The scientist who tried to be as selfless as possible until he was killed • Good Non profit


Sunday, January 6th marks the 44th anniversary of the death of someone whose life I think a lot: the evolutionary biologist, George Price.

Price is perhaps best known for his equation, Price, which takes many forms but is perhaps more easily understood in its "simple" form:

wΔz= cov (wI,zI)

"He captured the essence of evolution by natural selection into a simple formula," said science journalist Michael Regnier. Explain. "It describes how, in a population of reproductive individuals, whether it is people, plants or robots that breed, any trait (z) that improves physical fitness (w) will increase in the population with each new generation; if a line diminishes the physical form, it will diminish. "

Here, "physical form", in the technical and biological sense, refers to the degree to which a trait improves the reproductive success of an organism.

You can find an explanation of blunter in the 2007 horror film WΔZ (which takes its name from the left half of the equation), in which a biologist played by Paul Kaye explains to our heroes Melissa George and Stellan Skarsgård:

Price's equation is useful for describing natural selection in general, but it is particularly interesting for explaining a particularly confusing biological phenomenon: altruism.

As early as Darwin, the existence of organizations that sacrifice themselves and are willing to give their lives, and their own ability to reproduce, for the sake of others, has been a headache for the theory of # 39; s evolution. Regnier gives the example of the worker ants, "who are sterile and therefore literally have no physical form". How do they continue to exist if, by design, they can not produce offspring sharing their features?

In attempting to answer this question, Price was inspired by an earlier equation by another mid-century evolutionary biologist, WD Hamilton, who claimed that altruism could occur when organisms were acting in favor of their genetic parents.

The biologist of the horror film above offers a good example, if it is too simplified. Suppose you have a group of monkeys in a large cage, then add a monkey-eating snake to the cage. One of the monkeys then pulls the snake into a corner of the cage, so the snake eats it, giving the other monkeys the time and opportunity to work together and kill the snake.

This, of course, prevents the devoured monkey from having more offspring. But as the dead monkey is related to live monkeys, the dead monkey the genes are actually more prevalent because of his sacrifice. These genes include genes related to self-sacrifice, creating a reinforcement cycle that makes future generations of monkeys altruistic even more than if the first altruistic monkey had not sacrificed.

The Hamilton rule, as we know now, formalized this phenomenon as:

rB> C

Decomposed, the formula suggests that the genes of altruism will evolve if the cost (C) among the altruists are compensated by the advantages for reproduction (B) to those assisted, multiplied by the probability (r) that the beneficiaries share the altruistic genes.

Since r is necessarily much higher for blood relatives, the equation explains the origins of altruism as an extension of sacrifice for the sake of one's loved ones. Even before Hamilton's formulation, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly jokingly said that he give your life to save two brothers or eight cousins, which captures the same central idea.

How Price's life has collapsed

Price's work suggests another way of spreading altruism. His equation did not favor genetic similarity.

"Natural selection is irrelevant to why individuals end up in groups," says historian Oren Harman in his biography titled Price, titled The price of altruism. "Whether it's common descent, similarity of traits or any other pretense, it does not matter." If a group of people with altruistic genes met, the sacrifice on behalf of the other would spread the gene of altruism, for example. exactly the same reason that the sacrifice for blood relatives made sense under Hamilton's reign.

But the conclusion also disrupted Price. If altruism can spread when altruists group together, its opposite – wickedness or harm to another organism, even if no individual benefit results, can also spread if malicious organisms gather together. "What determined whether a living being had to act kindly or mischievously had nothing to do with 'essence' or 'inner core' – both, after all, resided in us," writes Harman. "Instead, if the surrounding creatures were alike, altruism could evolve; if they were different, the solution was malice. Pure pure goodness was a fiction. "

Deriving the equation, Price found a job at University College London. (He showed the equation to John Maynard Smith, another prominent biologist, and within the next 90 minutes, Smith and the department director had assigned him a position and an honorary appointment.)

It can be argued that this has also contributed to ruining his life.

About the same time he discovered the equation, Price became an incredibly devout Christian. At first, it took the form of an increasingly intense biblical hermeneutics – including a quest to know the "real" date of Easter, to which, according to him, most churches had been deceived – but a vision of God that he claims to have experienced in 1972 transformed his faith. the convincing that he had been too literal and insufficiently humanistic.

In 1973, he began to invite to his home a large number of homeless people met around Soho Square and London's Euston Station. After the end of his lease, he became homeless himself. At that time he published a paper with Smith who is the cover of Nature.

Finally, he and a homeless boyfriend, who went through Peg Leg Pete (I swear all this is in Harman's book, I'm somewhat downplaying him), joined a squatters house together. Price will jump from house to house squatters home until his death. "Price was probably experiencing psychotic delusions, paranoia and hallucinations beyond her vision of Jesus, not to mention depression exacerbated by thyroid hormone deficiency," Regnier writes. "For him, the most rational explanation available was that he had been chosen by God to discover Price's equation and become an extreme altruistic."

He left his position at University College London after a purse had been exhausted (but not before he remembered so memorable in the hallways shouting that he had "Hotline to Jesus"). Towards the end of his life, he seemed to be stabilizing and was looking for a job in economics, in the hope that a new field would satisfy him.

Then, on January 6, 1975, he died by suicide.

What other altruists can learn from George Price

It is a bit inaccurate, and a bit too casual, to say that Price's suicide is only the result of his extreme selfless efforts that tore his life apart. His thyroid problems have contributed to depression and possibly hallucinations. "The obvious answer" behind the suicide, writes Harman, "is that George was sick."

But to understand his death in the context of his philosophical trajectory is equally enlightening. Harman notes that, shortly before his death, he "seemed to have determined that to be a full-time unselfish angel was going nowhere." He had not been able to answer the question. question harassing him through his scientific work and his religious conversions, a question Harman sums up: "How could he know, apart from the ant, the monkey and all the other creatures that abound in nature, if his kindness, human kindness was really authentic and pure? "

I have a lot of questions about George Price. Why did it matter to him as much as his goodness is true – why was he not content to say that this existed, as proof that the phenomena he has studied at the level of the population have not determined individual destiny? Why was his approach to altruism so costly and individually expensive – let people live at home, leave his home to live among them and help them with alcoholism and legal problems – while he was at home. he could tell a compelling story that his career and charity a good job allows, would do more good than that?

But I think we can draw at least two lessons from his story for those who, after him, have tried to do good. One of them may be obvious, but: get mental health treatment if you need it and be there for people close to you who need mental health treatment .

But the second, more general lesson is that personal care is important. Price's altruism consumes everything to the point of self-destruction and collapse. It was not good for him, of course. But it was not good for the homeless community he joined and who tried to help either. This is not an affirmation of Price's character, that I do not really feel in a position to judge. But it is a statement about the value of altruism that consumes as an ethos.

It is tempting, if you feel attracted to donating a large portion or all of your salary to a charity, or abandon a comfortable job to make another one that, at your opinion, has more impact, to think that you must maximize, it is a kind of betrayal towards stop and take care of yourself. This is not it. This is probably the best way to continue to do well.

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