Is selflessness in our nature?
By Sissela Bok
September 1, 2010
The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, by Oren Harman, Norton, 464 pp.
From Aesop’s fables to those of La Fontaine, talking animals—monkeys, wolves in sheep’s clothing, grasshoppers, ants—have exposed human foibles and vices and occasional virtues. In so doing, they challenge all rigid boundaries between humans and other species as well as the common view of human wrongdoing as “bestial” in nature—a term Erasmus declared deeply unfair to animals, given the scale of violence and deceit practiced by human beings.
Charles Darwin’s words, near the end of The Descent of Man, might have echoed Erasmus: “I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper … as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”
In his engaging book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, Oren Harman, a professor of the history of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel, presents a wealth of scientific research bearing on forms of cooperation, helpfulness, even self-sacrifice among many species. Altruism was “an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side,” Harman argues, a conundrum that Darwinians would need to solve, given their view of the ruthless struggle among living beings for survival:
Why do amoebas build stalks from their own bodies, sacrificing themselves in the process, so that some may climb up and be carried away from dearth to plenty on the legs of an innocent insect or the wings of a felicitous wind? Why do vampire bats share blood, mouth to mouth, at the end of a night of prey with members of the colony who were less successful in the hunt?. . . And what do all of these have to do with morality in humans: Is there, in fact, a natural origin to our own acts of kindness?
Harman offers vivid accounts of the lives and writings of a number of evolutionary biologists who have sought answers to such questions, showing how they have intersected with the remarkable career of one man who took questions about altruism to heart as few others have: “the forgotten American genius George Price, atheist-chemist and drifter turned religious evolutionary–mathematician and derelict.” Born in 1922, Price earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago, even as he worked on uranium enrichment in the Manhattan Project. He went on to do research at Bell Labs, then at the Radioisotope Lab at the Minnesota Veterans Administration Hospital, and later at IBM, while engaging in often vehement controversies about topics such as extrasensory perception and U.S.-Soviet relations. It was only in 1967, after he moved to London and was appointed to a position at the Galton Laboratory, that he focused ever more intensely on problems of altruism.
In titling his book The Price of Altruism, Harman points to the central part that George Price has come to play in the scientific study of the subject. Exchanges with biologists such as John Maynard Smith and W. D. Hamilton were crucial for Price as he perfected what is now known as the “Price equation.” Harman describes (with three appendices that set forth and elucidate the stages of the equation itself in the context of related ones) how Price arrived at his equation, aiming to explain how natural selection works at different levels at the same time, whether among genes, cells, individuals, families, groups, or even species.
The book’s title also bespeaks the personal cost for Price himself of his struggles during the London years. In 1970, he converted from being a fiercely outspoken atheist to an evangelical Christian on unusual grounds. He felt that there were just too many coincidences in his life to be mathematically possible. They had to have been intended by God, who must have chosen him not only to convert others but also to continue with his research. How did he square his scientific views about evolution with the creation story in Genesis? Providentially, perhaps, he had concluded that God had commanded him not to sign on to belief in that story.
A second conversion experience led him to feel that God wanted him to express his love for others without concern for his own well-being. In a vision, Jesus whispered to him that he should give to all who asked of him and never ask those who took anything from him to return it. He sought out alcoholics and homeless persons, sharing what money and possessions he had, inviting some to share his living quarters. His health deteriorating, hungry and emaciated, sometimes homeless himself, he came to despair of knowing what God meant for him to do or be. In January 1975 he cut a gash in his throat and bled to death on the floor of a desolate squat. Among the notes he left, one read: “To Whom It May Concern: I guess I’ve had it. George.”
Scientists familiar with the debates among evolutionary biologists about how to explain altruism will find the book absorbing from beginning to end, not least its careful elucidation of all that Price went through as he worked out his equation. Other readers, however, may feel bewildered by the profusion of individuals and events seemingly presented without discernible order. They may wonder why the book’s focus shifts back and forth from one decade to another, from one country or laboratory to another—the more so as they learn only gradually and, at first, only in a piecemeal fashion about aspects of Price’s life.
Those who want a clearer view of the book’s structure might begin by turning to the acknowledgments at the end of the book, where Harman tells how he became interested in Price’s life and came to see it as a missing link in a much larger quest for the origin of altruism. He recognized the difficulty in conveying both the theoretical and the personal challenges in this quest as it affected the lives not only of Price but of so many others. As a result, he decided to create a “double helix–like structure” for his book: one in which Price’s “own personal tale and the greater problem of the evolution of altruism would reflect and resound off each other, finally becoming inextricably interwoven.”
