The good, the great, and the self-interested

22 April 2016

Andrew Brown considers the astonishing life story of George Price, the subject of a recent play


Hive rules: the co-operative behaviour of honeybees can be explained by kin selection

Hive rules: the co-operative behaviour of honeybees can be explained by kin selection

THE story of George Price — scientist, atheist, then radical Christian, and, finally, suicide — is one of the most philosophically interesting knots of 20th-century intellectual history. He was a man who wanted to be both good and great. He sacrificed his family to his desire for greatness, and then sacrificed his career to his desire for goodness.

He died, alone and penniless, in a squat behind Euston Station, stabbing his own carotid artery after clearing the floor so that he would not bleed on any of his possessions. His funeral was attended by only a few tramps and two Fellows of the Royal Society.

The best short account of his life is in the collected papers of W. D. Hamilton, one of the men at his funeral, although there is a little more in my own book The Darwin Wars, which was sparked by reading Hamilton.

In the early 1960s, Hamilton discovered and formulated, in pages of dense mathematics, the principle of “kin selection”, which explains how self-sacrificing instincts may spread through an evolving population, even though they damage the organisms that bear them (in Hamilton’s arguments, ants and other social instincts).

Price was horrified by this argument when he first came across it. He was an American scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project — which produced the first nuclear weapons during the Second World War — as a chemist. Later, he become a science journalist, and worked at IBM. But he had also been a believer in progress, and a devout atheist, filled with scorn at the thought that there might be supernatural explanations for anything.

One of the few scientific papers that he published was a polemic against the possibility of ESP. The breakdown of his marriage was attributed, at least in part, to the vehemence of his objection to his wife’s strong Roman Catholic faith. He seems to have believed that goodness was something that could be attained by human efforts, and that there were no natural limits to the capacity of reason and benevolence to improve our world.


Hamilton’s work suggested that Price’s earlier optimism had been completely wrong: what we apprehend as goodness is merely one strategy among many to ensure that some genes increase in frequency at the expense of others.

Seen from a gene’s-eye view (a perspective that Hamilton was the first to imagine), there is no significant difference between a Christian martyr and an ant that drowns as part of a bridge to enable its formic nest-mates to cross a river — or, for that matter, between a bee that stings and dies to protect the hive, and an IS suicide-bomber. What humans experience as emotions can be analysed by the biologist as strategies.


ALTHOUGH he had set out to disprove Hamilton’s conclusions, Price ended with an equation that both generalised and clarified them. Later — collaborating with another evolutionary biologist, John Maynard Smith — he worked on the implications of game theory for biology. These, too, seemed to show that goodness could flourish to only a limited extent in the world, and that the degree of its flourishing could be predicted mathematically if the problem were correctly analysed.

This insight was dramatised, and to some extent vulgarised, by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, but Dawkins continued to write as if moral goodness were separable from selfish biology and existed on some kind of transcendent plane: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs.”

Hamilton did not believe that. Neither, I think, did Price. For Hamilton, the answer was a fatalistic romanticism, in which we could not escape free will. Hamilton saw very clearly that, if there was a huge struggle between co-operation and competition within the gene pool, then the same struggle must be fought out within each one of us, and there was no hope of a final resolution within an individual life.

Price’s solution was more drastic. Shortly after his formulation of the equation, he had some kind of mystical experience near his flat north of Oxford Circus, and rushed into the nearest church — All Souls’, Langham Place. He announced to a rather bewildered priest there his conversion to a profoundly idiosyncratic form of Christianity. In the figure of Jesus, he found the transcendent goodness that biology had seemed to close off from the natural world.


AS AN atheist, he had been an insufferable zealot. Now, he became an insufferable zealot for Christianity.

Price took those portions of the New Testament literally which almost no one does. He really did sell most of his goods and give them to the poor — in his case, street people. Not content with his generosity, they also stole from him. He had to leave his office at UCL after the alcoholic husband of one of the alcoholic women he had helped took to standing in the street outside and screaming abuse all day.

He lost his flat, and moved into a succession of squats. He took a job as a night watchman. And then he lost his faith in Christianity. Shortly afterwards, he killed himself. According to Hamilton, the priest at Price’s funeral said: “The trouble with George was that he took his Christianity too seriously.”


A PLAY about Price, Calculating Kindness, has been running at a tiny theatre behind Euston Station, close to where he worked and died. I went to see it last week, and was impressed by the acting, and by the scenes from Price’s marriage in his period as an insufferable atheist, convinced of his own genius. These would have been moving even if I had not been seeing it in the company of an ex-wife who might have had her own views on marriage to conceited and ambitious young men.

But that was the only portion of the play that really caught fire in human terms. The figures of Hamilton and Maynard Smith were combined into one character, played by an actor who looked and carried himself nothing like either.

Least satisfying were the discussions of the implications of the equations, and of the world-view behind them. They really do not show that altruism cannot exist, or that we are “really” selfish. Incidentally, the term “altruism” can be very misleading here. It is better to use the term “co-operation”, as Sarah Coakley does in her 2012 Gifford Lectures on the subject. The real lesson of the Price equations is that goodness is a natural phenomenon, with all the terrifying limitations that this entails.

As I wrote in The Darwin Wars, “The Price equations show that truly self-sacrificing behaviour can exist among animals, and even humans, but they also seem to show that there is nothing noble in it. Only behaviour which helps to spread the genes that cause it can survive in the very long term. Since man, too, is an animal, the human capacity for altruism must be strictly limited; and our capacity for cruelty, treachery and selfishness impossible to eradicate.

”Through algebra, George Price had found proof of Original Sin.”

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