Friday, 11 November 2011

Price's accommodation

I just finished "The Price of Altruism" by Oren Harman. It is a biography of one of the most important, original, and - er - weird evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, George Price.

I just wanted to remind those who now wage war on accomodationists that Price was - temporarily - a Christian whose fundamentalism even appalled Henry Morris, the Texan founder of the Creation Research Science Center.
He'd argue over issues such as whether the passion of Jesus lasted a week or longer, whether the flood was global or local etc. with anybody, even if the other side was not interested. 

At the same time he came up with the covariance equation for natural selection, solved some of the biggest riddles of evolutionary theory like deriving Fisher's 'fundamental theorem of natural selection', applied game theory to animal combat, inspired Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. At the same time really means that. He took the fact that he and not someone else came up with the covariance equation for natural selection as a first sign leading him to a religious conversion. Thereafter, he did his Christian and evolutionary work in parallel.

I know, the fight against accommodationists is currently taken out against clergy not scientists. So the risk is negligible that some crank will be mobbed out of academia, who could otherwise advance science.

But I propose to consider George Price and how - paradoxically - things we regard as mutually exclusive, like biblical literalism and cutting edge evolutionary theory, seem to have fitted into his scull.
  • Harman O. (2011) The Price of Altruism. George Price and the search for the origins of kindness. Vintage, London.


  1. Joe... Nice post. I know that these debates about the new atheism are significant and interesting, but I must say that most of those new atheists who have achieved iconic status are, it seems to me, garrulous windbags. The world always seems less simply than they would have us believe. All that being said, Price's story is an interesting one - there has got to be lots of great scientists these days that are worth their weight in irritating and antisocial flesh.

  2. Nice post. Not sure what, if any, general lessons can be drawn from Price's example, though. His was a unique and (especially at the end) very troubled mind. Yes, he went through a period in his life when he was both an evolutionary theorist and a (quite unusual) sort of Christian fundamentalist. But also thought God had commanded him to give away all his possessions--and so he did so--and in the end he killed himself. I question whether any of us can really understand how Biblical literalism and evolutionary theory "fitted into his skull".

    Which isn't to say there aren't other models of accomodationism (and other views) available. Marek Kohn's book "A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination" is a fine set of potted biographies of the major English figures of 20th century evolutionary biology. Reading it, I was struck by how different folks like Haldane, Fisher, Hamilton, Maynard Smith, Dawkins (and one might add, Price, who was an adoptive Englishman) were in terms of their non-evolutionary beliefs and attitudes. You can find historical examples of people who have reconciled a commitment to evolution with just about any other set of beliefs one might name.

  3. Thanks for the tip Jeremy, already ordered the book. Hope the cheapness of the deal does not tell on the pottyness of its contents.

    Oren Harman also weaves other characters from Kropotkin to von Neuman into his story and I have to agree with you that extremely different political opinions are all within it. But I was used to think that religious fundamentalism was somehow not within the range of what good scientists could believe. I had read Hamilton's and Schwartz's account on Price but somehow not realised that, if one nasty fact should be able to fell a theory, and Price's life counted as one nasty fact, then I had to put my believe that science and fundamentalism exclude each other aside. You seem to prefer to regard Price as an exception to the rule rather than as one nasty fact ...

  4. I have to say I really enjoyed reading this book and I like seeing it get some press. I'm reminded of the quote by Fitzgerald:"Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
    One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the "impossible," come true." The question I ponder is how sane was Price? It seems to me that if he was mentally ill, it would stand that he partitioned his mind, allowing the juxtaposition of such opposing views. In some ways his theoretical work and Christianity weren't so different in the sense that he turned his ferocious intellect on them and took them to the extreme and devoted considerable intellectual effort on both. He was also a person who liked to solve problems it seems and each was a solution to a particular problem and he was simply never bothered by the lack of complete philosophical consistency throughout his life.

  5. Price's biographers agree that he applied the same sort of critical reasoning to exegesis as to evolution. Thus I imagine that, where evangelical literalists would just swallow contradictions and believe in miracles, he'd come up with arguments trying to resolve contradictions in scripture. But that is mere conjecture.

    Surely, it would be interesting to see Price's combination of critical thinking with literalism. The internet should be vast enough to accommodate "The twelve days of Easter" by George R. Price online somewhere.

  6. From what I've read, the 'Easter' manuscript was unpublished, though W.D. Hamilton (who was sent a copy) encouraged him to do so. One would imagine that a copy presently resides wherever Hamilton's papers do.