Evolution for Everyone

Evolution, the theory that has already proven itself for understanding the rest of life, is equally relevant for understanding the human condition. With understanding comes the capacity for improvement. Thus, evolutionary theory can be used to improve the quality of human life in a practical sense.

I have dedicated the last five years of my life to demonstrating this claim, by getting involved in my city of Binghamton and by co-founding the Evolution Institute, the first think tank to formulate public policy from an evolutionary perspective. I also chose to write about my adventures in The Neighborhood Project as they were unfolding, rather than waiting for some kind of final proof. After all, there was an entire paradigm to convey, I was trying to apply evolution to many policy issues at once, and years might be required for any single project to reach fruition. As a result, reviews of The Neighborhood Project almost invariably wish me well, but note with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism that the proof is not yet in.

It is therefore with considerable pride that I can offer proof for one project; a program for at-risk high school students called the Regents Academy that the Binghamton City School District started in 2010 and invited me to help design. My consulting relationship with the School District began in 2006 and has led to several academic publications, but this was my first opportunity to help build a program from the ground up, using my evolutionary toolkit.

The problem was daunting. Improving the academic performance of at-risk students is difficult at any age, but especially for teenagers, whose habits, attitudes, and social networks are already established. Our program was targeted for 9th and 10th graders who had failed at least three of their classes during the previous year and would be very likely to drop out of school if nothing were done. Other successful programs for at-risk high school students appear to succeed only by expensive measures, such as extending the school day and year, which would be unavailable to us. We could do little to address the problems that most of the students faced outside of school, which were sometimes heartbreakingly difficult, as I would learn.

What were some of the tools in the evolutionary toolkit that might help to solve such a daunting problem? A school program is first and foremost a group of people that must cooperate to achieve certain objectives. Evolution has a lot to say about the dynamics of cooperation in all species and the uniquely human capacity to cooperate, based on our particular history as a species. Then there are the effects of existential security on psychological functioning. Finally, there is a need to make long-term learning outcomes reinforcing over the short term. Working with one of my graduate students, Rick Kauffman, and the dedicated staff of the Regents Academy, we tried to design the optimal social environment for cooperation, trust, and learning. We also employed the gold standard of assessment, the randomized control trial. Of 117 students who qualified for the program, 56 were randomly selected and the others were tracked as they experienced the normal high school routine.

What happened? The RA students responded so quickly to their new social environment that their grades rocketed up by the first marking period. The dropout rate plummeted. The most stringent test came at the end of the year with the state-mandated exams. Not only did the RA students greatly outperform the comparison group, but they performed on a par with the average Binghamton High School Student. These results have recently been reported in the Public Library of Science’s online public access journal PLoS ONE. They provide proof that a policy informed by evolution–in this case educational policy–can succeed at solving problems that have appeared difficult or impossible to solve from other perspectives.

When Thomas Huxley first encountered Darwin’s theory, his response was “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” The Regents Academy has the same kind of obviousness-in-retrospect. All of its design features are familiar and within the repertoire of normal school practices. Yet, a certain theoretical perspective was required to bring them together. In the chapter of The Neighborhood Project devoted to education, titled “Learning From Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children”, I observe that policies are like the wishes that people are granted in folk tales, only to end up regretting. All policies make sense based on their underlying assumptions; otherwise no one would be tempted to formulate them or carry them out. Yet, they often have unforeseen consequences that lead to very different outcomes than the ones imagined. Worse, unlike the characters in folk tales who end up realizing their mistake, the unforeseen consequences of policies are typically diffuse and indirect, therefore difficult to trace to their causes. In this fashion, we become lost in a maze of unforeseen consequences. Only a comprehensive theory and rigorous scientific assessment procedures can help us find our way out.

Time will tell whether the RA continues to succeed as well as (or better than) its first year, but its initial success is a hopeful sign that evolutionary theory can be as useful for public policy formulation as it is for the study of biology and the academic study of humans.


  1. #1 David Gerstle
    November 27, 2011

    Don’t worry, I’m not gonna be a jerk 🙂 This is great news! Congratulations on this, and best of luck to the Regents in the future. I talked many times with Rick while this was unfolding and know you guys worked your asses off to do this well. Throughout my undergrad, I tutored and subbed at a similar program in Ohio… it’s very true that the problems these students have exceed what most of us can imagine. It’s brutal and discouraging, but these kinds of successes are key to building confidence and creating new opportunities.

    Well done! 🙂


  2. #2 John Jacob Lyons
    November 28, 2011

    Congratulations; that sounds promising! You write:

    ” — we tried to design the optimal social environment for cooperation, trust, and learning.”

    I would be very interested to read a summary of the particular initiatives/ programs that were used David.

