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Authors: Oren Harman

The Price of Altruism

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






Copyright © 2010 by Oren Harman

All rights reserved

Photograph credits: frontmatter, Library of Congress; part 1 (Kropotkin), Library of
Congress; chapter 1 (George and Edison Price), courtesy of the Price family; chapter 1
(George, Alice, and Edison Price), courtesy of the Price family; chapter 2 (Fisher),
Library of Congress; chapter 2 (Haldane), Raphael Falk; chapter 3 (George and Julia Price),
courtesy of the Price family; chapter 3 (Price family), courtesy of the Price family;
chapter 4 (von Neumann), Library of Congress; chapter 4 (Allee), University of Chicago
Library; chapter 5,
Minneapolis Star Tribune
; chapter 6 (Smith), University of Sussex;
chapter 6 (Hamilton), Photo Researchers, Inc.; chapter 7, courtesy of the Price family; part 2, Oren Harman; chapter 9,
; chapter 10, courtesy of the Price family;
chapter 11, courtesy of the Price family; chapter 12, Owen Gilbert; chapter 13, courtesy of the Price family; chapter 14, Oren Harman.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Harman, Oren Solomon.
The price of altruism: George Price and the search for the origins of kindness / Oren
Harman.—1st American ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN: 978-0-393-07923-4
1. Price, George Robert, 1922–1975. 2. Geneticists—United States—Biography.
3. Geneticists—Great Britain—Biography. 4. Scientists—United States—Biography.
5. Scientists—Great Britain—Biography. 6. Population genetics.
7. Altruistic behavior in animals. I. Title.
QH429.2.P75H37 2010


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

To Danzi and Mishy with love



Charles Darwin (1809–1882)


he men ducked out of the rain into the modest Saint Pancras Cemetery chapel. It was a bleak London day, January 22, 1975. The chapel was spare, its simple pews and white ceiling and walls giving it the feel of a rather uninspiring classroom. Soon they’d follow the hearse down a short path to the burial plot on East Road, where in an unmarked grave the body of the deceased would be laid to rest.

A middle-aged man with a scraggly beard shuffled through the heavy wooden door beneath the ragstone spire, his nose red from whiskey and eyes swollen from fatigue. He’d been in and out of prison, destitute, hard on luck. A big toe jutted from torn sneakers, its nail uncut and covered in grime. Life had not smiled on Smoky. The only person who’d ever truly cared for him was George.

The bearded man was followed into the chapel by four other homeless men, the dead man’s final companions, all bundled up in discarded sweaters and scarves found in trash-bins and at the shelters—too small, belonging once to unknown strangers, but welcome protectors from the bitter cold. Some wore belts and socks that George had kindly given them, others pants and overcoats for which he had generously provided the coin. He’d been a true saint, one of them muttered, holding back tears as he passed a few solitary University of London geneticists sitting uncomfortably in silence. A distinct stench of urine followed the ragtag party as it made its way toward the front of the chapel where the coffin lay. There were ten people in the room, maybe eleven. It was a glum ending to a glum affair.

And there, at the front of the chapel, stood the world’s two premier evolutionary biologists, brilliant men and silent rivals. “George took his Christianity too seriously,” said Mr. Apps, administering the ceremony on behalf of Garstin Funeral Directors in the absence of any family. “Sort of like Saint Paul,” Bill Hamilton whispered audibly under his breath, forcing John Maynard Smith to bite his lip. Then there was a silence. George Price had come over from America to crack the problem of altruism and uncovered something terrible. Now he was dead, the victim of his own hand.



From the dawn of time mankind has been contemplating virtue. It began with an act of trickery: “…then your eyes shall be opened,” the snake whispers to Eve in the Garden of Eden, coaxing her to eat of the fruit, “and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” But if judgment had replaced innocence by way of conniving, it didn’t take long before the hard questions arrived. Soon Cain rose up against his brother Abel, killing him to tame his envy. When the Lord came asking for Abel’s whereabouts, Cain answered: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was a question that would reverberate down the paths of history, becoming a haunting companion to humanity.

Then came Darwin.

The devout believed that morality was infused from above on the Sixth Day, religious skeptics that it had been born with philosophy. Now both would need to reexamine their timelines. “He who understands baboon,” the sage of evolution scribbled in a notebook, fore-shadowing what was to come, “would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

It was like confessing a murder. If, as the Scottish geologist James Hutton wrote toward the end of the eighteenth century, the earth was so ancient that “we find no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end” if, as Darwin himself argued, life on earth had evolved gradually, over eons, and, far from a ladder was more like a tree; if, just like muscles and feathers and claws and tails, behavior and the mind had been fashioned by natural selection—if all these were true, it would be inconceivable to continue believing that man’s defining feature was entirely unique. Whether life had been “originally breathed…into a few forms or one” by a Creator, as Darwin suggested, bowing before popular sentiment in the second edition of
The Origin of Species
after leaving him out of the first, virtue was no kind of human invention. More ancient than the Bible, still earlier than philosophy, morality was in fact older than Adam and Eve.

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 herd and hungry hunter? And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our acts of kindness? Does the virtue of amoebas and bats and gazelles and humans come from the very same place?

