The Price of Altruism

By Razib Khan | July 13, 2010 11:58 am


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Sometimes in a narrative you have secondary characters who you want to revisit. What do to do after the story is complete? An convenient “work-around” to this problem is to find the story rewritten from the perspective of the secondary character. In broad strokes the picture is unchanged, but in the finer grained shadings different details come into sharper relief. Though the exterior action may be unaltered, it gains different context, and the interior motive may radically alter, as the nature of subjective perspective matters so greatly in the last instance. In many ways Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism reads to me like a narrative rewritten from the perspective of a character who was a supporting protagonist in other stories. George Price, almost a novelty act elsewhere, now becomes the primary point of view character.

I could almost say that Harman, a historian of science, has given us a novel from a “shared universe” of stories. That universe is the real world. The other stories are the lives of great scientists, and the plot consists of the working out of their ideas. In the acknowledgments Harman alludes to the wide range of works where fragments of George Price’s life filters through. I have read many of the mentioned works, The Darwin Wars, Defenders of the Truth, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land. In all of these George Price cuts a quixotic figure, mercurial, brilliant and exceedingly eccentric. His plain biography already peculiar. Price began his career as a chemist, shifted to journalism and became what we today would term a professional “skeptic,” then entered into a period of productivity as an evolutionary theorist of some major impact, and finally spent his last years attempting to live the life of a serious Christian who followed God’s commands to the best of his abilities. He died tragically, committing suicide in his early 50s in 1975, homeless, destitute, and serious ill.

Much of what I already know comes through the memories of William Hamilton in his collections of papers, titled Narrow Roads of Gene Land. In Narrow Roads of Gene Land Hamilton admits that he did not perceive in totality the implications of Price’s eponymous equation when he first encountered it (in particular, he did not initially comprehend that the two elements within the Price equation allowed for the possibility of group selection as you move up the nested hierarchies of organization and reassign the elements to ascending levels). In The Price of Altruism Oren Harman reiterates this reality, but, importantly he emphasizes that Price felt that it was Hamilton alone in all the world who had perceived the equation’s nature upon first encountering it. The back story, which is told in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, is that George Price had difficulty in getting his papers in this area published because the referees simply did not see the implications. Hamilton, perceiving the importance of Price’s ideas, connived to gain publication by making his own work conditional on the acceptance of Price’s paper (which he cited). As Hamilton already had a reputation the game worked.

The necessity of these strategies makes more sense in light of Price’s unconventional background and affect.  In evolutionary biology Price was self-taught, and he entered the field in large part because he was interested in the topic, and perceived that he was going to make some difference in the world. He arrived in London in the late 1960s, impressed people at the Galton Laboratory and managed to obtain a research grant and desk, and became an important stimulator of and collaborator with both William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, arguably Britain’s two most prominent theoretical evolutionary biologists at the time. Price’s relationship to John Maynard Smith is referenced in Hamilton’s own biography, as well as third person narratives such as The Darwin Wars and Defenders of the Truth, but The Price of Altruism fleshes out many of the details. While Price extended Hamilton’s original work on inclusive fitness, for Maynard Smith he served more as a prod and collaborator as they explored the intersection of game theory and biology which eventually led to the ideas outlined in Evolution and Theory of Games. The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist. Price’s last contribution to evolutionary biology was an explication of Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. This formalism has been the subject of so much deep analysis, such that I think Price’s interest in it prefigured his later stab at Biblical textual analysis!

The Price of Altruism is a biography of a scientist, so naturally there’s a great deal of science. The meat and heart of the work is George Price’s life trajectory, with all its travails (many) and triumphs (few, but lasting and of importance). Yet the story begins with an exploration of the lives and opinions of men who seem of a different age, Thomas Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Huxley and Kropotkin were archetypes, who anticipated two streams of evolutionary ecology and social theory which battled it out through the 20th century. Huxley was a man who saw nature as “red in tooth and claw,” the working out of amoral competitive forces, and human virtue as having emerged out and above nature, just as he had risen up from his working class origins to eminence. Kropotkin reflected a Russian viewpoint which saw cooperation as the norm, and competition as the deviation. For him virtue emerged from our natural tendencies. Lee Alan Dugatkin covers much of the same ground in The Altruism Equation. Great men who you meet elsewhere inevitably make cameo appearances in Harman’s narrative; R. A. Fisher, the brilliant cipher, J. B. S. Haldane, the hereditarian Marxist, and Sewall Wright, the American (also see The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics). The bright lights of Price’s generation also make prominent appearances; William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, their characters manifesting no great surprises, but also the schizophrenic genius Robert Trivers, with whom Price perhaps shares a great deal excepting his dark ending, as well as E. O. Wilson.

