Featured: THE PRICE OF ALTRUISM – Oren Harman [Vol. 3, #34]

September 20, 2010 — 1 Comment


“Involved in Mankind

A Review of

The Price of Altruism:
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

By Oren Harman

Reviewed by David Anderson.

The Price of Altruism:
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

Oren Harman.

Hardback: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

THE PRICE OF ALTRUISMIn a world driven by evolution to its relentless, inevitable conclusions, “No good deed goes unpunished/no act of charity goes unresented,” as they say in Oz. How can we account for altruism, that foolish doing unto others as we hope they will do unto us in return? After all, in evolutionary terms, altruism decreases the fitness of the individual while increasing the fitness of the group. Evolution can explain why someone would jump into the ocean to pull their child or even a sibling’s child out of the grip of a rip tide, but why would anyone risk their life to save a neighbor’s child? Darwin saw altruism as a major problem with his theory and was profoundly troubled by it.

Geneticists and evolutionary biologists for 100 years after Darwin struggled to figure out how altruism fits into the evolutionary scheme of things. The evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton (much admired by Richard Dawkins, but don’t hold that against him) made the first major breakthrough in 1964 with what is now called Hamilton’s rule:

In each behavior-evoking situation, the individual assesses his neighbor’s fitness against his own according to the coefficients of relationship appropriate to the situation. Algebraically, the rule posits that a costly action [i.e., altruism] should be performed if C < R × B, where C is the cost in fitness to the actor, R the genetic relatedness between the actor and the recipient, and B is the fitness benefit to the recipient. (adapted from wikipedia)

Here fitness costs and benefits are measures of fecundity.

The final breakthrough was made by the American-born scientist George Price, working together with Hamilton. Price led a life that made John Nash’s look uneventful. George’s father, an electrician who created and sold lighting systems for theaters, died when he was four, leaving his mother to manage the business during the Depression. After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago, he worked on the Manhattan Project. George held a succession of fairly short-term academic appointments through the 1950s, dabbling in popular science journalism on the side. He was employed by IBM as a graphic data consultant through the 1960s, but after a botched operation for thyroid cancer, he took the insurance money and moved to London in 1967.

Price showed signs of mental instability throughout his life. As the reviewers of his application for admission to Harvard noted in 1940, “Might go hay-wire but will never be humdrum.” After his move to England, George’s mental issues became more profound, probably exacerbated by not taking his thyroid medicine, but he also experienced a tremendous burst of scientific insight and creativity. His biographer speculates that he had Asperger’s, but the behavior as described in this biography could equally well be put down to bipolar disorder or even mild schizophrenia. George underwent a religious conversion during his years in London, but his psychological problems turned his zeal into a mania. As other scientists such as Hamilton became aware of his brilliance in tackling altruism and other tough genetic selection problems, George was squatting in abandoned buildings, demonstrating his vision of Christian altruism by taking in people who were as seriously troubled as he was. Just before he died he gave away all his possessions to the poor and vagrants who had become his friends. George Price was found dead by his own hand on January 6, 1975.

What is now known as Price’s equation is used in many areas of genetics, but it is best known for explaining how altruism at various levels—the gene, the individual, and the group—can be explained in terms of selection. Altruism does not always win out; his equation explains equally well situations in which selfless behavior is the loser in the evolutionary struggle. He also made an important contribution in applying game theory to evolutionary biography in a paper written with the eminent scientist John Maynard Smith.

It struck me while reading this biography that the author must not like Kevin Bacon movies. As you probably know, there is a parlor game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, where other movie actors are connected with Bacon via people they’ve worked with, usually in six films or less. A real-world version of this game has been dubbed Six Degrees of Separation. I’ll let a character from John Guare’s stunningly beautiful play and movie of the same name explain it:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find that extremely comforting that we’re so close, but … I also find it like Chinese water torture that we’re so close, because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It’s not just big names, it’s anyone. A native in a rainforest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound—you are bound—to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

Scientists, most notably Duncan Watts, have followed the bread crumbs of this folk theory and discovered that the trail really does lead somewhere—everywhere from electrical power grids to transmission of disease to stock market bubbles. When they apply this “small world” theory to business, Watts and his colleagues call altruism by another name: cooperation. George Price’s biographer fails to mention these small world theories, which employ game theory much as George’s work did and hold much in common with scientific work on altruism.

Could it be that humans have this inexplicable (except as explained by Price’s equation) urge to help strangers because we instinctively realize that we all are so closely connected to one another? That what happens to someone else can easily happen to us? Many scientists believe that a major natural disaster 70,000 years ago shrank our ancestors’ numbers to a tiny band struggling to survive. Maybe during this time those who reached out beyond their kin or social group to help members of other groups learned that cooperation can be as important as competition, and their helpful genes have been passed down to us.

Or perhaps altruism can’t be explained as much by competition for resources or for the girl or mastodon hunter next door as it can in terms of our psychological need to connect with others. Isolation from others can lead to a disconnect between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is—mental illness in extreme cases, as happened to George Price. Interaction with others outside our group of relatives or fellow church goers strengthens us because it stretches our imaginations and exercises our free will. Evolution ultimately is as much about the psychological (and the spiritual) as it is about the physical side of our nature.

John Donne said it best, of course: “No man is an island entire of itself;/every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;/ … any man’s death diminishes me,/because I am involved in mankind.” Ultimately, we are altruistic because we are involved in mankind.


David Anderson is a senior science reviewer for Publishers Weekly. He tweets on religion at www.twitter.com/dvdandrsn.

  • Thanks a lot for sharing a review about this book. This is definietly a great book. Thanks a lot.