As a scientist seeking to proselytize the wonders of his chosen field, evolutionary science, David Sloan Wilson has one huge genetic advantage: He is the son of Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and A Summer Place, two great middlebrow and enormously popular novels. Okay, so maybe my use of “genetic” in this context is a little much. Still, in preparing himself to be in the same league as the great popular stylists of modern scientific expression (James Gleick, Tim Ferris and Freeman Dyson come to mind), it couldn’t have hurt.
The book’s title is both relevant and slightly misleading.
Yes, Wilson describes his efforts at applying the principles of adaptation to urban planning in the city where he plies his trade as a professor of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
And yes, he is leading a groundbreaking project to examine/map the city’s “hills and valleys” in every conceivable aspect of urban development (health care, education, architecture transit etc.) – Binghamton, like many northeastern American cities, suffers from the twin scourges of postindustrial decay coupled with the after-effects of the recent financial catastrophe – so as to better prepare its inhabitants to “adapt” to the ever-changing cultural evolutionary environment.
And yes, he’s even directing an effort to get the citizens of his city to build DIY parks, since getting people to realize their own collective and self-interest in developing urban green space is crucial to the long-term survival of the species.
But that’s not why I liked the book or why I recommend it. I like and recommend it because every few pages, Wilson presents us with a nugget of information so crisply and accessibly put that, unless you are in the Sarah Palin demographic of incuriosity, you will, I promise, find it fascinating. And while I’m sure a lot of these gems are connected to his central proselytizing purpose, most of the time I didn’t care whether it was or wasn’t. That’s the genius of a clear, concise, writerly voice carrying you through heavy scientific going. Wilson makes it interesting and doesn’t force you to read the damn passage five times to figure out what’s going on.
For instance, this description of insect survival skills had my jaw swinging on its hinge: “Fire ants … often inhabit flood plains.… When their nests become flooded the colonies form themselves into living spheres that can be the size of a basketball. … The spheres float on the surface of the water and actually rotate so that no individual is submersed long enough to drown.… Insect colonies have evolved the ability to walk on the water collectively.”
See what I mean? The point he’s making is incredibly interesting and amazing of its own accord, and it makes you think. In my case, I thought, “Homo sapiens are responsible for producing atomic energy and the Internet, and yet people are still dying of starvation on the Horn of Africa. As a species, we’ve got a lot to learn from those ants.”
Later, Wilson bestows passages on the intellect of crows (they are way, way smarter than you think) and why the Nobel Prize for economics is hooey (okay, not exactly hooey, but pretty close) that made me want to whoop with excitement and wonder. All of it reinforces the central thesis that if we merely apply the lessons learned from the ongoing adaptation of species to their environments, we might still have at least a shot at saving ourselves.
Douglas Bell is a journalist and screenwriter (co-writer, with Patrick Graham, of Afghan Luke, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September).