Evolution for Everyone

The Neighborhood Project is written for the full spectrum of readers, from inquisitive high school students to my professorial colleagues. I look forward to reading the reviews by the experts, which I expect to reveal the diversity of opinion that I already know exists among the cognoscenti. So far, there have been three reviews by respected colleagues who unquestionably know their stuff about evolution: Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Laland in the scientific journal Nature, and Jerry Coyne in the Sept 11 Sunday book section of the New York Times.

Kevin’s review is my favorite so far, not just because it is laudatory, but because it correctly identifies The Neighborhood Project as comparable in scope to Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, and the revolutionary claims of evolutionary psychologists such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in the 1990’s. All of these authors were reaching for a comprehensive vision of humanity from an evolutionary perspective, and so am I. The general themes are enacted in the story of how I am trying to make a difference in my city of Binghamton (which tragically has just suffered the worst flood in its history) but the story should not mask my serious intent, which I also convey in my academic articles.

Kevin, whose academic specialty is cultural evolution, observes that some readers are likely to approach The Neighborhood Project with trepidation, given the controversies that engulfed the previous efforts. Yet, he is optimistic: “Will Wilson be more successful than his predecessors? One reason he might is his rich, well-informed interpretation of evolution, encompassing biological and cultural evolution, multilevel selection and a sophisticated understanding of how learning and culture build upon genetic predispositions.” He stresses (as I do) that my efforts to make a difference in Binghamton are preliminary, but concludes that “If Wilson succeeds, it will be a triumph for science, pluralism, and common sense as much as for evolutionary biology.”

Jerry Coyne, whose academic specialty is speciation, is more pessimistic. He wishes me well, but sees my enterprise as “rife with problems”. Some of our differences might be temperamental. If you’re familiar with the Winnie the Pooh books, then I’m like Tigger, who can’t stop bouncing, and Jerry is like Eeyore, whose firm opinion is that nothing will turn out well. But Jerry’s review raises two substantive issues that go beyond optimism and pessimism. The first concerns group selection, which I will save for my next post. The second concerns the explanatory scope of evolutionary theory.

Here’s how Jerry begins his review: “My undergraduate students, especially those bound for medical school, often ask why they have to study evolution. It won’t cure disease, and really, how useful is evolution to the average person? My response is that while evolutionary biology can explain, for example, the origin of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we shouldn’t see evolution as a cure for human woes. Its value is explanatory: to tell us how, when and why we got here (be “we” I mean “every organism”) and to show us how all species are related. In the end, evolution is the greatest tale of all, for it’s true.”

Jerry hasn’t even gotten to my book yet, and he’s emphasizing the explanatory inadequacy of evolution. It explains some things, but then a curtain falls and evolution shouldn’t be expected to explain anything on the other side, including anything that might provide a cure for human woes. I must confess that I am mystified by this position. Jerry could be right, but I need his position spelled out in more detail. What is there in the biological sciences that evolution can’t explain, for example? How about Jerry’s home turf of speciation?

Given Jerry’s limited expectations for evolution in general, his reaction to my book is a foregone conclusion: “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.”

Jerry seldom strays beyond his specialized topic of speciation as a practicing scientist. Perhaps he’s unaware of the large community of evolutionists who study individual learning and cultural transmission as products of genetic evolution and evolutionary processes in their own right. Or what evolutionary game theorists call the “replicator dynamic”, whereby any process that causes the most successful strategy to increase in frequency counts as an evolutionary process and results in (roughly) the same phenotypic outcome as genetic evolution.

Jerry’s pessimism even causes him to bias the facts. He under-reports the number of publications that have resulted from the Binghamton Neighborhood Project and says that one project (Design Your Own Park) went belly-up when it is alive and well. Whatever. I cheerfully admit that I’m just getting rolling, and I look forward to the day when even Jerry credits me with success.

