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.
Shortly after Christmas 1974, Price slashed his carotid artery with a pair of tailor’s scissors in his room in a London squat. John Maynard Smith, with whom Price published a paper that applied game theory to natural selection, was one of the few people, along with some of those homeless alcoholics, to attend his funeral. Also present was William Hamilton, the father of kin selection, which proposed that self-sacrificing behavior was able to evolve between related organisms because of the advantages conferred to their shared genes. Price used Hamilton’s ideas about kin selection to derive his own equation, one that could explain selection at multiple levels of organization—the genetic level, as well as among individuals in kin groups and populations of unrelated others. The equation marked a breakthrough in the field: Price had provided a working mathematical model for the emergence of altruism in a theory of the world that took dogmatic self-interest as its first principle.
Richard Dawkins, who considers Hamilton, Price’s closest collaborator, a “good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin,” based his gene’s-eye-view theory of natural selection on Hamilton’s work in kin selection. This paradigm, which Dawkins popularized with The Selfish Gene in 1976, has dominated evolutionary biology and its progeny, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, ever since. Maynard Smith and Hamilton are now dead, as are, presumably, those homeless alcoholics, while Dawkins has become one of the most strident and significant of the voices that blare on in what is known as “the God debate.”
Price has remained, for some three decades, a footnote in the history of science. This is in part the doing of Price himself, the cost, perhaps, referred to in the title of The Price of Altruism, although I suspect that his biographer, Oren Harman, is alluding more to the misery and suicide that followed his subject’s failed stab at altruism than to the marginalization of his scientific work. Hamilton, who deemed the Price equation “a far better tool for all forms of selection acting at one level or at many” than he had ever before had at his disposal, implored Price to keep working on the equation and to publish his results. By then, Price was deep into his mission ministering to wayward souls, eventually giving up his home and few possessions in an attempt to live as Jesus would. “Oh yes,” Price told Hamilton not long before he died. “But I have so many other things to do…population genetics is not my main work, as you know.”
* * *
If the main work of evolutionary theory has been to explain and substantiate the process of evolution through natural selection, the main obstacle to that work has been, since Darwin’s time, the problem of altruism. In 1838, two years after his return from his journey on the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin read An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus. Its proposition that population growth always exceeds food supply astonished Darwin, and offered him, at last, “a theory by which to work.” “As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence,” Darwin wrote some twenty years later in the Origin of Species. “It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Yet despite the myriad predators and prey who bore out this theory, there were obvious outliers: sterile worker insects, such as ants, who labor for the good of the nest rather than their own reproductive success. Darwin was perplexed by this “most serious special difficulty” facing his theory, but he accounted for it with the supposition that “division of labour” must be as beneficial for an insect community as it was “useful to civilised man.” “It may not be a logical deduction,” Darwin wrote, but nevertheless, such self-sacrificing behavior showed that natural selection was even more efficient than he had imagined.
This conclusion left a paradox unresolved in Darwin’s otherwise elegant theory. He insisted that natural selection acts on the individual, that it “tends only to make each organic being as perfect as, or slightly more perfect than” its competitors; it would “never produce in a being anything injurious to itself, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each.” Yet his only explanation for the evolution of sterile insects was the good of the group.
Thus, altruism became, from the Origin onward, the primary hindrance to a unified theory of evolution. In The Price of Altruism, Harman surveys the history of the men who, since Darwin, have tried to understand and explain the improbable emergence of altruism, both in the animal world, where its definition is limited to behavior that confers a fitness advantage to another at the expense of one’s self or progeny, and in the human world, where it means somewhat more.
