Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism (2010)

Is behavior genetically determined? This was a question that was posed in in Richard Powers' Generosity (see November 30, 2009 post), and the answer that still makes sense after reading the Price of Altruism is that specific behavior --- whether human or nonhuman --- is not genetic, but that the attrinutes that genes actually code for contain information that enable or predispose species to certain types of behavior. Environment and nurture (learning) transmit information to us as well --- above and beyond the information transmitted by genes --- and they also influence behavior.

The Price of Altruism is a wonderful title for this book --- a double entendre --- reflecting the author's mission to tell the story of one of the brightest persons of the 20th century that nobody really knew, George Price, and to tell the story of the efforts of numerous professionals in science and the social sciences to determine just who we humans are and how did we become who we are, a story that is told in various ways in a number of other books previously discussed in this blog. The behavioral mystery that George Price and the others whose intellectual pursuits paralleled that of Price --- including Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Frans deWaal, and others --- sought to unravel is why do humans behave altruistically, even if it means that the altruistic choice sacrifices the survival of the individual? In this context, the "price" of altruism refers to sacrifice, or alternatively, reciprocal exchanges that encourage cooperation rather than competition.

Central to this inquiry is whether "moral" behavior has a genetic origin, and, if so, what is the evolutionary mechanism that selects for moral behavior? Or is moral behavior the consequence of environment, and can humans and other animals shape their environment to yield a certain behavioral pattern?

George Price seemed the unlikeliest of persons to be a player in this inquiry. He cannot seem to devote himself to a single subject of interest for more than a year before moving onto the next. Price, a veritable Forrest Gump of intellectual inquiry --- he was involved with the Manhattan Project, could be found at Bell Labs at the time of the development of the transistor and knew Claude Shannon (see August 23, 2009 post), he developed something he called the Design Machine, a forerunner of CAD-CAM design software that led him briefly to work at IBM, and he dabbled in economics, game theory, and psychology (ESP), even though he had no training in those subjects either. Nothing seemed to intrigue him longer than a year or two and in his personal life he was simply not committed to anything, at least for any significant period of time. Price left the United States for London in 1967 with no particular goal in mind, until he became interested in the development of cooperative behavior. While in London, Price became familiar with William Hamilton's paper on "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior," another subject in which he had no formal training, which led him to begin corresponding with Hamilton. Soon Price was wading into the debate over whether natural selection operated on the level of the genotype, the phenotype, kin groups, or larger groups. (See November 4, 2009 post).

The big topic in this book is the relationship between the biological and evolutionary imperatives for reproduction and survival and a system of moral rules. Is selflessness --- altruistic behavior--- stronger because it is directed at close kin, or others in a close social community, or strangers? And is there a biological basis for altruistic behavior?

The contributions of George Price to the study of genetic evolution and kin selection theory and group selection are better described elsewhere. But the importance of Price's work and what he contributed to the work of others on this subject is summed up as follows:

"After all, the feeling that genes do not simply 'run the show' comports not only with our vanity but also with our exceedingly healthy intituion about reality, as well as with what science is teaching us. Of course Haldane, Maynard Smith, Hamilton, and Price knew this, too. For when they spoke of genes for altruism, they were really only using a shorthand for genes that increase the probability that their bearers will behave altruistically. So long as such behaviors have a heritable component, evolutionary reasoning applies. Despite the incautious remarks of scientists and, more often, of science writers this does not mean that a behavior is determined; culture and education are still acknowledged as playing a central, even exclusive role. There may be no behavior in humans, strictly speaking, that has no genetic component, but that's a world away from saying that our genes determine who we are and what we choose. As biologists and anthropologists and mathematicians and philosophers who study the subject have come to see, natural selection based on cultural variation has produced behaviors that have nothing to do directly with genes." [Emphasis supplied].

Harman's gift in this book is not just the biography of George Price, but also the intellectual heritage that both preceded and followed his life on the subject of the evolutionary origins of social behavior. Despite a 7-year long interest in this subject while in London, Price continued to divert his interest other interests. He "converted" from atheism to Christianity, and made a serious effort at trying to make his life more "Christ-like," which left him living among London's homeless and downtrodden, giving away what little assets he had to give to help others. He fell into a life poverty and sickness, and toward the end of his life appeared to contemplate that there may be more to life than altruism and sacrifice. He committed suicide in early January 1975.

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