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Altruism in Theory and Practice

The latest The World: Science Podcast interviews the author of a book about George R. Price, a man who led a fascinating and ultimately tragic life where he struggled to reconcile theory and practice.

Price grew up during the Great Depression and then got a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago after working on the Manhattan Project. He was strongly atheist but married a practicing Catholic, and their marriage fell apart, divorcing after having two daughters. He worked on such diverse fields as cancer research, on transistor technology for Bell Labs, and later on computer-aided design (CAD) for IBM.

In his 40s, he got thyroid cancer, which was successfully operated out, but it partially paralyzed his shoulder and left him depressed.

Without any formal training, he came up with the breakthrough Price equation, considered the best mathematical explanation of the origin of altruism. It describes group selection and how to apply natural selection at all scales. He got a job on the spot at University College London's Galton Lab. He also later worked with John Maynard Smith to pioneer the application of game theory to evolution.

At this point, he started thinking about the improbability of all the events of his life. He converted to Christianity and became a Biblical scholar.

But then he decided that if altruism was mathematically derived, there would be no such thing as true altruism. This really bugged him. So in order to disprove his own theories, he began to invite alcoholics and the homeless to stay at his house. Some repaid him by stealing from him, though he also wanted to give away all his possessions, anyway. At one point, he told a colleague, "I'm down to my last 15p, and I can't wait to give it away!"

He soon lost his house, and he became depressed that he could no longer help the homeless. (He had of course himself become homeless.) Finally, over the holiday season one winter, he slit his own throat.

His funeral service was attended by various people he had met through his community work and two evolutionary biologists.

Comments (1)

No daughters at the funeral? Tragic indeed. :(
But I don't yet agree with the bit about that something that is mathematically derived is not true. It could be that altruistic choices end up maximizing reward, but unless the mathematical derivation considers his internal subjective motivations (which seem as plausible a cause for his actions as calculated predictions of reward), then the derivation may not apply to actual choices. Would he argue that "it's not altruism because it makes me happy?"
That said, i don't know anything about the Price equation or it's roots so i should shut up now. :p

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