Reading the book with this double-helix structure in mind makes it easier to follow the intertwining accounts of lives, events, discoveries, challenges, and disagreements. With his meticulous research and his sympathetic attention to Price’s difficult last years, enriched by interviews with persons who had known Price, including his daughters, Harman brings the aspects of Price’s life together to form a profoundly moving portrait.
Whereas the double-helix metaphor does help readers piece together the different segments of Price’s life and of those with whom he interacted, it does not serve the same function when it comes to crucial distinctions among altruism and other moral concepts. Instead, Harman speaks variously of the attempt to fathom kindness, or to crack the mystery of altruism, or to understand true, genuine selflessness in man, or to arrive at the origin of altruism, sometimes of virtue or all of morality, indicating that all of these enter into the “history of a much larger quest.” Yet neither kindness nor altruism should be conflated with virtue, much less with all of morality. And even altruism itself is subject to many interpretations that should be sorted out in any effort to arrive at its roots. Some view altruism as an emotion, of kindness, perhaps, or empathy; for others, it must entail action.
When biologists speak of animal practices of self-sacrifice, altruism, kindness, and cooperation, or of infanticide, murder, slavery, or warfare, they are using a technical vocabulary, not meant to be taken literally. There is nothing problematic in using the terms in such shorthand fashion. Too often, however, these terms are casually extended to moral assertions about such practices in a manner that obscures important questions.
References to self-sacrifice on the part of amoebas, for example, are hardly meant to imply that they act out of kindliness or altruism or concern for the survival of others. It would be sentimental in the extreme to speak of their having a sense of self or of others or of what it would be to sacrifice that self for those others. But what about Darwin’s heroic monkey? Or the partridge in one of La Fontaine’s fables, who sees her young in danger and feigns being injured, dragging her wing to attract the hunter and his dog, thus saving her family, and then, when the hunter believes his dog is attacking her, flies off, laughing at the man who “pursues her in vain with his eyes”?
Scientists are still debating whether some species, apart from humans, have a “theory of mind” —whether chimpanzees, for example, can envisage what goes on in the minds of others. As John Maynard Smith and David Harper put it in Animal Signals, the question is whether they can conceive of others having a mind like their own—say in sending a misleading signal as to their whereabouts. A different question comes up with respect to altruistic acts by human beings who do have both a sense of self and a “theory of mind.” Can such acts ever be entirely selfless? Or is it the case that even seemingly altruistic choices are either wholly or at least in part self-interested?
Harman makes the dumbfounding claim that the question of whether true selfless altruism exists is one that “every human since Adam and Eve has sought desperately to answer.” Every human? But regardless of how few humans have actually sought to answer that question over the millennia, it is surely the case, as Harman persuasively shows, that Price himself had grown increasingly desperate on precisely this score:
But if becoming selfless somehow trumped the logic of genes and reciprocity, then something was amiss. If true, pure giving, neither beholden to propagating more of its kind nor dependent on the promise of being paid back, nor even, as his own equation showed, made possible by groups having to triumph over others, was a heroic slap in the face to everything science had taught him, then obviously he had not cracked any riddle.
Price felt that he had been divinely commanded to undertake such true, pure giving. Like the early alchemists seeking to distill pure gold, he hoped to find a formula or algorithm that would combine science, religion, and morality. When that effort failed, he grew to doubt God’s intentions for him. His mind spiraled into exalted, increasingly despairing states, until he finally gave up.
For Darwin, the question of human morality never had to do with pure selflessness. In The Descent of Man he expressed his considered conviction that cultural factors such as “the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, &c.” play a much more important role than natural selection in advancing what he called the moral qualities of human beings, “though to this latter agency the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense, may be safely attributed.”
Harman, in his closing pages, underscores the role that culture and education still play in human altruistic behaviors, despite claims by biological determinists that genes run the show. His book is an important contribution to the collaborative work on altruism as it relates to self-interest now increasingly under way, not only in the natural sciences but also in philosophy, political science, economics, and anthropology.
Sissela Bok is a writer and moral philosopher. She is a visiting senior fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Her most recent book is Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science.
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