Matt Ridley, the author and journalist with a professional-level knowledge of evolution, has different things to say about The Neighborhood Project that I will address in a separate post. A book like The Neighborhood Project serves as an excellent Rorschach test for the cognoscenti.


  1. #1 David Gerstle
    September 11, 2011

    David, this post and your other on Jerry Coyne are embarrassing. Surely it would be better to accept a (not-entirely) negative review with quiet grace than to engage in this kind of sniping at the man and his science. Criticism is a positive thing in our profession, no?

    Let me just point out that while you have been gnashing your teeth at Coyne on this blog, your home town laboratory, Binghamton, was just struck by its worst floods in recorded history. While Rome burns, you’re whining about his pessimism and your optimism. This is not only unprofessional, it’s selfish.

    Binghamton churches, schools, and neighborhoods are full of mud, sewage, and debris, including the bookstore where you held your reading the other night. You have positioned yourself on a national stage as a representative of our town. And here you are, safe and dry in your Ivory Tower (yes, TOWER), duking it out with another academic over a bad review.


    Dave Gerstle

  2. #2 NJ
    September 11, 2011

    Concern troll’s concern is noted.

  3. #3 David Gerstle
    September 11, 2011

    NJ – you can take that comment and mail it directly back to your ass (where I’m guessing most of your opinions come from). I live in Binghamton. I just spent the last several days slogging through mud, sewage, and trash. I am also a colleague of Dr. Wilson’s, and I think he is seriously misfiring here. You can call that ‘trolling’ if you like. I call it informed criticism and I call you an obvious idiot. Please feel free to join in the conversation once you grow a brain.

  4. #4 NJ
    September 11, 2011


    you can take that comment and mail it directly back to your ass

    Touched a nerve, did I?

    Here’s the situation. Blogger creates a post on topic of interest to blogger. Blogger at no point states that blogger’s post represents the be-all and end-all of everything going on in the observable Universe at the time of the posting. Reader of blog post takes offense because blogger’s post fails to address topic that reader considers more important.

    This is the very definition of concern trolling. Try Googling and see!

    It is clear that you are acting out with your invective due to your having “spent the last several days slogging through mud, sewage, and trash”, and that is understandable. The flooding in the aftermath of the tropical storm is without a doubt a disaster for a great many people, seemingly including you.

    But having suffered does not give you veto power over someone else’s writing.

    Good luck with your clean-up, and feel free to comment again once matters have settled down and the neural impulses can travel further than up to your knees.

  5. #5 David Gerstle
    September 11, 2011

    Thank you, NJ, for that enlightening response. You can mail that along with the other one to the same place. I was (and am) addressing Dr. Wilson, and why this concerns you, apparently a self appointed blog counselor, I have no idea. I say what I want and if I see someone else making what I consider to be a mistake (for example, posting unnecessary rebuttals to bad book reviews while the subject of his book is underwater), I will call it out. Dr. Wilson will be making further public appearances in the near future, his book is about how Binghamton is suffering, and Binghamton just had its ass kicked by a flood. My criticism is valid. The subject is germane. And people are going to be asking him what he thinks should be done. I would kindly ask for him to respond, and you (NJ) to keep the inane internet conduct blather to a dull roar. There are adults talking.

  6. #6 David Sloan Wilson
    September 11, 2011

    To David G–You are noble to help with the flood cleanup. How do you know that I haven’t been also?

    My two posts are not sour grapes. I acknowledge that Jerry wishes me well, pay respect to his expertise, and quickly turn to two substantive issues: 1) The explanatory adequacy of evolution; and 2) group selection. I’m especially interested to explore the first issue. What does Jerry mean when he says that evolution can’t be use to solve human woes?

    I was planning to critique Jerry on the topic of group selection before his review of my book, based on his other blog posts. Please understand that he’s repeating what was said about group selection 36 years ago, when I published my first article on the subject. That kind of stasis in unacceptable in a major figure that people look up to as an authority. If I said things that outdated about speciation, Jerry would be all over me, and properly so.

