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rock heart rock heart (studio-d/flickr)

In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?

The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today's plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness ... or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?



Robert Axelrod, Richard Dawkins, Oren Harman, Walter F. Rutkowski, Steve Strogatz, Stanley Weintraub, Carl Zimmer and Andrew Zolli


Lynn Levy

An Equation for Good

Why does selflessness exist?

Comments [36]

I Need a Hero

Is there such a thing as a purely selfless deed--one with no hidden motives whatsoever? Walter F. Rutkowski from the Carnegie Hero Fund spends his days measuring good deeds by some very stringent criteria--such as risking your life "to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save ...

Comments [20]

One Good Deed Deserves Another

In the early 60s, Robert Axelrod was a math major messing around with refrigerator-sized computers. Then a dramatic global crisis made him wonder about the space between a rock and a hard place, and whether being good may be a good strategy. With help from Andrew Zolli and Steve Strogatz, ...

Comments [20]

Comments [176]

Bruce W Morlan from Northfield MN

Fascinating story. As it happens, I taught Prisoner's Dilemma as a model for understanding Mutual Assured Destruction at the Air Force Inst. of Technology. Before that (in the 1980s) I used it to explain some of the issues with Nuclear Winter while serving on the staff at HQ Strategic Air Command (as Chief Scientist for the Director of Intelligence).

Sadly, I must point out a computational error. While you were correct to say that theoretically you share 50% of your genes when you save the first sibling. However, if you save two siblings (not maternal twins), you only save an unknown portion of your genes, since the second sibling could share part of the 50% you have already saved by saving the first sibling. This is a probability calculation, not just an addition.

Jan. 28 2017 03:52 PM
Thinking Lee from Campbell, CA

I must comment on here as I didn't hear this brought up at all. Why can't altruism simply be part of the evolutionary process? I argue that it has to be the case. Imagine a super colony of amoeba that only had each individual's best interest, that works well until some inevitable catastrophe comes along and maybe self sacrifice is the only means of some survival. Regardless either the non-altruistic or the altruistic amoeba survives, as long as something survives instead of total guaranteed annihilation, that altruistic behavior has a chance to be passed on. Either a learned process, DNA transfer, or something more complex, the point is that it can totally be beneficial for any life cycle system to incorporate altruistic behavior.

All that is needed is accidental Altruism, the rest is history. Life may very well be an accident in the first place.

Darwin simply isn't understanding the full discovery of evolution, evolution is so encompassing, it includes accidental altruism.

Darwin, you are still right, you just misunderstood what you've discovered.

Apr. 20 2016 02:04 AM
Thinking Christian from Texas

Fascinating, tragic, and telling. Some thoughts:

1. It is absurd to attribute purposeful planning and design to a random and impersonal (alleged) phenomenon like naturalistic evolution. The problem is not solved by simply personifying evolution (as in, "Evolution has already done all the math.") Complex planning and design requires a purposing designer, to say nothing of the power necessary to CARRY OUT the design on a universal scale.

2. George Price was at least intellectually honest enough to realize the implications of the worldview he espoused. A godless universe is a purposeless universe, and "survival of the fittest" demands a certain moral coldness. This moral vacuum is indeed present in an atheistic evolutionary paradigm, but, as Price realized, the implications are too awful to live with. His sad and desperate attempt to find or create virtue within a worldview that has no room for objective morality was bound to end in despair. Price's suicide is the most reasonable conclusion for those who prefer a universe without God and therefore without any objective basis for purpose, hope, or altruism.

3. "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools. . . . they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen." Romans 1:21-22, 25, NASB

Aug. 13 2015 12:11 AM
Joey from Nashville

Loved this show.,if I had one small criticism it would be about the segment on the "prisoner's dilemma." It sounds very similar to the Rev M.L. King Jr.'s ideas on spiraling violence/spiraling non-violence. Maybe that would be a good follow-up show.

Aug. 12 2015 02:41 PM
Dr. Alex Juhasz from Penticton, BC

With respect to the comments regarding the solitary amoeba that becomes 'social' under certain conditions, the 'organism' formed when they become 'gregarious' is traditionally referred to as a slime mould not a slug. Further, if you read the recent original papers on Dictyostelium behavioural transformations, you will come across 'altruistic' individuals as well cheater individual. Check up those original papers or PubMed Natural History for a less academic rendition. The author explore/suggest/discuss the evolutionary nature of so called cheaters. In the case of Dictyostelium , those are the individuals that avoid - cheat - becoming the stalk (and die) to rather become part of the fruiting body that sporulates to pass on 'their' genetic material to the next generation. An feature on the evolutionary explaining why cheaters have evolved would be an interesting compare and contrast to your excellent work on altruism.

Aug. 10 2015 03:37 PM

By coincidence, I heard a talk this week that explains why people put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. Daniel Brown (Director, The Center for Integrative Psychotherapy, Newton MA; Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School) is also a teacher of Buddhist meditation.

In a talk that he recorded on Jan 14, 2015, Dan said that those who have a higher level of moral development do the right thing without considering risk/benefit or even their own safety. Furthermore, a person can open up a level of mind where everyone is interconnected. When that is the basis of operations, one cannot really do something for someone ELSE. Bodhisattva activity (selfless activity for the sake of all beings) comes out of that realization.

Aug. 08 2015 04:43 PM
Janet from Brooklyn

I love this topic... I suggest there is an obvious route of continued research here--which is how women differ from men in the "instinct" to be altruistic following a strike. My guess--(who knows^)is that men may tend never or rarely (less than 10%) to cooperate after being struck; but women may tend to cooperate more than 10% of the time after being struck. Consider how children treat their mothers--even when they are too young to know better, even when they are not... which does bring this very directly back to the issue of survival and selection.

Aug. 08 2015 01:11 PM
JT from Maui, Hawaii

Has anybody bothered to equate "One good deed..." with the present Iran nuclear treaty strategy? I believe Iran opened the door two years ago, undoubtedly because of the sanctions. The 5+1 powers sat down and negotiated. The treaty is a shot at tit-for-tat, with the possibility of the echoes going going away over 10-15 years. One side says you can't trust the Iranians. The other side says that's the only possibility for peaceful change. Are we saps for trusting? Or are we realists for taking a shot at peaceful resolution? Apply the computer model.

Aug. 08 2015 06:03 AM
gigi from north carolina

Problem with genetics: your sibling doesn't necessarily have 50% of your genes. In fact, your sibling has almost as much of a chance of having exactly 0% of your genes as exactly 50% of your genes (only almost because if it is 2 boys, well, there's the y which will be the same between boys).
You could be completely genetically unrelated to your could be completely genetically unrelated to one or even 2 of your grandparents. Just as much of a chance of any other combination.
Otherwise, great stuff :) as always

Aug. 06 2015 09:18 PM

I have seen two videos of predator animals protecting babies of their prey. Here is one such video.

Oct. 29 2014 04:25 PM

I just wanted to say how much I love this radio. I have found it a month ago and it became my every day source of goodness, reason, education, inspiration, and list can go on and on. I listen it wile I work and it helps me to focus and design (I'm and architectural designer).

This particular episode could not be better subject where I can express my gratitude.

Voices of Jad and Robert became so familiar and welcomed to hear. I love they laughs and little kids in them.
Thank you. Thank you for very creative and elaborate way of thinking, the way you open up the subjects, seeing objects in different ways. Thank you for being my eyes to the some parts of the world I have not seen, known.

I do not hope anyone will read this but feel inspired to put good world out there in universe.

Thank you ...........Спасибо (Russian)

Apr. 22 2014 01:26 PM
Artista from Illinois, USA

Ive been an avid listener of 'RadioLab' since the late part of 2009.
As with many other listeners, certain episodes 'stand-out' in my mind.
On occasion, those certain episodes will come to mind later on.
'The Good Show' is one of those.
Yesterday while at work, I was in conversation with a coworker on a serious issue.
'The Good Show' came to mind as I was talking with that coworker due to the specifies.
At any rate, last night while driving home I decided to re-listen to the show. (last year I had re-listened a few times-lol)
Ive read through everyone's comments here this morning.
I just wanted to state that the music attached to each subject is important.
If the music created is 'just right' it becomes synergistic with the topic at hand.
Case in point,the story of George R. Price /'The Price of Altruism'.

Jan. 16 2014 08:56 AM
jack medley from Cleveland, Ohio, USA

The music at the end is:

A Most beautiful version of a most beautiful song.... Thank you RaNae Envy for indirectly reminding me of this!

