- 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: 48 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #798,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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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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“[A] rich and vigorous survey of the controversy over altruism and its evolutionary role, stretching from the 19th century to now.”
- Sunday Times [UK]
“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
“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
“Brilliant... A great story.”
- Brian Appleyard, Literary Review
- The Big Issue
“Fascinating.... Important... full of complex and deeply interesting ideas.”
- Sam Leith, The Spectator
“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 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
“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
“A terrific book, at once scholarly and impossible to put down.”
- Peter Godfrey-Smith, professor of philosophy at Harvard 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
“An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science.”
- Kirkus Reviews
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Top customer reviews
edit: sorry - last fifth of book concerns the last years of Price's life, his contribution to the mathematical theory of altruism comes earlier.
The only negative feature of the book is the abrupt transitions in topic, especially at the beginning where Harman establishes the historical context for the story. The reader is dropped into a series of short presentations of various people who will be relevant later in the book. Also Harman's wordsmithing requires the reader to stop occasionally to mentally rewrite a difficult sentence to produce a clearer one. Regardless of these minor technical issues, the topic is an extremely interesting one that Harman presents in remarkable detail. He took the task of researching the topic and man very seriously. The result is an exceptional treatment of George Price and an extremely clear presentation of the underpinnings of altruistic behavior.
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.
A gripping tale, extraordinarily well-written, whose historiographical importance far exceeds its two-fold subject matter.
Yes, Price did end his life after a rather spectacular descent into homelessness and futile ministrations to a community of destitute alcoholics, but the attempts that Harmen makes to link the body of Price's professional work to his personal life are a bit of a stretch. While there is an appealing symmetry to the study of altruism and the surrendering of one's autonomy to the idea of Jesus Christ, there seems to be little indication that Price's late-life fundamentalism and erratic behavior correlated meaningfully with his relatively passionless theorizing. What make it a good story is that it comes together in meaningful ways in the imagination of the reader, rather than in the life of the subject.