Altruism was a puzzle. It stood blatantly opposed to the fundamentals of the theory, an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side. If Nature was bloody in tooth and claw, a ruthless battle fiercely fought beneath the waves and through the skies and in the deserts and the jungles, how could a behavior that
fitness be selected? Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest: It was a conundrum the Darwinians would need to solve.

And so, starting with Darwin, the quest to solve the mystery of altruism began. It traveled far and wide: From the
in the southern seas to the court of the Russian czar Alexander II to the chambers of London’s Royal Society; from economics lecture halls at the University of Chicago to Senate hearing rooms on Capitol Hill; from Indiana prairies to Brazilian jungles to Jamaican mountains; from World War I trenches to anti–Vietnam War demonstrations, Marxist manifestos to Anglican proclamations, Quaker pacifications to Nazi heresies. Some argued that man was all of a part with Nature, bound by his animal beginnings, others that his intelligence rendered him uniquely transcendent. Some championed a return to origins, others the clawing climb of culture away from them, still others an uneasy marriage between the two. Emphatic and zealous, each saw the problem from where they were standing, sometimes translating prior commitments about what’s right and wrong directly onto nature. And so the quest remained far from complete. As we shall see, 150 years after Darwin it continues just as passionately.

But if 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. Some of the greatest scientific minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have grappled with the reality of true selflessness, from economics to biology, mathematics to philosophy, ecology to theology to genetics. In the face of the difficult odds posed by egoism, they found it far from an easy problem to crack. Then, like a phantom, came George.

As the thread of George Price’s life is woven into the tapestry of the search for the origins of altruism for the very first time,
the colors of the pageant suddenly change in radiance and hue. For using Darwin’s great insight to penetrate the mystery of kindness, Price came to see what had eluded many before him: Whereas others, in their hunt to fathom goodness, pitted different levels of organization of life against one another—the gene conniving 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. Unknown, untrained, in a foreign country, dejected and alone, he had caught a glimpse of the great canvas of natural selection and seen its splendor and broadness. And, writing the elegant equation, he literally came off the street, anonymous, to present it to the world.

But if George Price’s mathematics helped penetrate the origins of altruism deeper than ever before, his life itself was an attempt to answer its most burdensome and mystifying riddle. The level at which selection operates is a technical issue but bears heavily on a fundamental conundrum: If altruism evolved over time in nature, it surely must have served some utilitarian purpose, and if it serves an ulterior purpose it is never what it seems. Part of some natural metric, the purity of selflessness is undermined by the scourge of self-interest: What looks like sacrifice may in fact be the road to personal gain. And so, when it comes to us, a dreaded question arises: Beneath its evolutionary veneer, and despite the refinements of culture, does true selfless altruism exist? It’s a question every human since Adam and Eve has sought desperately to answer.

It is a question, too, that modern scientists tackled fearlessly. Whether they ever succeed entirely is doubtful: The problems science is equipped to answer, we shall see, are fundamentally of a different kind. George Price’s life, on the other hand, provides a precious and original counterpoint. From the depths of the Great Depression in New York City to Swinging London in the sixties, and from the glamour of secrecy at the Manhattan Project to the humiliation of homelessness off Soho Square, it traces a dramatic trajectory. From militant atheism to religious ecstasy; from comfort and respectability to self-imposed vagrancy; from selfishness to selflessness and finally to the depths of anguish and suicide—George Price’s life, like the grander tale of attempts to crack the mystery of altruism, is a powerful reminder of the inescapable duel between biological necessity and the transcendence of the human spirit. But if ultimately, just like science, it too fails to provide a full answer to the mystery of kindness, it illuminates, more clearly than ever before, the meaning of the mystery.



This is the timeless story of the search for the origins of kindness. It is a tale of animal and man, of nature and politics, of true goodness and deceptive appearances. Its characters are many and colorful: the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin; the “Devil’s disciple” Thomas Henry Huxley; the Hungarian-born mathematical wizard and father of game theory, John von Neumann; the English polymath and “last man to know all there is to know” J. B. S. Haldane; the “Orwellian” psychologist B. F. Skinner; the father of information theory, Claude Shannon; “the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin,” Bill Hamilton; John D. Rockefeller, Vladimir Ilych Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, the Beatles, and many more.

But more than a personal history of men, this is also a collective chronicle of humanity. From its lowly beginnings in some primordial soup through slime mold to ant to antlered deer to inquisitive monkey, the story of the search for goodness climbs all the way from the oceans and the jungles to titanic twentieth-century battles between systems of government and economics. From the promise of democracy and the free market to communism and the hope of equality, and from the liberations and perils of individualism to the inebriation of nationalism and unity, the quest to crack the altruism code traces an epic voyage. From baboons fighting in trees, to the Russian Revolution, to Nazi Germany, to the atom bomb, to twenty-first-century neurogenetics and brain imaging today, it is mankind’s soaring, Sisyphean journey to return to the paradise of the Garden of Eden.

And it is also the tragic tale of the tortured soul of one man, George Robert Price, the hitherto missing thread now woven into the tapestry of the greater story. More than any other person, Price came closest to seeing how sacrifice could be born of the ruthless cull of evolution, even if his penetrating mathematics could never tell him if selflessness was ever truly genuine and pure. Unable to find the answer to this greatest of human conundrums in science, he went looking for it in other places. What he found is a lesson to all those who came before and after him.

And perhaps, in some small sense, it is also an answer to Cain.

BOOK: The Price of Altruism
9.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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