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A Life of Serial Self-Invention

Brian Hayes

THE PRICE OF ALTRUISM: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness. Oren Harman. x + 451 pp. W. W. Norton, 2010. $27.95.

2011-07BREVHayesFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe biographies of scientists that I read as a youngster were tales of triumph over adversity. Michael Faraday was poor and unschooled, but he became the preeminent experimental physicist of his era. Marie Curie had to overcome bitter academic hostility to women, but in the end she collected two Nobel prizes. Genius was recognized and rewarded.

Oren Harman’s biography of George Price tells a different kind of story. There is plenty of adversity in this life, but most of it is self-inflicted. And whenever triumph beckons, Price turns the other way.

The climactic events of the story took place in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Price, an American in his forties, had moved there looking for a new start. He had left behind a long trail of jobs that hadn’t worked out—not because he had failed at them but because he had lost interest or saw a brighter prospect elsewhere. He had also left behind a family and a couple of girlfriends. He was alone, unemployed, living on five dollars a day, prowling the libraries. When the library of the British Museum closed for the day, he would retire to the Holburn Public Library, which stayed open late. There, Harman writes, Price “cast his net widely: anthropology, linguistics, medicine, neurophysiology, psychology, behavior—anything that might provide a clue.” A clue to what? He was looking for a breakthrough—some problem he could solve and then write up for Science or Nature, thereby getting himself noticed.

Amazingly, he succeeded. He came across a 1964 paper by William D. Hamilton introducing the idea of “kin selection” in evolution—the notion that an organism can perpetuate its genes not only by passing them on directly to offspring but also by aiding relatives, who are likely to carry many of the same genes. Price reformulated the idea in a clearer mathematical form and showed how it could be applied more generally, not just to kin but also to other groupings of organisms. He wrote down an equation that he believed would solve a long-standing puzzle in evolutionary theory: If natural selection favors the genes of the most prolific individuals, how can we explain the evolution of altruistic behavior, which benefits the survival and reproduction of others?

Price took his new equation to Cedric Smith, a geneticist at the Galton Laboratory of University College London. Smith was so impressed that he marched Price down the hall to see the head of the department. “[Ninety] minutes later,” Price wrote to a friend, “I walked out with a room assigned to me, with keys, plus request for curriculum vitae so that they could make it official about giving me an honorary appointment.” Some weeks later, with further help from Smith, he got a grant from the Science Research Council. Then Hamilton intervened to make sure that Price’s paper on selection and altruism would be published in Nature. This is the stuff of daydreams for an unaffiliated scholar. Price was on the very brink of triumph over adversity. And then he turned in another direction. Some months later his life went totally off the rails.

It was not the first abrupt shift in Price’s career trajectory.

He grew up in New York in the thirties. Family financial setbacks forced him out of a private school, but he was probably better off where he wound up: Stuyvesant High School, already famous for its programs in science and math. Price led the chess team to a city championship and won a scholarship to Harvard. When the scholarship was not renewed after the first year, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he earned a chemistry degree and was encouraged to stay on for a doctorate. These were the war years, and he was also recruited for the Manhattan Project, working on the detection of radionuclides in biological samples.

After the war, Price returned to Harvard as an instructor in chemistry, while also consulting for Argonne National Laboratory. In that “atomic age,” nuclear chemistry was a thriving field, and his prospects must have looked bright. However, he soon lost enthusiasm for the subject. In 1948 he had discovered Claude Shannon’s work on information theory, published in the Bell System Technical Journal, and decided this was where his future lay. So he resigned both the Harvard and Argonne positions and took a job at Bell Labs. There too he made a promising start, getting an assignment from John Bardeen and William Shockley to measure temperature effects in the transistor, the most glamorous of Bell Labs’ recent inventions.

He never made the measurements. Instead he accepted an offer to go back to chemistry, this time in Minnesota, working on fluorescence staining of cancer cells. According to Harman, Price solved several problems with important applications to medical diagnosis, but again his interests drifted. In addition, his personal life was unraveling. He had married while at Harvard and had two daughters, but now the family fell apart.

Next, Price decided that he wasn’t a chemist but a writer. An article debunking ESP made a big splash when it was published in Science, and soon he was also writing for Life and Fortune and Popular Science. Later he had a book contract. He was going to be an inventor too. His idea for what would now be called computer-aided design led to an offer of a research position at IBM; Price turned it down, in order to retain the patent rights for himself. He never pursued the matter further. He never finished the book, either.

He did eventually go to work for IBM, but it seems he wasn’t much engaged in the job.

On one of the rare occasions that he had come into the office, someone mentioned that there would soon be a public announcement of the new System/360 computer. “What’s the 360?” George asked.

He was working for Frederick Brooks, the head of the System/360 project.

