution-centered approach is rife with problems. How much of “human nature” comes from evolution, and how much from culture? For many behaviors, like religion and criminality, we simply have no idea. Nor does it matter when it comes to solving most problems. Maybe we long for green spaces because our ancestors evolved in those environments, or maybe not, but all we need to know is that we like them. We might have learned hunting and speech from free-form “education” on the savanna, but it’s hard to see how reading, engineering and mathematics can be acquired in the same way. Our world is no longer the one in which we evolved.

Wilson further undermines his case by repeatedly counting as “evolutionary” any human activity involving “variation and selection,” including committees that have to decide between alternative plans and children who learn to discard those behaviors that don’t bring them rewards. But these issues have nothing to do with biological evolution; they are superficial and meaningless parallels with natural selection’s winnowing of genetic variation.

By far the best parts of the book are the short chapters, called “parables,” that Wilson interpolates as lessons we should learn from other species (wasps, for example, teach us about conflict versus cooperation, crows about culture in other species). These show his superb ability to communicate a deep love of biology. But these parables have little to do with the Neighborhood Project.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316037672, Hardcover)

After decades studying creatures great and small, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson had an epiphany: Darwin's theory won't fully prove itself until it improves the quality of human life in a practical sense. And what better place to begin than his hometown of Binghamton, New York? Making a difference in his own city would provide a model for cities everywhere, which have become the habitat for over half of the people on earth.

Inspired to become an agent of change, Wilson descended on Binghamton with a scientist's eye and looked at its toughest questions, such as how to empower neighborhoods and how best to teach our children. He combined the latest research methods from experimental economics with studies of holiday decorations and garage sales. Drawing upon examples from nature as diverse as water striders, wasps, and crows, Wilson's scientific odyssey took him around the world, from a cave in southern Africa that preserved the dawn of human culture to the Vatican in Rome. Along the way, he spoke with dozens of fellow scientists, whose stories he relates along with his own.

Wilson's remarkable findings help us to understand how we must become wise managers of evolutionary processes to accomplish positive change at all scales, from effective therapies for individuals, to empowering neighborhoods, to regulating the worldwide economy.

With an ambitious scope that spans biology, sociology, religion, and economics, The Neighborhood Project is a memoir, a practical handbook for improving the quality of life, and an exploration of the big questions long pondered by religious sages, philosophers, and storytellers. Approaching the same questions from an evolutionary perspective shows, as never before, how places define us.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:05 -0400)

An evolutionary biologist applies the ideas of evolutionary science to his post-industrial hometown and uses the "traits" he discovers, including what bullying feeds on and how neighborhood quality affects test scores, to improve the lives of his fellow citizens.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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