Harman, a professor of the history of science at Bar-Ilan University, frames his discussion of these theorists in terms of their allegiance to two warring camps. The first group, led by Thomas Henry Huxley—nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his early and vigorous support of Darwin’s ideas—believed innate altruism unlikely or impossible. Huxley saw nature as “non-moral” and despaired over the inherent selfishness and aggression of man; for him, kindness was mostly a family affair. The leader of the opposition, in Harman’s narrative, is the Russian anarchist Prince Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin, who, like many Russian evolutionists, embraced Darwin but rejected the Malthusian aspects of his program. Kropotkin proposed instead, in his 1902 book Mutual Aid, that not only had the social insects “renounced the Hobbesian war” but so too had lizards, deer, squirrels, birds and innumerable other animals. “Wherever I saw animal life in abundance,” he wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support.”
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.
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.
* * *
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.
Hamilton was neither the first nor the last to try to understand altruism through family relationships; the term “kin selection” was actually coined by John Maynard Smith, and the legendary population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane is said to have been deep into his cups at a pub when he exclaimed, “I’ll jump into a river for two brothers and eight cousins!” But it was Hamilton’s rule that became the standard in the field. His simple equation, rB > C, postulated that behavior that appears to disadvantage the individual (C) could emerge were it outweighed by the fitness benefit (B) it conferred to kin depending on the closeness of their relation (r) or, more basically, on the proportion of genes shared by both parties. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness was a riposte to what he considered the naïve and “wooly” group selectionism in vogue until the late 1960s, which explained altruistic behaviors with vague gestures toward “the good of the species.”
Price was frightened by the implications of Hamilton’s theory: that there must be a genetic tendency toward altruism, one that could have evolved only in favorable conditions, and that human altruism might be merely a jest played by genes, a fiction written by nature to conceal its own selfish ends. He wrote to Hamilton requesting a reprint of the paper; Hamilton hadn’t any left, and he would soon be departing to study multiqueen wasps in Brazil, which put their correspondence on hiatus. Price read, in the meantime, and worked, sorting through his ideas: kin selection could explain the instinct to care for offspring and relatives, but what about sacrifice and cooperation within a herd or a pack? Could unrelated altruists somehow find one another and work together to propagate their kind?
Price considered the group selection maligned by Hamilton and his contemporaries. Hamilton’s reasoning, he decided, was flawed: natural selection could operate on groups whether or not they were family, and in order to map mathematically the conditions for the emergence of altruism, one needed a tool that sorted group association without measuring common ancestry. The result was a covariance equation that showed how selection could work on any two levels at the same time—gene and individual, individual and group, and so on. Its utility was in its simplicity; it was a mathematical tautology that showed that altruism could evolve when groups developed a certain character, altruistic or selfish, provided that selection was stronger between groups than within them; selfish individuals might get the better of selfless ones, but altruists working together could best a group of uncooperative alphas.
In 1969, after Hamilton returned from Brazil with two adopted children in tow, Price wrote to him again. He explained how he had tried to rederive Hamilton’s equation for kin selection and had come up with his own formula; after showing it to Cedric Smith, Hamilton’s former supervisor, he had been given an office and an honorarium at the Galton Laboratory, the storied institute for the study of human genetics that was named for Darwin’s cousin, the eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. Price wanted to alert Hamilton to his finding that kin selection couldn’t account for altruistic acts toward lesser relatives or groups as a whole, and to give Hamilton a chance to publish a correction. On the phone the next day, Price told Hamilton that the covariance equation had taken him by surprise—that it was “quite a miracle.” “Have you seen how my formula works for group selection?” Price asked, in a voice Hamilton would recollect as “squeaky and condescending.” Hamilton didn’t recall exactly how he responded: “I told him, of course, no, and may have added something like: ‘So you actually believe in that do you?'”
After several months had passed, Hamilton was moved to write a letter to Price. “I am enchanted with your formula,” he declared. “I really have a clearer picture of the selection process as a result. In its general form I can see how we might use your formula to investigate ‘group selection.'” Hamilton devised a plan to ensure that Price’s equation would be published in Nature, which had previously rejected his inquiry: Hamilton would send a related article to the editor and wait for a response. When it was accepted, Hamilton would withdraw the paper, saying he could not in good conscience allow it to be published while the matter of Price’s paper, upon whose math Hamilton had relied, was unresolved. Hamilton’s generous and ingenious ploy was successful; Nature published Price’s “Selection and Covariance” in August 1970.
