What Does Evolutionary Biology Have to Do With Christmas in Binghamton?

David Sloan Wilson decided that Darwin's evolution would never be taken seriously until it affected the world in a real and tangible way. In The Neighborhood Project he employs all the powers of biology, sociology, religion and economics to improve his hometown of Binghamton, New York.

We decided to mount an even more ambitious effort for Christmas than for Halloween. Instead of measuring selected neighborhoods, we would measure the entire city. The EvoS (Evolutionary Studies) Irregulars rose to the occasion, even though they were busy with their own holiday preparations. Dan and I developed a simple system for scoring a house in less than a minute, which ranged from 0 for no decorations whatsoever to 4 for both lighted and nonlighted displays on both house and lawn.

We were careful to make sure that a high score need not depend on wealth. Even humble homeowners can put a string of lights on their shrubbery or a wreath on their door. Finally, we made a special category 5 for "exceptional displays" that seemed to be vying for a Guinness record. The volunteers were formed into pairs who drove along streets assigned to them, recording each house address and assigning a decoration score. We couldn't record every street, but the streets that we did record were randomly selected so they lay like pickup sticks across the entire city.

Most people enjoy driving or walking around at night during the Christmas season, admiring the decorations. Some are tasteful, and others are silly, but if all of the outside decorations were suddenly to disappear—all of the wreaths, lights, candy canes, Santas, creches, snowmen, and sleighs—and if the only decorations were inside the houses, it wouldn't be Christmas anymore. For me, driving down randomly assigned streets and scoring each house only heightened the pleasure. My partner was Charles Sontag, one of my graduate students, who was studying toad tadpoles and showing that they cooperate to find food, much like the social insects. That's right—toad tadpoles have civic virtue.

Our random assignments took us down streets that I would never have visited otherwise. I especially appreciated one home in a humble neighborhood that had a ring of lights, an illuminated carousel, an illuminated star, and a wreath on the porch, along with the following lawn decorations: an inflatable Santa, snowman, and giant snow globe, one illuminated tree, one free-standing illuminated reindeer, and one illuminated sleigh with reindeers. We didn't count the old washing machine at the curb waiting to be carted away. That house received a 5. I also enjoyed a house on the very fringe of the city, on a hill with a fine view of downtown, with an illuminated Santa's sleigh and a string of lights hung on the clothesline, as if he was taking off and leaving a trail of stardust.

As soon as the census was completed, Dan and I worked feverishly with Holly Kelleher, an exceptionally dedicated EvoS student, to key the data into the computer. Kevin Heard, who managed the GIS center, generated within hours a krig map of holiday-decoration scores for the city of Binghamton. I was so proud that I used it as my electronic holiday card for the year. The hills and valleys representing neighborhoods with high and low decoration scores were displayed in shades of red and the locations of houses with exceptional displays were shown in green. It might have been the only holiday card in the world that included a "methods" section in addition to the traditional wish for a happy and prosperous new year.

OK, I know what you're thinking. I'm a freak, or at the very least an incurable nerd, but I couldn't help boasting about what we had accomplished. In six days, we had measured an entire city without spending a single penny other than for gasoline. You can't understand something if you can't see it. I was developing a capacity for seeing my city of Binghamton, New York. It was as if the scales were falling from my eyes. A formal statistical analysis would be necessary, but to my eyes, the hills and valleys of holiday decorations bore a strong resemblance to the hills and valleys of neighborhood quality reported by the public-school students on the DAP. On a clear night, I could probably measure it from an aerial photograph: the more nurturing neighborhoods actually glowed more brightly during the holiday season.

Excerpted from the book THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROJECT: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time by David Sloan Wilson. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company.


What Does Evolutionary Biology Have to Do With Christmas in Binghamton?SDavid Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world at Binghamton University.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD PROJECT: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time is available through Hachette Book Group and Amazon.

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