Robert Stokes is an associate professor of sociology and coordinator of the Environmental Studies and Policy programs in the Department of Culture and Communication. His research looks at the economic and social impacts of infrastructure and public policy, and innovative public management models in urban communities. He can speak on issues around urban redevelopment policy and planning, public safety planning, special district governance, the built environment and health outcomes, and urban sustainability planning.
DrexelNow checked in with Stokes to find out why he picked up The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time by David Sloan Wilson.
Why did you choose this book?
I recently had the opportunity to write a grant proposal to support community capacity building in Mantua. Specifically, this proposal sought to increase collective, local problem solving and planning capacity so that a place-based, comprehensive approach to urban redevelopment would be more likely to succeed. While thinking about community development approaches, and being pretty well read in the academic disciplines most relevant to urban and community studies, I thought it might be useful to read what an evolutionary biologist had to say about his efforts to apply the theories of his discipline to a civic project that sought to improve his home town of Binghamton, NY.
What is it about this book/topic that you find important or enjoyable?
Dr. Wilson offers up an evolutionary framework for unifying our understanding of modern social systems. In developing his thesis, he offers a number of parables involving insect species and how some (but not all) have evolved to act collectively for the benefit of the group. Although, he notes that most people’s understanding of evolution is limited to genetics and does not account for social, behavioral and cultural adaptations that occur over a shorter time frame.
Wilson also spends some time throughout the book detailing his difficulty working across traditional academic disciplinary boundaries in order to affect positive interventions for community improvement (the Ivory Archipelago he calls it). I should say that as an interdisciplinary scholar, who works in a rather diverse academic unit at Drexel, these observations were hardly novel to me.
I also found myself applying his theories not to city neighborhoods per se, but to the organization where I work. As collective action to improve the communities around Drexel is one of the main policy goals of our administration, I got to thinking about ways to better organize, incentivize and normalize the varied current and planned efforts at community development by our own University. Extending Wilson’s metaphor, both Drexel and its surrounding neighborhoods could be considered as independent island chains, each with their own set of loosely defined and constantly shifting internal interests that render sustainable collective action a challenging proposition.
Is there a passage/quote you find particularly interesting?
One of the more interesting passages in the book comes in Wilson’s chapter Evonomics, where he spends some time talking about fundamentalist social views: “As an evolutionist, it is important to reflect less judgmentally on what it means for any belief to spread in competition with other beliefs. Genes and beliefs alike spread on the basis of their local advantages, no matter what the consequences over the long term. Sometimes they spread by virtue of benefitting individuals compared with their immediate neighbors, sometimes by benefitting groups compared with other groups, and so on up a multi-tiered hierarchy of groups.” (page 353)
He goes on to discuss how theories of living become popular because they are attractive at one scale (the individual and or small group), but can cause larger problems at higher scales of social aggregation as a collective philosophy. His notion of the importance of integrating scales (his title implies that a block-by-block strategy works best) is confirmed by much of what we know about community development practice. Thus, this book was less revolutionary and more confirmatory about current best practices in urban planning. Although, it never hurts to have a natural scientist of some renown validates our little field of applied social and behavioral science.