There were several more episodes in this game of serial self-invention, which Harman describes as “a manic scavenger hunt.” Price had brief flings with Cold War politics, the psychology of B. F. Skinner, business cycles in the world economy, neural networks, the function of the hymen, a theory of color vision. As I was reading the early chapters of The Price of Altruism, trying to keep track as Price lurched from one brief passion to the next, I had the thought, “It’s like Forrest Gump.” A few pages later I found that Harman had already made that connection:

Like a real-life Forrest Gump, he was present at every important juncture: the making of the bomb, the development of the transistor, the growth of modern medicine. Never at the center, he arrived to solve problems, winning admiration before disappearing like a ghost.

The last wrong turn in Price’s career, after his discovery of the altruism equation, was the saddest: He had a sudden religious conversion. “God was sending him messages, everywhere and always,” Harman writes. The messages told him to devote the rest of his life to helping the poor and dispossessed—a task for which God had not provided him the necessary resources.

Price did not immediately abandon all work in the sciences. He wrote a joint paper with John Maynard Smith, a distinguished evolutionary theorist (and a rival of Hamilton), applying ideas from game theory to biological evolution. He also wrote an important article giving a new interpretation of a 40-year-old theorem of Ronald A. Fisher, clarifying the mathematics of natural selection.

Increasingly, however, his energies went to the homeless and downtrodden of London, with the result that he soon became homeless and downtrodden himself. Finally, when he had nothing left to give, he began to hear a different message from God, urging him to start another new life—and also a new family—but by then Price had apparently lost faith in his ability to reinvent himself yet again. In January 1975 he stabbed himself in the neck with a pair of scissors and died, age 52. His funeral was attended by Hamilton and Maynard Smith and a few of the homeless men he had helped support in his last years. The officiant at the service remarked that “George took his Christianity too seriously.” I suppose the punning title of Harman’s book is intended to make the same point.

Harman, who is a historian of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel, takes pains to put the life of George Price in the larger context of the long controversy over altruism in biology and in human affairs. He begins in the 19th century with Peter Kropotkin and Thomas Henry Huxley, then goes on to give thumbnail portraits of J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, John von Neumann, Fisher and others. Thus all these figures become a supporting cast in the biography of Price; again, it’s a little like Forrest Gump.

This intellectual background is welcome (and it’s very well presented), but it also raises some awkward questions of interpretation. For one thing, framing the story in this way implies that Price’s late work on evolution was the main event in his life, while all the earlier episodes were mere preparation or rehearsal. It’s rather like one of those progressivist accounts of evolution that sees fishes and birds and apes as mere steps along the path to Homo sapiens.

Second, there’s the problem of assessing the importance of Price’s contributions. Did his work change our understanding of evolution? Would biology look different today if Price had stumbled onto another topic during his scavenger hunt for a breakthrough problem? Harman offers too little help in answering these questions. A factor to be taken into account is that two other biologists independently discovered equations that are essentially the same as Price’s, and published them a year or two before Price did—a fact that Harman mentions only in an appendix.

Furthermore, if one is to evaluate Price’s work on selection, it’s first necessary to understand it. The equation at the root of all this fuss is not too scary-looking. In one form it reads:


Here w denotes an organism’s overall fitness, or in other words its likelihood to survive and reproduce. The variable z represents a trait that might affect fitness, and Δz is the change in the trait’s value. An overbar decorating a variable means we are interested in the expected value of the variable when averaged over many trials. Finally, the expression Cov(w,z) is the covariance of w and z. What’s the covariance? Well, the name says it all: It’s a measure of the tendency of two quantities to vary together. If w usually rises when z rises, then the covariance is positive; if they tend to move in opposite directions, the covariance is negative; if the two variables are independent, their covariance is zero. Thus Price’s equation defines a relationship between the expected change in a trait, the average fitness, and the covariance of fitness and the trait.

Harman makes a few attempts to explain the equation and its biological meaning, but in my judgment the explanations are too brief and too vague to be of much help to those who don’t already understand the mathematics. All through the book I kept waiting for a careful introduction to covariance. The best attempt came at the very end, in the first two paragraphs of the last of three brief appendices. I later realized that Harman had borrowed those paragraphs from a 1995 paper by Steven A. Frank.

I do wish that Price’s mathematics were given a clearer presentation in these pages, but the omission is forgivable. After all, the compelling interest in this book is not the importance of the science but the pathos of the life.

The Price of Altruism is sure to be compared with A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash, a mathematician and economist who has done brilliant work but has also struggled for decades with mental illness. There are similarities between the two figures—and perhaps even more interesting differences. When Nash announced that he was the emperor of Antarctica, it was clear to all that he was delusional. When Price announced that God was speaking to him from church spires, he was merely taking his religion too seriously. Delusions shared by a large enough population become socially acceptable.

“The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work,” wrote William Butler Yeats—as if the world were offering a fair bargain—indeed, as if we could count on having either happiness or accomplishment, though not both. Most of us come nowhere near perfection in either realm, which is what makes a human story like Price’s oddly inspiring as well as intensely sad.

Brian Hayes is Senior Writer for American Scientist. He is the author most recently of Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions (Hill and Wang, 2008).

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