The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins
of Kindness by
Oren Solomon Harman (W.W. Norton) The moving tale of one man's quest
to crack the mystery of altruism, an evolutionary enigma that has
haunted scientists since Darwin. Survival of the fittest or survival
of the nicest?
Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man laying down his life for a stranger, evolution has yielded a goodness that in theory should never be.
Set against the sweeping tale of 150 years of scientific attempts to explain kindness, The Price of Altruism tells for the first time the moving story of the eccentric American genius George Price (1922–1975), as he strives to answer evolution's greatest riddle. An original and penetrating picture of twentieth century thought, it is also a deeply personal journey. From the heights of the Manhattan Project to the inspired equation that explains altruism to the depths of homelessness and despair, Price's life embodies the paradoxes of Darwin’s enigma. His tragic suicide in a squatter’s flat, among the vagabonds to whom he gave all his possessions, provides the ultimate contemplation on the possibility of genuine benevolence. 24 Illustrations
In his revolutionary Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that natural selection "could never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each." The idea that evolution entails an amoral war of all-against-all runs through the history of evolutionary theory from Herbert Spenser's famous formulation of "survival of the fittest" to Richard Dawkins's more recent "selfish genes." But against this grand vision of "nature red in tooth and claw" stands the indisputable fact of altruism. Throughout nature, living things pass up advantages and make sacrifices to help fellow members of their species. In ant colonies, drones and queens pass along traits they do not possess to warriors and workers who toil for the greater good of the colony with no hope of passing along their own genes. Sparrows share food with less successful members of their species. Crabs stand guard while other crabs, potential competitors for food and mates, are molting and vulnerable. In a great number of species, mutual aid is the rule rather than the exception. The seemingly impossible act of passing on traits and behaviors that can lead to the rise of selfless behavior was, according to Darwin, "the most serious special difficulty, which my theory has encountered."
In The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, professor and author Oren Harman combines a sweeping intellectual history of the search for the origins of altruism with the incredible story of George Price, the brilliant and eccentric American genius whose insights into the evolution of groups redefined how scientists understand the origins of social behaviors. Like many of the colorful characters that took a stab at Darwin's great mystery, George Price was an outsider, an unusual and radical character; something about the problem tended to attract minds at the extreme. But if attempts to crack the enigma involve grand histories—Victorian liberalism and Russian anarchism, interwar fascism, Nazi heresies, Vietnam demonstrations, and the dramatic growth of cutting-edge neurogenetics and brain imaging—the story of George Price is entirely idiosyncratic. A cross between Forest Gump and the Rain Man, Price had an uncanny knack to be present while much of the seminal science of the century was being born: From the Manhattan Project to the telecommunications and computer revolutions at Bell Labs and IBM, he solved problems, then disappeared. As his family and professional life began to unravel in the late 1960s, he left everything behind and moved to London, to try his hand at cracking one last riddle.
Unknown, working and living alone, Price came to see what had eluded many before him, using mathematics to penetrate Darwin's great mystery: Whereas others, in their hunt to fathom goodness, pitted different levels of life against each other—the gene contriving against the individual, the individual subverting the group, one group fighting doggedly against another—this lonely outsider understood that they would all have to be part of a single equation. It was a dramatic flash, a penetration that would forever change our view of the evolution of life. But it would also lead to the darkest paradoxes of altruism.
Soon, Price's own life became his greatest experiment in altruistic behavior. A lifelong militant atheist, he underwent a profound religious conversion; if his mathematics could not produce genuine, as opposed to interested, selflessness, perhaps he could find it somewhere else. Even as he toiled away at the equations, he began an intense study of the New Testament. Ultimately, his newfound religious convictions led him to an extreme renunciation of material wealth. Price began a program of giving away his possessions. He took to living in rented houses and squatters' homes, shelter he would share with homeless alcoholics he invited in off the streets. Tragically, in 1975, George Price committed suicide by stabbing himself in the carotid artery. He died virtually penniless. The realization that it was impossible to know with certainty whether pure, genuine selflessness really can and ever exists had been devastating. But whether he killed himself because of this or due to romantic heartbreak, religious mania, illness, or despair over his limited ability to help the homeless men who became his last, great cause, Price's life was, in the words of a fellow scientist, a "completed work of art."
