The Price of Altruism

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A week ago I reviewed The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness. As I noted in the review, many individuals who are of interest to the core readership of this weblog make significant appearances in The Price of Altruism, John Maynard Smith and W. D. Hamilton most prominently. Since I wrote that review I will divulge the fact that I met the author, Oren Harman, and George Price’s daughters. Oren confirmed to me a supposition I arrived at via reading The Price of Altruism, that George Price was already a zealous Christian when he was working on his core contributions to the evolution of social theory and altruism. In particular, the “hawk” and “dove” morph terms which John Maynard Smith utilized in his work on evolutionary game theory, and Richard Dawkins popularized in The Selfish Gene, were suggested by Price during his Christian phase. Later he suggested that Smith change the term “dove” lest people assume that his Christianity had unduly influenced Price’s choice of terms. I found it ironic that the bulldog of the New Atheism, who has emphasized the necessary connection between being an evolutionist and an atheist, has been one of the most prominent of expositors of ideas which derive in large part from a fundamentalist Christian evolutionist! (for details of Price’s Christianity, and why it could be termed fundamentalist, see The Price of Altruism).

I will also add that after meeting Price’s daughters, and listening to their recollections of their father, I suspect many readers of this weblog would recognize in George Price a kindred spirit. Harman speculates that today Price might be somewhere along the autism spectrum deviated from the population median toward Asperger’s. Additionally, his intellectual interests were far wider than I had understood. Prior to his work on evolution Price had corresponded with Paul Samuelson on the possibility of reworking the foundations of neoclassical economics, and, also had developed a close relationship with B. F. Skinner (though this soured as Price rejected Skinner’s Behaviorism, and as was usual with him was not particularly politic in the manner of his rejection). It seems likely that George Price lacked some things in his personality portfolio, but the absence of those things drove him precisely into the “startling landscapes” which W. D. Hamilton referred to when alluding to the originality and power of the Price Equation.

So I guess with that, I’m saying I highly recommend the The Price of Altruism to readers of this weblog, both for intellectual and biographical reasons.

7 Comments

  1. Why does it matter whether the term “dove” was influenced by Christianity? The suggestion was clearly not that the *concept* of the two behavior types is a result of Christianity, otherwise “hawk” would have to go too.

    I don’t see how the name “dove” is any worse than if someone called a cone-shaped, bristly polymer a “Christmas tree molecule”. There is nothing Christian about either case.

  2. arosko, don’t take things too seriously :-) since i know you, i’ll just leave at that.

  3. Prior to his work on evolution Price had corresponded with Paul Samuelson on the possibility of reworking the foundations of neoclassical economics, and, also had developed a close relationship with B. F. Skinner (though this soured as Price rejected Skinner’s Behaviorism

    Without knowing exactly what Price said in either case, it seems very possible to me that the world would have been saved a lot of grief and stupidity if the other two guys had listened to him.

  4. kind of had the same thought john.

  5. From your post on the Price equation: “it remains entirely a matter of fact whether or not the intergroup component of the formula is important in nature. I am not aware of much evidence that it is – if there were, enthusiasts for group selection would presumably bring it forward.”

    But doesn’t that evidence depend upon how much we know about the distribution of various gene allels, which is still in an early state?

  6. that’s not my post.

  7. Sorry. From David B’s post then.

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