A life both kind and strange

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

by Oren Harman Norton/Bodley Head: 2010. 464 pp. $27.95/£20 ISBN: 9780393067781

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The population geneticist George Price (1922–75) is an exception to the rule that scientists' lives make for dull reading. In The Price of Altruism, science historian Oren Harman lays bare the colour and pathos of Price's varied life, demonstrating that this irascible, unpredictable and self-centred man is worth a full-scale biography for his science as well as his psychopathology.

Price is best known today for his equation that extends William Hamilton's formulation of the genetic basis of kin selection — the tendency for individuals to foster and benefit from the reproduction of close relatives. Yet few evolutionary biologists know how altruism ultimately shaped Price's fate.


George Price in 1974, the year before his death.

Price was, as Harman puts it, a real-life Forrest Gump, present at important historical turning points — the atomic bomb, the transistor, the computer — but never at the centre. He obtained a chemistry degree and a PhD at the University of Chicago, Illinois, and worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. Afterwards, he drifted between academic and industrial jobs. He did some biomedical research, got on the bandwagon early for computers and transistors, and tried to salvage the theatre lighting company that his long-dead father had started. Having published articles on science in popular magazines, he fancied that his main career was science journalism.

Price drifted personally too. His marriage, which produced two daughters, broke up after seven years, and he never had another stable relationship. Nor were his religious beliefs consistent. Only late in his life did he find out that his father was Jewish. For many years he was violently against religion, but in 1970 he became obsessed with reading the Bible.

By then, he was living in London. He had gone there in 1967 with no plans, but with money in his pocket from an insurance claim on a botched thyroid operation. The surgery left him with permanent incapacity and pain. This afflicted him in his later years, especially when he began to live rough after giving away all of his belongings in a fervent desire to help down-and-outs in London — the ultimate exercise in religious altruism. His few possessions had been accumulated through a remarkable event that changed the trajectory of his career.

Price spent his first months in London reading up on the evolutionary origins of altruism. He applied his mathematical skills to Hamilton's theory of kin selection, building into it a more general notion of evolutionary fitness. He took his results, uninvited, to Cedric Smith, then director of the Galton Laboratories at University College London. Smith was so impressed he gave Price an honorary association with his department and obtained fellowship support for him.

During the next few years, Price worked with geneticist John Maynard Smith to extend his application of game theory (based on the famous 'prisoner's dilemma') to natural selection. He derived the concept of the 'evolutionarily stable strategy', by which populations adopt strategies that maximize their capacity to deal with complex interactions between members of the group. Price developed Hamilton's kin-selection theory further, becoming especially close to him. Both Maynard Smith and Hamilton came to Price's funeral, the only mourners save for a few outcasts whom Price had befriended.

Price's standing in evolutionary theory is now secure, but he never lived to see this acceptance within the scientific community. He was accustomed to having his papers rejected by journals — including Nature, although most of his later ones were published there — and in receiving polite and perfunctory replies when he contacted the giants of disciplines that interested him. Harman makes good use of Price's correspondence, which was rescued from his flat and office by Hamilton.

Harman's account is remarkable for interweaving Price's life with the history of evolutionary theory, including the debates about group selection and altruism in nature. Price had no inkling of how his work on altruism would later influence evolutionary theory. He had links to two men in particular who provided the framework for the evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s: R. A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane. Price formalized Fisher's fundamental theorem of natural selection and shared connections with Haldane through University College London and his friends Hamilton and Maynard Smith. Harman's description of the nexus of debts and rivalries between these and others in the field reveals that altruism was not always present in the actions of those working on it.

Eponyms in science are becoming rare, but the Price equation is still with us. Evolutionary biologists who use it have no excuse not to know what manner of man devised it, or how — at some point between the evening of 5 January and the early morning of 6 January 1975 — that man took a pair of scissors, put them through his carotid artery and bled to death.

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  1. W. F. Bynum is emeritus professor of the history of medicine at University College London.

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