The price of altruism

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Audio Transcript:

Why do people give money to help earthquake victims in far-off lands, or adopt orphans from overseas? If Darwin's theory tells us that life is a competition, then how did altruism evolve? A scientist who helped solve that riddle is the focus of a new biography by Israeli science historian Oren Harman. The World's Rhitu Chatterjee spoke to Harman, our guest in the World Science Forum.

MARCO WERMAN: It may sometimes seem that violence and selfishness are the foundation of human nature. And yet, people are also capable of profound kindness. Consider the stories of ethnic Hutus who saved the lives of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. Or the outpouring of aid to help Haiti after the earthquake. Much of it from people who have nothing to do with the island nation. If evolution is all about survival of the fittest, then how did altruism evolve? That question is at the heart of a new book. The World's science correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee spoke to the author and is with me now. Hi, Rhitu.


WERMAN: So tell us about this book. And the answer to this puzzle.

CHATTERJEE: Well, the new book's called The Price of Altruism. The author is a historian of science at Bar Ilan University in Israel. His name's Oren Harman, and he says this puzzle about the origins of altruism perplexed many great minds, including Charles Darwin.

OREN HARMAN: He called it the greatest riddle and the greatest challenge to his theory. These phenomena like stinging bees who sacrifice themselves for the hive and it makes no sense from the point of view of natural selection. How do you explain the persistence of traits which reduce fitness if evolution is a game of survival of the fittest?

WERMAN: So, Rhitu, did Charles Darwin come close to solving the puzzle?

CHATTERJEE: Well, Darwin understood that kindness must have some adaptive benefit, in other words, kindness helps some people or organisms actually survive better in their environment. But the question is who benefits from acts of kindness? Is it the individual, or their genes, or the species as a whole? And the guy who answered that question came after Darwin. His name was George Price. And his life and work are the subject of Oren Harman's new book. Here's Harman again.

HARMAN: Price is a real life Forrest Gump kind of character. He was born in New York in 1922 and then he moved from scientific center of revolution to scientific center of revolution each time solving some problem and then disappearing like a phantom.

WERMAN: So how did Price solve this evolutionary riddle about kindness? Did he decide it was selfishness or selflessness?

CHATTERJEE: Well, let's step back a little bit. Before Price decided to turn his attention to this question, scientists thought that altruism was nothing but nepotism. The more closely related people are, the more they're likely to help each another. So ultimately, altruism helps the survival of a group of related people.

WERMAN: Right, but that can't explain how a handful of Hutus went ahead and saved the lives of some Tutsis during the Rwanda genocide in 1994 for example?

CHATTERJEE: Right, and that's where Price comes in. He moved to London in the 1960s, determined to solve the problem. He was trained as a mathematician so he comes up with this equation, which is now known as the Price equation, and his equation showed that kindness doesn't have to be between genetically related individuals. And that kindness could evolve because it helps different interests at different times. It sometimes helps the survival of individuals, or their genes, and sometimes families, or groups and sometimes the species.

WERMAN: So ultimately, Rhitu, kindness evolved because it serves someone's selfish interests? That's not really kind of the uplifting thought that I had in my head about kindness.

CHATTERJEE: Well, it's not that people are consciously thinking of these interests when they're helping someone. It's obviously acting at a much more abstract evolutionary scale. But Price had the exact same reaction to his work as you just did. He interpreted his equation to mean that there could never be any true selflessness in the world. Here's Oren Harman.

HARMAN: This was a terrible realization. So he decided in a way to try to beat his own mathematics by going out to the streets of London and seeking out all the homeless that he could find and helping them, giving them money, inviting them into his home. Giving away everything that he had. So he was proving via his actions that his mathematics, his own miraculous mathematics, were wrong and that the human spirit could sort of transcend what the evolutionary process had created.

WERMAN: So did George Price succeed in beating his own math?

CHATTERJEE: I don't know, Marco. He died penniless and miserable. He committed suicide in 1975. So you could say, yes, he succeeded, or you could also say that one has to first take care of oneself to help others, and Price failed to do that. But it's an interesting question, and you can ask author Oren Harman what he thinks about that. Harman will be taking listener questions online through next week. So you can talk to him yourself. And you can listen to my full interview with him at The World Science Forum.

WERMAN: Right. That's our online science discussion site. And I should say there's so much more to this story than we've had time to present just now. So, I urge listeners to check out the current site's forum and Rhitu, the website to participate is?


WERMAN: That's The World's science correspondent, Rhitu Chatterjee, thanks for stopping by the studio.

CHATTERJEE: Thanks, Marco.