David Sloan Wilson on Human Evolution and the Commons

I recently discovered the work of Evolutionary Biologist David Sloan Wilson. Wilson is a proponent of what in evolutionary theory is called multi-level selection theory (MLS) or group selection. Put simply MLS provides arguments for the evolution of pro-social traits such as altruism.

In recent years Wilson investigating how his research in evolutionary theory could be applied to the development of public policy to support healthy communities and where better to conduct such an experiments than in your own neighborhood and thats where the Binghamton Neighborhood Project started. He discusses this project and others in the lecture below ‘Evolving the City’ , this is also the subject of his book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”.

Towards the end of the video he introduces the audience to the work of Nobel Prize winning commons economist Elinor Ostrom and makes the argument that Ostroms core design principles are useful for supporting pro-social traits in human communities. Of course this is what advocates for the commons believe but its interesting hearing it from an Evolutionary Biologist whose claims are backed not by well meaning beliefs or ideology but by scientific evidence.

Far too often we are faced with cynical and fatalistic claims that humans are somehow incapable of cooperation, that selfishness and ‘human nature’ will inevitably lead to tragedy. Wilson’s research shows that this is simply not the case.

Ostrom’s core design principles are in fact derived from studies of successful examples of commons and cooperation, these are guidelines for us all. Wilson also authored a number of research papers with Ostrom see “Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of group”.



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