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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"I stayed up all night reading...fascinating! Harman proves that the lives of some modern scientists are as ecstatic, tormented, and filled with strange visions as those of medieval saints." - SYLVIA NASAR, author of A Beautiful Mind" "A brilliant biography of a brilliant man. A powerful page-turner that vividly renders his obsessive absorption with the poles of

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"I stayed up all night reading...fascinating! Harman proves that the lives of some modern scientists are as ecstatic, tormented, and filled with strange visions as those of medieval saints." - SYLVIA NASAR, author of A Beautiful Mind" "A brilliant biography of a brilliant man. A powerful page-turner that vividly renders his obsessive absorption with the poles of cooperation and competition in nature. Harman lucidly sets Price in conversation with the shaping progenitors and ideas of modern evolutionary science, from game theory to genetic selection, while movingly recounting the tragedy of his self-destructive personal life."---DANIEL J. KEVLES, author of In the Name of Eugenics and The Baltimore Case" "One of the many merits of Oren Harman's uncommonly stimulating book is that it never loses its philosophical bearings. His account of the search for goodness in nature---and of George Price, his unforgettable protagonist---is almost cinematically satisfying. Harman has a rare gift for bringing ideas and thinkers to life." - LEON WIESELTIER, literary editor of the New Republic and author of Kaddish" "A terrific book, at once scholarly and impossible to put down." -PETER GODFREY-SMITH, author of Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection" "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."---NOAH FELDMAN, author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of Roosevelt's Great Justices" "One of the great mysteries of nature is how evolution, as it selects for survival of the fittest, could possibly leave any room at all for altruism. In this remarkable book, Oren Harman tracks George Price, an awkward, disturbed, and profoundly saint-like scientist, as he cracks this fundamental biological problem. 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."---Peter Galison, author of Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps" "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" "The Price of Altruism tells for the first time the moving story of the eccentric American genius George Price, as he strives to answer evolution's greatest riddle. Different and outrageously driven to succeed, Price was a gifted polymath with a Zelig-like ability to be present at the making of much of the twentieth century's seminal science. But it was in tackling Darwin's great mystery where he finally made his most dramatic discovery. Ultimately a homeless recluse, he had caught a glimpse of a deep and scary truth about humanity." "Within these pages, the story of Price's life is intricately woven into the sweeping are of modern politics and science: from the Beagle in the southern seas to the court of the Russian czar to the chambers of London's Royal Society, from World War I trenches to Vietnam demonstrations, Marxist manifestos to Nazi heresies. The scientific quest to fathom the mysteries of altruism invites to the stage sneaky amoebas and Russian anarchists, sentry gazelles and tyrannical despots, brain imaging, game theory, the Bomb, and the Holy Bible. Featuring some of the most brilliant minds of the modern age, it is the continuing and soaring tale of man's search for the origins of kindness" An original and penetrating picture of twentieth-century thought, The Price of Altruism is also a deeply personal journey. From the heights of the Manhattan Project to the inspired, soul-shaking 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

George Price was a remarkable man who came to judge his own life a failure, and had many reasons to do so. The legacy that may or may not buoy up that judgment consists of a handful of obscure mathematical papers that purport to make contributions to evolutionary biology. Price himself doubted their value, and biologists still use his work, but there remains an ambivalence about its meaning and significance. In The Price of Altruism, Oren Harman tells the story of evolutionary debates over altruism versus selfishness from The Origin of Species to the present day, and interweaves it with biographical material. Both strands are rich and complex, and their interplay creates a stirring book that will reward many readers with an intelligent interest in altruism.

George Price was an enigmatic figure in life, and remains so 25 years after his suicide in London. An American, he was involved in the Manhattan Project and worked for IBM, and more than once he claimed to have invented or, better, to be on track to invent, a grand new machine. One example was his "Design Machine," in which one could specify any three-dimensional shape, and it would produce an object with that shape. It would have been very useful for manufacturing parts, and such a device may or may not exist today, but in 1956 it was far beyond the realm of the feasible. George publicised his "invention," and appeared heroically in November of that year in Fortune magazine. He also contacted many famous figures, not hesitating to use his considerable intellectual and rhetorical skills to interest Hubert Humphrey in his ideas about winning the Cold War, and to walk into B. F. Skinner's lab and discuss "Teaching Machines" with him. Thus he started on his life as an uncertain mixture of visionary and charlatan-showman, of profound thinker and intellectual gadfly and self-publicist, which Harman documents very engagingly.

