David Sloan Wilson —
Evolving a City

David Sloan Wilson believes that evolution is not just a description of how we got here. He says it can also be a tool kit for improving how we live together. He’s taken what he’s learned in studying evolution in animals and is now applying it to the behavior of groups in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. His goal is to help people behave pro-socially — at their best, and for the good of the whole.

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is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York.

Selected Readings

12 Steps Toward a Better Neighborhood

Would you consider your neighborhood to be “pro-social”? David Sloan Wilson, author of The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, offers his list of the best behaviors that can maker your city a better place to live.

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Exhibition model in Berlin's senate office of city planning.

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Funding provided in part by the Templeton Foundation.

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I would like to view the list of pro-social behaviors, if you could let me know where to find it?

Would it be possible to turn a list of Pro-Social behaviors into a SmartPhone app and MAP of incidents or anchors of pro-social behaviors?

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Alisa. I think this may be the list you're looking for: http://www.onbeing.org/program/feature/12-steps-toward-better-neighborho...

I would also like to have the list of pro-social behaviors.

There have been many interesting and provocative “ON BEING” programs in the past. This show “Evolving City” was not one of them. Most of these 12 steps define an American life style applicable to 1950’s thinking, not to the realities of today’s communities, especially our older ones. I see no relationship here to state, county or city governments, as those are where regulations are establish and enacted. None of this material appears to have been validated against such measures. I have spent years trying to get community consensus to “trickle-up”, rather than governmental power “trickle-down.” Power is usually unfairly applied, or even denies the right thing to do, especially now. To see that this study has not taken into account those existing rules is really disarming.
May I suggest you find other sources that have a clear idea on how to help communities?
See the Urban Land Institute:
See this example of land uses:
If you are interested in taking a harder look at morals that govern us and our communities, I suggest:

I look forward to reading "The Neighborhood Project."

Thanks to all for another great guest and interview!

This was a thought provoking conversation, you are to be commended on your work with the high school students. I do agree neighborhoods, individuals and species change through adaptation, but evolution of the species remains a theory.

The evolution of species is a fact proven beyond all doubt. The evidence for this is stronger than the evidence for the theory of gravity.

In the NEighborhood PRoject what was the role of the arts? As a community builder? Engaging youth in their learning? Economic investment? Thank you!

I am also looking for the list of pro-social behaviors

Where is the list of pro-social behaviors?

I love this piece and believe in it hardily. Sadly, this plan seems like a grand idea and the steps mirrors in ways steps that are being taken across the country. It becomes distorted when the private non-profits that form under the guise of community development act as NGOs in social engineering which is what we have in Baltimore. The development companies form these non-profits that take the steps you list but with a publically stated mission of making an underserved community into a middle-class community. While placing underserved on committees it is hard to see any honest contribution and the disparity in having people serve on committees as they design the existing people out is chilling. Charter schools being used as social engineering tools shake trust at all levels, creates conditions where police patrols are increased, off-duty police appear, and security cameras abound. In Baltimore, development plans actually state the number of underserved units that will be worked into the building phase as well as places in the upgraded schools. It is good to state that a development project can have the elements of which you outline and still not be a healthy neighborhood.

Wow. Now I have a name -- and a focus -- for something I've been interested in since I was a child -- neighborhoods, villages, towns, communities. I too look forward to reading The Neighborhood Project. I'll put it next to Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. (And I want you to know, On Being is my reading guide. I order more books out of listening to OB than from any other provocation.)

Thank you!

David Sloan Wilson mentioned that his work involving the Regents Academy was published. Do you have a link where I could find further information?

The paper on the Regents Academy can be found here:

Interesting to note three things:
(1) PloS One is an open-access journal through which a paper's authors typically pay around $1000 to publish.
(2) There is actually NO control group for this 'experiment', since a 'non-evolutionary' version of the same program was never conducted.
(3) David Sloan Wilson and his team are NOT continuing this project... so, what's the relevance for anyone? If it supposedly worked so magically, why not do it again to see if the results endure?

This stuff is all foam and no beer --- it sounds good, feels good, and makes a good story, but Sloan Wilson has done nearly nothing. Read (and believe) with caution.

I would like to have the list of pro-social behaviors mentioned in the Evolving a City program. Could you send them to my email address?
Please do not give my email address to anyone else.
Thank you. Bonnie B. Barnidge

I think the list has already been made for you. You can see the transcript by clicking on transcript and finding the list yourself. I am actually do that myself and using the list. Great question, though.

Such wonderful insight into the evolutionary process.
The comments towards the end made me smile ... it reminded me of John 4:23-24.
David has uncovered the the evolutionary as opposed to the static side of tradition ... to constantly reinterpret the truth in a culturally relevant context.

David Sloan Wilson spoke at the end to his commitment to the truth. What struck me as I was listening was how much his work, and the work of both the town of Binghamton and the Regents Academy sounds like the Christian belief in what NT Wright calls "the renewal of all things". I only wish he had not stated at the end that only his "religion" is truly committed to truth. As a Christian, I am very committed to the truth, and whatever in his research is true, should be valued.

