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The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

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The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness [Hardcover]

Oren Harman
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)

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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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The Price of Altruism puts Price's work into a wide scientific and social context, showing real insight into its importance and genuine sympathy for the tale of his life.” (Steve Jones - New Scientist)

“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)

“A masterfully told story... This book is in the same class as Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind and could be as popular.” (Library Journal)

“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])

“[E]nthralling.... Extremely well researched and written with great love of the subject, The Price of Altruism reveals all sorts of personal details of momentous events in the history of science.... This is a book for anyone interested in the question, first posed by Darwin himself, of how we ended up with so much kindness in a natural world customarily depicted as 'red in tooth and claw.' Price struggled with it on an intensely personal level. His story is highly relevant at a time when greed as the basis of society has lost much of its appeal.” (Frans de Waal - The New York Times Book Review)

“Oren Harman's compelling new book explores one of the key questions of our era—what are the origins of altruism? A little known mathematician lies at the heart of the story. George Price recognized that acts of kindness and self-sacrifice stood blatantly opposed to most of the principles of modern Darwinism. Harman's wide-ranging intellectual quest brings this shy, anguished, and fascinating man alive with style and passion, and reminds us of the powerful emotions that can fuel great scientific achievement.” (Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin)

“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)

About the Author

Oren Harman, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University and a professor of the history of science. He is the author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome, a documentary film maker, and a frequent contributor to The New Republic. He lives in Tel Aviv and New York.
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