Saddest Christmas story you would ever want to read


All the world’s religions, far as I understand, teach us to be kind and giving to your fellow humans – to be altruistic – ‘selfless concern for the welfare of others’. And since the holiday season is upon us (I know this only represent a certain proportion of the world’s religion holiday season) I thought I might tell you a bit of the science behind altruism and one personal story behind it.

One new component to my blog in 2009 will be inspirational stories, but of course there is always the other end of the spectrum that can throw further light on the human condition.

In 1999, taking a year off from pursuing my PhD, I was randomly wandering through a book store looking for inspiration, and was perusing the science section when I randomly came across a book by Andrew Brown: “Darwin Wars: the scientific battle for the soul of man”.

Included in this book was the tragic story of George Price, which is one of the saddest stories I have ever heard. I remember being startled by the story as I read the first few pages standing in the bookstore that day. It lead me to question the PhD I was pursuing and inspired me take a long bus ride to California to talk to two experts in the research field that George Price studied.

Before I tell you George’s story I will briefly outline his background.

– He received his university degree from the University of Chicago with a chemistry degree in 1943, and his PhD in 1946 also from Chicago which included work on the Manhattan project doing uranium analysis.

– 1946-48 he was a chemistry instructor at Harvard, 1950-57 George was a research associate at the University of Minnesota.

– George tried to write a book (57-61), “No Easy Way” (for Harper’s) about the cold war between USA, Russia, and China but he found the world changed faster than he could write about it, so he never finished his project.

– In 1955 he got divorced after 8 years of marriage. Part of the marital problems was that he was a devout atheist equaled by his wife’s deep Christian beliefs.

– While working for IBM (1961-1967) he was treated for thyroid cancer (1966) and during a surgery to remove a tumor there was nerve damage that resulted in his left shoulder  partially paralyzed, and needing to take thyroxine medication.

– With his marriage failing and money from his medical insurance (settlement over the botched surgery) he moved to Britain in 1967 for a fresh start.

London Years:

In one of London’s libraries George Price read the 1964 seminal paper by H. D. Hamilton on kin selection (to complete this sad story see the end of this piece to find out the final chapter in Mr. Hamilton’s life).

Kin selection is when the behavior of an organism is helpful to the reproductive success of its relatives at a cost to itself. This can be viewed as altruistic (altruism), and there is a great deal of research (and controversy) on this subject and the related field of group selection. Humans (and a number of other organisms) display altruistic behaviors, even to non-related individuals. We will help others even if we incur a cost – e.g. run into a burning building to try to save a stranger.

George Price was shocked at the cold formality of the math presented by W. D. Hamilton to explain human kindness to his fellow human. The math placed strict limits on how good humans could be – and whatever goodness there was in humans, there was nothing noble about it – it was simply evolutionary genetics. But it also suggested that humans capacity for lying, cheating, treachery, cruelty,and selfishness was impossible to eliminate – it is part of the evolutionary (human) condition.

So George launched into his own formal examination of altruism without any formal math training. Surprising to himself, he found a even better and more comprehensive mathematical explanation of the evolution of altruism called the covariance equation, later to be called the Price Equation. The equations power gave scientist in the field a formal method to undertake a hierarchical analysis of evolution and natural selection. And of course with this it also allowed the analysis of group selection and altruism. He published his work as a single author 1970 Nature paper (with no references) (He additionally published another Nature paper in 1973).

Even before he got his equation published people realized its potential as illustrated by this story of when in 1968 armed with his equation George went to a cold call visit to Galton Laboratory at University College in which he was directed to Cedric Smith (from James Schwartz, ‘Death of an altruist’):

Smith brought Price to the department chairman. Eighty minutes later, Price had an honorary appointment, an office, and keys. He left walking on air.

Now that is a great story of the recognition of high level ability despite George’s lack of formal training in the field. But unfortunately despite professional success at a more personal level things were not so easy.

