UNEXPLAINED

Episode 6 Extra: The Ultimate Price

For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In last week’s episode, Demons in Suburbia, we looked at the tragic case of Michael Taylor.  The story, aside from its obvious implication of serious mental illness, brought up the notion of free-will and the degree to which any of us can be truly held accountable for our actions.

For one man in particular, this idea became an obsession for which he would ultimately give his life.

The story of the maverick academic George R. Price, as explored by Adam Curtis in his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, is nothing short of astonishing.

George was born close to New York City in 1922, during the era of America’s Great Depression.  After the premature death of his father, George’s mother, a former opera singer, raised her son single handedly with little money or support.  Yet, despite his impoverished childhood, the precocious George went on to graduate with a degree in Chemistry from the University Chicago before taking a teaching post at Harvard.

At some point George met and fell in love with Julia Madigan a devout Roman Catholic, with whom he had two daughters, Annmarie and Kathleen.  For many the relationship seemed a strange fit due to George’s equally devout atheism.  It was a contention that would ultimately prove irreconcilable and the pair divorced in 1955.  The event would prove one of many turning points in the young chemist’s progressively erratic life.

By his mid-40s George had become deeply unsatisfied. Despite working a number of prestigious jobs, what drove George more than anything, according to author Oren Harman, was a desperate desire to achieve greatness.  His was an obviously superior intellect but one that had yet to become established.

But all that was about to change. 

Whilst working for IBM, George became convinced that colleagues were unfairly profiting from his ideas.  Then in 1966, George was left paralysed after a botched operation to remove a tumour from his thyroid.  One night, lying in bed George became convinced that something had to change.  In 1967, George decided to abandon his family and new York City, bought a flight to London and and went in search of greatness.

Three and a half thousand miles away, a shy and lonely evolutionary Biologist was spending his night sat on a bench at London’s Waterloo station scribbling furiously into a notebook.

Now a widely celebrated academic, considered by Richard Dawkins to be the greatest biologist since Darwin, at the time William Donald Hamilton was an impoverished academic with little more than a 2:1 degree in Genetics to his name.  He had chosen to work in the station because being surrounded by all the waiting passengers made him feel less alone.

From that humble bench in Waterloo station, Hamilton devised what would later become one of the greatest vindications of Darwinism.   Although somewhat crude and unpolished, Hamilton’s early equations suggested something truly startling.  In an idea, later popularized in Dawkins’, ‘A Selfish Gene’, Hamilton had discovered that altruistic behaviour was nothing but a biological function designed to better the survival of your personal gene pool.  

The theory known as Kin Selection helps to demonstrate, for example, why colonies of bees are largely populated by sterile workers that would otherwise be expected to die out.  Or indeed why a bees will sting despite sacrificing their lives in the process.

According to Oren Harmen, Price had been living a solitary existence in London shuffling around from one late library to another when he came across Hamilton’s equations.  What he discovered shocked him deeply.  Convinced there must have been a flaw in his reasoning, Price quietly set about disproving his theory.  Much to his horror, Price not only found the theory to be correct but he also found a way to improve it.

As an extension of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, The Price Equation allows us to understand the competition between groups rather than individuals, but most specifically, how the behaviour of selfish individuals will compromise the fitness of the group overall.

Furthermore, it could be suggested that all behavioural traits are merely mechanisms that ensure the survival of that group be it your family, or the genes that make up the individual.  In other words, what we think of as love, may be nothing more than the result of a carefully orchestrated self-interest.     

Within months Price was given a fellowship at University College London and became a well-respected member in his new field of evolutionary biology.  Price also began to work closely with William Hamilton whose work he had originally sort to disprove. 

Later Price teamed up with acclaimed biologist, John Maynard Smith to develop the evolutionary stable strategy commonly known as ESS.  Drawing on the earlier work of the mathematician John Nash the strategy helps explain why same species of snakes tend not to use their poisonous fangs on each other or why male reindeer’s antlers a more decorative than dangerous. 

Price had without doubt achieved everything he had craved, not only had he gained the respect of his peers but now his legacy was also secured.  But something was wrong. 

Perhaps it was the guilt of abandoning his own family on the other side of the Atlantic, or merely the enormity of his discovery bur Price had become deeply unsettled.  If altruism was just a biological conceit then a true love and kindness, what many would consider the fundamental elements of what is good, are essentially meaningless.

It isn’t known exactly when or how it happened but one night walking past a church in the area of Marylebone in London, the profoundly atheist George Price entered the church a completely changed man. 

From that moment George devoted himself to a severe form of Christian asceticism.  Believing he had been put on earth by god to teach human beings the true meaning of love, he proceeded to rid himself of all money and possessions.  Everything he had, he gave those whom he felt needed it more. even offering up his apartment to the homeless.

In essence George wanted to disprove his own theory, to show that kindness and love could transcend genetic predisposition.  That self-sacrifice was possible without ulterior motive, and that his will was ultimately his own.

Hamilton, who had grown close to Price was quick to notice the worrying signs of mental deterioration.  The descent was rapid and would in the end prove to be fatal. On January 6th 1975, alone in a North London squat with little more than a mattress on the floor, in a final act of defiance, George Price took a pair of nail scissors to his throat. Minutes later this strange, brilliant and extraordinary man was dead.

A tragic end to a deeply troubled mind but nonetheless a story of startling relevance, living as we do in a time where Ayn Randian notions praising the benefits of self interest and greed have never been more questionable.

And what then of selfless love? 

For those who might also despair at the implication of Price’s equation, you could do worse than to take a quiet stroll down to a small corner of the city of London.  Hidden partway between St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London you may find yourself stumbling upon Postman’s Park.  Once inside, towards the back you’ll find The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Unveiled in 1900 the beautiful monument commemorates the lives of 62 individuals, who selflessly sacrificed themselves attempting to save others.

Lives such as that of 12-year-old David Selves from Woolwich, who died on September 12th 1886 after attempting to rescue his playfellow from drowning. As David fought desperately to save his friend he too succumbed, sinking below the waters clasping his friend in his arms.

© Richard MacLean Smith


Sources

1.    De Waal, F. (2010), For Goodness’ Sake, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/deWaal-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

2.    Brown, A (1996), Altruistic equations that killed a good man, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/altruistic-equations-that-killed-a-good-man-1358399.html

3.    Geroge Price Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._Price

4.    The Price Equation Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_equation

5.    Harman, O (2010), Selflessness of strangers, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/node/16160773

6.    Joliffe, T. (2015), The Homeless Scientist Who Tried to Prove Selflessness Doesn’t Exist, Vice, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/george-price-altruism