Cooperation and the Evolutionary Biology of the City as Organism

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is trying to understand how natural selection works at various levels. His new lab: the city of Binghamton, New York.

2 minute read

June 17, 2011, 6:00 AM PDT

By Nate Berg


"Wilson, who works at the State University of New York in Binghamton, has been a prominent figure in evolutionary biology since the 1970s. Much of his research has focused on the long-standing puzzle of altruism - why organisms sometimes do things for others at a cost to themselves. Altruism lowers an individual's chances of passing its own genetic material on to the next generation, yet persists in organisms from slime moulds to humans. Wilson has championed a controversial idea that natural selection occurs at multiple levels: acting not only on genes and individuals, but also on entire groups. Groups with high prosociality - a suite of cooperative behaviours that includes altruism - often outcompete those that have little social cohesion, so natural selection applies to group behaviours just as it does on individual adaptations1. Many contend that group-level selection is not needed to explain altruism, but Wilson believes that it is this process that has made humans a profoundly social species, the bees of the primate order.

Wilson originally built the case for multi-level selection on animal studies and hypothetical models. But eight years ago, he decided to come down from the ivory tower and take a closer look at the struggle for existence all around him. A city - with dozens to hundreds of distinct social groups interacting and competing for resources - seemed to Wilson the ultimate expression of humanity's social nature. If prosociality is important in the biological and cultural evolution of human groups, he reasoned, he should be able to observe it at work in Binghamton, a city of about 47,000 people."

He's trying various efforts to show that cooperation and prosociality can have positive effects on the city's wellbeing.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 in Nature

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