Over the Rainbow - Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole OFFICIAL VIDEO
Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo`ole's Platinum selling hit "Over the Rainbow" OFFICAL video produced by Jon de Mello for The Mountain Apple Company • HAWAI`I and…

Dec. 24 2013 03:11 AM
Jill Hinckley from 78613

I found the topic interesting, but the presentation irritating. Why do the moderators interrupt each other and complete each other's sentences? Or in the background... "thinking...thinking...thinking..." or something like that. I was stuck in traffic or probably would have turned it off. Rescued by "Selected Shorts."
Have humans evolved to not have the attention span to listen to a person delivering a story without cutesy music and comments intertwined? I HOPE not!

Dec. 23 2013 10:21 AM
Bill Stevens from Redford, Micnigan

First;of all, altruism needs to be defined. I think it is sacrificing oneself for the good of another, or a group.

Darwin and other scientists that studied the issue looked for reasons for the sacrifice. They found that the sacrifices always involved the innate desire to pass on one's genes. Why a sacrifice increases the likelihood of one's genes being passed is sometimes is not easy to figure out.

The discussion has been limited to human altruism, but Darwin and those who followed investigated altruism among insects,among all species really. I like the book written by Lee Alan Dugitkin: "The Altruism Equation: "Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness," 8/21/2006. He gives the credit for the equation to (fn?) Hamilton. Dugatkin writes that among scientists and informed lay persons, the equation is referred to as "The Hamilton Equation.

I think that Radiolab should have included the other scientists in their discussion. Price was not the only one who worked to discover "the Origins of goodness."

Dec. 23 2013 06:53 AM

Jeremy Rifkin TED Talk on empathy

Dec. 21 2013 08:59 PM
Leon Zitzer from New York City

I have one criticism of this program. I hope this will not be considered petty, but if petty it is, then petty I will be. I believe twice you characterized retribution as being like Moses ("an eye for an eye"), while being nice or kind you called being like Jesus ("turn the other cheek"). I get a little tired of constantly hearing this historically inaccurate contrast between ancient Jewish culture and Jesus's "new" ethics. In fact, "turn the other cheek" is pure Jewishness. The ancient rabbis and Pharisees called it passing by your rights or not standing on your rights. God loves the man or woman who does not always choose the right of retribution. Be generous and forego insistence on getting your rightful due. I believe, though I cannot prove, that "turn the other cheek" was the Greek author's way of translating "pass by your rights." Jesus was a Jew to the max. Don't forget that. I hope both Jews and Christians can appreciate this.

Dec. 21 2013 07:25 PM
Elena from Tokyo

Altruism doesn't exist, behind every good deed there is a personal motive for the doer to execute the deed -- you can boil it down to "not wanting to feel guilty", "wanting to feel good about having done something good". But what's wrong with that? What is more important? The fact that there is no altruism, or doing good? Naturally, extend this argument and you will enter a maze of exceptional circumstances and judgements made. The story about the guy dying for his efforts to prove his mathematical theory wrong is heart-wrenching, but I wish I could have said to him, "Hey dude, it does suck to do something nice for your own personal benefit, but at the same time, we shouldn't despair... The fact is, good deeds are being done in the midst of all the terrible, and if it makes you feel good to do something kind, that's great and you shouldn't be repressed by your guilt of not being altruistic." Altruism doesn't exit, but the concept of goodness does and is realized every day.

Jul. 16 2013 11:52 PM
Britt from Arizona

Here is a website that where you can access a paper that demonstrates the fundamental errors in kin selection (and, by extension, the Price equation) and selfish gene theory, and which also lays out a simple theory of the evolution of true altruism:

Jul. 14 2013 04:50 PM

To Sam Babbitt from Oregon… "Can someone tell me what the beautiful ambient music is at the end of the first segment? I can't find it anywhere."

I don't know if you ever found the music, but you might try looking up Brian Eno. If you use iTunes, preview the songs from the following albums: Lux, Apollo (An Ending, Drift, Always Returning) Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror, The Pearl and Thursday Afternoon.

Jul. 14 2013 03:06 PM
Ross from China

Interesting take on George Price's perspective - I hadn't realised that he'd gone on to examine the philosophical implications of his work.

It's a shame as most recent interpretations of Prices's work are far more optimistic (but which don't seem to be included in this programme). DS Wilson has written much on this topic and points out that the coefficient of relatedness in the Price Equation does not necessarily imply genetic relatedness. It can be satisfied by any systematic relationship between individuals within a group. In this interpretation true altruism arises as a result of group, or more properly, multi-level selection where competition between groups promotes altruistic behaviour within groups.

DS Wilsons book with Eliot Sober 'Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviour' is a great introduction to his work.

Jul. 14 2013 12:43 PM
Nagual from Phoenix, AZ

What is the music artist for the music played at the end of the show?

Jul. 13 2013 07:07 PM

i truly dislike richard dawkins and his hypocrisy and narrow mindedness

Jul. 12 2013 05:23 AM
Jenne from Fair Haven, VT

I absolutely loved this episode!

May. 30 2013 12:18 PM
Sam Babbitt from Oregon, USA

Can someone tell me what the beautiful ambient music is at the end of the first segment? I can't find it anywhere.

Apr. 14 2013 10:48 PM
Robert from Minneapolis

Humans aren't alligators, homo sapiens is a social species. We benefit from cooperation, in groups we can accomplish things no hermit ever could. Humans go crazy with long periods of solitary confinement. To be human is to balance self-interest with selflessness. Altruistic behavior should be no surprise in a social species. In an alligator, altruism might be surprising, but not in humans. Humans have been living and cooperating in social groups for untold ages. When there's a disaster, people respond even if there is no blood relationship.

Mar. 11 2013 03:32 PM

Please, remove the sound effects! It's awful. Doesn't help the science at all.

Feb. 12 2013 11:17 AM

I have been learning about cloning in science class, and a mother, that shares no resemblance to the offspring, still nurtures that offspring. I was wondering how that falls into the first theory, or does it not apply because an exact clone does not occur naturally

Feb. 11 2013 12:26 PM
Noah Ryan



"That's implied."


Oh Robert Krulwich, you wacky character you.

Feb. 05 2013 06:40 PM

To perform a "selfless" act act that puts you in danger needs no explanation. the reason why people do it is simple. either they have a spiritual reason for doing so, or they suspend logic and rational thought. if you even spend a nano second thinking about what you are about to do, you won't do it. the human condition almost requires you to preserve yourself. except in situations like donating a body part, where you have time to think about it, in situation where you have no time to think, if you are prone for a heroic act, you will spend no time thinking about it. this is why people cannot explain why they did what they did. if anyone can explain why, then there is a condition that was a catalyst to which can also can basically be understood...such as having the skill, or divine command.

Nov. 12 2012 01:52 PM

Does anyone know the name/artist of the haunting ambient song right after the credits at the end of the Price story (23 minutes in)? I'm blown away by this… wondering if it's just sound design created for the show, or what. Thanks!!

Sep. 21 2012 10:16 AM

As humans, we are born as selfish human beings. We are born looking out for only ourselves. As we grow up we learn and are taught to be kind and to look out for others other than ourselves. I believe that somewhere inside of all human beings we have an impulse to be kind unless taught otherwise. The human race still struggles with the instinct to be kind but to our credibility we are a kind, caring and thoughtful race.

Sep. 10 2012 10:37 PM
Bre Wilkins from Bend. OR

All humans, like animals are born as selfish creatures, trying to survive and looking out for themselves. As we mature and grow up we are taught that looking out for one's self isn't the way things should be. And over time we are taught to care about others and develope kinder hearts. Humans can be kind and caring towards one another, but it is not something that comes naturally, it is something that we are taught and something that we must work for. Our nature is selfish and our first instincts are always going to be to protect ourselves. After much practice the human race has learned to look out for more that just one's self and strives to be kind to others.

Sep. 09 2012 07:35 PM

Josh Bandy,
The human species are the first known beings of all existance that are fully capable of achieveing absolute altruism. Even though we are capable of this does not mean that the human race live up to, or achieve this title. I believe every person is born with kindness in there heart, but its is the experiences this person goes through that determines the level of kindness he or she brings to there everyday life. Mentioned in Prices show maybe he began to do all these thoughtful gestures because he wanted to prove his theory wrong, and show absolute altruism existed. The world is not a twisted place where every person is a selfish pig. People show kindness everyday not just to protect your genes. If your brother or sister was drowning in a river and you were to save them and loose your life you did it because you love them not because your genes were at stake! Or else you would have never gotten in the water. Give us some credit were only human.

Sep. 05 2012 09:35 PM
Karen from San Diego

I think it's silly to need altruism to exist due to a conscious act of selflessness. It seems to me Price proved his theory right, the more he helped others. Regardless of why we do it, we have a reason to do good, and so we should. You do have to want to be the person who can be extraordinary. I've worked with and known many givers and they all just want to be someone who makes a difference. If you don't want that, you probably won't be the one who leaps in to help when others don't.