It has been suggest that the discovery of his equation for altruism drove George into a deep depression, and then later a search to somehow rescue his lost faith in humanity (the human condition).

In June 6, 1970 George had a deeply religious experience and became a strong believer in Christ (previously he was a strident, dogmatic atheist). With his recently found religion he devoted his life to helping the homeless. He opened his apartment to the homeless to the point he some time had to sleep at his office in Galton laboratory.

Due to new construction he was forced to move from his apartment and no longer could provide shelter for the homeless and he ended up homeless himself. He started living in a number of homeless squats in North London. George was also dealing with his own inner demons that is probably hard for any of us to fully understand. Despite professional success he could not shake his depression.

Christmas 1974:

From the opening of Andrew Brown’s Darwin Wars which stunned me many year ago in which George’s friend W. D. Hamilton comes to his squat near Euston station:

A mattress on the floor, one chair, a table, and several ammunition boxes made the only furniture. Of all the books and furnishing I remembered from our first meeting in his fairly luxurious flat near Oxford Circus there remained some cheap clothes, a two-volume copy of Proust, and his typewriter. A cheap suitcase, and some cardboard boxes contained most of his papers, others were scattered about on ammunition chests.

W. D. Hamilton came to George’s apartment to identify his friend’s body. George was found dead shortly after the Christmas of 1974. Sometime after Christmas George Price cut his throat’s carotid artery with nail scissors. The death of an altruist – was the reality of human nature, and his own equation, which helped formally explain it, too much for George to handle?

Now of course there are many conflicting theories of why George Price took his own life so tragically. He was a devout atheist that discovered a beautiful, but simple, math behind the evolution of altruism. His equation helped explain that humans were not inherently good or bad – but simply a product of evolution. One could not hate the brutality of humans, or rejoice in an act of human kindness. Was it his own cold discovery that first drove him to religion, and then suicide? Like I said he had his own demons – be that simple biologically driven depression (which we still do not understand) or more psychological (assuming you can tease these two apart).

How much more did George Price have inside himself to offer to the world – in the form of greater insight into evolutionary driven human behavior to the good he was doing for the homeless? He supposedly wanted to move into the economic field for he thought his analytical skills could be best utilized there to help humankind.

George Price’s fundamental contribution to the field was largely ignored for the next 20 odd years until S. A Frank (one of the professors I visited in California) reintroduced the field to George’s work (George Price’s contributions to evolutionary genetics). Today you can find many papers that are influenced and inspired by the Price equation.

I am sure I didn’t do full justice to the life of George Price and could only provide a flavor of his story and the story of altruism here in this short blog piece. I encourage those that are interested to read James Schwartz magazine piece, or Andrew Brown’s book to get a more complete picture.

(W. D. Hamilton (considered the greatest evolutionary biologist of the 20th century) died from malaria which he contracted in the Congo as he collected primate feces in an effort to find evidence for the controversial theory of the origin of HIV).

3 comments for “Saddest Christmas story you would ever want to read

  1. JB
    December 23, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Merry Christmas! I look forward to the more uplifting inspirational stories. I think your piece some time ago about the guy who almost won the Nobel prize is now a working for practically minimum wage even sadder.

  2. December 26, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Ward… you need to read Rod Brooks from iRobot and MI/t labs. He talks about intelligence being layers of behaviors and how elegance and simplicity is the goal for designers because the good stuff will emerge in was we won’t expect. He says it troubles him that life might be much more simple and less impressive than the creationists like to think it is.

    Think about it.. if sex was not hard wired in, would we eventually not bother? If it was boring and painful with no reward save for the new life? Worse still, what if there was nothing that made us all make faces as babies and respond so quickly the sound of them crying? Yea, we’d die out pretty fast.

    So, do we “do the right thing” because we know it is right? or does it feel right because that reward system is keeping the human race going? Both are probably true and some cooperation will measure and monetize this. Remember the Matrix film… the AI tried a virtual world were everyone was happy and it failed. How do we measure the minimum required cruelty and opportunism for a stable population I wonder?

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