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

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 31
Year: 2011
Date: Forthcoming
Reviewer: Stephen Pruett-Jones
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Work under Review
Title: The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness
Author(s): Oren Harman
New York: WW Norton, 2010.

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker “Practice Random Acts of Kindness”? I was thinking about that bumper sticker as I began to write this review. A quick Google search revealed that there are, in fact, more than 300 different bumper stickers extolling the virtues of kindness or encouraging us to practice it. An act of kindness seems so simple. The concept of kindness (or altruism), however, is anything but simple. Altruism occurs in many non-human species; it ranges from helping (aid-giving) behavior, to simple or complex forms of cooperation, to the ultimate form of the evolution of sterile castes of individuals. Whether we think only about humans, or about all animals in general, the concept of altruism demands behavioral description (its form, and knowledge of who acts kindly towards whom), ecological understanding (under what conditions does it occur?), and most importantly an evolutionary explanation (why did it evolve?).

Formal thinking about the evolution of altruism began in earnest once Charles Darwin articulated the fact of evolution and proposed the theory of natural selection to account for it. Since then, there has been a rich tapestry of thought, empirical observation, and mathematical theory devoted to understanding altruism and its evolution. In The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, the author, Oren Harman, a professor of science, technology, and society at Bar Ilan University in Israel, takes us chronologically through this history, focusing primarily on George Price, but also detailing the lives and contributions of the other scientists contributing to the debate and theory about altruism. That list includes some of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the last century, including Ronald Fisher, JBS Haldane, Sewall Wright, John Maynard Smith, and Bill Hamilton.

As Harman details, the history of thinking about altruism ultimately converged on the fundamental question of whether there is a single, unifying explanation for the evolution of altruism in all species, ourselves included. As it turns out, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because mathematical models that explain the evolution of altruism, and which have been shown to be very robust in their explanatory power, can be modified to include cases where individuals are or are not related. No, simply because there is not just one route to altruism and new models were needed to account for these alternative evolutionary pathways.

This book is divided into two parts. Part 1, comprising 8 chapters (191 pages) alternates between chapters (chapters 2, 4, 6, 8) on George Price’s early life, education, and scientific endeavors, and chapters (1, 3, 5, 7) on either historical scientists who contributed to the thought about altruism, or contemporaries with Price who interacted with him either directly or indirectly. These alternating background chapters lay the foundation, both historical and scientific, for a reader to understand the state of the field at the time that Price entered evolutionary biology.

Part II comprises six chapters and an epilogue (171 pages) that details George Price’s life from 1967 until his suicide in 1975. This is the unfortunately short period of Price’s life when he was living in England, devoted initially to evolutionary biology and understanding selection and altruism, and interacting with two biologists that would collaborate and to some degree facilitate Price’s contributions to the study of altruism, Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. That contribution was the expansion of an equation, the covariance equation, to account for selection at different levels or organization. This was important in both Bill Hamilton’s theoretical development of the rules for the evolution of altruism (known as Hamilton’s Rule) but also later in the field of quantitative genetics and methods of quantifying selection.

George Price’s contributions to thinking about evolution and altruism were novel, creative, and critical in the overall development of theory in this field but by themselves do not, in all reality, form the basis for an entire book about his life. What makes that a suitable subject for a book is his complex, and ultimately tragic life. Price graduated from high school in 1940 as a brilliant student with a fellowship to attend college. He took this fellowship first to Harvard and then to the University of Chicago where he graduated as a star student in chemistry in 1943. He remained at the University of Chicago for his PhD in chemistry and helped develop a reliable test to measure levels of uranium in human blood samples (work associated with the Manhattan Project there). After completing his PhD, Price returned to Harvard briefly as an instructor in chemistry, and then held a series of positions, at Bell Labs to work on the chemistry of transistors, in Minnesota to work on fluorescence chemistry and cancer biology, and then with IBM working on early CAD (computer-aided design) concepts. Price’s personal life seemed at first to be stable, but it eventually began to unravel and was complicated by a thyroid disease that led to a botched operation. In 1967 Price made a complete break with his life at the time and moved to England to devote his life to his new focus on evolutionary biology. It was here that he ultimately came into contact with Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith and his covariance equation was written. It was also in England that he changed his life one last time. He developed a strong belief in Christianity, something he had been vocally opposed to all of his previous life, abandoned all worldly possessions, and began to devote his life to helping the homeless and people in his neighborhood.

By the accounts of everyone who knew him well and worked with him, George Price was a genius. He also, unfortunately, had psychological and behavioral problems. Whether these were due to undiagnosed conditions such as autism, or were due to other causes, no one knows. It is likely that in the end, his depression was made worse by his not taking medications for his thyroid condition. Price made brilliant contributions during his life to chemistry, medicine, engineering, and evolutionary biology, ultimately culminating in him devoting his life to the subject that appeared to consume him in the end, true altruism. Price also led a tragic life that makes for a fascinating and compelling story. Brilliance is a gift, but it often appears to come with a very high cost.

Anyone interested in evolutionary biology or the history of science will enjoy and appreciate this book. Science is a social process, and understanding the complex lives of those involved in that endeavor help us better understand ourselves and, in this case, the evolutionary process leading to behaviors such as altruism. The next time you see one of the bumper stickers, think about the message, but also about evolution and George Price.

About the Author(s): 

Stephen Pruett-Jones
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago
1101 East 57th St.
Chicago IL 60637

Stephen Pruett-Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His research concerns sexual selection and the evolution of social behavior.

Library Resource Type: