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Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness – Camden New Journal


He was the quiet American. A scruffy man who was sometimes seen with the homeless and the drunks. When he turned up dead in an abandoned house in Euston, no one had any idea who George Price was; an obscure ending for someone whose contributions to science have helped shape the way we think about what it means to be human.

Ever since Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection, in which the fittest dominate in combat and have the greatest procreative strength, biologists have wondered how to account for anomalies in the natural world: what of the vampire bat who shares blood with a less successful hunter, the neuter ant or drone bee, the deer whose antlers limit the fight to the death? How to explain nature when it is not simply out for itself, ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Tennyson has it – how to explain altruism? In a science where a single master narrative has prevailed for a century and a half this has been the main bone of contention. If the argument has been unusually heated, it’s because what’s at stake is of much more than scientific interest. The debates that fill these pages – about competition versus co-operation, selfishness over self-sacrifice, the interests of the individual against those of the group – could never be narrowly held in the sphere of science; they have inescapable political implication. “What was to be done?” Oren Harman wonders in his survey of the scientists caught in the battle: “If Nature was mankind’s moral compass…was civilization condemned to eternal cycles of bloodshed?” If competition was in our DNA shouldn’t we organise society accordingly?

Harman, an Israeli biologist and biographer, has written an energetic, if occasionally over-ramped tale that presents not only the science but the history and politics which produced it. His method is broadly dialectical, pairing opposing players. The first couple, T. H. Huxley and Prince Kropotkin, demonstrate the breadth of political difference (one a pillar of the British scientific establishment, the other a Russian anarchist) while showing how even among enemies the science was always co-operative, every new idea built upon the argument with others. The irony of this was not lost on the scientists involved (Fisher, Haldane, von Neumann, Allee, Maynard Smith and Hamilton), of whom one was a pacifist, one kept company with fascists, and two were members of the Communist Party.

The largest part of Harman’s story, however, is given over to the turbulent life of George Price. Born in New York in 1922, he was a product of the American Dream-turned-nightmare, with a family business that faltered in the Depression, a father who hid his Jewishness and died young, a mother who took to feeding the pigeons and talking to the dead. Some of the uncertainties that plagued Price in later life clearly grew among these rocky beginnings: he was drawn to Jews and yet hostile to them; an attempt at mainstream, picket-fence life soon unravelled and the man professionally preoccupied by kindness and kinship went for over twenty years without seeing his daughters. There are also suggestions that Price’s inability to react quite normally in social situations and his prodigious ability with numbers and systems were the result of undiagnosed autism.

George Price in New York, 1939

For a while he touched the hem of history, working on uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project, experimenting with fluorescence and radiation at Bell Labs, modelling optimization systems at IBM. But his interests were gadfly, veering from one discipline to another, one girlfriend to another, never settling. Struggling to make sense of his life, after a thyroid operation left him partially paralysed he finally took flight.

Price arrived in London in the winter of 1967, he had no job and no prospects but he determinedly pursued his various interests. Applying game theory to animal conflict he came up with an elegant equation advancing Bill Hamilton’s work on kin-selection. Improbably enough, he walked off the street into University College and brandishing the equation landed a position in the department of human genetics. His equation, however, left him unsatisfied because it showed that apparently selfless behaviour always masks self-interest. In search of a purer altruism he began a new experiment, this time in living, venturing into Soho to extend a hand to the down-and-outs, inviting them into his flat, giving away possessions; before long he, too, was homeless.

George Price in London, 1974

He drifted around, living in a number of squats around Tolmers Square at the back of Euston. In one of many fascinating digressions Harman describes the battle in this area between a property developer and the local community. Through it all Price remained on the sidelines: none of the participants was aware that the polite, frail American in their midst might have a contribution to make, that this was the man who had proved “the exact mathematical conditions under which the interest of the group trumps the interest of the individual.”

With his health failing, he wrote to relatives that he meant to draw back from the experiment in selflessness that others found so alarming and he, now debilitated, judged a failure. But for all his evident willpower, the man who had lived apart for most of his life found returning to the fold was beyond him. In January 1975, in a Drummond Street squat, George Price died after cutting his throat. He is buried in an unmarked grave in St Pancras cemetery

This review appeared as ‘The Evolution of Altruism’ in the Review section of Camden New Journal, Islington Tribune and West End Extra on 5.5.2011.

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