A strange and solitary American living in a foreign country writes an equation that helps to solve a mystery going back to Charles Darwin. Destitute and reduced to skin and bones, mumbling about Jesus, he commits suicide in a cold London squat. Sounds like a rather fanciful screenplay, but this is no fiction. It is January 1975 and 10 or 11 companions have come to accompany George Price to his final resting place in an unmarked grave in Saint Pancras Cemetery. Among them are six homeless down-and-outs, and two of the century’s greatest evolutionary biologists—John Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton. Price had come over from America to solve the problem of altruism, and now he was dead. Behind him, he left an amazing story about mankind’s quest to understand where kindness and, ultimately, sacrifice come from. And, of course, there was the equation . . .
My book, The Price of Altruism, which is out in paperback this summer, explores Price’s dramatic quest to solve one of the most intractable and long-standing quandaries in all of biology.
Here is the mystery: if evolution is a game of survival of the fittest, how to explain the persistence of traits which reduce individuals’ success at passing on their genes? Behold the stinging bee, the toilsome ant, the nurturing sterile mole rat. Consider the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, in which altruistic stalk cells give their lives so their brothers can climb them to the tip of the cooperative spire and be carried away to better fortunes by a felicitous wind. Darwin was mesmerized by the apparent paradox of altruism in a nature “red in tooth and claw,” and proclaimed that absent a solution, his entire theory was suspect. Ever since, field biologists, mathematicians, geneticists, game theorists, psychologists, and of course philosophers have been trying to crack the mystery of the origins of kindness.
Price was one of them, and a man who came to the problem late in his career. He had worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project, as an engineer at Bell Labs, as a systems analyst at IBM, and as a writer living in Greenwich Village. In 1967 he left his job, family, and country behind and moved to England to try to solve the altruism conundrum. Within less than six months, untrained in the field and working entirely alone, he wrote an equation that would come to bear his name. Where science had offered either the narrowness of nepotism (kin selection) or the clannishness of the tribe (group selection) as possible explanations for the evolution of altruism, the “Price equation” would provide a multilevel selection approach that would allow for both, and more. By partitioning selection into its different components—particularly for traits like altruism where interests apparently conflict between different levels of biological organization—the equation would ultimately find a central role in social evolution theory. Altruism could come about in different ways and via different routes.
But of course this was biological “kindness,” measured by the result of an action rather than its intention, so was there any true bearing on humans? It was this question that would ultimately lead Price to the streets of London, where, like a guardian angel, he tended to the homeless. And this question remains a challenge today, as we use neurogenetics, endocrinology, mathematical modeling, and fMRI to try to “find” kindness, empathy, and altruism in humans. The Price of Altruism puts this lofty quest in historical context, going back to Darwin and a cast of colorful characters—the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the mathematical genius John von Neumann, and many others—who also sought the origins of altruism. Ultimately, Price’s suicide, among the unfortunate homeless of London whom he had striven to save, sheds more light on how difficult it is to find scientific solutions to deep human mysteries. A window onto the majesty of the scientific method alongside its limitations is the legacy that this entirely unique and dramatic life leaves behind.
Oren Harman is Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University, and the author of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the best science book of 2010. Read an excerpt from the book.