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“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:

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