I found a lot to commend; nice to see hear positive assessment from an atheistic point of view on merits of (some)religious practices and impacts. Like others, I would like to see a list of the pro-social behaviors as mentioned, very interested in developing a workable rubric for evaluating local works in progress. As a Buddhist practitioner I found nothing at all diminishing, or even contradictory and much in common as to the importance of love and compassion as active design elements within large or small community frameworks.

Generally speaking, I really like the show. This guy is a real nut case. So sad that mommy and daddy never introduced you to the real TRUTH. Evolution is one's imagination on mushrooms. Sadly, it's more about trying NOT to believe in something than actually believing that there is a God. That CREATION actually took place. Read the bible. Is Revelations incorrect? It's all there folks. Read it. Earthquakes will increase in the final days. Check. There will be a one world order, economy etc.. Check. The hatred in society. Check. What's sad is that when Jesus finally comes, and He will indeed come, evolution will instantly become the joke that it is. Evolution is circular science. The rocks date the fossils and the fossils date the rocks. Huhhhhh?

The gaps in your science knowlege are breathtaking. Did you have a poor teacher? Check out the local community college for a continuing education class in basic science.

Sir, you exhibit an inordinate capacity of ignorance. You, more than anybody needs to read Professor Wilson's books - but the again, the stuff would just rush through the shrunken brain. Have ever contemplated getting a formal education?

Applying evolutionary principles to non-biological systems has been a facination of mine for about 10 years. During this time I have developed some of the toolkit mentioned in the program. It gives me a unique and very valuable perspective to understand organizational behavior. This training not difficult, but it does take time and exposure. What amazes me is that Krista was able to ask relevant and insightful questions throughout the interview, making it more of a discussion. This program is one of my favorites, since the topic was dear to me, but the takeaway for me was that Krista blesses us every week with her natural talents.

I know that evolution at its simplest denotes mere "change over time," but it seems to me that nothing Sloan said required the concept of "evolution" except (1) as a sort of secular piety and (2) to co-opt the magical rubric of "science" for his particular urban vision. James Howard Kunstler, Chuck Marohn and others talk powerfully about communities that "work" and are worth caring about, and do so without donning the mantle of evolutionary science.

Remember that he said we tend to think "genes" when we think evolution. "Cultural evolution" is what he was saying. I do see what you mean though. He's using the term as most of us do not.

Remember that he said we tend to think "genes" when we think evolution. "Cultural evolution" is what he was saying. I do see what you mean though. He's using the term as most of us do not.

I was wondering why I was debnied access to view/listen to the playlist from the lates show. In the past I had always been alble to listen to the music selections for various shows.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Jyme, why don't you try again now. We're still working out some workflow approval processes and this was one of them. Thanks for letting us know about it.

I listened to parts of this interview and then read the transcript right after I had read a book about a neighborhood in my own town of Frankfort, KY that was destroyed between 1958 and 1984 through urban renewal. The book by Douglas Boyd is called, Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community. Its webiste is . The book is quite poignant--giving the history of the area and interviews with its most recent inhabitants.
I am sorry the City of Frankfort did not have the kind of thinking in this interview with David Sloan Wilson to go on. That neighborhood might not have been destroyed or not at least in the manner it was done.

David Sloane Wilson could be a Unitarian Universalist. They also worship the truth. People's beliefs vary, but how they behave is most important. And we can study it and learn how to build a beloved community. Thanks for helping to clear path.

I'm looking for more info on the experiment with the mailbox and envelope. Any suggestions on where I can find this? Thanks!

Ms. Tippett, I was interested in the section of the Evolving City interview in which you discussed history from an evolutionary perspective. You said, "So part of it is taking the past seriously, right? ... this all makes up who we are. These are these layers upon which we're built." And the conversation goes on to talk about ancestors and history as a fossil record. I was struck that this closely resembles the understanding of time found in Germanic Heathenry. I am a Ph.D. student doing a dissertation on contemporary Germanic Heathenry, Asatru. Within this movement, time is understood as "orlog" - an accumulation of layers of actions, cultural, and history that then makes each of us who we are. In a sense, we carry the past around in us as a living fossil record. I'm wondering if you would be interested in a clip from one of my interviews with a practitioner of Germanic Heathenry discussing the concept of orlog? Could you use something like this for a future show perhaps?

I'm a little disappointed how Darwin evolution has become a whole religion on its own. It's amazing how we can have real scientific principles which are not explained and the mere questioning them automatically makes people assume the premise that you're a bible thumping nut.

I enjoyed the conversation with David Sloan Wilson - even through the muddy metaphors linking Darwin evolution (natural selection) to other forms of evolution (gradual development). Next time somebody does this, please try to clarify because we have enough confusion over mixing definitions of evolution in this country.