Sep. 05 2012 07:14 PM
Shannon Patterson from Bend, Oregon

All creatures are born selfish. Whether we actually end up becoming selfish or not is entirely based on one's experiences. Through these experiences, we conceive our opinions, thoughts, and actions that will in one way or another, depict who we are. If someone is born into a life where they have everything, it's easier for them to be greedy because they already have what they need. There is no fight or need to experience something outside of what they have been put in. The same goes for a newborn baby. We are born with nothing but the instinct to survive, and until taught otherwise thats exactly how we will act.

Sep. 04 2012 01:32 PM
Scott from Salt Lake City

As sad as Price's story was, there is a silver lining: he was wrong. Real altruism does exist and his equation does nothing to threaten it. Why? We're not our genes. If we were, self-sacrifice based on family relatedness wouldn't even make sense. Kin selection-based altruism doesn't benefit us, it benefits the genes we share with our families. Price was confused about another thing too. His attempts to refute his own equation were misguided because he wasn't motivated by altruistic considerations, but to prove to himself that the world was the way he wanted it to be.

For those of you who are insisting that people are "by nature" selfish, I would ask "Compared to what?" We may look out for ourselves, but we are one of the only, if not the only beings we know of in the universe capable of true altruism. So don't be so hard on us please.

Sep. 01 2012 05:07 AM
Rachel Estopare from Bend Oregon

Selfishness is an inbuilt instinct to all living organism, it's what keeps the food chain cycle in motion. Consciously we can be altruistic but only through discipline and habit can man artificially show outward selflessness and kindness which is learned throughout our prime. Humans mend to their surroundings and as children we are taught by example. As a child you follow, in most cases, your parent(s) foot steps and they teach you right from wrong and it starts to build personality traits such as kindness. For example to share is not genetic, it's something you learn. As children we learn to share our belongings, toys, ect. but only succeed with discipline that leads to building up habits.

Aug. 25 2012 02:07 PM

So far I have to say this is my favorite episode. The Breakfast Truce/Christmas Truce and the other stories are incredible. A big thanks to Radiolab's awesome job! My nightly routine (and my cat loves it too!) is to get under the covers, turn out the light, turn on my iPhone, and pick out a podcast. Listening to Robert and Jad's voices melts my brain and is a great way to end the day ... Thanks :D

Aug. 21 2012 12:55 AM
Seth Millard 1 from Bend Oregon

All Humans are born to be selfless. Even though some may grow up in a more selfish circumstance, we are still born with a kind instinct. Therefore, kindness is hard-wired into our brains from the day we are born. For example, in the show it talked about how we are more likely to save a brother or sister more than a cousin. Our siblings carry more of our genes therefore we will subconsciously save them before we save a cousin. Another example is the people who got the hero award. There instinct was to save the person even if it risks their own life. Humans are born with the instinct of kindness.

Aug. 08 2012 02:19 PM
Ian Tobiason 2 from Bend

Humans are born selfish but not necessarily mean. Based on the experience or circumstance humans will choose to be kind or unkind. The choice to be kind or unkind is based on selfish reasons though, humans will pick the choice that will help themselves. Although on rare occasions humans will choose kindness when it will not help them, or even harm them. On the show they talked about how you would sacrifice yourself to save a blood relative in order to continue there genes, which also are your genes. Also people will be kind in order to receive something. Such as a kid being nice to another kid in order to share the 1st kids toy. Humans will be kind or unkind depending on which will help them more.

Jul. 30 2012 12:12 AM
MegMeagher 2 from Bend, OR

All living organisms are created to be selfish. We all think inside our brains solely about what will benefit ourselves first, although some may choose not to admit this. Therefore, I believe kindness is a trait learned from life lessons and experiences alone. For example, siblings aren't naturally good at sharing their toys, but after a few discussions and timeouts from their parents, they seem to pick up on it. In the radiolab, it is said that Darwin was concerned about the suffering in nature and that everyday animals are killed by a larger predator on the food chain. I agree that it is a sad cycle of hunting and death, but I believe that any organism will do whatever means necessary to stay alive and ultimately benefit themselves.

Jul. 24 2012 12:51 PM
Henry Mensing from Bend, Oregon

At birth all humans are almost in line with John Locke's "blank slate" theory. When we are born we are completely blank of all personality traits. We do however have the instinct to survive. Along the way we pick up other attributes such as kindness, or lack thereof. Think for a moment of a baby. All newborn babies do is poop, eat,and sleep. Why? Because that is basic human instinct, that is survival. However as soon as we can we start to do something else. We start to observe the world and learn. If the baby is raised in a harsh environment, like if there is an abusive sibling, then the child will be raised violent. If a child is raised with overly sheltered parents, then they will be a very sheltered nervous person. Factors continue to contribute to an individual throughout their entire life, so even if someone was a violent child they can grow up and be a complete pacifist, peace protestor.

Jul. 14 2012 08:01 PM
HannahHuntsman2 from Bend, OR

Humans, by nature, are selfish. Only thinking of their own path to a successful survival. I believe that people become kind through experience and example. Take for instance a small child: the child's only concern is the desire to be satisfied by food, toys, etc. A child does not learn to share these desires until it is taught by a parent or a parent's example. The child does not think about the benefits of sharing; they act upon the values and lessons learned through experiences.

Jul. 14 2012 12:05 AM
Riley Goldstein 1 from Bend, Oregon

People by nature are bad; they are only interested in their own success and survival. By that extent kindness is hardwired into their brain so as to insure their success. A personal example of that is how whenever salesmen try to sell anything the first thing that they do is essentially 'butter them up'. However mean that that person is, the nicer that they are, the more likely they are to sell something.

Jul. 13 2012 02:00 PM

Very interesting. Too much conjecture. I would like evolutionists to give me mechanisms for the changes that occur, or mechanisms as to why an organism would sacrifice itself. We have the theory, now tell me how it's executed. What is it precisely that makes an organisms body change (see cheetah begining of show)to become better at what it needs to?

Jun. 16 2012 09:52 AM
Kathleen Kaminski from Park City, UT

I would like to know where you get your information?

Who contributes to this from Park City, Utah.

I have a growing suspicion there have been many contributions made from my home/car/converstions without my consent or knowledge.

Please help clarify and bring some answers forward to those who really need to know beginning with myself and the police department of SLC and Park City in Utah.
Kathleen Kaminski

May. 20 2012 06:44 PM

Thought of you guys when I saw this prisoner's dilemma clip from a game show:

Apr. 26 2012 12:22 PM

I was a bit disappointed that you guys got all the way to the end of that last bit without even mentioning mutual assured destruction. Even in the one-on-one scenario, day by day as the conflict escalates, if you can believe that your opponent is both willing and able to retaliate with either equal physical violence or legal action (or family members would take their place, etc.), you'd inevitably reach a point where it's in the best interest of both parties to back down. How did you miss that? The computer explained it for you! ;P

Apr. 09 2012 08:00 PM

The story of George price in the good show inspired me to write the song in the link below

Apr. 05 2012 06:17 PM
Nic from UK

The song at the end of the show is "Arena" by Suuns

Mar. 17 2012 01:41 PM
Justin from Oceanside, CA

Is there a transcript for this show? I'd love to use it as a reading activity in my performance class.

Feb. 22 2012 11:21 PM
Meredith from Irvine, California

I heard this episode on goodness just yesterday (on KPCC) - it was wonderful. The first two segments, and particularly the second, brought tears to my eyes.

Dec. 11 2011 03:56 PM
Krishna from Dortmund,Germany

This is a fantastic show.. ever so again i return back to this show to listen to it again.. Wonderful story.. and the George price story still moves me.

Oct. 19 2011 08:46 AM
David Henderson from Columbia, Missouri

The logic of self-sacrifice has it's origins in cellular biology as developed through the process of evolution.

The movie, "Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times" (available on Netflix) illustrates this concept very well and in laymen's terms.

In a course of an hour, billions of your cells will commit suicide as a result of signals from other cells(very altruistic). Cell death is a programed response that not only sculpts us (literally), but is necessary for the collective cellular organism to survive.

Aug. 31 2011 12:05 PM

As Nathan Budd aludes to, the 50% genetic similarity is an average. It applies to entire populations. Specific siblings will vary in how similar they are, though you can take the 50% as an estimate of how similar you can expect them to be. The 50% is also the probability that one of your genes will be shared with a sibling. I'm fairly sure the expected similarity and sharing probability will always be the same, but never went far enough in statistics to say this with absolute certainty.

In addition, the expected genetic similarity of an individual with two of their siblings (and the probability of sharing a gene with at least one of two siblings) isn't 100%, as the siblings will themselves share genes. The 100% counts some genes twice, so the 2nd counting has to be subtracted out. The probability of two independent events both happening is the product of their probabilities; the probability that a gene is shared with both siblings is 1/2 * 1/2 = 1/4. The probability that a gene is shared with at least one sibling is thus 1/2 + 1/2 - 1/4 = 3/4. That gives an expected genetic similarity of 75%.

