Tuscaloosa is BEST: Prosociality in Tuscaloosa

This past spring I started a study called the Belongingness Ecology Study Tuscaloosa (BEST). Like the Religious Ecology Study Tuscaloosa (REST) before it & over which I consider it an umbrella project, it grew out of the readings & activities in an Honors seminar I teach called “Primate Religion & Human Consciousness” (PRHC; see the blog for that course here). More specifically, it grew out of reading the work of David Sloan Wilson & his students & collaborators. In the mid-2000s, David began the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP) to apply evolutionary principles to improve communities in the city of Binghamton, NY. In the wake of this project, which has resulted in several papers & book on the work they’ve done, similar projects have sprung up in Boston (Boston Area Research Initiative), Flint, MI (see Dan Kruger’s publications for info on this study), Newcastle-on-Tyne (Tyneside Neighbourhood Project), & Madagascar (Positive Education Action-Research).

Inspired initially by hearing David speak about BNP at the EvoS Summit a few years ago (here is a link to the actual talk), when he said (paraphrasing here) that the application of evolutionary principles to improving the quality of life for people in his community feels more real & thus more important than any of the other evolutionary research he has done (which is massive & expansive) & is now his primary interest (forgive me, David, if I don’t have that quite right, but readers should watch the presentation & let me know if I got it right!). Generally, I like to be helpful, but I especially like it if what I already like to do is something people find helpful. As I often tell students, I’m not out to save the world—I study what interests me, but I try to find ways those interests can be of interest to others because it’s how I get funding. If it also improves my community, that’s an added bonus & increases the probability of funding. It’s this type of attitude that leads David & his coauthors to prefer the use of the term “prosocial” in their Evolution and Human Behavior paper “Human prosociality from an evolutionary perspective: Variation and correlations at a city-wide scale” (2009), which has led me to write this post.

…the term altruism has a strong connotation of self-sacrifice in addition to helping others. While helping others sometimes requires extreme self-sacrifice, often it is possible to benefit others at a low cost to oneself or to benefit along with others in the provision of public goods (Sober & Wilson, 1998)…We prefer the term “prosocial” to “altruistic” because it focuses on other- and society-oriented behaviors while remaining agnostic about the degree of individual self-sacrifice that might be involved. Thus, an individual who routinely does favors for others or who agrees with the survey item “I am helping to make my community a better place” qualifies as prosocial, regardless of the degree of self-sacrifice involved.

Our initial BEST efforts (ha ha) have been exploratory. I stepped back from encouraging students in the PRHC course to use the church-by-church study model we developed based on David’s book Darwin’s Cathedral (2002) &, following Barbara King’s model for the evolution of religion outlined in Evolving God (2007), I assigned them simply to study any group that inculcates “belongingness” & to assess the degree to which it does that. (Ironically, while past classes have shied from choosing churches as the focus of their study, this past semester’s class all chose churches.) The methodology they used combines cultural consensus & religious-commitment signaling theory, which I outline in an article currently in review (so I can’t spill the beans yet, but email if you’re interested in reading the current draft).

The biggest problem with this approach is that it requires a lot more work than can be accomplished in a semester. So, while I believe it is great experience for the students, the data are scant & ultimately lack utility for the larger project I have in mind. So, over this past summer & after conversation with Dan O’Brien about the BARI project at NEEPS 2014, which featured a whole session on these evolution-community projects, I switched gears & decided to focus attention on specific groups, based on some hanky-panky that went down here a year ago (see my post “University Greek Systems are Natural Experiments for Multi-Level Selection Theory (Waiting to be Investigated)” for more info on that). This semester, I have a student in my research group & another student I am supervising as part of a local government internship doing social network analysis of the University of Alabama Student Government Association & the City of Tuscaloosa City Council. Our hypothesis is that, analogous to brains, more networked groups are “smarter”—e.g., more capable of flexibility & getting more done. However, this project requires more people-power, so, as with my last post, I’m in need of a grad student to help handle the day-to-day running of the project & expand it beyond those initial two groups (please contact me for more info or apply!).

But, as I say, it is reading David & Dan’s 2009 article on the BNP that inspired this post. I’m intrigued by this principle & how we can use it to study the efficacy of cooperative groups:

Game theorists refer to a “replicator dynamic” as any process whereby the most successful behavioral strategy increases in frequency through time, which can include such things as learning and imitation in addition to genetic evolution (Bowles 2003; Gintis, 2000). Any replicator dynamic counts as an evolutionary process, vastly expanding the relevance of evolutionary theory to contemporary human affairs.

In the 2009 article, David & Dan outline a study of prosociality in Binghamton that involved analysis of data collected using the Search Institute’s “Developmental Assets Profile (DAP)” survey among Binghamton school children & replication of the lost-letter study to objectively validate self-reports re neighborhood quality. In the spring 2015, I am implementing a “service-learning” component of the PRHC course, which I intend simply to be an expansion on & elaboration of the BEST endeavor, so that the students can collect information that will be of use to policy makers in our municipality (which is the overall purpose of BEST). I am thinking of replicating David & Dan’s study, which will require the students to contact the school superintendent & BOE to request permission or assistance in collecting DAP data, writing up an IRB proposal (that will be unlikely to be approved before the end of the semester but could set up conditions to continue the study during the following semester), & conducting the lost-letter study, which a service-learning fellowship I received can subsidize.

We can do this for Tuscaloosa. How cool would that be?

Mapping Binghamton's prosociality with two different methods. On the left is a continuous map using kriging; on the right the city is split into discrete census block groups with scores. Both use the responses from the DAP. (From Wilson et al. 2009, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.12.002)

Fig. 2. Mapping Binghamton’s prosociality with two different methods. On the left is a continuous map using kriging; on the right the city is split into discrete census block groups with scores. Both use the responses from the DAP. (From Wilson et al. 2009, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.12.002)

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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