Before Darwin, the only problem with altruism was that there wasn’t enough of it in the world. After Darwin, altruism emerged as a genuine scientific problem. If animals, including human beings, evolved by natural selection—a merciless process in which organism struggles against organism and all that matters is outcompeting everyone else—how could altruism arise? How could natural selection promote, or even allow, behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?
This is the problem at the heart of Oren Harman’s new book, The Price of Altruism. The punning title refers to the protagonist of his book, George Price, a brilliant figure who performed fundamental work in the 1970s on several problems in evolutionary biology, including altruism. (Price committed suicide in 1975.) Harman is a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he chairs the graduate program in science, technology, and society. He is the author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome (2004), an intellectual biography of the botanist Cyril Darlington. In both that book and the present one, Harman takes up the tale of a scientist who is largely unknown to the general public but admired among scientific specialists. The subject of The Price of Altruism provides particularly rich material, both scientifically and biographically, for such a project. Price’s work in evolutionary biology, while abstract, was breathtakingly original and deep. And Price the man makes for a fascinating, if often disturbing and ultimately tragic, story.
Though Harman’s writing is a bit bumpy in places and the book sometimes feels too self-consciously in the tradition of A Beautiful Mind, it is, on the whole, a remarkable achievement. Harman has done his homework. He not only documents the details of Price’s scientific efforts but also mines his personal correspondence as well as the recollections of his associates and family. Harman also skillfully handles some of the most abstract ideas to emerge from evolutionary biology, including the notoriously subtle “Price Equation.” Although I will argue that Harman goes overboard in a few places, there can be little doubt that his book represents a major contribution to our understanding of an important but neglected scientist.
The Price of Altruism does much more than tell the story of George Price and his science. It also canvasses the entire history of biological attempts to explain the origins of altruism, thereby placing Price’s work in its intellectual context. As Harman emphasizes, the history of these attempts is long and complex. Indeed it begins with Darwin himself. Darwin recognized that altruism posed a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection. He also saw that, while we often equate altruism with acts of human kindness or sacrifice—the saint who surrenders his belongings or the soldier who throws himself on the grenade—some of the clearest examples can be found in other species, where there can be little …