    You seem to be applying socio-evolutionary psychology to this challenge as distinct from evolutionary theory per se. Is that correct? To what extent are the promising results you are getting a function of your skill as a consultant rather than the particular techniques you are applying?

    Best wishes.

  3. #3 B.Weeks
    November 28, 2011

    Yes…Dr. Wilson could you publish a summary of the key techniques used in the study here? It would be very interesting to see how the results might be applied eleswhere.

  4. #4 jami
    November 28, 2011

    Thank you for the link to the journal article. It was interesting to read about the details of this study.

  5. #5 Nixon 51-30
    November 28, 2011

    Best of luck with this. I shall keep an eye out.

  6. #6 Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa
    November 30, 2011

    Dear David, I’m really, really happy to see this working, especially in such a short period of time. Please, keep doing the good work using Darwin’s principles to make society better.

  7. #7 Roy Niles
    December 1, 2011

    You did the right thing, but you may be kidding yourself a bit to believe that evolutionary theory actually supports full cooperation within groups. Maybe for the short term but in the long term we compete for status and cooperate as an hierarchical group rather than as social equals.

  8. #8 J. A. Le Fevre
    December 1, 2011


    I suspect David is using the phrase ‘evolutionary theory’ as a bit of a literary shortcut. The results of the evolutionary experiment that is civilization shows fairly clearly that the better the cooperation within the society, the better that society (and those individuals to a slightly lesser degree) competes. I think that is the lesson they are hoping to teach.

  9. #9 Michael Blume
    December 2, 2011

    Congratulations, David! That’s great news and very encouraging! I plan to integrate this blogpost into an upcoming German review of your book I am preparing.

    Best wishes from Old Europe!

  10. #10 Gligadakamenen Aldershen
    December 14, 2011

    Whenever I read about “Selfish Genes” I wonder are them suckers sentinent?. Why do we think they can manipulate reality in order to propagate their DNA? I still run into people who anthropomorphize the process of Evolution But doing the same for Genes? C’mon.

  11. #11 BH
    December 15, 2011

    I love this from the linked paper: “There is nothing static about cooperation. It succeeds under some environmental conditions and fails under others. We therefore evolved to be highly conditional in our willingness to cooperate with others, based on both conscious and unconscious psychological mechanisms. …we have tremendous latitude to construct social environments that favor cooperation as an evolutionarily successful strategy—but only if we make use of our knowledge.” (Applies even to setting up a common European Currency!)

    The results of participation in the Fun Club are hugely intriguing.

    I’m so glad you are doing this work. No reason the success of such a program should be limited to At-Risk kids, is there? The paper suggests that the program per-student cost is slightly higher than for a traditional program. How much is “slightly?”

  12. #12 BH
    December 15, 2011

    I just read the last paragraph of the discussion section of the paper. Apologies. You’ve already answered my questions.

  13. #13 Ciwan
    January 11, 2012

    Wonderful. I would love to see how this program performed a year from now. Please let us know. 🙂

  14. #14 Dbakeca
    January 11, 2012

    I liked this article. Good job!

  15. #15 v-pills
    January 19, 2012

    We therefore evolved to be highly conditional in our willingness to cooperate with others, based on both conscious and unconscious psychological mechanisms.

  16. #16 genemachine
    March 6, 2012

    I like that you are using randomized controls, something that cannot always be taken for granted in education research.

    I hate to mention it, but ANY intervention usually beats non-intervention. Even drinking water every 5 minutes or other fads. Your success may not be attributable to evolutionary psychology.

    Also, success in interventions that work in initial trials do not always work when repeated with less supervision and commitment.

    That said, good luck and I wish you success.

  17. #17 Eduardo Bessa
    May 5, 2012

    Prof. Sloan-Wilson,
    I was trying to reach you by e-mail to invite you for our brazilian meeting of ethology, on November, to speak about sociobiology. Since the e-mail didn’t get through I decided to try it here (I hope it doesn’t get published as a comment). Please contact me by e-mail.

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  19. #19 Jimpy
    May 19, 2012

    “(Applies even to setting up a common European Currency!)

    The results of participation in the Fun Club are hugely intriguing. ”

    HAhhahahahahhahaa………… yep count that was a success for both humanity and erm… evolution [and economics ;/]. Now all we need is to all get along and love each other. In the meantime we will just let Athens burn.

  20. #20 Olga Sorokina
    May 30, 2012

    Mr Wilson, here you are speaking on the success on relatively short-scope local project. You write that :” We therefore evolved to be highly conditional in our willingness to cooperate with others, based on both conscious and unconscious psychological mechanisms. …we have tremendous latitude to construct social environments that favor cooperation as an evolutionarily successful strategy”
    Don’t you think that the same approach may be quite useful on larger scope, in international politics? By now the international relations had got the evolutionary issue as well.

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