  7. #7 Rebecca Moldover
    September 12, 2011

    Dr.Wilson has every right to respectfully dialogue with those reviewing his work, through book review or any other medium..this is a part of the thoughtful and scholarly exchange of viewpoints through which ideas are clarified and worked out, and through which science advances. I also believe, in respect to the tragic floods, that Dr. Wilson can both civilly talk and wield a shovel at the same time.

  8. #8 David Gerstle
    September 12, 2011

    Okay – let’s try this another way:

    (1) Dr. Wilson published a book two weeks ago, detailing ways to improve Binghamton by thinking about it as a habitat (or set of habitats) in which humans and other animals live out their lives.

    (2) Last week, Binghamton experienced an ecological (and subsequently, socio-economic) disaster greater than any in recorded history and drawing national news coverage.

    (3) It is reasonable to expect that this would be Dr. Wilson’s opportunity to draw attention to both his town and his research on a national scale. Having just published a book on Binghamton, it would seem imperative (not to mention beneficial) for him to do just that.

    Neither Dr. Wilson’s (nor my) participation in the flood clean-up was an issue here. What he and I did to help is our own business and a misinterpretation of (and a distraction from) my original criticism.

    I simply do not understand why, given the circumstances, he decided to engage in the public dialogue that he did. The confluence of his book’s publication and this flood is a prime opportunity to take the helm as a citizen-scientist, possessing knowledge about the ecology, economics, and politics of Binghamton. Instead, Dr. Wilson resumed an argument over the academic bias against group selection – an argument that he purportedly found unproductive once he clearly saw the practical applications of his science.

  9. #9 joe
    September 15, 2011


    I’d still like to know your opinion on the MLS1/MLS2 distinction. Somehow I cannot glean a definite stance from your publications. Do you think the distinction has scientific merit or not?

    For lay readers, in the MLS2 scenario groups beget groups and group selection is differential survival of groups. It is usually applied to species selection. In the MLS1 scenario a cyclic dynamics of group establishment and dissolution prevents cheats from gaining within-group advantages for such a long time that they could out-compete altruists. It is usually applied within species, though there remains the issue of evolutionary transition from MLS1 to MLS2 as in the transition to multicellular organisms.

  10. #10 David Sloan Wilson
    September 15, 2011

    To Joe–The most important thing to stress about this distinction is that the classic cases of group selection are MLS1: traits that can be measured in individuals, such as altruism and selfishness, with selection differentials within and among groups, taking place in a wide variety of population structures (e.g., ephemeral trait groups, multigenerational groups, groups that fission). Sometimes, MLS1 group selection is interpreted as “really” individual selection because the traits can be measured in individuals and the fitness of individuals can be averaged across groups, but this just garbles the history of group selection.

    Second, MLS theory applies to a wide range of population structures, as I just mentioned. A population structure in which new groups form by budding from other groups, so that every group as a single “parent”, leads to different outcomes than a population structure in which new groups of size N form by being colonized independently by N individuals, but both cases can be understood in terms of the basic theoretical framework. In this sense, the MLS1/MLS2 distinction is interesting but not all that fundamental.

    Third, part of the MLS1/MLS2 distinction concerns whether the trait can be measured at the individual level; a trait such as altruism can, but a trait such as group size can’t. Nevertheless, even a trait such as group size is influenced by both within- and between-group selection, as the classic experiments by Mike Wade demonstrated. So this distinction isn’t all that fundamental either.

    Finally, major evolutionary transitions, whereby groups become so cooperative that they become higher level organisms in their own right, is one of the most important recent developments in evolutionary thought. If this is what MLS2 is supposed to address, then we definitely want to know all about it. Let’s just make sure that it doesn’t obscure other aspects of MLS theory that are also important, such as the evolution of single traits.

  11. #11 joe
    September 15, 2011

    D’accord. I think the MLS1/MLS2 distinction is important for understanding the history of the controversy in one respect that is not about the question whether a trait is a group or individual trait.

