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George Price and the Quest for the Origins of Altruism

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

Published September 15, 2011




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