* * *
Price’s equation had been a revelation, to himself and then to Hamilton, but it was only the first of many. “About the beginning of June,” Price wrote to his brother in the autumn of 1970, “I happened to notice one surprising coincidence in my life, and this started me searching back through my calendar books and letters and other material, and noticing a long succession of other improbabilities, until the improbability level became astronomical.” He calculated the odds that all the coincidences in his life should occur: they were 1/1030, of a magnitude so shocking that he had to “give in and admit that God existed.” On June 14, Price left his apartment and walked into All Souls Church. He was an eager and extreme convert, pumping the pastor and Scriptures for answers. When he discovered that his father had been a Jew, it only deepened his conviction that he and everyone else were living according to God’s master plan. He was also certain that if in all the years of evolutionary research, he rather than the great minds of the profession had discovered his equation, God must have chosen him to do so.
He read feverishly, discovering discrepancies in the Gospels and filling in holes: the maternal lineage of Jesus; the true meaning of the number 666. Finally he deduced that the days of the Holy Week had been twelve rather than the traditional eight, and thus the date of Christ’s resurrection was entirely wrong. He used his privileged access to such secrets to woo several women who didn’t want him, including, eventually, Julia, his former wife.
While in the grip of his religious mania, Price made two other significant contributions to evolutionary theory. He helped Maynard Smith, who had spent some time working with faculty at the University of Chicago, develop the application of game theory. Price also solved Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem, which states that “the rate of increase in fitness of any organism at any time is equal to its genetic variance in fitness at that time.” Students puzzling over the theorem since its publication in 1930 had understood it to mean that natural selection would always increase the fitness of a given population; Price showed that, despite the infelicities of R.A. Fisher’s math, the theorem was basically correct but limited to genes that interacted neither with each other nor with the environment. The theorem was far less important than Fisher had thought, but no matter: Price was busy arguing with Henry Morris, “the father of creationism,” about whether the Flood had indeed covered the whole of the earth.
Yet his religious discussions were leading him, paradoxically, away from the Word. Convinced that if God meant him to live, He would care for his servant, Price began to relinquish worldly concerns: he failed to renew his grant or his visa, stopped taking his thyroid medication and ate as little as possible. In October 1972 he wrote gleefully to Maynard Smith that he was down to his last 15 pence and looking forward to the day it would disappear. By December he was in the hospital, recovering from a collapse; he was pale and feeble, his brittle fingernails darkening to black.
Despite his infirmity, Price was elated to have survived God’s test, and soon underwent a second conversion. He had been a “Christian Pharisee,” he wrote to Hamilton. He now understood that it didn’t matter what the true date of Easter was, only when people observed it; it was people who mattered to God, not the Book. He dropped his work in the Scriptures, and in March ventured into the streets seeking vagrants in need. “My name is George,” he’d tell them. “Is there any way I can help you?” But a quid here and there or a cup of hot cider proved not nearly enough; Smoky and Peg Leg Pete were among the drunk and downtrodden who soon took up residence in his flat.
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.”
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.
It is startling that, in the end, Harman appears unconcerned about the truth of the Price equation—whether it really shows how and why altruism developed among our kind. For him, Price’s quest ends with a slam against Wittgenstein’s wall. “What we can’t speak about,” said the philosopher, “we must pass over in silence.” Harman freely admits that “real charity may in fact be a uniquely human invention,” a possibility that for him is not an irritant but a cause for hope. Harman’s acknowledgment that “matters of the spirit like the true motivations behind acts of kindness may be something [science] will never plumb” is one that affirms a gap unbridgeable without the human quality of mind. Whatever we think we know about the origin of altruism in animal species, there is a metaphysical hurdle—a missing link—that cannot be explained through genetics. “There is that haunting compatibility,” Robinson insists, “of our means of knowing with the universe of things to be known.” Despite this, “we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all. What such a recognition might imply…is difficult to say, but the strange ways of quarks and photons might enlarge our sense of the mysterious nature of our own existence.”