In The Price of Altruism, Oren Harman deftly weaves together the centuries-long hunt for an answer to one of evolution's greatest mysteries with the heroism and pathos of a story of a man committed to truth and sacrifice. Following a cast of characters that includes the Russian evolutionist and anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin; the Hungarian mathematical genius and father of game theory, John von Neumann; the "greatest Darwinian since Darwin," Bill Hamilton; Roosevelt, Hitler, the Beatles, and many others, The Price of Altruism both celebrates and challenges the pretension of science to fathom the mystery of genuine kindness. Combining crisp, clear science writing with a truly empathetic portrait of Price's brilliance, Harman captures the thrill of scientific discovery without losing sight of the human drama behind the story. In doing so, Harman not only explores the strange days of one of evolutionary science's most colorful and curious characters but also creates an involving meditation on the passions that drive genius.
1. What initially drew you to George Price and how did you conduct your research on him?
The mystery of altruistic behavior in the natural world and its connection to human altruism has always fascinated me. George Price had not only written an equation .that helped solved this mystery, he also translated the equation into actions in his own life. These actions led to a tragic fate, but they clarified more dramatically than words what precisely is at stake in the search for pure goodness. Since George's full story had not yet been told, I began by contacting his daughters. It turned out that all his papers—thousands of letters, scientific papers, journals, diagrams, etc.—existed stashed away in their respective dens in California. These documents set me on a detective trail that led to further archives at the British Library, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Bell Labs, IBM, the University of Minnesota Medical School, and the papers of many other scientists, thinkers, and artists.
2. What astonishes you most about George Price's life?
The fact that George, who was a very brilliant and special man, actually took his scientific ideas to heart to such a degree that he ended up trying to transcend in his own life the bleak determinism of his mathematical equation. There are always people who devote their lives to giving to others, but the selfless giving George decided to embark on came from a different kind of place: George, after all, knew—or so he thought—where kindness came from, and his scientific discovery compelled him to look for a more pure origin for the love of others than evolution had provided.
3. George Price was originally an atheist who eventually became a devout Christian. Did his work change as a result of his conversion?
There is no question that George's discovery of the altruism equation led to his conversion to devout Christianity. What happened after that is cinematically dramatic: George thought that God had chosen him to tell a deep truth to humanity. He was now no longer simply a scientist, but rather a man on a quest: George would share with the world the solution to a mystery that had scourged humanity from the beginning of time. This mindset is what led him to the homeless dregs of London, and ultimately to his own tragic demise.
4. How does the accepted definition of the term "altruism" differ from what you perceived to be Price's definition?
There are two different kinds of altruism: "Biological altruism" is defined as any action that provides the receiving party with a fitness benefit while imposing on the giver a fitness cost. "Psychological altruism," on the other hand, is defined not by the result of an action but rather by its intent. The question is: what is the connection between biological altruism—which pertains to organisms in nature—and psychological altruism, which pertains to humans? Are they two separate things or just two versions of the same thing? George thought that human altruism could somehow transcend biological altruism, that man has the ability to step outside of nature and perform true acts of kindness that don't provide any kind of benefit in the biological sense. In the end, he came to see that it was impossible to know whether man really has beaten his biology.
5. While writing The Price of Altruism, did you find any similarities between George Price and John Nash?
Oh yes, many. In fact, in a fundamental sense George Price and John Nash were both working on the same problem: How is a world in which many actors each have their own interest workable? Nash wanted to know whether such a world could provide optimal solutions, George—how it would change and grow. Both used mathematics to probe what amounts to deep truths about human nature, and each found themselves losing their minds doing so. Both dealt with the question of selfishness and with the possibility of transcending its destructive capabilities. Though the two were afflicted by different kinds of sicknesses, both demonstrated a fascinating truth: Often, it is people different from the rest who are able to see deep truths that relate to all of us.
