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

Bodley Head, pp.451, 20

‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’ Oren Harman uses this quote from Immanuel Kant to open one of the chapters of The Price of Altruism, and it’s an observation that — after the steady reflection on moral law that Harman’s book invites and encourages — only seems more true by the end.

‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’ Oren Harman uses this quote from Immanuel Kant to open one of the chapters of The Price of Altruism, and it’s an observation that — after the steady reflection on moral law that Harman’s book invites and encourages — only seems more true by the end.

The title is a slightly cheesy three-way pun. This is the biography of a groundbreaking American theorist of altruism, George Price, who died in 1975 and lies in an unmarked and unvisited grave in St Pancras Cemetery in London. It is an account of the terrible toll his personal dedication to goodness took on him. And it also refers to the way in which loving thy neighbour can be coldly costed in terms of genetic advantage.  

At its core is the startling degree to which purely mathematical models are able to predict animal and even human behaviour: what Price will be remembered for is the formulation of an equation that accounts for altruism in terms of natural selection. So as well as being a biography, Harman’s book serves as an effective primer on the history of population genetics and its relation to theories of morality.

The basic question is: why, if natural selection makes paramount the survival of your own genes, do we see instances throughout nature of animals forgoing advantage for the good of family, tribe or even apparent strangers. How can your ‘fitness’ be enhanced by sharing your resources or even sacrificing your life?

Nature poses the question passim. As Harman writes:

The sweeping tale of attempts at an ‘altruism code’ invites to the stage spitting tadpoles and ‘free-riding’ cuckoos; sacrificing slime molds, naked blind mole rats, horn-locked oryxes, dung flies, rabbit viruses, and the overabused stepchildren of man.

Harman’s hero, George Price, was a Zelig-like figure. Having grown up in Depression-era New York, and studied chemistry at the University of Chicago, he worked at the fringes of the Manhattan Project, and was involved in the electrical engineering work that underlay the development of solid-state electronics. He researched the way fluorescence microscopy could be used to diagnose cancerous tissue, and he had an idea that — though he was never able to profit from a patent — essentially anticipated the technology we now call Computer-Aided Design.

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But his personal life was a mess. He married young and ill-advisedly (his wife was Roman Catholic, he a militant atheist), fled the marriage, and was thereafter a lousy father to his two daughters. And his professional life was likewise rackety. As a young man he attracted attention when he publicly challenged the proponents of ESP to produce a single experiment whose acceptance did not finally rely on ‘a basis of faith in human honesty’, but his crusade for scepticism fizzled out.

Always on the lookout for the big idea that would make his name, he lacked the application to see most of them through. He left a trail of promising projects half finished, and got by on editing work and science journalism.

But when he moved to London in 1967, he turned to genetics and started to make headway. He produced a clever game-theoretical argument to explain why deer have such silly looking antlers: they are like that precisely because they make it very difficult for deer to fight to the death; and by modelling fights, he demonstrated how limited combat can produce the maximal advantage.  

Then he went on to formulate this amazing kindness equation. Headway had been made on kin altruism: if, on average, half of your 40 children share a given gene with you, throwing yourself into the jaws of the sabre-tooth tiger to ensure their survival makes perfect sense from the gene’s-eye point of view.

Price’s great insight was to bring ‘covariance’ into the picture: to formulate an equation that could explain, effectively, how altruistic behaviours might be selected among individuals that did not share blood. So amazing was his equation that when he walked in off the street and showed it to the chair of ‘arguably the world’s greatest department of human genetics’ at UCL, he walked out less than two hours later having been allocated his own office. Then he went off the rails.

What’s odd is that here is a man who hit on an equation that elegantly, and with maximum generality, described how the principle of natural selection alone could account for such seemingly ineffable moral traits as altruism and its obverse, spite.

He produced, in other words, an argument that went some way to knocking God out of the picture in favour of the dispassionate working of chance; but almost at that very instant — astonished by a train of coincidences he thought too improbable to be coincidences — he converted to Christianity.

He declared himself a ‘slave’ of God — who appeared to speak to him pretty directly. He claimed to have discovered the true meaning of ‘666’, to have established Jesus’ matrilineal descent, deduced that Holy Week was actually 12 days long and Easter celebrated on the wrong day, and that the Gospels contained a ‘concealment cipher . . . that has remained largely unread for 18+ centuries’. He even founded a British chapter of the C. S. Lewis Society. For someone who was so singular when sane, he went mad in a very run-of-the-mill way.

Then he experienced a second conversion — one based not on logic but on love — and did everything he could to become a saint: giving away all his possessions, taking in a series of homeless and violent alcoholics before becoming homeless himself, roaming in an increasing state of disrepair through the shelters and squats of London, only stopping into UCL occasionally to pick up his post.

He showed signs of schizophrenia, and stopped taking his thyroid medicine. But he was kinder and nicer than the old George. A bit depressing to think that the only way to escape the cold mathematics of genetic advantage, and be good for the sake of being good, might be to lose one’s marbles. His suicide brings the tale to a still more melancholy end.

This is a fascinating story, and an important one, though it should be said it is sometimes hard to follow in the telling. Harman whizzes between the narrative moment and burdensomely inserted paragraphs of back-story, and he’s one of those popular science writers who pours on colour more thickly than he does precisely. A newborn baby is described, bizarrely, as being ‘as tiny as a pink grain of rice’; ‘his conviction resounded through the halls of the Department of Biology at Chicago like the din of a sea of termites marching up a woodland hill’; and, in a metaphor combining ambitious fusion cuisine with the cabinet-maker’s art:

Peter would come to despise the particular flavour of Oriental despotism baked in the juices of Prussian militarism and overlaid with a foreign veneer of French culture.  

At the other end of things, the equations are somewhat underexplained. If you speak maths, covariance equations are a breeze; but if, like me, you don’t, you will want to know why that z has a bar over it and what the capital delta’s all about. Wikipedia steps in — indicating to the pilgrim that th
e bar indicates a mean and the delta a rate of variance — but a bit more hand-holding from the author would have been nice.

This, then, is a challenging book, and one that doesn’t always help the reader along. But it is full of complex and deeply interesting ideas, as well — finally — as being rather moving. Its difficulty is a price worth paying.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Charity, History, Humanity, Non-fiction, Philosophy, Society