The Group: On George Price | The Nation


The Group: On George Price

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In a chapter of her recent book Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson traces another path through "the strange history of altruism." For her, this history is part of a larger story about the ways that much of modern science, and modernity itself, have led us to conclude that the human mind does not exist—that the several pounds of neurons knocking about our skulls are nothing more than an electrochemical mass whose operation creates the illusion of an "I." The attempted assimilation of altruism into the logic of natural selection is just one of many examples of the widespread "positivist rejection of metaphysics" that has been fostered by the scientific establishment. An eminent example of this trend is Dawkins, who views apparently "altruistic" behaviors as special cases in which genes propagate themselves through individuals whose selfless action is a mask for the selfishness—that is, the desire to self-replicate—of genes themselves.

The Price of Altruism
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.
By Oren Harman.
Buy this book

Absence of Mind
The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self.
By Marilynne Robinson.
Buy this book

Unto Others
The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.
By Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson.
Buy this book

About the Author

Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation.

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Though Darwin puzzled over selfless behavior, he didn't use the word "altruism." It was coined around 1850 by Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, and became a central pillar of the most controversial and now obscure aspect of Comte's thinking, his proposal for a religion of humanity—a Godless religion that presumed that though "we tire of thinking and even of acting; we never tire of loving." The benevolent emotions, Comte wrote, had "in most cases less intrinsic energy than the selfish," yet their "beautiful quality" was that social life could stimulate their growth; thus, with the assistance of society, the mind could harness the heart's ambitions and direct them toward the service of others. "Comte has had his revenge," notes Robinson, "for the decapitation of his philosophic system in leaving behind a word...that has deviled parascientific thought ever afterward."

"Parascience" is the word Robinson uses to describe a "science" that lies outside the boundaries of empirical, testable science. It is, rather, a "genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be." The Origin of Species, Robinson suggests, in which Darwin presented evidence-based theories about the natural world, is a work of science. The Descent of Man, wherein Darwin speculated on the effects of natural selection on human social life and instinct, including the inevitable extermination of primitive races by their European superiors, leans toward parascience. No less so does the oeuvre of Sigmund Freud, which Robinson explores in another chapter of Absence of Mind, deeming it "by far the greatest and the most interesting contribution to parascientific thought and literature ever made."

But Robinson reserves her strongest rebuke for the foremost parascientific minds of our day: those men, like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and E.O. Wilson, who are positivist in a more conventional Comtean sense, believing that science, and particularly evolutionary science, can answer "essential questions about the nature of reality, if only by dismissing them." These include questions of human behavior as explained by evolutionary theory as well as metaphysical questions about the human mind and soul—questions that are judged irrelevant and thus need not be answered because they are necessarily immaterial. Robinson's "parascience" is the telling of "just-so stories": hypothetical stories about why we feel what we feel and do what we do.

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Mystics and mathematicians hold in common the belief that strange powers reside in numbers. George Price was neither and both. He was born in Scarsdale, New York, in 1922, graduated second in his class at Stuyvesant High School and flunked out of Harvard after overambition and poor grades led to the loss of his freshman scholarship. "Might go hay-wire," his Harvard interviewers had earlier concluded, "but will never be humdrum." He went on to study chemistry at the University of Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1946, the same year that Milton Friedman was appointed to the university's economics faculty. Price worked on the Manhattan Project while completing his dissertation, helping to devise a method to test human urine for traces of uranium. Also employed by the Project was Julia Madigan, a devout Catholic and medical school drop-out, whom Price married in 1947.

Thereafter followed a succession of jobs, the birth of two daughters, a divorce and several bizarre writing projects, including a debunking of ESP for Science, "How to Speed Up Invention" for Fortune and "Arguing the Case for Being Panicky" for Life. This last he sent to Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was quite taken with Price's prophesy that unless the military amped up defense spending, the United States would, by 1975, become a Soviet province; the two traded a few dozen letters, in which Price floated original foreign policy ideas, such as a proposal that the US government buy every citizen of the USSR two pairs of nice shoes in exchange for the liberation of Hungary.

In 1966 Price underwent an operation for thyroid cancer that left one of his shoulders partially paralyzed. The next year he used his insurance settlement to move to England, where he read for hours each day in the libraries of London, in various disciplines—anthropology, linguistics, medicine, psychology and evolution. He hoped to make a scientific breakthrough in one field or another; he just didn't know which one.

The breakthrough he was searching for was existential as well as scientific. Few mammal fathers helped care for their offspring, but "in the human species," he wrote to his daughter Kathleen, "the dominant pattern in most or perhaps all cultures has involved preferential care by adult males toward their own children. Problem: why did our species evolve in this way...?" What is the meaning and the origin of the family, he wondered, of the love that human parents feel for their children, of the sacrifices they make for them and sometimes even for others? "With Love, Daddy," Price signed the missive, apparently without irony, to one of the daughters he had left an ocean away and so many years before.

This question led him to a paper by William Hamilton, a theoretical biologist whose interest in eugenics and biological explanations for human behavior had rendered his graduate career academically suspect. The paper, published in two parts in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1964, laid the foundations for what would become Hamilton's major innovation, the idea of "inclusive fitness" through kin selection at the genetic level. Hamilton's rule showed that if one defines fitness so that it includes offspring and close relatives, seemingly altruistic behaviors—for example, the formation "of a crèche in severe weather"—are "easily interpretable as being almost entirely selfish" from a genetic perspective.

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