For Goodness’ Sake

11dewall-articleInlineFrans de Waal reviews Oren Harman's The Price of Altruism, in The New York Times:

Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else, we are urged at the beginning of every flight. Altruism often requires that we take care of ourselves first, which is exactly what the subject of Oren Harman’s enthralling book “The Price of Altruism” tragically failed to do. The scientist George Price was an obscure and enigmatic figure, unknown outside his field of study. Born near New York City in 1922 and originally trained as a chemist, Price worked on the Manhattan Project, at Bell Labs and at I.B.M. before moving to London in 1967, after botched surgery for thyroid cancer. There he became a population geneticist and tried to solve the mystery of altruism with brilliant mathematical formulas. He had trouble solving his own problems, though. Having shown little sensitivity to others in his previous life (he abandoned his wife and daughters and was a lousy son to his aging mother), Price swung to the other extreme. Long a staunch skeptic and atheist, he became a devout Christian, gave up all his possessions and dedicated himself to caring for the city’s vagabonds. By the age of 50, he was as gaunt as an old man, with rotting teeth and a raspy voice. He killed himself in 1975.

But “The Price of Altruism” is about far more than Price himself. It covers the entire 150-year history of scientists’ researching, debating and bickering about a theoretical problem that lies at the core of behavioral biology, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology: Why is it that organisms sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others? As a scientist, Price, following longstanding tradition, loved to pit altruism against selfishness. The sharper the contrast, the deeper the mystery of how altruism might have evolved. Why would animals worry about the survival of others, sometimes even nonrelatives? Is this not against the law of nature?

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.