Helping others, hurting oneself

In a recent issue of The Nation, Miriam Markowitz reviewed a biography of a remarkable figure named George Price.  The opening paragraph is an attention-grabber:

George Price was born a Jewish half-breed to parents who kept his Semitic side a secret; lived much of his life an aggressive atheist and skeptic of the supernatural; and died a Christian, twice converted, albeit, to his mind, a defeated one. Several years before he abandoned his career in a mission to shelter and comfort homeless alcoholics, he made a number of extraordinary contributions to evolutionary biology, a field in which he had no training. Educated as a chemist, Price had worked previously for the Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment, helped develop radiation therapy for cancer, invented computer-aided design with IBM and dabbled in journalism.

I suppose if your name is Miriam Markowitz you can use phrases like “Jewish half-breed,” though I for one would just as soon you didn’t.

In 1970, Price used a mathematical model rooted in game theory to revise an equation that William D. Hamilton had proposed as a means of analyzing altruistic behavior.  Hamilton and others saw that Price’s equation made it possible to analyze self-sacrificing behavior at many levels of selection at once, and to do so without appealing to notions of group selection.   This last point was especially attractive to Hamilton; as Markowitz explains, “Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness was a riposte to what he considered the naïve and ‘woolly’ group selectionism in vogue until the late 1960s, which explained altruistic behaviors with vague gestures toward ‘the good of the species.’”  Hamilton’s consistent opposition to all forms of group selectionism, be they woolly or threadbare, was one of the reasons Richard Dawkins named him as one who may have been “the greatest Darwinian since Darwin.”   Price’s theoretical work is basic to biological explanations of altruistic behavior; his own personal determination to lead a life of altruism, however, was infinitely less successful.  None of the homeless alcoholics he sought to help took much interest in his ministrations.  Despairing, Price committed suicide in 1974.

Thinking of altruism and suicide, Markowitz quotes Jacques Lacan’s line that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a joke in bad taste, in view of the obvious fact that people by and large hate themselves.  Perhaps more useful than Lacan’s barb is Markowitz’ reference to psychologist Thomas Joiner, who developed a model of suicide in which the two key factors are “sense of low belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness.”  Evidently Dr Joiner also sees a third factor as necessary to move a person to suicide, which he calls “fearlessness.”  Markowitz doesn’t mention that one.

Markowitz also discusses two other books in her essay,  Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson;  and Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson.   Together with the book about George Price, these works move her to wonder whether evolutionary biology is not still a desperately immature science.  Invoking Stephen Jay Gould’s disdain for the strict adaptationists whom he labeled “Darwinian fundamentalists,” Markowitz says that none of the controversies in post-Darwinian biology has prompted a thorough examination and systematic reconstruction of the epistemological base of the field.  In her words:

From an outsider’s perspective, it appears as if the epistemology of evolutionary biology is still emerging from the long nineteenth century, lagging far behind physics in its theoretical principles. In physics, we long ago accepted the limitations of the Newtonian model of the universe, wherein matter and the forces that act upon it are entirely logical and predictable. We have embraced quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, and we entertain even more far-out concepts, ones that appear to defy not just physical logic but the limits of what humans can comprehend: string theory, dark matter, many worlds. We have acknowledged that the universe may operate in ways that are not only unpredictable but perhaps unfathomable.

Newton faced Heisenberg and Einstein; Darwin has not confronted a similar challenge. Evolutionary biology, along with the social sciences and especially economics, with its decades-long obeisance to the Chicago School, is only belatedly coming to the conclusion that matter, organic and otherwise, does not necessarily behave rationally, and that humans and animals do not always act to maximize their fitness. It seems odd that the fundamental assumptions of evolutionary theory—that our mercantile world of limited resources is one of gladiatorial brutality, and that evolution functions, through natural selection, optimally most if not all of the time to produce biological winners and losers—have not been revisited sooner with an eye toward how our understanding of physical forces changed so dramatically in the early twentieth century. Those scientists who are beginning to rethink these foundations have suggested that there is no reason for us to assume, a priori, that evolution behaves in a straightforward process of competitive optimization, and that any perceived deviations from this process may be explained away in terms of hidden utility.

Markowitz suggests that some prominent strict adaptationists, most notably Richard Dawkins, have used the “God debate” as a distraction from the foundational challenge that this new science represents.  Dawkins and company have refused to engage with theoretical physics and the sociology of scientific knowledge; they have kept their good professional standing, and even been recognized as paladins of science, by spending their time arguing against creationism.

Markowitz calls to mind physics in the years before the 1860s, when everyone was rounding off and consolidating the work of Newton.  Then came James Clerk Maxwell, and suddenly an entirely new science of matter and energy was called for.  If Markowitz’ suspicion is correct, then Darwin was biology’s Newton, and its Maxwell is yet to appear.  She speculates that Price, had he lived, might have played the role of biology’s Maxwell; she leaves one with the suspicion that Dawkins may have had the same makings himself, and that his decision to devote so much of his life to religion may represent the same self-destruction that cut Price’s life and career short.  I suppose one can find a certain symmetry in the fact that Price prepared himself for suicide in the course of his religious mania, while Dawkins tries to conceal his intellectual suicide by displaying a sort of irreligious mania.

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