Thursday, June 9, 2011

Evolutionary biology and cooperation in urban neighborhoods

Binghamton, NY
I have just come across some current research by evolutionary biologists and anthropologists on social life and cooperation in urban neighborhoods. I first ran into the Binghamton Neighborhood Project: Science-Based Solutions to Real-World Problems in Our Community  by accident on the internet. This seems at first a strange project: the website mostly talks about community involvement issues: liveable communities, designing parks, relations with city hall and the like. But on their publications page, the articles consist of applications of evolutionary biology to neighborhood organization. David Sloan Wilson, a prominent biologist at Binghamton, is the author of some of the papers. Here are some examples: 

O'Brien, Daniel Tumminelli
2009    Sociality in the City: Using Biological Principles to Explore the Relationship Between High Population Density and Social Behavior. In Advances in Sociology Research, edited by Jared A. Jaworski, pp. 1-14, vol. 8. Nova Science Publishers.

Wilson, David Sloan and Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien
2009    Evolutionary Theory and Cooperation in Everyday Life. In Games, Groups, and the Global Good, edited by Simon A. Levin, pp. 155-168. Springer, New York.

Wilson, David Sloan, Daniel Tumminelli O'Brien, and Artura Sesma
2009    Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations at a City-Wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior 30(3):190-200.

Low income housing in Newcastle
Next, I found an ad for a talk at Binghamton in April 2011, by evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Nettle (of Newcastle University, UK), on a similar topic: "The Tyneside Neighbournood Project: Investigating the Behavioural Ecology of a British City." I rooted around a bit to see if Nettle had published his work, but this is a current project that hasn't come out yet in print. But, Nettle's talk was recorded, and is available on the internet here

This is a fascinating talk. Nettle works in the field of behavioral ecology and evolutionary anthropology, and he applies these perspectives to differences in cooperation and social life in two neighborhoods in Newcastle. He describes the settings (a poor and a wealthy neighborhood) and investigates how three methodological approaches to cooperation and social behavior relate to one another: economic games, social capital surveys, and observation of behavior.

I have not read the Binghamton papers yet, but Nettle has got me thinking about how research on cooperation (one of the BIG TOPICS in both the social and biological sciences right now) relates to urban neighborhoods. What can neighborhoods tell us about human processes of cooperation? And what can cooperation within neighborhoods tell us about the Wide Urban World?


  1. David Sloan Wilson has a book coming out this summer:

    Wilson, David Sloan
    2011 The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve my City, One Block at a Time. Little, Brown, New York.

  2. The project was also just reviewed in a Nature News piece:

  3. @ DTAE -- Thanks for the tip. After reading the piece in Nature and a couple of the articles, I couldn't figure out what natural selection has to do with the work in Binghamton. There is a nice discussion of different approaches to research on cooperation (economic games, natural selection, social capital models), but the discussion of different neighborhoods seems to relate pretty directly to basic social science concepts, not natural selection.

    The video of Daniel Nettle's lecture, on the other hand, does tie urban analysis much more closely to debates in evolutionary anthropology and biology. I am very interested to see how that research is reported and integrated with traditional social science approaches.