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The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness Hardcover – June 7, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With his new book, Harman (The Man Who Invented the Chromosome) examines Price, a scientist and author whose promising life ended in self- destruction. Harman didn't set out to write a straightforward biography, but rather a history of Price's lifelong quest to understand evolution and the origins of altruism; along those lines the author includes the life and work of "Orwellian" psychologist B.F. Skinner, J.B.S. Haldane, and "the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin," Bill Hamilton, who would become a close colleague of Price's. But it's Price's tale that grounds Harman's book. Part One focuses on the man's early life in Minneapolis, his marriage and divorce to Julia Madigan, with whom he had two daughters, and his later life in New York City, where he held countless jobs as he tried to get published. In November 1967 Price moved to London, determined to "crack the problem of altruism," and Part Two picks up there, with his conversion to Christianity, after which he gave away his possessions and dedicated himself to helping London's homeless, until he eventually joined their ranks. In 1975, just after Christmas, he took his own life. Harman has given voice to the professional contributions and personal struggles of a man whose body lies today in an unmarked grave in North London.
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Remarkable... fascinating. (The Big Issue)

Ever since Charles Darwin had published his theory of evolution in 1859, scientists had wondered whether it can explain the existence of altruism. Price wanted to describe mathematically how a genetic disposition to altruism could evolve. As Mr. Harman so vividly describes, Price ultimately became one of the vagabonds he set out to save. (The Economist)

Fascinating.... Important... full of complex and deeply interesting ideas. (Sam Leith - The Spectator)

An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science. (Kirkus Reviews)

Brilliant... A great story. (Brian Appleyard - Literary Review)

[A] rich and vigorous survey of the controversy over altruism and its evolutionary role, stretching from the 19th century to now. (Sunday Times [UK])

I stayed up a good part of the night reading... fascinating! ... Harman proves that the lives of some modern scientists are as ecstatic, tormented and filled with strange visions as those of medieval saints. (Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind)

This book is a stunning tour de force. The puzzle of altruism is revealed as it would be in a thriller, with twists and turns and surprises almost until the end. (Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of Law, Harvard University)

Uncommonly brilliant and deeply stimulating... almost cinematically satisfying. Harman has a rare gift for bringing ideas and thinkers to life. (Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic)

A terrific book, at once scholarly and impossible to put down. (Peter Godfrey-Smith, professor of philosophy at Harvard University)

A brilliant biography of a brilliant man. A powerful page-turner that vividly renders the obsessive absorption with the poles of cooperation and competition in nature. (Daniel Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University)

In this remarkable book, Oren Harman tracks George Price, an awkward, disturbed, and profoundly, almost saintly scientist.... It is an astonishing story at every level, from the destitute wanderings and genial interventions of Price to a revealing account of how modern evolutionary biology took its contemporary form. (Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and Physics, Harvard University)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393067785
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393067781
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Stephanie De Pue VINE VOICE on July 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In "The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness," a history of science, particularly the science of evolution, professor and author Oren Harman combines an intellectual history of the search for the origins of altruism with the disturbing story of George Price, the brilliant and eccentric American genius whose insights into the evolution of groups redefined how scientists understand the origins of social behaviors. In common with many of the colorful characters that took a stab at Charles Darwin's great mystery, George Price was an outsider, an unusual and radical character; something about the problem tended to attract minds at the extreme. But if attempts to crack the enigma involve grand histories--Victorian liberalism and Russian anarchism, interwar fascism, Nazi heresies, Vietnam demonstrations, and the dramatic growth of cutting-edge neurogenetics and brain imaging--the story of George Price stands entirely on its own He was a cross between Forrest Gump and the Rain Man, with an uncanny knack of being present while much of the seminal science of the twentieth century was being born. From the Manhattan Project to the telecommunications and computer revolutions at Bell Labs and IBM, he solved problems, then disappeared. And finally, as his family and professional life began to unravel in the late 1960s, he left everything behind and moved to London, Swinging London as it then was, to try his hand at cracking one last great riddle.

Darwin, in his revolutionary
...Read more ›
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Mark Shulman on July 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you like Simon Singh Malcolm Gladwell and Sylvia Nasar you must read this book! Harman is able to combine Singh's ability to make complicated science accessible and interesting, Gladwell's skill in telling a captivating story and Nasar's talent for bringing a person back to life - all in one book.

The Price of Altrisum is not simply a biography of a genius, but also a fascinating tale that charts the quest to answer one of the biggest hurdles evolution had to overcome - why would an animal act kindly to another unrelated animal in a world of 'survival of the fittest?'

The biggest appeal for me in the book was that Harman was able not only to tell how masterminds all over the world pondered the problem of kindness (and what they discovered!) but at the same time explains their science and showcases their personality.

I recommended the book to all my friends this year.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Syrkin on August 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
It's not often one encounters a book as fascinating and as deeply moving as
this. Where does altruism come from? And can there ever really be pure altruism
apart from disguised self-interest? The life of George Price, the unforgettable
protagonist of The Price of Altruism, is an amazing dramatization of these two
questions, culminating in a heart-wrenching, and brain-rattling ending.

But if this book is a rarity, so is it's author. At once in powerful control of
the science he describes, the lives and psychologies of the scientists he portrays,
and the wider historical and philosophical meanings of mankind's search for the origins
on kidness, Harman is the kind of writer you want to meet after you've read his book,
and hug. I think of The Price of Altruism as a kind of special gift, because it allowed
me to bring different parts of my brain together - the scientific, the historical, the
dramatic, as well as my heart - to bear on a question that I didn't even know meant so
much to me, and to all of us as humans. Harman writes like a poet, and thinks like a
Nobel laureate in science and first class historian all at once. He guides us with a
steady hand all the way from Darwin through the attempts of economists and ecologists,
mathematicians and psychologists, geneticists and brain scientists, to crack the
riddle of altruism - a journey of true majesty and infinite beauty and passion.

Rarely does a topic of such interest find an author of such talents. This is a book I will
cherish and re-read, and it is a book that I will tell all my friends to run to read. A true
work of a master writer on a subject that couldn't be dearer to all of our hearts.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Robert P. Covelli on September 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Before I read this book, I corresponded with its author, Oren Harman, concerning a short piece of fiction that I had written, which he agreed to read and then praised quite generously. I add that only to indicate that he's a warm man and a hungry mind. His book demonstrates both those qualities, and I recommend The Price of Altruism enthusiastically. It follows the life of George Price closely, but equally important, it places his life in context not only of his times but also of the science of his times. The book is a biography of an idea and of the people who researched and developed the idea of the basis--in nature--of goodness. It incorporates shorter biographies of many of the most influential scientists of the modern period. The Price of Altruism is a remarkable accomplishment; and George Price was a tragic figure in the fundamental, Aristotelian sense of the word tragedy, in that his suffering ought to be cathartic for those who follow him. As is true of so many other examples in contemporary science, his pursuit of an empirical ground of a specific truth, in this case of altruism, led him beyond what is likely possible for humans. I don't know why science led him to his demise, nor what in particular destroyed him, because I suspect that more than simply an idea conspired against him. I'd imagine that George Price destroyed himself for reasons in his mind of which he may not have been aware. Nonetheless, his quest was heroic. About him is a feeling of something spectacular--plainly a genius, long a comfortable member of comfortable society, he ended as a vagrant. If genetics gives us goodness, it gives it to us as a group; whereas George Price appears to have wanted to know goodness as an individual.Read more ›
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