The Group: On George Price | The Nation


The Group: On George Price

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In the final few pages of Unto Others, after Wilson and Sober have finished outlining the "modest" argument that "people sometimes have altruistic ultimate motives," they tell readers about a short story, "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane, which is based on his experience of a shipwreck. After his passenger boat capsized in a storm, Crane found himself in a dinghy with the ship's captain and two members of his crew. Crane and the others took turns rowing to shore, and despite pain, fatigue and limited rations, Crane, in the story, evokes an idyll of common cause and feeling created out of the direst circumstances:

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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It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.... There was this comradeship, that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life.

"Crane was behaving adaptively and working to save himself along with the other members of the group," write Wilson and Sober. "It might seem he could have given his best effort without caring a shred about the others." But Crane "was motivated by such a powerful feeling of devotion toward the members of his group that the comradeship was the best experience of his life. This is an extraordinary statement, given a situation that in every other respect must have been the worst experience of his life."

But then again, they tell us, this is just a story, and "obviously a short story proves nothing." I could beg to differ, but instead I will suggest that we embrace this spirit and turn a skeptical eye toward bad science stories—particularly the parascientific gospels touted by the evolutionary psychologists—many of which are "just-so" stories, the mathematical ones simply written in a foreign language. (As Hamilton once said, people tend to listen harder "if you first intimidate them with equations.") In 1998 Lewontin argued in The New York Review of Books that the wholesale acceptance of the basic premises of evolutionary psychology was unwarranted by any advances in evolutionary biology. "During the last thirty years," he wrote,

despite the fact that the technical literature of evolutionary genetics has emphasized more and more the random and historically contingent nature of genetic change over time, the literature of natural history, of ecology, and of behavioral evolution, and the growing body of popularizations produced by evolutionists, philosophers, and science writers has again become unrelentingly optimalist.

Lewontin has gone on to argue that flaws in the methodologies of "soft sciences" like evolutionary psychology cannot be divorced from problems in the "hard" sciences from which they are spawned. Here is Lewontin earlier this year: "the telling of a plausible evolutionary story without any possibility of critical and empirical verification has become an accepted mode of intellectual work even in natural science." Plausible explanations for why children tease, men brawl and women weep may be fashioned from speculation about life on the savanna, but plausibility, as scientists should know, is not a standard of proof.

Evolution is no theory; there is physical, fossil evidence of its progression over time. But exactly how it functions and what natural selection really entails, in terms of the units of selection as well as how optimally they are selected, remain uncertain. Even Dawkins concedes that "nowadays it is no longer possible to dispute the fact of evolution itself—it has graduated to become a theorum or obviously supported fact—but it could still (just) be doubted that natural selection is its major driving force." There is no way to prove decisively the superiority of kin selection or inclusive fitness, the gene's-eye view, group selection or even multilevel selection, though this last I am inclined to favor because it comports with the obvious reality that the world is complex, and so life is likely to be determined at many levels, including ones that are unknowable.

If you'll indulge me, I have a just-so story of my own. George Price died having failed as a family man and good Samaritan, two defeats that seem to have outweighed his optimism about any future success in science or economics. He deserted his wife and daughters and could convince no woman to make a new life with him. He gave up everything for the alcoholics, and yet none of them recovered. These failures were severe enough to snuff out his desire to live. He had already habituated himself to death through poverty and starvation, and he could no longer tolerate, in the psychologist Thomas Joiner's terms, his "perceived burdensomeness" and "sense of low belongingness," the two conditions that Joiner believes are primary to the desire to kill oneself.

If we know that altruism makes one feel good and useful—that, at least, has been tested in the laboratory of human emotion—then perhaps altruism evolved because it increases the fitness of the individual by protecting him from the desire to die. Life is hard; we know that as moderns, and it seems likely that it was as well for our predecessors. Perhaps, in her omniscience, Nature understood that she could not rely solely on the survival instinct to ensure the propagation of her magisterial creations; that occasionally one might grow disillusioned with this life, despite its beauties, and want to end it. Feeling that one is needed by others might just prevent this defection. Altruism, pure or not, may be a lifeboat, a dinghy we row. Within its confines, we experience the subtle brotherhood of men, and let it warm us.

While I'm at it, here's another hypothesis. Given that Hamilton believed that the implications of his 1975 paper were mostly ignored or misunderstood, perhaps Price's contributions, had he chosen to live and to continue his work in evolutionary theory, would have reshaped the field. Perhaps Dawkins, instead of he, would be a footnote in scientific history. This is merely make-believe, a counterfactual, but such stories, whatever evidence they lack, are a healthy part of our intellectual ecosystem, provided they are treated as stories. It is when they are regarded as singular and exclusive truths that their worth begins to diminish. So by all means, tell me a story. Just don't expect it to be the only one I dare to hear.

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