Aug. 17 2011 01:09 AM
alex from montreal, quebec

Here is a very insightful essay written by Stephen Jay Gould on Russian evolutionary theory which emphasizes mutual aid (over survival of the fittest) as the climate and natural environment in Russia and Siberia is dramatically different than the Galapagos islands, so the way species interact with each other is obviously different... more of a mutual aid. Russian evolutionary theory, and the theory of mutual aid, is often over shadowed by the idea of survival of the fittest, and i believe this is because, as subjects under capitalism (especially if you live in densely populated urban centres), we can relate much more to Darwin's ideas on competition and population dynamics. this does not mean he is right (or wrong). However, Gould links these ideas to political movements (Kropotkin was an evolutionary biologist but also a prominent anarchist) and cultural understandings. It's very insightful, as Gould usually is!

Jul. 28 2011 04:24 AM

What's the name of that song at the very end behind the credits?

Jul. 13 2011 08:59 PM
John Warrington from UK

Bill Hamilton and George Price appear in this documentry from the UK

Jul. 13 2011 06:09 AM
Andy P from Oregon

Price's story seems like an intersection between altruism and some sort of shame or disillusionment. People considered altruistic don't generally follow a process of self-disintegration if they can help it, making for a potentially longer period of contribution.

Also, I'm an agnostic, but analytical programs like this help me understand why so many need a spiritual aspect to give their lives and their actions more meaning. The idea that everything is pre-programmed leaves a bit of an empty feeling. But is it really that simple? Maybe our early evolution set a lot of this into motion, but now we have highly complex, emotional brains in which all sorts of things are interacting, and perhaps not all of the resulting behaviors can necessarily be traced to the survival instinct.

Jul. 02 2011 03:58 PM

Jun. 05 2011 04:55 PM
Serge from NJ

I found this article about the intriguing life of George Price.

"In the years before his own untimely death this past spring, William Hamilton often wrote and spoke about Price in an effort to draw attention to his old friend's ideas. Earlier this year, Hamilton shared with me his lengthy correspondence with Price. With the help of these unpublished letters and Hamilton's recollections, as well as additional aid from Price's two daughters and many friends and colleagues, I have tried to piece together the tumultuous story of this extraordinary man."

The whole article is here:

Jun. 02 2011 08:25 AM

The song is amazing and even I had heard it in too many tv shows theme song.

Jun. 02 2011 02:29 AM
Serge from NJ

I was wondering why suddenly Mr. Price changed his way of living and became such an altruist... Why would someone try so hard to disprove his own discovery?

May. 24 2011 02:59 PM
Jeff White from Albuquerque, NM

Altruism is neither magic nor mystery. We all survive better in groups. We've developed intricate social instincts based on inducing others to help us survive. Instinctively, we know that we may be in need someday, and if we don't reinforce the impulse to help others, no one else will help us. In other words, "heroes" are acting perfectly selfishly by maintaining mutual social protection.

May. 22 2011 12:31 AM
Anthony O'Neal

If it's sometimes advantageous to not retaliate so that you can stop a cycle of violence, wouldn't it also sometimes be advantageous to screw people over to see if they're gullible or not?

Anyway, the iterated prisoners dilemma is only a good model when you have actors of equal power who's only method of communicating is to hit or not hit each other. For a person in a society, the power model is hugely different, and can't be reduced to something so simple. It was maybe more relevant when we were ignorant languageless barbarians roaming the wilderness, but I imagine there's a reason why all large societies have grown up to frown on such hyper-aggressive attitudes.

May. 14 2011 10:23 PM

I read the following article today and immediately thought of this episode!

May. 05 2011 12:56 PM
Nick T from Cinci, OH

Did anyone else think Walter sounded like Jeff Goldblum?

Apr. 15 2011 01:43 PM
Katherine P from San Francisco

This was one of the best Radio Lab episodes yet! (Of course, I think I say that after every episode ;-) Thank you for reairing it KQED, 88.5!

Apr. 14 2011 01:28 AM
Clay from San Francisco

Guys, I loved this show. Probably the best radio I've ever heard. Thanks.

Apr. 08 2011 12:48 AM
Andrew from Northern NH

Survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean taking advantage of other organisms in order to acheive this. Just as well survival may be accomplished better by lifting up together. So the Darwinian principle is still intact in this case. But again self interest can be isolated in this case. But with organisms that may not be self aware, this instinct would be shared. The Ameoba example fits this but could be taken to further in an example where no one is sacrificed.

How about looking at the reality of all organisms being part of a larger organism- Earth. We are all linked, so pain felt by one can be felt by all? Again a survival instinct underlying, but maybe not. Maybe it is just as important on another level of our shared existence.

My horoscope yesterday told me not to think too much, but that was yesterday.

I love this show.

Apr. 06 2011 07:03 PM

Reminds me of the movie: A Midnight Clear.

Apr. 04 2011 04:00 PM

Fabulous, thought-provoking show; thanks RadioLab. I am not a 'Bible-thumper' by any stretch but I was so glad to hear that God was not completely excluded from the conversation. I am always bemused to hear people give sole credit to biology (aka 'the selfish gene') for human altruism, as if science exists in a vacuum walled off from the source of its underlying principles. Modern society seems unable to contemplate spiritual experience (such as the man who 'heard a voice' assuring him he would survive the act of throwing himself under a subway to save another who had fallen on the tracks) without projecting more rational or scientific explanations.

Apr. 02 2011 05:04 PM
HT from PDX

First, let me say I hope to catch as much of The Good Show tomorrow as I can on the drive I'll be making at the time. I love Public Radio and as soon as I get a job, I'm becoming a member.

Second, re: the difficulties some have in understanding why it is seen as Liberal. An unworthy thought crossed my mind when I heard about the content of The Good Show: that is EXACTLY the type of liberal programming the GOP is talking about! If you wanted to demonstrate your fairminded lack of bias you'd do a show on the benefits of *Social* Darwinism.

Apr. 02 2011 01:27 AM

A superb episode. I have listened to this episode multiple times not and it has really opened up my mind to the ideas of human nature. I now fully believe that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act in human behavior. Yet I find this truth to be quite humbling in a sense and I take joy and fascination from it.

This episode has even sparked me to formulate a personal axiom, which i firmly stand by now, that states:

"Given complete freedom of outside circumstance, one would not voluntarily commit an action that, at the moment of committing the action, they (the performer of the action) thought was morally wrong on a personal level."

I put this out there as brain fodder for all to ponder : )

Now I would be very impressed if someone can find a scenario in which this axiom does not hold true. I, along with every other person I have shared this with has ultimately come to accept this axiom and i also share it partly to further test its validity.

Again, i absolutely love Radiolab and all that it inspires.
Fabulous work yet again with "The Good Show"


Mar. 30 2011 06:20 PM

If "Generous Tit for Tat" is the ultimate conflict-management situation, why don't parents use it with teenagers? or for that matter, toddlers?
Parents are always told to be consistent, and we don't ever respond in kind (I don't bite my toddler when she bites me).

Is Tit for Tat is only good for situations of conflict between equal partners (like they hypothetical situation between the "prisoners")? If so, can your experts define the sort of relationship situation in which Tit for Tat works?
The problem with this kind of mathematical psychology is that it takes no account of social roles and relationships, which are pretty much the most important thing going on in any social animal's life.

Mar. 24 2011 03:06 AM

This Episode was one of my favorites! I REALLY enjoyed it. It hit me so much Because i have been reading the books of Ayn Rand. I felt that this episode prove her filosofy in a way. Also, I belong to a religion, here in Mexico, were we believe in a establishing of a kingdom, that is to come, exactly like in the days of Isreal. With the Law of Moses as its basic law. We believe this is the only way there could be Peace on Earth. So yeah, to me it was a really cool episode.

Mar. 23 2011 02:38 PM

Wow, I just saw an episode of House where the cold open was your story about the guy who threw himself under a train in front of his daughter to save a stranger, and the rest of the episode was a study in altruism, again, heavily referencing this podcast.

"In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of guaranteeing profits." -John Horn

Mar. 17 2011 02:49 PM
Chris from Vancouver

The song is called "Arena" and it's by Suuns.

Feb. 24 2011 05:08 PM
Mitch from Vancouver BC

Does anyone know what the song is right before the final credits? (electronic one @ around 1:03:44?)

Feb. 24 2011 04:39 PM

Does anyone know what the song is right before they start the final credits?

Feb. 18 2011 11:38 PM
Taylor from Baltimore

I really love this show, but i was genuinely distressed that "selfishness" was taken as such a distasteful and "bad" word. I would be more saddened by people torturing themselves through "selfless" acts than being "selfish" and doing what they love. Selfishness and the desire to be happy with your life (what ever makes you happy, creating, giving, building, destroying) should be the goal no? Would it not be best if the altruism, was actually altruistic?