Also, please, when anybody declares "science worships truth", call them on it. Science isn't about truth, it is about discovering rules that allow one to make accurate predictions or assessments. The scientist I know generally just want to discover a rule valuable to other scientists or engineers or the population at large (scientists that are cited more tend to be regarded higher than scientists that are cited less). I will grant that many scientists also like to think they are pursuing truth but that doesn't matter to science as a whole - science only cares about the usefulness of a discovery, not its truthfulness.

Wonderful hour. I will be writing David directly at SUNY Binghamton to review the him how implementing his 8 principles of an education program can also be transferred to athletics and collective bargaining in management-labor negotiations, two areas that I have applied them to at Cornell and in local governement in Rochester NY

The list of 10 Pro Social Behaviors is in the Transcript..
Wish we could apply them to Congress !

What a wonderful show. Thank you both for such a fascinating, thought-provoking conversation.

Did you venture north to Triangle near Whitney Point. We used to say they were so inbred that there were kids with one eye in the middle of their forehead. Actually knew some 2nd cousins from my graduating class that married just to prove the point.

After listening to the interview with David Sloan Wilson, especially the segment about the school project for at risk kids, I am wondering what Congress, both Senate and House, bode for our evolutionary journey.

Wonderful conversation -- living in North Minneapolis with its troubles & challenges but also many people trying to improve the neighborhoods, many things resonated with me.

Mihai Jusepnehai (phonetic), psychologist: Best known for work on flow, deep psychological experience. Gifted in 9th grade, how many still gifted in 12th grade. Only those who enjoyed their experience remained gifted. If school isn’t fun, forget about it. How do you spell the psychologist's name?

Point 4: Monitoring, some will misbehave, monitoring necessary for group to function. In a school situation, the administration presumably monitors, but, in the larger adult world, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall guard the guards, themselves?

5. Graduated sanctions: If someone misbehaves, don’t bring the hammer down immediately. You correct him in a nice, friendly fashion but must be prepared to escalate.
Again, school administration does this to pupils, but what about adults? Too often, less qualified persons sanction more qualified persons over matters that the less qualified do not understand, so they sanction inappropriately. E. g., regulators, who have not examined the patients in question, sanction physicians who have, despite the fact that the regulators don't know what they're doing. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall guard the guards, themselves?

6. Fast, fair conflict resolution. If there be a conflict, it must be resolved quickly and in a manner considered fair by all. Passive voice leaves undefined who will resolve the conflict. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall guard the guards, themselves?

Krista, I enjoy your shows immensely. Your breadth and depth of knowledge and awareness combined with your energy and enthusiasm is impressive as well as refreshing. For many years, I've been informally following the evolving(ha) thoughts on complexity and complex adaptive systems in the context of evolution in social structure and groups as evolving organisms. Your interview with David Sloan Wilson was fantastic (I listened to the unedited podcast). You did a fantastic job of summarizing some very complicated thought with excellent references. Nicely done!

I'll be personalizing this comment a bit. I am a Unity Minister, and had the joyful experience of nearly jumping out of my skin in excitement the morning you had Dr. Sloan Wilson on your show. Driving to my church on Oct. 19, the first word I heard when turning on the "On Being" show was "evolution." How timely, for my lesson that Sunday was on evolution. And while I come from a different direction on the Nature of evolution, I'm convinced Dr. Sloan Wilson would be curious, and perhaps even mystified by the nature of my message.

I understand the basis of his inquiry starts from his role as an evolutionary biologist. The basis for my journey, stemming from my commitment to spiritual growth and awareness, is the evolution of consciousness. The perpetual evolving of mankind's consciousness is now far out weighing what we have seen in biological evolution. Through a path of conscious evolution, many are finding the need, and the opportunity to expand our awareness, our compassion, for mankind. The evolution of consciousness can be identified as manifested in evolving cultural memes that have pervaded humanity throughout our history. The Pro-social behaviors represent the out flowing of higher levels of consciousness that focus on more humanistic principles that reside in all of us.

A brief quote from Robert Brumet in "Birthing a Greater Reality- a Guide for Conscious Evolution-" "For the first 99.99 percent of humanity's time on earth, the greatest threat to existence came from the vagaries of nature.... But today the greatest threat to human existence is humanity itself. Of the many possible scenarios for our collective demise, most are the result of human behavior."

The same potentiality in consciousness of humanity that can bring us to a point of destruction is also now growing in looking for global solutions that will provide the solutions that will sustain life. The pro-social behaviors are examples of the evolution in consciousness of which I'm speaking. These are derived from the inherent good within us, and our expanding capacity to direct our awareness towards a world that works for all of us.

You might be interested in hosting a speaker on conscious evolution on one of your shows. For my part, I look forward to contacting Dr. Sloan Wilson directly.

Evolution is not a phenomenon that came into existence in a moment. It has been talked long since the age of Charles Darwin. David Sloan has helped many people behave pro-socially, at their best and for the good of the whole. Keep posting in the future too. www.specialkidsstuff.com