6. What, in your opinion, led to Price's sudden depression and suicide?
George's realization that pure, genuine selflessness was neither viable nor perhaps even possible played a role in his ultimate demise. In his heart George was a real scientist, and this realization shattered his faith. It was a tragic but very telling understanding, since it shows that as much as we have come to trust science and the scientific method to explain the world to us, there are still deep places that remain outside of its reach. This is an important lesson to learn, especially in our day and age where science and morality have become inextricably linked, and where the belief that science and technology can solve all of humanity's problems has risen to new, and scary, heights.
7. Do you feel that Price accomplished his goals by the end of his life?
I think that George thought that his life had been a failure. He had abandoned his family, been a bad father, a terrible husband, had utterly failed to leave a mark in his life. A brilliant young man with great prospects—a problem solver at the secret Manhattan Project, an ingenious inventor at IBM and at Bell Labs—his life had ended anonymously among homeless dregs in Kentish Town, London. But I also think that George knew that he had hit upon a very fundamental truth: that his equation could help explain a mystery that had haunted scientists ever since Darwin. As important as Price's scientific legacy has been, the lessons learned from his fascinating and tragic life can be even more important for understanding our humanity.
8. In The Price of Altruism, you talk about how Price used his most personal quandaries as his basis for scientific research. What happened in his life to spur his interest in altruism?
I think that the fact that George left his wife and daughters and really failed at building a family contributed directly to an obsession to understand how family came about as a unit in evolution. In order to answer this riddle, George developed a mathematical approach that led to his equation, an equation that ended up being a powerful tool to fathom the evolution not only of family but also, more generally, of altruism. So a very personal quest ended up providing a mathematical glimpse into a fundamental truth about us all. George's life shows how science and biography are inextricably linked—that ideas come from somewhere, and often from somewhere very close to the heart.
The Social Psychology of Good and Evil edited by Arthur G. Miller (The Guilford Press) brings together an array of distinguished scholars to explore key concepts, theories, and findings pertaining to some of the most fundamental issues in social life: the conditions under which people are kind and helpful to others or, conversely, under which they commit harmful, even murderous acts. Covered are such topics as the complex interaction of individual, societal, and situational factors underpinning good or evil behavior; the role of guilt and the self-concept; and issues of responsibility and motivation, including why good people do bad things. The volume also examines whether aggression and violence are inescapable aspects of human nature, and how cooperative interaction can break down stereotyping and discrimination.
Although the initial planning for this book occurred in the spring of 2001, the attacks on September 11, 2001, have lent a special urgency to its primary focus. Social psychologists have been preoccupied with aggressive or harmful as well as prosocial behaviors for many decades. The events of 9/ 11—the vivid depictions of death and suffering on a massive scale, and the displays of helping behaviors on the part of so many individuals—have made the issues of good and evil particularly salient to everyone, not just researchers. The attackers were immediately labeled by President Bush and countless media analysts as "evil," or "the evildoers," and the term "hero" was used with equal fervor to describe the many helpers who not only aided victims but, in some instances, were destined to join their ranks. The media coverage has been nonabating as well, with innumerable attempts on the part of journalists, historians, behavioral and political scientists, and others to discuss every conceivable facet of the attacks and their impact on our society.
These reactions are, of course, not unusual. Atrocities and tragedies—whether it be the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, inactive witnesses to the murder of Kitty Genovese, the enslavement of millions of African citizens in the United States, or countless acts of torture and terrorism throughout the world—have always prompted the asking of difficult questions: How could people do these things to other people? Why would they do them? Is it something about particular individuals, about culture or society, about unique circumstances, perhaps their complex interaction, that is responsible? Will these horrific events happen again? Can they be prevented? How can we reconcile these terrible acts with the demonstrable kindness and decency of so many people? Is there such a thing as human nature? Are people basically good, evil, both, or neither? This book will certainly not answer all of these questions, or perhaps any of them, in any truly satisfactory manner. They are fair questions to ask, however, and their answers should be sought.The basic objective of this book is to examine conceptions of good and evil in contemporary social psychology, and to develop a compendium on what some of the most eloquent and informed spokespersons in social psychology have to say about some of the most fundamental and vexing is-sues in social life. I have asked a number of prominent social psychologists to present their current views as established theorists and researchers who have devoted a major portion of their illustrious careers to these issues.
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