Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Price of Altruism

I've been meaning to read this book since listening to an interview with the author. See also this review by Razib of the blog Gene Expression.

Amazon: ... 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.

The book works well as a biography, and as an intellectual / scientific history for the lay person, but anyone who understands some math will probably want a more precise discussion of what Price actually did. For that, I highly recommend this paper:

George Price’s Contributions to Evolutionary Genetics

J . theor . Biol . (1995) 175, 373–388

George Price studied evolutionary genetics for approximately seven years between 1967 and 1974. During that brief period Price made three lasting contributions to evolutionary theory; these were: (i) the Price Equation, a profound insight into the nature of selection and the basis for the modern theories of kin and group selection; (ii) the theory of games and animal behavior, based on the concept of the evolutionarily stable strategy; and (iii) the modern interpretation of Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection, Fisher’s theorem being perhaps the most cited and least understood idea in the history of evolutionary genetics. This paper summarizes Price’s contributions and briefly outlines why, toward the end of his painful intellectual journey, he chose to focus his deep humanistic feelings and sharp, analytical mind on abstract problems in evolutionary theory.

Here is a wonderful Price quote from the paper (Price was not trained as a geneticist and came to it as an outsider):

When Shannon’s ‘‘Mathematical Theory of Communication’’ appeared in 1948, many scientists must have felt surprise to find that at so late a date there had still remained an opportunity to develop so fundamental a scientific area. Perhaps a similar opportunity exists today in respect to ‘selection theory’. ...

[*Sigh* where is all the low-hanging fruit today? ;-) ]

Harman's book was partially inspired by this article on Price which appeared originally in (the now defunct) Lingua Franca.

I'll go out on a limb and say that for a certain kind of person books like The Price of Altruism can be downright *painful* to read. The whole time I was reading the book I kept thinking: when is the author going to get to the point and give us a concise (compressed = mathematical!) and precise summary of Price's contributions? He finally does in the appendices, but they look like they were cribbed from papers like the one I've linked to above.

Neal Stephenson summarizes my point well in Cryptonomicon, writing about the math prodigy character Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (who, in the novel, spends time with Alan Turing at Princeton):

Cryptonomicon: ... The basic problem for Lawrence was that he was lazy. He had figured out that everything was much simpler if, like Superman with his x-ray vision, you just stared through the cosmetic distractions and saw the mathematical skeleton. Once you found the math in the thing, you knew everything about it, and you could manipulate it to your heart's content with nothing more than a pencil and a napkin ...

Of course, not everyone can do this, which brings us to a common theme on this blog: bounded cognition.


Shawn said...

I just read Wikipedia's page on George R. Price and apparently he committed suicide by slashing his throat with nail scissors. Nail scissors -- seriously?

Steve Sailer said...

"George Price?"

Ever notice how many of that generation of evolutionary theorists sound like they just made up their names as they were checking into a fleabag hotel to hole up from the law? Ed Wilson, John Smith, Bill Hamilton, George Williams, George Price. Yeah, sure ...

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