    As far as I interpret Wynne-Edwards (1962), in retrospect and from the MLS1/MLS2 distinction, he proposed to apply an MLS2 scenario within a species. He thought that groups of migrating birds, for example, have the longevity and degree of isolation from other groups that would lead to a sort of group fintess (groups begetting groups and differential groups survival).

    The fact that he also proposed population homeostasis as traits of groups (populations) is irrelevant, here,
    because the litmus test has been the question whether a cheat or mutant could undermine such a population/group.

    If people like Jerry Coyne define “group selection” as that what has been rejected in the 1960s, which is applying MLS2 within species, then the controversy can never end. One party is taking group selection to mean what it meant in the 1960s and the other is taking it to mean multilevel selection when applied to one particular tier of the hierarchy. One party is focussing on one false case the other is ignoring that one false case.

    Reconciliation would, in my opinion, have to start with admitting that Wynne-Edwards was wrong in 1962 (while I’m not sure what he was proposing in 1986) and everybody should get over it by now.

  12. #12 joe
    September 16, 2011

    On second thought I might as well disagree, if you included Wynne-Edwards (1962) among the “classic cases of group selection” proposing an MLS1 scenario.

    Could I pin you donw on that question? That is, although you do not think of the MLS1/2 distinction as important, where would you pigeonhole Wynne-Edwards proposal of 1962 if you had to?

  13. #13 David Sloan Wilson
    September 16, 2011

    To Joe–Wynne Edward’s basic thesis was that species evolve to conserve, rather than to overexploit, their resources. He was not a theoretical biologist and appealed to Sewell Wright’s models for justification. In fact, Wright had sketched only a single model of group selection (as opposed to his shifting balance theory, which concerned individual traits with a complex genetic basis), and it was a type 1 MLS model. Maynard Smith’s haystack model was an attempt to formalize what Wynne-Edwards was saying, and it was a type 1 MLS model. In fact, Wynne-Edwards’ biological conception of population structure, based on his research on species such as the red grouse, was different than any of these theoretical models, as Gregory Pollock describes in a perceptive paper cited below. A more recent attempt to model the Wynne Edwards scenario is by Werfel and Bar-Yam. Virtually all of the models track the evolution of individual traits that are selectively disadvantageous within groups but “for the good of the group”, in a variety of population structures, which is MLS-1 as I understand it.

    See my 1998 book with Elliott Sober, Unto Others, for a conceptual and historical overview, or my “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” series on this blog for a detailed discussion of Maynard Smith’s haystack model.

    Pollock, G. B. (1989). Suspending disbelief–of Wynne-Edwards and his reception. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2, 205-221.

    Werfel, J., & Bar-Yam, Y. (2004). The evolution of reproductive constraint through social communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 11019-11024.

  14. #14 David Sloan Wilson
    September 16, 2011

    To Joe–In my last reply, I hadn’t read the first of your recent two posts, which I will now address here. Some (not all) of the early group selection models assumed a multi-generational population structure in which groups are like the islands of an archipelago–spatially isolated, permanent, and connected by a dispersal rate. In these models, groups are longer lasting entities than individuals, dispersal must be low for group selection to work, and so on. In Maynard Smith’s haystack model, the groups are multi-generational but there is a global dispersal stage. In the Price equation, very little is said about population structure; the equation merely tallies up global gene frequency change and divides it into within and between-group components. When I coined the term “trait group” in 1975, I was noting that groups must be defined in reference to the evolving trait. The relevant group for the evolution of alarm calls will be different than the relevant group for the evolution of resource conservation. This was always implicit in evolutionary models of social behavior and my term merely made it explicit.

    The common denominator for all of these models was to explain how an individual-level trait that is selectively disadvantageous within groups can nevertheless evolve in the total population. The MLS1/MLS2 distinction is more recent, and is most salient in the context of major evolutionary transition. I should add the the concept of species selection, the differential origin and extinction of species, has a separate history from group selection, and from the MLS1/MLS2 distinction.