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.
* * *
This has not precluded the acolytes of evolutionism from importing their untestable and in many cases absurd hypotheses into sociology, psychology, economics, history, philosophy and finally the arts and literature, which, having languished in the universities with the waning of the star of postmodern theory, are now in desperate need of succor wherever they can find it. Enter the evolutionary psychologists, many of whom have embraced the central tenet of postmodern theory (books are not literature to be read and loved but texts to be mined for evidence) and tweaked it to fit their own reductive agenda: explaining all of cultural and cognitive life in terms of adaptation, of instincts and skills developed in the Pleistocene only because they increased the fitness of early man. In Unto Others, Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, and Sober, a philosopher of science, claim that the conflict between essential egoism and altruism can be resolved only with “an evolutionary perspective”: “Observed behavior does not decide the question, and the conceptual arguments furnished by philosophers have not broken the deadlock either.”
What is so disturbing about this “deadlock” is that the view that Robinson and Harman share—that the practice of science, even good science, cannot be otherwise than culturally and ideologically inflected, as are all human endeavors, and that there are some questions it may not be able to answer—is not a new one. When E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology in 1975, a group of scientists and educators led by Harvard professors Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin sent a letter to The New York Review of Books decrying Wilson’s apparent ignorance of his own unconscious biases, biases that they believed fortified the preferences and privileges enjoyed by men like Wilson. Lewontin, a population geneticist who was perhaps the third scientist to recognize the value of the Price equation, has continued to make this case brilliantly and persistently in that same magazine for the past thirty-five years, and for a long time his allies and antagonists kept these vital discussions in the public eye.
But with the ascension of the God controversy, many scientists have closed ranks. They debate not the significance of one another’s work but the very existence of evolution with creationists, many of them provocateurs who have no intention of changing their minds. Worse, the loudest of these scientists have done so with a militancy matched only by their contempt for any idea that does not conform to their own reductive worldview. These are our champions, and we have let them do our thinking for us; we are not experts, and they speak with the authority of science. RichardDawkins.net, which is billed as nothing less than “a clear-thinking oasis,” not only hawks chintzy merchandise and anticlerical talking points to preach to the ignorant masses; it also features a forum called “Converts’ Corner,” where visitors are encouraged to post stories about how they escaped from religion.
David Sloan Wilson, who has stated that his “passion” is “to expand evolutionary theory beyond the biological sciences to include all things human,” is also a true believer in evolutionism, but his attempts to revive discussions about evolutionary theory among scientists and the general public are both genuine and ecumenical. (As the foremost advocate for multilevel selection theory, he has often locked horns with Dawkins, who labeled one particularly persnickety response to criticisms by Wilson “The Group Delusion.”) I had the pleasure of reading a long e-mail correspondence among theoretical biologists that was initiated by Wilson and titled “If the theorists can’t agree,” the hope for which was that the scientists would be able to establish some basic principles about group theory, inclusive fitness and kin selection, all of which have been sources of discord and misapprehension among their cohort since the 1960s. Wilson, in particular, was vehement that if the theoretical biologists could not satisfactorily define these terms and delineate a “zone of agreement,” there was no way they could properly educate other scientists, students and the public about the state of the field, which has been dominated by Dawkins’s paradigm despite the objections of many of his peers. As it turned out, they couldn’t.
It is no accident that the scientific assault in the God debate has come primarily from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom are what Stephen Jay Gould deemed “Darwinian fundamentalists”—ultra-adaptationists who, in their insistence that selection is the only important force in evolution, have “out-Darwin[ed] Darwin.” (Dawkins has granted that some evolutionary change may not be adaptive, but only “the boring parts.”) It seems that Dawkins has rushed to arms not just because his work is being reconsidered by fellow scientists and the God debate provides a convenient distraction but also because the theories on which he has built his career appear imperiled if he allows even the slightest possibility that those who believe in God are anything but tragically confused.
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:
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.