The reader of this book meets Prince Kropotkin, J. B. S. Haldane, John von Neumann, R. A. Fisher, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, C. A. B. Smith, and many more characters relevant to the development of evolutionary biology. A reasonably knowledgeable reader will have heard of these people, but not know much about most of them, and Harman gives very entertaining accounts. (There are inaccuracies, however; for example, W. D. Hamilton did not have a research post at Silwood Park in the 1960s, but a university lectureship. Indeed, the undergraduates complained each year about his teaching of population genetics, and appealed for marks from that course not to count towards their degree results.)

While in complaining mode, I may as well get off my chest irritation with the bizarre and distracting convention adopted in the book of following a colon with an upper-case letter, as though it were the beginning of a new sentence. And the more entertaining of the typos include a "compliment of chromosomes" and someone having "too much on their palate." The endnotes refer to manuscript sources such as GPP (George Price Papers), but to find what GPP means, it turns out the reader must find the first reference to that source in the endnotes. Nor is it obvious where to find these manuscript sources, so the academic good intentions of the endnotes are not fully carried through.

But the central claim to interest of George Price, in connection to altruism, is the famous "Price Equation." I forebear to repeat it here in any of its many forms, but I need to set the scene by saying that (a simple form of) the Price Equation shows how a change in gene frequency from one generation to the next can be understood in terms of statistical associations across individuals in the parental generation, between a number of quantities: each individual's gene frequency, the number of gametes each individual succeeds in contributing to making offspring, and the difference in gene frequency of those successful gametes from the individual's own gene frequency. The Price Equation is remarkable in that it applies to sexual, asexual, and mixed populations, to cases with overdominance and epistasis, to arbitrary mating systems, and to haploidy, diploidy and to mixed ploidies too.

The equation applies to selection of all traits, and allows some very neat analytic manipulations. The book focuses on altruism because social traits were the first application, in Hamilton's 1970 paper, and because it is currently used in the yawningly long-lasting debate on group selection. However, it is also useful in studying the sex ratio, and in my own current research, for capturing selection on an arbitrary trait when discussing the link between gene frequencies and fitness optimisation.

Harman explains the equation in the text and in an appendix, but not very sharply, and the result is probably satisfactory for the non-technical reader interested in the personal side of the story; but it will frustrate and disappoint a biologist or mathematician who wants to understand the central scientific issue. This vagueness is not accidental. Price himself was ambivalent about the value of this contribution, and biologists working today with the Price Equation do have different understandings of it. Price enjoyed teasing Bill Hamilton with the implications of his work, but seemed to have doubts about whether what we now call the Price Equation belonged to his profound or charlatan side. There is a certain wonderment in imagining Price having employed his unquestioned intelligence and inter-personal skills to have written his papers to run rings around succeeding generations of biologists.

I myself believe there is indeed a profound value in the Price Equation, but let's look first at a positive and negative aspect that Harman neglected. On the positive side, the Price Equation deals with individuals and not, as most population genetic formalisms, with genes or genotypes. This chimes with how most biologists think conceptually about animal behaviour and design, and also with how most field biologists conduct their research. (It is not quite true, but almost, that there is no biologically interesting trait of which the genetics is known, so the emphasis on individuals is usually necessary as well as desirable.)

The negative side, neglected by Harman and not mentioned by Price, is dynamic insufficiency. Most population geneticists feel a methodological obligation to work with systems that model a population right through from one generation to the next, and in such a way that the model can pick up and repeat itself so that successive generations unfold. The Price Equation requires detailed knowledge of the parental generation, but then produces only a population average for the offspringgeneration, so that there is insufficient information to "crank the handle."

This dynamic insufficiency is the precise cost paid for the vast generality, and so useful applications of the Price Equation are likely to be found where the generality is really important and the dynamic insufficiency acceptable. It is true that the assumptions of the Price Equation are themselves dynamically insufficient, but even strong advocates of the Price Equation differ on whether it can become dynamically sufficient if enough further assumptions are made.

In conclusion, The Price of Altruism is a very readable and entertaining popular book, with flatteringly academic-like qualities. It ranges widely, and if there is some uncertainty in the book's resolution of central issues, that is at least partly because the Price Equation is still at the centre of continuing, sometimes fierce debates in biology. I'd like to think that a new edition in ten years' time could have a coda with settled answers to questions of altruism and selfishness, but that may be too optimistic.

--Alan Grafen

Alan Grafen is Professor of Theoretical Biology at the University of Oxford, and a keen user of the Price Equation since 1983.

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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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