Feb. 15 2011 12:14 AM
Jared Hall from Fort Collins, CO

‎"...if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest..."

"Survival of the fittest" wasn't claimed by Darwin. Don't reference it when explaining evolution. It obfuscates the mechanism. Darwin never said it and wouldn't agree. Repeat: Natural Selection was proposed by Darwin to explain the speciation of organisms. It doesn't imply what may/may not live or die. Natural selection boils down the the process by which traits become more or less common in a population through sexual reproduction.

Feb. 08 2011 02:01 PM

This is one of the best pieces I have ever listened to. Thank you for making it. I sent it to family members and talked about it to anyone who would listen to me.
Great work!

Feb. 03 2011 08:47 PM
One Eye from NYC

wΔz = cov(wi,zi) + E(wiΔzi)

George could not accept the world
only he was able to describe,
but he did not blow his silly brains out.

He cut off their blood supply—
sawed through his carotid artery
with a pair of scissors, probably rusty.
Took that much longer to blanch.

It was exquisitely sculptural, the way he was
when he was found, in my imagination
anyway: a motherless pietà,
an “object of conviction” yet “in the way.”
Tragic, the way his neighbor forgot altogether
the letter in his hand, the English,
that had brought him to George’s door.

Ray Johnson’s house.
Not entirely cornered.
Were they ever right about suffering then?

Murder will make of itself an art, you old cranks,
but selflessness cannot. Unarmed,
you are no god, Apollo:
our species thrives for suffering, not despite it.
It makes just enough of us selfless enough,
on occasion, to go out of our way for those
we don’t yet have to forgive. Humans
is blues people.

The survivors know this. Ask them.
Not the heroes, but the strangers
for whom deserving was no obstacle.
Could have been a shooter for all
anyone cares to know. See?
You’re very much alive.

So I need not change my life.
This is not what our confrontation demands of me,
Bayeux tapestry.

I must be the woman who stopped
her car on the side of the highway and
without a first thought climbed through
some ungodly voltage to beat repeatedly,
brutishly, a 900-pound beast on the nose
with a few feet of pipe until
the woman he was mauling
(the sight of which so compelled me)
has dragged her wretched self
out from under him back through
the electric fence, with my wretched self,
to the shimmering berth that precedes
the rest of our lives.

I need also be the woman who cannot ignore
the woman screaming in the parking lot.

It is not peaceful. It isn’t necessarily kind.
It is not Orphic.
I don’t believe it is conviction, but
it is who we must be.
That noxious equation, bless its bleeding heart,
proves it is who we are.

Feb. 02 2011 12:34 AM

thanks anvil, song is amazing

Jan. 30 2011 09:06 PM
Anvil from Germany


The music in the beginning is Dorval by Julia Kent (from the album Delay).

Credit goes to Discocity who told me

Jan. 30 2011 08:42 PM
Lauren from Brooklyn, NY

Dear Radiolab gang:
I would love to hear you approach the altruism quandary from the angle of those strangers (not brothers, sisters, etc.) whose "survival" momentarily depended on the actions of someone else.

In keeping with what at least one other comments in the thread has suggested: how often our survival wholly depends on other people -- heroically or not -- rather than our own fantasies of fitness. Is there a kind of fitness in accepting help from others (speaking of niceness with a scalpel)?

How do the survivors feel about the Carnegie medalists? What kind of relationship do the heroes and survivors have now?

Jan. 28 2011 02:28 PM

Can someone please tell me who plays the stinged music at the beginning of the show. Jad if you're reading this could you help me out here?

Jan. 27 2011 02:07 PM

The very essence of HUMAN--rooted from, but ascending above, the kingdom of animals--means that we have a choice, a choice of not being slaved by animal urges any longer!

This is an extension of the everlasting "fate vs free will" debate, which has been much more intense in the West than in the East, where few people embrace the pure black&white philosophy hold by many Westerners. This is why in the Far East, people believe that one can become a saint even if born as a devil's spawn. This is also why the people in the Far East tend not to resist the core concepts of evolution--that we are descends of 'monkeys".

Jan. 25 2011 09:47 PM
Nathan Budd from Toronto, Ontario

Regarding the Good Show episode:
Someone says that my sister has 50% of my genes to add clout to the argument that in saving her, I am mathematically saving 50% of my genes. But this more than likely not true. I receive 50% of my father's genes and 50% of my mother's genes. My sister will get the same ratio of 50% from both parent. Our genes could be completely complementary! It's possible (but unlikely because of chromosome cross-over) for us to have no genes in common at all!
And the further away you look from your parents at distant relatives the less and less likely it becomes that you have a significant amount of genetic material in common.

Now in practice, because of things like cross-over there will more than likely always be genes in common from parents between siblings. But the ratio or similarity is not 50% by necessity.

Jan. 25 2011 06:36 PM
Jonathan from Carrie Bow Caye, Belize

Loved the piece and love Radiolab. I think it takes some serious connection-making. But I think a logical argument can be made that love is the ultimate survival strategy for our species. following
Dawkin's "Selfish Gene" everything is just a different manifestation of the same gene. If you help out someone, something else, your helping out yourself....

Jan. 25 2011 01:23 PM
Jeff Hafner from New York, NY

I have been meaning to write to let you all know about an amazing song, "Christmas in the Trenches" by John McCutcheon, which is about the remarkable World War I events that you described in the podcast. It is a simple and touching song that I hope you'll listen to and enjoy.

There is a version on his "Live At Wolf Trap" album where Mr. McCutcheon describes meeting one of the soldiers that was there on that Christmas. He has also turned the song into a children's Christmas story book.

Thanks for all that you do, Radiolab.

Jan. 24 2011 02:11 PM
Nate Lebowitz from New Jersey

I'm sorry - we are NOT insects. As human beings, our cultural evolution long ago outpaced and outflanked our biologic evolution. I am a scientist and physician, but when it comes to humans, the cultural anthropologists have it right (mostly) and the sociobiologists have it wrong (mostly).

Jan. 23 2011 01:49 PM
Ellemar from Vancouver, BC

But George Price STILL isn't being selfless! He thinks he is, but he's only doing it to make himself feel better about the world. he was just proving his formula right again.

I love this episode. It's fantastic :)

Jan. 21 2011 04:53 PM

Wonderful episode.

I am quite unsure why so many believe altruism is incompatible with evolution and there is so much debate about it. Books such as "Price of Altruism" and "The Selfish Gene" explain it decently, though I think many get confused by the term "selfish."

In the system of evolution and natural selection, the only real purpose is to create more lifeforms that are best equipped to create more lifeforms. Altruism might in fact become one of the most helpful forms of creating new life. If life forms continue to help others, prosperity will thrive, and the layman's idea of "selfishness" could possibly be the worst.

The idea of selfishness could easily apply to the whole and Dawkins describes, or even to entirely other species. It is possible that slowly being built into genes and instincts is the very idea of the well being of the whole, all of life, not just the propagation of our own offspring.

Evolution is a tinkerer. In order to reproduce (which requires resources), it makes the most simplistic sense (after harvesting from the sun, and other non organic forms, etc) to absorb and consume other life forms for energy, which ultimately created what we see as "bad" or "violence" or "selfishness." Should evolution stumble upon ways to propagate life through helping others and optimizing resources, that would be most beneficial to the very purpose of creating more life, if the fact of removing life for resources and energy can be removed from the equation.

Nothing to be depressed or put off about. It all makes perfect sense.

Jan. 17 2011 02:38 PM
Abby from Charlotte, NC

My college junior seminar was taught by a man who enjoyed this very topic. The most satisfying explanation I have heard of altruism in his class was from a story where the benefactor said, "I saw no difference between his life and my own." I think taking on someone else's problems as your own is the perfect definition of altruism.

We discussed a lot of the evolutionary benefits of acts that what would superficially not be seen as such. There is a good discussion of this trait in Franz de Waals "Good Natured", an exploration of altruism in primates.

Jan. 16 2011 09:27 PM
Jeff Rogers

Another valuable show. "The Trap" (2007) a 3 part series by Adam Curtis and the BBC would be a nice follow up for all those interested.

Jan. 16 2011 12:48 AM
Gabriel from Mexico

Great show as usual. Although I wonder why you did not pick up on the explanation that your second hero, the guy from Pennsylvania who rescued the teenagers from their burning vehicle, gave about his actions: he said that he hoped someone would do that for his own daughter if she ever was in that same kind of danger. Tit for tat!

