"Enthralling." Frans de Waal, New York Times Book Review
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.
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.
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness 4 out of 5based on
Narboink on LibraryThing
More than 1 year ago
This is an intriguing biography of George Price, a little-known population geneticist, interwoven with an intellectual history of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. While the story of Price's life is diverting and compelling in its own right, the real thrill of this book is that it unveils some very contemporary improvements in the science of group selection and, as the subtitle suggests, the origins of kindness. Oren Harmen does a great job picking through the advanced statistics and elements of game theory that led to Price's most substantial breakthrough, giving the reader a good commonsense understanding of how individual and group behaviors can both be perpetuated through evolutionarily stable strategies.Yes, Price did end his life after a rather spectacular descent into homelessness and futile ministrations to a community of destitute alcoholics, but the attempts that Harmen makes to link the body of Price's professional work to his personal life are a bit of a stretch. While there is an appealing symmetry to the study of altruism and the surrendering of one's autonomy to the idea of Jesus Christ, there seems to be little indication that Price's late-life fundamentalism and erratic behavior correlated meaningfully with his relatively passionless theorizing. What make it a good story is that it comes together in meaningful ways in the imagination of the reader, rather than in the life of the subject.
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