Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

15 SEPTEMBER, 2011

George Price and the Quest for the Origins of Altruism

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From Darwin to Skinner, or what vampire bats have to do with amoebas and random acts of kindness.

Where does true altruism come from? Does it really exist? These are the questions that occupied the brilliant and troubled mind of population geneticist and author George Price, who developed what’s still regarded as the most accurate mathematical, biological and evolutionary model for altruism before taking his own life at the age of 52. In The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Oren Harman tells the fascinating story of Price’s life and his tireless quest, intersecting it with the seminal work of iconic psychiatrist B. F. Skinner, renowned Darwinist Bill Hamilton, and father of population genetics J. B. S. Haldene.

[I]f the search for the natural origins of goodness has woven a historical tapestry of unusual complexity and color, of strikingly original science and dramatic personalities and events, one important thread has so far been missing. It is the thread of the unique life and tragic death of the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary — mathematician and derelict, the man who rests in an unmarked grave in Saint Pancras Cemetery to this very day.”

In his quest to understand altruism, Price inevitably dissected such complex and timeless concepts as self-sacrifice and kindness, and eventually became so vexed by the selfish reasoning for kindness embedded in his own mathematical theory of altruism that he set out to prove the theory wrong by committing a seemingly endless number of random acts of kindness to complete strangers. He spent the latter part of his life helping alcoholics and the homeless, often inviting them to live in his home and, though he had most of his belongings stolen, he went undeterred until he was forced to move out of his house due to a construction issue. Unable to help the homeless any longer, he went into a deep depression. On January 6, 1975, Price committed suicide using a pair of nail scissors to cut his own carotid artery.

But Harman’s story is less about the tragedy of Price’s demise than it is about the scientific rigor of his work and the complex, profound ideas at the heart of his curiosity.

Why do amoebas build stalks from their own bodies, sacrificing themselves in the process, so that some may climb up and be carried away from dearth to plenty on the legs of an innocent insect or the wings of a felicitous wind? Why do vampire bats share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt? Why do sentry gazelles jump up and down when a lion is spotted, putting themselves precariously between the hunt and the hungry hunter? And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our own acts of kindness?”

For a taste of this extraordinary story, see Harman’s recent RSA talk:

Biology is not destiny — it’s capacity. Clearly, the evolutionary process has given us the capacity for empathy and for altruism, and it’s also given us the capacity for violence and for xenophobia and for aggression. But the question of whether and under what circumstances we exercise this kindness is no longer a biological question… This is fundamentally a human social and political, in the broad sense, problem.”

A fascinating blend of tragedy and optimism, The Price of Altruism is the kind of perspective-shifter that stays with you for a while — perhaps for the entire duration of your minuscule stretch in the journey of evolution.

Image via Flickr Commons

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14 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power & Technology

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What 14th-century cathedrals have to do with Google, Darwin and the purpose of art’s existence.

Yesterday, we devoured The Mind — the first in a series of anthologies by Edge.org editor John Brockman, curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. On its heels comes Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built [...] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual [...] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture is on par with The Mind as one of this year’s most significant time-capsules of contemporary thought.

Images via Flickr Commons

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13 SEPTEMBER, 2011

How the Aurora Borealis Works

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Demystifying the cosmic origins of one of Earth’s greatest wonders, or what solar storms have to do with snow.

If you’ve ever wondered how the magic of the aurora borealis works, today is your lucky day. This short video by Norwegian animator and sound artist Per Byhring illuminates the cosmic secret of the Northern lights, one of our planet’s most magnificent wonders.

For the real thing, don’t forget you can watch the aurora borealis live from the comfort of your nomad screen.

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