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George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

by Oren Harman

Pub Date: June 7th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06778-1
Publisher: Norton

The strange story of an oddball scientist who developed a mathematical approach to understanding altruism.

By the end of his life, George Price (1922–75), a University of Chicago doctorate in chemistry and “forgotten American genius,” was homeless in London, writes Harman (Science, Technology, and Society/Bar Ilan Univ., Israel; The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darling, 2004). Price had worked as a chemist, economist, writer, mathematician, psychologist and physiologist, pursuing new ideas and theories for such organizations as the Manhattan Project, IBM and Bell Labs. As an independent scientist, he penetrated the origins of altruism deeper than ever before. In this stylish, demanding biography, the author draws on papers and interviews to re-create the personal and scientific life of this quirky, unorthodox loner. Harman places Price in the tradition of scientists like Darwin, T.H. Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, B.F. Skinner and W.D. Hamilton, who have studied the origins of human kindness. In particular, Price sought to learn whether, in the face of self-interested behavior, true selfless altruism exists. His “Price equation,” which specifies “the exact conditions under which the good of the group would upstage the good of the individual,” remains a crucial tool for understanding aspects of evolution. (Harman’s explication of the equation—in both text and appendices—may elude lay readers.) By 1970, a recent convert from atheism to Christianity, Price was pursuing the life of a true altruist, giving all his possessions to the poor and trying to rescue the homeless. But he failed to change the lives of the homeless, and Price, long depressive, sank further into despair and eventually committed suicide. Harman makes a strong case for the maverick scientist’s brilliance, noting that Hamilton called Price an intellectual Sherlock Holmes. He also demonstrates how Price’s insights overwhelmed many, from his teachers and classmates at New York’s Stuyvesant High School to a Nature editor who once rejected a submission with the comment, “It is too hard to understand.”

An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science.