    I will email Samir Okasha to see if he has time to comment briefly.

  15. #15 joe
    September 16, 2011


    I got Unto Others and the exchange between Wynne-Edwards and Maynard Smith in Nature (reprinted in ‘Group selection’ edited by Williams). I will read Pollock and Werfel&Bar-Yam asap.

    It is of course difficult to retrospectively project a current distinction into the past.

    I think we can agree that Wright’s shifting balance theory (not his group selection model) is neither MLS1 nor 2, because within-group selection is simply swamped by drift. That is, within-group selection is not overridden by between-group differentials.

    I can also agree with the haystack model being an MLS1 scenario. My reading is, however, that Maynard Smith produced this model in contrast to Wynne-Edwards and not as a formalisation of Wynne-Edwards’s proposal. A quick glance at Polock (1989, p. 208) shows me that he also said that much.

    There is simply too much in Wynne-Edwards (1962) seeming to imply MLS2 for me to stomach an MLS1 interpretation of it. I guess I’m going to write a post with the relevant quotes on my own blog. I don’t think that his 1986 book can be read as a mere specification of what he proposed in 1962.

  16. #16 joe
    September 16, 2011

    Ok, we got a time warp here. If you cut the cake that way I should specify that some of the quotes from Wynne-Edwards (1962) sound to me like applying a scenario which would work for species selection to groups within species.

  17. #17 joe
    September 17, 2011

    I’ve put a post with some quotes of Wynne-Edwards on my blog (http://historiesofecology.blogspot.com/). I just don’t see how they can be interpreted as agreeing with MLS1.

  18. #18 The Vicar of Art on Earth
    September 22, 2011

    Traditional acamdemics seem to get very upset in using evolutionary “concepts” for anything out side biology. The discussion reminds me of years ago when Jane Goodall’s work first appeared. Before that, only “hippie” scientists would say Chimps had a social life.

    I think Dr. Wilson is asking what many thinkers are asking, Is there a universal application of evolutionary principals or is evolution only an earth based biological explaination? Dr. Dawkins’ blog had a video of a TED presentation,Lee Cronin – TED – 19 September 2011, about this same topic from a chemist point of view. Can stars and non organic molecules operate within the principals of evolution like natural selection?

    I really came here because I had a question from the presentation on ForaTV about your book on cities. I proably should buy your book first, but when you compaired liberal and conservative children, was income a factor that was taken into account?

    A personal observation is that many “New Atheists” seem to know more about religious belief, than followers. Religous belief seems more a folkway rather an understanding of the belief system. Many Americans in polls say they are Christian, yet how many can explain or even know what the Nicean Creed says. This creed was the foundation document of modern Christianity, as important or more so than the Gospels.

    I look forward to reading your book and compliment you on sticking your neck out. The discussion as you pointed out in your lecture, is just starting.

    Mr.Gerstle, what the heck do you expect if you post on a blog, a private converstion? Give me a f—–g break.

    To the others, thank you for a insightful discussion from people who work in the field.

  19. #19 David Gerstle
    September 22, 2011

    You’re right, padre. Please accept my apologies. Public discussions like these should be devoted to pontifications on the natural selection of stars, rocks, and furniture. I momentarily wondered if any of this might have some kind of bearing on the real world. My mistake.

  20. #20 joe
    September 23, 2011

    David Gerstle,
    let me summarize. DSW tried to improve Binghampton by implementing some sort of evolutionary dynamisc into social interactions. A storm came along and screwed it all up. Where is the opportunity for DSW to promote his cause?

  21. #21 David Gerstle
    September 24, 2011

    Thanks, Joe. Exactly how the flood might have screwed up the existing or future works of the BNP, I don’t know (nor has Wilson said).