All of these individuals have an interest in evolutionary biology, but biology of a behavioral sort. Though molecular evolutionists such as Richard Lewontin and Motoo Kimura are references in The Price of Altruism, they’re ancillary to the thrust of the book’s central idea (though Lewontin seems to serve as a type, the brilliant scientist who saw the import of Price’s equation too late to engage in a productive exchange with George Price himself). Evolution, like theoretical physics, spans may domains of subject, from the aggregations of millions of individual life forms, to evolution of elements within individual genomes! The Price equation’s generality is such that it does speak to the phenomena which bubble just above the level of organizations of the substrate, DNA itself. But George Price’s focus was on higher, not lower, levels of organizations, human societies. Oren Harman makes this clear, for he brings to light Price’s correspondence with Paul Samuelson, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. Before Price left for London and began his collaboration with Hamilton and Maynard Smith on altruism, he fancied reconstructing the basis of 20th century economics. By the end of his life Price suggested that he was going to go back to this initial impulse, and attempted to renew his correspondence with Samuelson in the hopes of obtaining a research fellowship of some sort. Price also engaged with the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, though as with many of his encounters it seems that the two soured on each other, in part due to Price’s impolitic tendencies.

George Price’s aim was to explain human cooperation, altruism. In short, goodness. This is the domain of angels, but his analytical bent mean that he could not let the phenomenon lay. He had to break it down, reconstruct its fundamentals, and elaborate on how and why goodness, altruism, manifested itself in the world. From the details reported in The Price of Altruism I would have to admit that Price himself was a Janus-like figure, often being in a manifestly selfish fashion, abandoning his family to follow his intellectual bliss, and yet also radically altruistic, allowing himself to be exploited by the dregs of the London underclass near the end of his life because scripture told him so (or his reading of scripture). What I had previous read did not emphasize Price’s selfishness, his need to satisfy his own wants, and place his own elective priorities ahead of the mandatory ones which decency bound him to honor (e.g., supporting his wife and daughters). Harman has a rich catalog of George Price’s selfish actions and the small vendettas which wracked his soul. No saint was he. Much of what Harmon recounts was simply not evident from other sources. Perhaps in Hamilton’s case he wished to highlight the positive aspects of a good friend who had died tragically. More plausibly I suspect that Hamilton was simply not aware of the selfish sequence of acts which led George Price to the Galton Laboratory in the late 1960s. And it was during this period that George Price became a zealous Christian and a radical altruist. Hamilton’s perceptions may simply have been colored by the slice of Price’s life to which he was privy.

Oren Harman wonders at the end of the book if George Price may have been rather far along the asperger’s spectrum. If so, combined with his fierce intelligence, one is not surprised that Price exhibited a fixation on why and how humans behaved, and why and how it came to be that humans did not seem to be rational psychopaths. Though I do not know if, and honestly do not believe, that George Price was a rational psychopath, in The Price of Altruism Oren Harman paints a picture of a man with immediate urges and impulses, earthy hedonic priorities, and a strong tendency to discount the costs which his choices may have for those close to him. George Price was not the first man to not be a good father, but he was one who perhaps wondered why there were good fathers and bad fathers, those who followed their bliss despite the consequences to their progeny, and those who sacrificed so that their children could enjoy the comforts and pleasures which they elected to forgo. The science is well elucidated in works such as Unto Others, The Origins of Virtue and The Evolution of Cooperation. The Price of Altruism is rather a case study not of the theory of altruism, but of the concrete embodied human experience which eventually gave fruit to an important slice of the theory of altruism. From the small details of his day-t0-day actions, to the arc of his life, George Price played out some of the implications of his own intellectual edifice, both through contradiction and confirmation.

Recommended Reading: The Darwin Wars, The Evolutionists, A Reason for Everything, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Natural Selection and Social Theory, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, Defenders of the Truth, Unto Others and The Selfish Gene.

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I talked a bit about Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid here, and the collectivism of Russians here.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    You may be interested in a blog by, for and about sociopaths.

  • dan

    R, do you buy the idea that group selection theory has a significant impact in the world or is it not worth thinking about that much? It seems like it’s *possible* but doesn’t happen in any significant way in real life.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    1) depends on the taxa

    2) i think it is worth thinking about

    3) i am not sure if it will ever yield good clarity

    4) i think it is easier to imagine for cultural evolution. between group variancie can be really high in those cases….

  • dan

    really? i’m honestly really surprised to hear you say that. i thought for sure you’d be a hardliner. care to make a post on this for GNXP or have you already covered this? I think a wicked post on this might get net buzzing a bit fwiw;) It’s hard for me to even frame the idea in my mind so a post with examples would be pretty sweet. It’s hard to define “culture.” “Catholic” is cultural and “propensity for being religious” is genetic? You suggesting (I.e.) different tool usage between groups can lead to varying mutations? I’ve thought about it a bit and it’s hard to even give the idea parameters, etc.
    thanks a lot

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i could post on it later, or concisely explain why i’ve gone from a conventional indivdiual-selection person to one who is open to multi-levels. i’m not hardcore about it. i just think it’s not almost impossible. i can see why george williams et al. were very skeptical and wanted to avoid…it kind of turns behavioral ecology into psychology.

    re: culture. language. two given tribes will share most of their genetic variation. even if they totally hate each other, they’re going to kidnap women, which will result in gene flow. on the other hand, even if they speak intelligible dialects their accents can be discernible across the two villages. because of the way accents evolve women stolen across tribal boundaries are not necessarily going to change the accent nearly as much as genes.

  • dan

    ah, very interesting. i’m gonna remember that example and try to think of other ways it might apply in real life. very cool, thanks a lot!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    it’s best to have something you can’t fake. an accent is one thing. tatoos and body ornamentation are other things that are hard to fake in a pinch. good markers to tell you who to kill or not kill if you run into a random dude in the forest :-)

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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