Jan. 14 2011 09:15 PM
Lara from central new york

I was struck by how individualistic our understanding of our conception of Darwin's putative theory is. I think this was a great episode, raising great questions; great, great work. But it seems like the framing continually reflects such a non-communal, non-cooperative understanding of what motivation could possibly be, what self-interest *is*. The assumption that self-interest *has* to be about individual preservation isn't questioned. The Price story too has some interesting, culturally-biased assumptions embedded throughout.

Jan. 07 2011 12:33 PM
Bronwyn from NYC

What about altruism in humans when it comes to saving non-human life? Like motives for vegetarianism, animal right activism, environmentalism? Is it that we tend to over anthropomorphize other life forms and relate them to our own human value system? or is it an innate reaction to preserve an ecosystem we are ultimately apart of? or . . . what?

Jan. 05 2011 10:14 AM

I found the part about the savings our brothers sisters very interesting but what i do not understand about that idea is that, if save someone like our sister/brother just to save 50% of our genes but die in the process then why would we risk 100% of our genes ?

Jan. 04 2011 05:15 PM
LarryVDG from Montreal

I found it interesting that guilt or remorse were never mentioned as reasons for someone risking his or her life. Many years ago I had the good fortune of saving not one but two lives in the same day! One was the 4 year old daughter of my girlfriend and the other was a man twice my age; a complete stranger. In both occasions I remember thinking that I would never be able to live with the guilt and I would forever have nightmares if I didn't step in and do something.

Jan. 04 2011 03:48 PM
Bebarce El-Tayib from Clifton, NJ

I don't understand why the revelation came as such a shock to Price. Am I wrong in my inability to differentiate what he suggested to Greek philosophy on Enlightened Self Interest, or the work of Adam Smith. I mean while not mathematically represented (as far as I know) the concepts that any action we take is out of self interest, including altruism, were around for quite some time, and well known to anyone who's invested a cursory amount of time in philosophy. It's extremely interesting about how it ties directly to evolution, but I'm still curious as to why it affected him so.

To the point. If all interest is self-interest. If self-interest is a by product of evolution. And if altruism is thus a by product of self-interest. Than any action price took, regardless of whether it was self damaging, is directly related to evolutionary computations. Simply put, he wasn't disproving anything by hurting himself.

Jan. 04 2011 09:13 AM
Lauren Bittrich from Duxbury, Ma

Concerning the altruism theory - I would like to see an experiment with an adoptive sibling. Psychologically they are your sibling, but genetically they are not. If both your genetic sibling and your adoptive sibling were drowning - would you feel more compelled to save your biological sibling (like the study dictates) or your adoptive sibling - or neither?

Jan. 03 2011 09:34 PM
Jeremy Mercer from Marseille, France

I looked at altruism in economics for an essay for Ode Magazine and one of the most interesting things I came across was 'crowding out' theory from Richard Titmuss. This says that there is a basic instinct for altruism that is stronger than certain fiscal incentives. The classic example, first shown in an experiment by Bill Upton, is that people are far more likely to donate blood when it is an act of kindness than they are when it is a paid donation. Pretty uplifting stuff.

Jan. 03 2011 10:42 AM

I would also like to ask who plays the music at the beginning of the show.

Dec. 31 2010 02:41 PM
Iris from Hong Kong

Really thought provoking episode! I was facinated by the computer tournament method of testing different strategies: super smart!

I'd like to offer a possible explanation for the emergence of "generous tit-for-tat": when someone hurts you, you would instinctively want to hurt them back - to ensure they understand the pain of what they inflict on you,(empathy) as well as let them know that you have the ability to retaliate. (deterance) However, after a few round if u r smart you'd realise that the strategy isn't working, and you'd try a different strategy to end this cycle of violence. Thus my theory: 1) the primary objective of retaliation is end violence (vs revenge) and 2) the 'generous' strategy sort of relies on this 'shared' human instinct: ie the assumption that your opponent's interest lies also in getting out of violence, hence you subtly offer glimpse of de-escalation, to test that possibility.

The computer tournament experiment seems to support this theory: after all, the idea was to find new ways of getting out of Cuban missile crisis!

Dec. 31 2010 02:08 PM
Andrew Cooper from Newbury, England

Excellent podcast. I first came across Richard Dawkins when he presented the documentary which you can see courtesy of Google Video here

Coincidentally, yesterday I listened to a BBC Word Service 'Witness' programme about the Christmas Truce - it's available here: The Witness series is well worth a listen - each programme is only 10 minutes long but there are many gems. (Hope I'm allowed to mention that here!)

Happy New Year everyone!

Dec. 29 2010 06:31 AM
Neil from Germany

Questions on the motivations of "God" on the part of the man who was willing to jump in the path of a train to try to help another are fairly mute. Why is it we always try to imagine what we would do in this man's shoes? Imagine yourself as the one who fell in the path of the train helpless, then and only then you truly find a savior.

Dec. 28 2010 06:07 AM
Drew from Sonora, CA

Absolutely loved this episode! Thank you, Jad and Robert, for tackling a very difficult topic. So well done.

Dec. 27 2010 12:17 AM
Griffin from Vermont

Did anyone look into Phil Zimbardo's new project, He's know for the Stanford Prison Experiment, and most of his historical work has been on the social phsycology of why people do bad things, but his new project is on what makes people be hero's

Dec. 25 2010 05:34 PM

who is playing the music that starts on 3:20, quite nice that one :)

Dec. 25 2010 12:03 PM
Andrew from Toronto

This show is really trippy. The way you keep mixing the voices in makes it quite unique and mind-altering. There are many stories that need telling, the story of George Price, is Priceless.

Dec. 24 2010 07:15 PM
Marissa L. Hill from Upstate New York

Now that you have covered altruism, you should now cover its opposite: Objectivism. There is plenty out there for you to research Ayn Rand and her ethical theory. I think it would be an interesting way of looking at both sides of the same coin.

Dec. 23 2010 01:15 PM

James (and all others curious to learn more about the WWI truce situation),

Here are the books we referenced for the piece:

Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System

Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

Malcolm Brown + Shirley Seaton, Christmas Truce

Hope that helps!

Oh, and Bryan: Regarding your comment about Kropotkin. We did come across MUTUAL AID and I read most of it. The dude has a fantastic story -- exiled Russian prince turned naturalist writes epic Siberian natural history tome -- but it just didn't quite fit into the mix. Definitely worth checking out, though, for those of you who want a contemporary counterpoint to the whole Darwin/Huxley "nature red in tooth and claw" perspective.

Thanks (and happy listenin'),


Dec. 23 2010 11:24 AM
Paul Tucker from Dillsburg, PA

Great episode. But why did you leave the motives of the guy who jumped on the train tracks unchallenged? Of course there was no time to reason out a response to this situation. He has no idea why he did what he did. In retrospect he feels he needs to rationalize what he did so he "remembers" this version where he imagines this "special purpose" that some god gave him. His actions were at once admirable and stupid. I would like to think that I would have attempted something similar. It seems that you're implying that an atheist couldn't have done this. I think it unlikely that religous motives can be considered in the milliseconds needed to respond to situations like this. Perhaps there are some ways to assume a general attitude of selflessness which would tend to allow one to "jump on the tracks" and religion might be a part of it but for some others it might not.

Dec. 23 2010 08:36 AM
Ben from New Orleans, LA

Fantastic program, Radiolab! What a character George Price was! I ran to the bookstore to get Oren Harman's book and have been engrossed ever since. Figuring out whether altruism is always a form of disguised self-interest is a great challenge. Not sure it'll ever be met. George Price drives this point home very dramatically.

Dec. 23 2010 07:10 AM
glen keenan from fairfield, ia

here is paul mccartney's video for "pipes of peace" which depicts the xmas day in 1914 which is detailed in that radiolab ep: (there's also a 2005 movie "Joyeux Noël" about the same event.)

Dec. 23 2010 02:20 AM
Katie Brownk from Charlotte, NC

To everyone complaining about the "science" behind the show--- who says Radiolab is intented to be pure science? I think this show has always combined science with general discussion of the mysteries of life and the human condition. It's not just another dry science show with all spirituality and heart removed. That's why I LOVE Radiolab!!!

Dec. 22 2010 04:41 PM
Jim W from Atlanta

Great show. Now, I'd like to hear the bookend episode of how people can be so cruel to each other.

Dec. 22 2010 12:09 PM
Becky from Newton, Mass.

To Bryan and all other listeners:

Oren Harman's book, "The Price of Altruism" begins with a chapter on Kropotkin, and then advances throughout the twentieth century, beautifully describing all the history of scientists trying to explain altruism. It's all there - read it!!
And thanks Radiolab for another great episode!

Dec. 21 2010 06:07 PM
Bryan Hayes from OR

As usual I enjoyed the show.

Though I am both alarmed and disappointed that there wasn't even a passing reference to Peter Kropotkin.