    Binghamton and its surrounding towns were momentarily in a national media, having just experienced a disaster that weighed upon the region’s ecology, economy, and the destiny of its residents. Not two weeks before, Dr. Wilson published a book on just such areas of study, focusing upon the very same town.

    Maybe i am just unrealistic, but the confluence of these events seems to point to an obvious path: as a concerned, informed, and recently-published citizen-scienctist, you address the flood at every opportunity. On your blog. In interviews. In op-ed pieces. Etc. You rally together your resources (your undergrad and grad students, academic colleagues, community friends, media folk) and make your project a visible and organized leader in clean up, rebuilding, shelter, food pantries, child care, health care, and so on. You make it undeniably clear that your your project and the town are bound in a mutual contract, now and in the future. You build trust and demonstrate the value of your ideas ABOUT people TO the people who you studied and wrote about in the first place.

    What would be foolish to do, I believe, would be to dedicate large swaths of your public messages trying to argue the illegitimacy of a stinging book review. This is particularly important here, because the first option (focusing on the flood) is the one most in keeping with the messages in your book, your community research and outreach, and the operating assumptions of your science. Engaging in academic tangles at this point is not wise for the future of your project, and moreover looks something like turning tail and running when the stakes get too high.

    PS Thanks again, really. I appreciate someone even partially agreeing that this issue might have some consequences – for Binghamton, Wilson’s future research, the BNP, and the legacy of his book. I think it matters.

  22. #22 David Sloan Wilson
    September 24, 2011

    To my friend David Gerstle,

    I don’t know whose bulldog you are–perhaps just your own–but when you latch on you don’t know how to let go. You are not my judge, but here’s a brief accounting even so. In addition to helping visiting colleagues evacuate downtown during the flood and helping Anne’s graduate student move from her flooded apartment afterward, I recorded a workshop on mudding out houses and made it available, along with written material, citywide on a page of the BNP website devoted to flood relief. I also became involved in flood relief for the one neighborhood with whom I work that was affected by flooding. In fact, a team of student volunteers will be helping an elderly woman clean out her house tomorrow.

    I’m gratified that the social organization that formed in this neighborhood in the context of designing their own park has functioned beautifully in the context of flood relief. And the park, while flooded, survived.

    I’m surprised by the suggestion that the BNP was destroyed by the flood. Where do you get it? All of the projects continue and the need for them has been made plainer by the flood.

    You know little about the BNP and its various capacities. You’re not involved in the BNP, flood or no flood. By now, you have spent more time pounding on your keyboard about how I was pounding on my keyboard than I have. Please unlock your jaw and look for something else more worthy to bite.

  23. #23 David Gerstle
    September 25, 2011


    You’re wrong that I “know little” about the BNP, or that I’m “not involved”. I’ve witnessed every stage of the project since that first map was produced. I’m know nearly every past and current undergraduate and graduate student on your research teams. I attended lectures, watched those available online, followed every development, and read every article, interviews, anthology chapters, and your book. An besides, my opinion should matter to you because I am a resident of Binghamton.

    My criticisms are not moral judgments on your character. They are part of the checks and balances that the scientific enterprise that you and I are involved in. I see contradictions in what you’re doing, and I am pointing them out. I know my tone is harsh – that is because this matters to me, many of my former students, and you.

    But you’re obviously not seeing what I’m seeing here, so I will stop. I’m sorry.


  24. #24 joe
    September 26, 2011

    What you were saying was not, as far as I can judge, criticism about the science or other assumptions concerning the neighborhood project but merely some stuff about the mud in the street – sounded more like mud-slinging to be honest. But of course, if you have substantial criticism about the neighborhood project David will probably listen (if nothing else). But sure, we are not seeing what you are seeing. You haven’t given us any insigt.

  25. #25 sesli chat
    October 15, 2011

    It is clear that you are acting out with your invective due to your having “spent the last several days slogging through mud, sewage, and trash”, and that is understandable.

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