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.