Please consider a short to better contextualize the the intellectual development of the idea of "mutual aid", from Darwin and Kropotkin to John Nash, game theory, and perhaps more recent developments... which I guess you've kind of done.

If you need any help, let me know.

Dec. 21 2010 05:35 PM
James from New Hampshire

I'd like to learn more about the war story - does anyone have a resource on that? Book, web site, movie, other?

Dec. 21 2010 02:17 PM
JLa from oregon

Of course it makes sense that competition / aggression is often very 'costly' compared to cooperation. The common sense view that evolution is primarily a war of all against all is really a reflection the propaganda used to justify nation-states and capitalism.

Even successful competition is often due to cooperation among members of successful groups against less cooperative / organized rivals. When it comes to people specifically the ability to talk to one another really enhances the already large advantage of cooperation. Although it's also true that it opens up the possibility of deception, lies really only work in a context where people generally believe and trust one another.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the phenomenon of 'total' war is a rare occurrence that has had its greatest expression in the 20th century. In most other times and places war was a specialized activity carried out occasionally and only by a relatively small warrior class. This show points out that even in WW1 cooperation spontaneously developed among enemies.

Peter Kropotkin, prominent anarchist and dead guy, wrote a book about this subject. It's called Mutual Aid: A Factor In Evolution.

Dec. 21 2010 03:28 AM

While some have said they wanted you to talk more about other avenues of social behavior, I learned a lot by hearing your analysis of tit-for-tat, especially. Thank you so much!

Dec. 21 2010 02:28 AM
Connor Walsh from Brussels

Lovely show. Being a busy time of year, I could only set aside the train journey from Brussels to London as a chance to listen. Great big headphones on, as night fell over the snow-covered fields. The emotional impact of the World War I story kicked up a notch by the knowledge that I was taking a train across what was once the Western Front at the time.
And then! North Korea said South Korean military drills were a provocation, but wouldn't respond. Could they be listening to Radiolab and modifying their tit-for-tat in Pyongyang? ;-)

Dec. 21 2010 01:48 AM

You bring up a point worth fleshing out a bit. Electric fences generally run between 1,000 and 10,000 volts (I think there's a legal limit somewhere around 10,000). Dealing with a bull, and assuming a knowledgeable rancher, it's a good bet this one was over 2,000.

That said, electric fences deliver the voltage in short pulses, which makes it a very different experience for the person grabbing the fence compared to, say, 5,000 volts in a house plug (god forbid), which delivers the volts continuously. For one, your muscles will relax after a quick pulse and you can pull yourself away, reducing the amps you are subjected to. Also, in the case of the fence, given the resistance of a human body and assuming you are standing on the ground with shoes, the amps would be relatively low.

Bottom line is, Laura got a zap. Not a life threatening zap by any means, but nothing you'd do for fun.

Thanks for the opportunity to geek out a bit. Hope I didn't get anything egregiously wrong in that explanation ... I'm sure we've got listeners who could make it much more clear than i can. The relationship between volts, amps, and resistance in different situations can get complicated, and it was never really my strong suit.


Dec. 20 2010 11:25 PM
Noah Jester from Portland, OR

I still don't understand how this equation accounts for the instinct the most everyone has to protect loved ones, even if it means losing their own life. After all, if your sister is drowning, you will save her even if she only shares half of your genes. You will also save your best friend, even if you share no genes with them. It's an interesting theory, and the episode was very good, but I still don't understand.

Dec. 20 2010 10:52 PM
Mateus Alves from sao paulo, brazil

This is beautiful!
Thank you!!

Dec. 20 2010 05:23 PM

Fortunately, Ms. Shrake did not go "through thousands of volts of electricity" to save a life. Unfortunately, RadioLab continues to put excellent storytelling before accurate science.

Dec. 20 2010 03:56 PM

Best radiolab in a while!
Especially loved the computer program tournament section.

Dec. 20 2010 03:49 PM
Nathan Evans from 64111

Love the episode profound information on the cuban missile crisis. Does anyone know the name of the song they used in the intro after the Richard Dawkins clip?

Dec. 20 2010 02:37 PM
Jesse from Arizona

I went out and bought Oren Harman's book, "The Price of Altruism" and read it cover to cover in one sitting. WOW! The story of George
Price is so heart-wrenching and so absolutely
fascinating from an intellectual point of view as
well. Harman provides a real tour de force walk
though the science of altruism, so for those of you listeners who felt that the program didn't have enough hard science, I highly recommend that you read the book.

Dec. 20 2010 05:07 AM
Lili from Paris, France

Great show! Some colony creatures, such as bees, actually share more genes with siblings rather than children. Bees are haplodiploid, meaning that the male has one set of chromosomes, and passes on the entire set of chromosomes to his offspring. The female has two sets of chromosomes (like humans) and passes on just one of her chromosomes to her offspring (unlike humans, we pass on a jumble). So, sisters either have the same chromosome from their mother AND father, so they share 100% of their genes, OR have the same chromosome as their father, and different from their mother, so they share 50% of their genes.

In other words, bee sisters (workers) share, on average, 75% of their genes, but only pass on 50% of their genes to their offspring. Therefore, it is more genetically viable to produce sisters rather than offspring (unless of course you're a Queen Bee and produce a hive of offspring). Yeah!!

Dec. 20 2010 04:11 AM
Donovan Kliegg from Seattle, WA

There is an interesting theory of altruism driven by memes. It's well articulated by Dr. Susan Blackmore, but I'll summarize.

Suppose human evolution has been driven by the activity of memes (because memes increase survivability) such that the success of memes in general exhibits a large amount of influence on the genome. He who can share the best ideas, as well as the one that can learn the best ideas, live better lives and have more offspring than those that are close minded.

Also suppose that people that do kind deeds, self less deeds, and heroic deeds wield a little more influence with society and more directly the people they benefit. It's not always going to be the case with every altruistic act, but on the whole this appears be true.

The memes of someone who has more influence with others are more likely to propagate to others. In particular, the memes of altruism would get a big boost, as stories of kind acts travel from person to person.

Over thousands and thousands of generations of humans helping each other, the memes and the genome they influence would tend to select people that are more altruistic than those that are not. The genetic basis of sibling altruism would mutate to a general form of altruism to any being with a brain.

I know this is a stretch for some people, but it explain a lot and it does suggest reasons why altruism works better local rather than global. It also suggests that altruism would be more prevalent in media rich societies because altruistic memes would propagate more easily.

Dec. 20 2010 01:54 AM

Great show guys, although a little disappointed in the fact that scientists believe that human beings form pair bonds due to the way our young develop, was not mentioned. Not only is there a relatively long gestation, but also a comparatively long growth cycle from childhood to adolescence, mostly due to our very large brains. This could be an explanation for why we have families, to maintain a stable environment with which to raise our young.. I was also surprised that there was no investigation of the neurological evidence behind what made people risk their lives to help others. A little more science please.

Dec. 19 2010 02:50 PM

Sweet sweet. But it reminds me of folks who argue by pointing out exceptions to the rule. Yes, there are interesting and anomalous examples of selfless sharing all over nature. Lovely as they are, they are exceptions to the core principle that humans are deeply driven by resource domination. We take stuff. It is not bad or good. It's what we do on an individual and sometimes collective level, in order to ensure the propagation of our genes. Whether it's the watering hole in the opening scene of 2001 A Space Odyssey (where apes learn to bash heads with femur bones in order to take the water for themselves), or just a hoard of holiday shoppers fighting over Cabbage Patch dolls (to give to their little ones) -- the unconscious imperative is the same. Grab and dominate. (Or in the original U.S. Supreme Court language used to justify white folks stealing the land from Native Americans -- "Dominion and Control". Sounds more official -- but it's the same femurs smashing skulls.

As for altruism, in the snatchfest -- it does exist. To varying degrees, and for excellent reason. It is the balancing tool resource takers use to keep things in place. Toss the have nots enough to keep them satisfied so that they will not rise up and upset the apple cart. That is the most dominant reason for this thing we call altruism. Keeps the peace . . . which keeps my investments safe and assures the forward journey of my genes -----


Dec. 19 2010 10:55 AM
Ally from Australia

I'm actually on a chapter in a book called "Sex at Dawn" (Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jetha) which explores a little about this topic. Basically it says that human beings only fight each other when there's something worth fighting for (which really only came about when agriculture started.) In general, we come to realise that chances of survival are better when we all co-operate and share our resources. And this behaviour can also be seen in other animals such as bat caves who cough up food (blood) into the mouths of other bats who didn't get much food in hopes that if the tables were turned in the future, the bat would return the favour.
There are communities near the amazon and other remote regions who live on the principal that everything must be shared and that to be selfish and self-preserving is the biggest offence/crime. I think this topic is way too big for one podcast and needs to be covered some more!

