The Price of Altruism
George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness
The moving tale of one man's quest to crack the mystery of altruism, an evolutionary enigma that has haunted scientists since Darwin.
Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest?
Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man laying down his life for a stranger, evolution has yielded a goodness that in theory should never be.
Set against the sweeping tale of 150 years of scientific attempts to explain kindness, The Price of Altruism tells for the first time the moving story of the eccentric American genius George Price (1922–1975), as he strives to answer evolution's greatest riddle. An original and penetrating picture of twentieth century thought, it is also a deeply personal journey. From the heights of the Manhattan Project to the inspired equation that explains altruism to the depths of homelessness and despair, Price's life embodies the paradoxes of Darwin’s enigma. His tragic suicide in a squatter’s flat, among the vagabonds to whom he gave all his possessions, provides the ultimate contemplation on the possibility of genuine benevolence.
- June 2010
- 6.4 × 9.6 in
/ 464 pages
- Territory Rights: Worldwide including Canada, but excluding the British Commonwealth.
Endorsements & Reviews
“[E]nthralling.... Extremely well researched and written with great love of the subject, The Price of Altruism reveals all sorts of personal details of momentous events in the history of science.... This is a book for anyone interested in the question, first posed by Darwin himself, of how we ended up with so much kindness in a natural world customarily depicted as 'red in tooth and claw.' Price struggled with it on an intensely personal level. His story is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal.” — Frans de Waal, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] rich and vigorous survey of the controversy over altruism and its evolutionary role, stretching from the 19th century to now.” — Sunday Times [UK]
“Ever since Charles Darwin had published his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists had wondered whether it can explain the existence of altruism. Price wanted to describe mathematically how a genetic disposition to altruism could evolve. As Mr. Harman
so vividly describes, Price ultimately became one of the vagabonds he set out to save.” — The Economist
“I stayed up a good part of the night reading... fascinating! ... Harman proves that the lives of some modern scientists are as ecstatic, tormented and filled with strange visions as those of medieval saints.” — Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
“The Price of Altruism puts Price's work into a wide scientific and social context, showing real insight into its importance and genuine sympathy for the tale of his life.” — Steve Jones, New Scientist
“Brilliant... A great story.” — Brian Appleyard, Literary Review
“Remarkable... fascinating.” — The Big Issue
“Fascinating.... Important... full of complex and deeply interesting ideas.” — Sam Leith, The Spectator
“A masterfully told story... This book is in the same class as Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind and could be as popular.” — Library Journal
“Uncommonly brilliant and deeply stimulating... almost cinematically satisfying. Harman has a rare gift for bringing ideas and thinkers to life.” — Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic
“A brilliant biography of a brilliant man. A powerful page-turner that vividly renders the obsessive absorption with the poles of cooperation and competition in nature.” — Daniel Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University
“This book is a stunning tour de force. The puzzle of altruism is revealed as it would be in a thriller, with twists and turns and surprises almost until the end.” — Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of Law, Harvard University
“A terrific book, at once scholarly and impossible to put down.” — Peter Godfrey-Smith, professor of philosophy at Harvard University
“Oren Harman's compelling new book explores one of the key questions of our era—what are the origins of altruism? A little known mathematician lies at the heart of the story. George Price recognized that acts of kindness and self-sacrifice stood blatantly opposed to most of the principles of modern Darwinism. Harman's wide-ranging intellectual quest brings this shy, anguished, and fascinating man alive with style and passion, and reminds us of the powerful emotions that can fuel great scientific achievement.” — Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin
“In this remarkable book, Oren Harman tracks George Price, an awkward, disturbed, and profoundly, almost saintly scientist.... It is an astonishing story at every level, from the destitute wanderings and genial interventions of Price to a revealing account of how modern evolutionary biology took its contemporary form.” — Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and Physics, Harvard University
“An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science.” — Kirkus Reviews