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Wilson shares insights on evolution

Distinguished Professor David Sloan Wilson delivers a Jan. 12 lecture on evolutionary theory and the quality of everyday life to members of Harpur Forum.
David Sloan Wilson made a case for approaching a wide variety of subjects from an evolutionary perspective when he addressed the Harpur Forum’s annual faculty luncheon Jan. 12. He also talked about how evolutionary theory can be used to improve the quality of everyday life.

Wilson began by addressing the country’s well-known “evolution problem.” More than 50 percent of Americans claim to disbelieve evolution. “The most disturbing fact … is that almost 100 percent don’t connect it to anything meaningful in their lives,” he added.

These people see evolution as something related to fossils but not to modern health problems, for instance. Even in higher education, Wilson noted, it’s not uncommon for experts to deny evolution’s connection to human sciences and social sciences.

“Using evolution to study human behavior is not future science,” he said. “It’s not fringe science.”

At Binghamton, Wilson has found an avenue to approach evolution on a campus-wide scale. Wilson, a distinguished professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology, founded the Evolutionary Studies program, or EvoS, to teach evolution in an integrated fashion. “This is what it means for a university to be a single intellectual community,” he said.

Wilson is best known for his work on multilevel selection, in which the fundamental elements of evolution — variation, heritability and fitness differences — can exist at all levels of the biological hierarchy, from genes to ecosystems. But he’s also fascinated by cooperation and altruism, or what he calls the “puzzle of prosociality.”

Selfishness beats prosociality within groups, he notes, but prosocial groups beat selfish groups. And this is true not only for humans but to all creatures, Wilson said.

One troubling issue, though, is what happens to prosocial people in a situation where there are not like-minded people. They can try to leave, attempt to change their environment, defensively turn off their prosocial tendencies or remain prosocial and suffer the consequences. It’s also possible that changes in their neighborhoods could encourage more people to behave in cooperative or altruistic ways.

Wilson and his colleagues in EvoS are studying these and other questions using the City of Binghamton as their laboratory. The Binghamton Neighborhood Project will measure prosociality and other traits among young people. The researchers and their community partners will then design interventions to improve the lives of city residents.

It’s just one of many applications for improving the quality of life in the real world using evolution, Wilson said.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08