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

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

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by Oren Harman
     
 

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The moving tale of one man's quest to crack the mystery of altruism, an evolutionary enigma that has haunted scientists since Darwin.
Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest?
Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man

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Overview

The moving tale of one man's quest to crack the mystery of altruism, an evolutionary enigma that has haunted scientists since Darwin.
Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest?
Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man laying down his life for a stranger, evolution has yielded a goodness that in theory should never be.
Set against the sweeping tale of 150 years of scientific attempts to explain kindness, The Price of Altruism tells for the first time the moving story of the eccentric American genius George Price (1922–1975), as he strives to answer evolution's greatest riddle. An original and penetrating picture of twentieth century thought, it is also a deeply personal journey. From the heights of the Manhattan Project to the inspired equation that explains altruism to the depths of homelessness and despair, Price's life embodies the paradoxes of Darwin’s enigma. His tragic suicide in a squatter’s flat, among the vagabonds to whom he gave all his possessions, provides the ultimate contemplation on the possibility of genuine benevolence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With his new book, Harman (The Man Who Invented the Chromosome) examines Price, a scientist and author whose promising life ended in self- destruction. Harman didn’t set out to write a straightforward biography, but rather a history of Price’s lifelong quest to understand evolution and the origins of altruism; along those lines the author includes the life and work of “Orwellian” psychologist B.F. Skinner, J.B.S. Haldane, and “the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin,” Bill Hamilton, who would become a close colleague of Price’s. But it’s Price’s tale that grounds Harman’s book. Part One focuses on the man’s early life in Minneapolis, his marriage and divorce to Julia Madigan, with whom he had two daughters, and his later life in New York City, where he held countless jobs as he tried to get published. In November 1967 Price moved to London, determined to “crack the problem of altruism,” and Part Two picks up there, with his conversion to Christianity, after which he gave away his possessions and dedicated himself to helping London’s homeless, until he eventually joined their ranks. In 1975, just after Christmas, he took his own life. Harman has given voice to the professional contributions and personal struggles of a man whose body lies today in an unmarked grave in North London. (June)
The Big Issue
“Remarkable... fascinating.”
The Economist
“Ever since Charles Darwin had published his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists had wondered whether it can explain the existence of altruism. Price wanted to describe mathematically how a genetic disposition to altruism could evolve. As Mr. Harman so vividly describes, Price ultimately became one of the vagabonds he set out to save.”
Sunday Times [UK]
“[A] rich and vigorous survey of the controversy over altruism and its evolutionary role, stretching from the 19th century to now.”
Sam Leith - The Spectator
“Fascinating.... Important... full of complex and deeply interesting ideas.”
Brian Appleyard - Literary Review
“Brilliant... A great story.”
Library Journal
Rarely can a work of popular science be read at so many levels—even the title contains a double entendre. The problem of why altruism exists among self-interested individuals competing against each other according to natural selection is among the most complex of Darwinian theory. Harman (The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darlington) reveals George Price as a scientific outsider who nonetheless discovered the mathematical formula that described both individual and group covariance. Although he worked on some of the major scientific undertakings of his day, his youthful ego and bravado kept him on the fringes. Later in life, after a profound religious conversion, he dedicated his life to altruism in a different way—by tending to the homeless and downtrodden. His tragic suicide was, perhaps, the price of his pursuit. VERDICT A masterfully told story that edifies while it engages, this book is in the same class as Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind and could be as popular. Readers who enjoy this may also be interested in The Compassionate Instinct, edited by Dacher Keltner and others.—Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Coll., Olympia, WA
Kirkus Reviews
