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

Oren Harman
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Bonnie Shulman
, on

If you read the blurb on this book, you might think it’s just another story of a crazy mathematician/scientist — a tragic story about a brilliant man who was mentally unbalanced and committed suicide (in a pretty gruesome manner). But this is not what this book is about.

Yes, it’s a biography of the genius George Price, trained as a physical chemist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary biology, in particular the Price Equation, a generalization of W. D. Hamilton’s theory of kin selection. But as the clever pun in the title indicates, George’s life history is intricately interwoven with the history of the search for a scientific explanation of the evolution of altruism. In linking these two tales, the author, Oren Harman (a historian of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel), has an even more ambitious project in mind: to demonstrate that “to understand the science we should always look at more than just the science.” [p. 356, italics in original.]

Harman also draws a moral lesson from the story he tells: “One of the pressing challenges of our times is defining the boundary between questions that can be addressed meaningfully by science and those that are outside its purview.” [p. 356.] The acrimonious debate between creationists who contest the “theory” of evolution, and materialists who scorn the “superstitious beliefs” of religion is but one manifestation of a deep-seated confusion about the proper domain of spiritual and scientific pursuits. While science might profitably investigate questions about the origin of life, it can never answer questions about its meaning.

The mystery of altruism is just this: if nature “selects” those genes or behaviors that contribute most to fitness, how could altruism — the sacrifice of one’s self for the good of others — evolve? The journey Harman takes us on is breathtaking in both its breadth and depth. The book is a real page-turner, and like any good mystery novel, there are many unexpected twists and turns. But, you may ask, what is the relevance of all this to mathematics and mathematicians?

Well, George’s three main contributions to evolutionary biology are all mathematical: the Price Equation; the development (along with John Maynard Smith) of a key concept in evolutionary game theory, the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy; and a reworking of Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection. In three appendices, some of the technical details of these ideas are fleshed out. It was through his mathematics that George Price helped crack the riddle of altruism (just one application of the Price Equation). This case study of the way mathematics can illuminate scientific questions is by itself worth the “price” of admission.

But there is more here to pique the interest of mathematicians. The parallels between the life and work of George Price and that other iconic “crazy mathematician” John Nash, are also instructive. Fundamentally they were addressing the same problem, the conflict between individual and group interests, Each used mathematics to explore the tension between selfishness and the transcendence of the human spirit. Though their mental illnesses differed, one could say they both “lost their minds” in the process of plumbing the depths of human nature.

Price took his mathematics very seriously. So seriously that he radically changed his life — converting from an atheist to a devout Christian, serving the homeless, giving away his possessions, and living (and eventually dying) in a dilapidated “squat” in London. He was trying to “beat the odds” and prove by his own life that the grim determinism of his mathematical equation could be transcended by the human spirit — that pure kindness untainted by selfishness was possible. According to Harman, the realization that unadulterated selflessness might in fact not be possible was a factor in George’s decision to end his own life.

Price’s life and scientific work were inextricably linked. His personal quest to understand the origins of kindness led to a mathematical equation that encapsulates some fundamental truths about humanity. So, for me, as significant as the mathematical and scientific legacy of George Price, are the lessons his life holds for understanding ourselves. “Often, it is people different from the rest who are able to see deep truths that relate to all of us.” [From transcript of interview with Oren Harman on PRI’s The World July 14, 2010.]

Bonnie Shulman is associate professor of mathematics at Bates College in Lewiston, ME. Her own personal quest to explore the origins of game theory and the mathematicians and scientists who created it, started with a study of Karl Menger’s early attempts to mathematize moral decision-making in interwar Vienna. She progressed through the pathbreaking work of von Neumann and Morgenstern, to evolutionary game theory, which led her to a fascination with the life and work of George Price. The book reviewed above is the book she wishes she could have written.

The table of contents is not available.