Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Reviewlet: The Price of Altruism

On the surface, The Price of Altriusm by Oreh Harman is two books in one. The first, the biography of an idea, the mathematical formulation for the evolution of human altruism; the second, an impressively detailed biography of a person, George Price, a fairly minor figure in the history of this scientific pursuit. Being someone who researches and teaches the mathematics of altruism, I was rather interested in the former, but rather put off by the latter; why pick such a minor contributor to the science of altruism. But by books end, it was clear that neither biography could be complete without the other, and the life of George Price is the perfect vehicle to understand human altruism.

George Price is an odd figure, who spent much of his life studying the mathematical basis of the evolution of altruism, but had an odd family life, largely abandoning his family, never really holding down any job, before giving away every thing he owned to helpless homeless alcoholics before dying in a homeless shelter himself. Along the way, he befriended several Nobel prize winners and published a few seminal papers in Nature on what later became the Price Equation and Evolutionary Steady State in game theory.

I was skeptical at first about the discussion on the mathematics of altruism, because part of my interpretation on the literature is that while the mathematics and evolution can offer some solid insights into animal behavior, and maybe some rough intuition about human behavior, but human behavior at the very least includes some notions of reciprocity (more what I study) and to fully understand, requires far deeper understanding of the human condition than math can currently provide.

And that's the brilliance, because the point is that it acknowledges the boundaries of mathematics and science, "Wittgenstein's wall" the book calls it call it, similarly James C Scott calls it Metis (or wisdom), and Dewey remarked on the remarkable ability of art to capture and communicate far more complicated ideas than math cannot. To mine the deeper truths of altruism, science is insufficient, and thus the book turns to the lessons as reflected in George Price's complicated, messy, altruistic life. His depression, his delusions, but ultimately his humanity. His life conveys nuances and depths about altruism that science never can.

Along the way, you learn about the vagaries and arbitrariness of scientific peer review (heartening for someone who's career depends on that process). You learn about life in Stuyvessant High School in the 30's, and life at Harvard and Chicago during World War II. (Randomly Price grew up on the street I currently live on, and later lived in the town I grew up in.) The real heated debates about psychic power that took place in the pages of Science and Nature (that Price published on arguing both sides). It was also fascinating for someone who last took a biology class almost 20 years ago, when I was 14, to learn about theoretical biology and how much it paralleled theoretical economics, and we learn about the collaborations and interactions between some of the great names in economics (von Neumann, Samuelson, even Bob Frank...) and those in biology (Hamilton, Maynard-Smith), and for a profession like economics that largely ignores the history of our ideas, it was fascinating to learn how these ideas that I use and teach were developed. It was also useful to learn that I wasn't the only person that objected to Hamilton's kin selection formula which we learned in AP biology, that I should only save my brother if the cost is 50%, because we share 50% of the same genes... but we actually share much more than 50% of the the same genes since our parents likely shared mostly the same genes. And that George Price was the one who made that correction to the literature.

However I mostly appreciated the way the book synthesizes two very different paths to knowledge (entwined like a double helix, the author notes) on its quest to understand altruism, it unabashedly discusses the technical and mathematic, but also the innately human as well.

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