The strange story of an oddball scientist who developed a mathematical approach to understanding altruism. By the end of his life, George Price (1922-75), a University of Chicago doctorate in chemistry and "forgotten American genius," was homeless in London, writes Harman (Science, Technology, and Society/Bar Ilan Univ., Israel; The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darling, 2004). Price had worked as a chemist, economist, writer, mathematician, psychologist and physiologist, pursuing new ideas and theories for such organizations as the Manhattan Project, IBM and Bell Labs. As an independent scientist, he penetrated the origins of altruism deeper than ever before. In this stylish, demanding biography, the author draws on papers and interviews to re-create the personal and scientific life of this quirky, unorthodox loner. Harman places Price in the tradition of scientists like Darwin, T.H. Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, B.F. Skinner and W.D. Hamilton, who have studied the origins of human kindness. In particular, Price sought to learn whether, in the face of self-interested behavior, true selfless altruism exists. His "Price equation," which specifies "the exact conditions under which the good of the group would upstage the good of the individual," remains a crucial tool for understanding aspects of evolution. (Harman's explication of the equation-in both text and appendices-may elude lay readers.) By 1970, a recent convert from atheism to Christianity, Price was pursuing the life of a true altruist, giving all his possessions to the poor and trying to rescue the homeless. But he failed to change the lives of the homeless, and Price, long depressive, sank further into despair and eventually committed suicide. Harman makes a strong case for the maverick scientist's brilliance, noting that Hamilton called Price an intellectual Sherlock Holmes. He also demonstrates how Price's insights overwhelmed many, from his teachers and classmates at New York's Stuyvesant High School to a Nature editor who once rejected a submission with the comment, "It is too hard to understand."An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science. Author tour to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. Agent: Sarah Chalfant/The Wylie Agency
Frans de Waal
Extremely well researched and written with great love of the subject…This is a book for anyone interested in the question, first posed by Darwin himself, of how we ended up with so much kindness in a natural world customarily depicted as "red in tooth and claw." Price struggled with it on an intensely personal level. His story is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal.
—The New York Times
Reader's Digest
“Would make a great film (probably starring Matt Damon).”
New Scientist
The Price of Altruism puts Price's work into a wide scientific and social context, showing real insight into its importance and genuine sympathy for the tale of his life.— Steve Jones
The New York Times Book Review
[E]nthralling.... Extremely well researched and written with great love of the subject, The Price of Altruism reveals all sorts of personal details of momentous events in the history of science.... This is a book for anyone interested in the question, first posed by Darwin himself, of how we ended up with so much kindness in a natural world customarily depicted as 'red in tooth and claw.' Price struggled with it on an intensely personal level. His story is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal.— Frans de Waal
Steve Jones - New Scientist
“The Price of Altruism puts Price's work into a wide scientific and social context, showing real insight into its importance and genuine sympathy for the tale of his life.”
The Spectator
Fascinating.... Important... full of complex and deeply interesting ideas.— Sam Leith
Literary Review
Brilliant... A great story.— Brian Appleyard
Frans de Waal - The New York Times Book Review
“[E]nthralling.... Extremely well researched and written with great love of the subject, The Price of Altruism reveals all sorts of personal details of momentous events in the history of science.... This is a book for anyone interested in the question, first posed by Darwin himself, of how we ended up with so much kindness in a natural world customarily depicted as 'red in tooth and claw.' Price struggled with it on an intensely personal level. His story is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal.”
Janet Browne
“Oren Harman's compelling new book explores one of the key questions of our era—what are the origins of altruism? A little known mathematician lies at the heart of the story. George Price recognized that acts of kindness and self-sacrifice stood blatantly opposed to most of the principles of modern Darwinism. Harman's wide-ranging intellectual quest brings this shy, anguished, and fascinating man alive with style and passion, and reminds us of the powerful emotions that can fuel great scientific achievement.”
Noah Feldman
“This book is a stunning tour de force. The puzzle of altruism is revealed as it would be in a thriller, with twists and turns and surprises almost until the end.”
Leon Wieseltier
“Uncommonly brilliant and deeply stimulating... almost cinematically satisfying. Harman has a rare gift for bringing ideas and thinkers to life.”
Sylvia Nasar
“I stayed up a good part of the night reading... fascinating!”
Peter Godfrey-Smith
“A terrific book, at once scholarly and impossible to put down.”
Daniel Kevles
“A brilliant biography of a brilliant man. A powerful page-turner that vividly renders the obsessive absorption with the poles of cooperation and competition in nature.”
Peter Galison
“In this remarkable book, Oren Harman tracks George Price, an awkward, disturbed, and profoundly, almost saintly scientist.... It is an astonishing story at every level, from the destitute wanderings and genial interventions of Price to a revealing account of how modern evolutionary biology took its contemporary form.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393067781
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
06/07/2010
Pages:
464
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Oren Harman, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University and a professor of the history of science. He is the author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome, a documentary film maker, and a frequent contributor to The New Republic. He lives in Tel Aviv and New York.

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