The Group: On George Price | The Nation


The Group: On George Price

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From then on Price devoted himself to Christian love and charity at the expense of everything else. When his apartment went, he began sleeping in his office, and from there, a squat. Sometimes he felt exhilarated by his mission; later he began to believe it was misguided, and that he had made no significant difference in the lives of those he tried to help. Toward the end, he began talking about returning to a more conventional Christian life, with a house and "4 kiddies." He might try his hand at economics, where he hoped to come up with some "really useful results."

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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Hamilton coaxed Price into visiting him in Berkshire in December 1974, a few weeks before Price ended his life. Hamilton was terrified by the deterioration of Price's physical and mental health, but he had also been awe-struck by the depth of his commitment to Christian benevolence and by the modesty and care with which he treated his remarkable equation. A scientist concerned with making a career for himself might have boasted of his findings; Price published his equation in papers so spare that even a genuinely inquisitive colleague could fail to understand their ramifications. Hamilton believed this was intentional. Price, he claimed, understood Christianity as a mystery religion: revelation would elude the casual believer, but if "one dedicated one's whole intelligence, better still one's life, to the task of reading, clarity would slowly dawn." Price's work was enigmatic and obscure, a cipher meant for patient and contemplative decryption by fellow students of life's eternal mysteries. "In this process," wrote Hamilton, "I believe I was chosen to be his first initiate."

* * *

After Price's funeral, Hamilton went to the squat where Price had been living to collect his papers, hoping to use them to continue his friend's unfinished work. Hamilton fulfilled this obligation in 1975, in an article detailing the implications of the covariance equation for group selection. It is clear that he had every intention of resuscitating the theory that he had earlier helped to dispatch. "I even liked the idea," Hamilton later wrote, "of people being torn between citing my paper for its first-ever just formalism for group selection and not citing it because of the various 'politically incorrect' notions I had packed on the other side." (These politically incorrect ideas were hypotheses about the "warlike propensities of pastoral peoples" and their recurrence "in the histories of Old World civilizations.")

But, as Hamilton himself has remarked, the paper for which he had such high hopes has been rarely noticed and often misunderstood by his colleagues. Among them appears to be Richard Dawkins, who cites the paper in The Extended Phenotype (1982):

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism.... As Hamilton (1975a) put it, '...almost the whole field of biology stampeded in the direction where Darwin had gone circumspectly or not at all'. It is only in recent years, roughly coinciding with the belated rise to fashion of Hamilton's own ideas (Dawkins 1979b), that the stampede has been halted and turned. We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin's ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label 'the selfish organism', the position which, in its modern form, is dominated by the concept of inclusive fitness.

As David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober write in Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998), Dawkins's response is "bizarre, given the actual content of Hamilton's 1975 paper." Dawkins's interpretation of the article stands in direct contradiction to Hamilton's intentions in publishing it, but Hamilton seems either not to have ever noticed or much minded. When Dawkins's The Selfish Gene was published the following year, Hamilton greeted it with a laudatory review, perhaps not surprisingly; in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins declared his deep debt to Hamilton, whom he later described as one of the book's "four named heroes."

Did Dawkins misread Hamilton's 1975 paper or, worse, simply disregard the aspects of it that did not conform to his pet theory? Why did Hamilton write a review of The Selfish Gene that failed to mention its dismissals of the theory he had so recently begun to rehabilitate? Did Dawkins's clear and vocal debt to Hamilton's work in kin selection make Hamilton reluctant to criticize his biggest fan, or was Hamilton so sensitive to the stigma against group selection that, at a crucial moment, he hesitated to press the point? These are questions Harman's book does not address, perhaps because they cannot be answered with anything other than sheer speculation.

* * *

"Altruism has been and still is an issue because Darwinist evolutionary theory has considered it to be one." This sentence from Absence of Mind calls into question the fundamental assumption of the Darwinist enterprise: that life is a constant battle for resources, and that behavior that does not appear to advantage the individual organism in the competition to survive and reproduce must be accounted for in some other way by natural selection. Robinson suggests that whatever Darwin and his heirs make of biological altruism, human altruism requires no such vindication. It is neither an adaptation nor an illusion but one of the brighter beams refracted by our prismatic human character.

Humans have not always assumed that man is purely an egoist, but this principle underlies the thinking of many moderns, including Malthus and Darwin, and it is one that warrants investigation. In their recent treatise On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor chart yet another history of altruism. Since ancient times, philosophers have quarreled over the stuff of human nature; the Stoics and the Epicureans argued the essences of love, kindness and especially friendship—whether camaraderie was an instrumental extension of the self or the natural communion of men. With the advent of Christianity, kindness became both the definition of and the prescription for humanity, which suddenly included the poor and the meek, women and slaves. But the idea that caritas flowed from the divine into and out of every human soul was potentially subversive; by the fifth century of the Common Era, St. Augustine and other church fathers had begun to insist that the Fall proscribed benevolence from the nature of man: humans were sinners all, and caritas came from God alone.

In the modern period, with few exceptions, the presumption that men are inherently ignoble, weak and warlike has only grown stronger, from Thomas Hobbes, Martin Luther and John Calvin on down to Jacques Lacan, who suggested, write Phillips and Taylor, "that the Christian injunction 'love thy neighbor as thyself' must be ironic, because people hate themselves." No wonder we are confused: from the evolutionary biologists, we learn that we are cruel because we are motivated only by concern for the self; from the French psychoanalyst, we learn that we are brutal because we see in that self only what is ugly and coarse. Our small kindnesses mask selfish ends: we invest in our genes by making sacrifices for our children; our vanity is flattered by doing good deeds; when we give, we receive in return a chemical high, the rise in our oxytocin levels nullifying the existence of any genuinely altruistic motives.

But there is more at stake here than questions of the individual and the group, of selflessness and selfishness and whether they are intrinsic to human nature. Why, one wonders, is there for some men never enough truth in the world, and for others, far too much? As Robinson reminds us, "The voices that have said, 'There is something more, knowledge to be had beyond and other than this knowledge,' have always been right." George Price searched for meaning in chemistry, the cold war, evolutionary theory, mathematics, Scripture, signs and wonders, and the work of God. William Hamilton, an unbeliever, could see in the beauty and mystery of Price's religious work the echo of his exquisite equation. Richard Dawkins sees a truth of his own devising, and he appears unable to conceive that the intellectual edifice he has built could be myopic or plainly wrong. But the uncontested reign of Dawkins's gene's-eye view may be coming to a close; other scientists are resurrecting group theory in the form of "multilevel selection," which takes as its starting point the idea that selection occurs at every stratum, an idea that was made mathematically plausible by George Price.

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