Dec. 19 2010 03:30 AM
Ian Dinius from Indianapolis

I enjoyed this episode immensely and wanted to offer some supplemental material regarding the last segment. Of all people, William Faulkner, extends the possibility of a truce reached through mutual pacifism during World War One in his novel "A Fable". I am not a Faulkner scholar (more of a fan) but I can tell you the author credits two men in a brief note before the text, William Bacher and Henry Hathaway of Beverly Hills "who had the basic idea from which this book grew into its present form". I cannot help but wonder if Bacher and Hathaway supplied anecdotes to the brooding Southerner similar to the ones uncovered in the letters read in your program. I should also mention in the book that it is the generals who reignite the carnage after the impromptu cease fire. Not to discourage you from reading it, but the structure of the novel is complicated enough that it led poor William to jot notes on the wall of his own study which can still be seen today at his historic home. Thanks again for wonderful radio.

Dec. 18 2010 11:11 PM
Fernando Rosales

At 9:20 Lynn Levy states when referencing evolution: "Darwin's idea of 'survival of the fitest'..." but it was Herbert Spencer's idea, NOT Darwin's.

This is a common mistake guys. I thought you better than this... It's been falsely attributed to Darwin for a long time, and you're not really helping the matter any by reinstating it on public radio...

I am a tad disappointed on that note.

But on another, it was a beautiful episode.
You've finally revisited the potency of value that your older episodes partook of. It was very touching.

Dec. 18 2010 08:40 PM
Jen D

One of your best episodes yet. Thanks.

Dec. 18 2010 07:05 PM
Janelle Robichaud from British Columbia

I really enjoyed this podcast. Thank you so much for producing such thought provoking episodes! It's great exercise for my brain! Love you Jad, Robert, and the Radiolab crew

Dec. 18 2010 06:32 PM
Christopher from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

While listening to this show on my walk home at 4 am last night I found a man passed out on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. So I paused my iPod and me and another total stranger spent the next 45 minutes making sure he was alive and getting him home.

I'm not saying that I wouldn't have done it had I not been listening about altruism, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Dec. 18 2010 01:07 PM
ciabon from Idaho

Hi there Radiolab. Just a quick comment: I read
Oren Harman's "The Price of Altruism" and want to let all the listeners know that it is not just a biography of Price, but also a history of all scientific attempts to crack the problem of altruism, including animal behavior studies, the use of game theory, of mathematics, of psychology, genetics, even philosophy. It's a fascinating read, and I highly recommend the book to every one. Thanks Radiolab!

Dec. 18 2010 03:24 AM

Despicably stupid? Ha ha, how about learning to spell before calling others stupid?

Dec. 17 2010 05:16 PM

You people are despicably stupid. And yes there is absolute love, its when one lays down there life for another. But that's to simple for you all. You need something twisted and stupid that appeals to your blind predatory delusion.

Dec. 17 2010 05:10 PM
Jeremy from Sacramento, CA

It was an interesting program, to be sure. However, in the second part you kind of left it hanging without posing some alternative theories as to why people acted selflessly. There could be lots of reasons. Off the top of my head the most logical to me could be that we are all human and as humans we want to make sure our species survives. Replace that woman being attacked by the bull with, say.... a wolf or a bird... and i doubt it will illicit such a response from any human.

You seemed to be hinting that something spiritual might be at the root of it without coming out and saying that. This doesn't seem like good science to me - to stop posing theories and just conclude that it's something supernatural.

Dec. 17 2010 03:24 PM
nick from rhode island

I'm really interested in finding out what happened to the people that were saved by the carnegie hero's?

Especially the guy saved in the subway. The hero in this case says (basically) he was on this earth to save this person. Did the man who was saved prove to benefit the world in any measurable way? Did he go one to live a good life with a good family, or did he die of a drug overdose the next week?

Dec. 17 2010 02:54 PM

Love the podcast in general and I enjoyed a lot of the stories in this episode, but I really think it got the whole concept of "survival of the fittest" all wrong at the core and propagates some really bad science on the subject.

"Survival of the fittest" doesn't work actively forward, like a plan, the way the program suggests, with individuals weighing their every move as if using it as a moral compass. Individuals do what they do - in nature without morals, in humans (hopefully) with morals - and the "selection" occurs based on which genes carry forward in dominance, on the whole. The individual cannot plan to be the most "fit" - they do what they do and nature decides for them if that behavior is more or less "fit".

Further, as others have noted "fit" does not equate to "bad" or "violent" etc. There are species that do really weird things, like where male birds build an elaborate little "honeymoon suite" and the best such builder gets the girl - those are the "fittest" genes that now dominate where the offspring of that pair will be good at building elaborate honeymoon suites, for whatever reason. Not "bad" or "mean" - just odd, and by human standards sort of sweet.

Dec. 17 2010 01:56 PM
Cecile from Lausanne, Switzerland

Hey! There's has been a movie made of this episode during the war called 'Joyeux Noel' (meaning Merry Christmas in French) and I believe there should be an English version of it. It's really great!

Oh, and by the way, I love the show!!!!!

Dec. 17 2010 10:02 AM
Lawrence from Washington D.C.

Fantastic program! I'm going to send this link to
every one I know. What an intelligent blend of
science, biography, human interest. Loved he Tit-for-Tat story, but was most engrossed by the tale of poor George Price, which to my mind really focuses the mystery of that ineffable human behavior we call "altruism".

Dec. 17 2010 04:35 AM
Laurence Peters from Rockville, MD

Some of the best radio I have heard. The painstaking way you must put these shows together was clearly in evidence in the Altruism show. The story about Price was incredible and new to me and told with great care.

Dec. 16 2010 08:35 PM
Samantha from Gambier/New Haven

Amazing, amazing, amazing, Jad and Robert.

The part about the soldiers having a Christmas truce on the Western Front broke me— I stopped the packing I was doing and just cried. What perfect program for the holidays— restoring a little faith in humanity.

Thank you.

Dec. 16 2010 06:38 PM
Mary from San Francisco

I love RadioLab, and I loved this episode, especially the tit for tat section. It always makes my week when a new episode comes out!

However, there's a serious error in the first story that I think you should be aware of -- your brother's genes + your sister's genes (or eight of your cousins genes) does not sum up to all of your genes. In the case of your brother and sister, in sum they share about 75% of your genes, since half the genes that your sister shares with you, your brother also shares with you. If they were to sum up to all of your genes, that would imply that your brother got from your parents all the genes that you got from your parents and your sister didn't get from your parents, which isn't the case.

Dec. 16 2010 05:20 PM
sherry silver from boston

Brilliant program!!!!

I just finished reading Oren Harman's book, "The Price of Altruism", about George Price and the evolution of altruism. What an incredible story! Thanks Radiolab, for bringing this to the waves!

Dec. 16 2010 03:32 PM
ido bahat from New York

This episode is one of the best. I loved the story of George Price, so dramatically and intelligently told. Has natural selection produced in man a species that can, so to speak, go against his own instincts? Is there a scientific solution to this question? fascinating stuff!!

Dec. 16 2010 02:28 PM
Jose from Elmhurst

I'm sorry, but this episode was not as rigorous as you would expect. It makes sacrifice seem to "flaky" and unlikely, and treats violence vis-a-vis the concept of "survival of the fittest" which gets abused when applied to certain species.
For example, apes ants, and many animals who are not solitary hunters perform at their best when in cooperation; not when in competition. They compete against other species, but not necessarily among themselves.
By himself a human is a very weak mammal, but when labor is divided and cooperation is achieved we beat every other species on the planet. So that means we have evolved to cooperate, not to kill each other. In fact it is usually the fear of self destruction and devolution that keeps us from killing each other into extinction.

Dec. 16 2010 12:28 PM
Daniel Ritchie from Tulsa, OK

Great show!

However, regarding the "tit for tat" strategy's relevance to the Western front - it seems to me that the British, under orders from their superiors, deviated from the "tit for tat" strategy that had "locked" them and the Germans into "nice/nice" responses. So, it is not exactly clear to me why the suggested modified "tit for tat" strategy would be superior, as had the original "tit for tat" been continued, they would not have reverted to violence.

Can anyone clarify?

Dec. 16 2010 12:00 PM

This was my immediate reaction to the evolution of "tit for tat" so I apologize if it is half baked, but if we suppose that life started with a dominant "Lucifer gene," and the "tit for tat gene" then became (or is becoming) the dominant gene wouldn't that make more room for the "Jesus gene" to prosper and possibly become a future dominant trait of life?

Dec. 16 2010 11:59 AM
J. Overby

Good episode. Don't you think George Price made an error (well obviously, duh)? His form of altruism was simply a meta form of selfishness, Price seeking to validate his will at all costs?

Dec. 16 2010 10:24 AM
Steve Carmichael from Canaada

The electronic track is "Arena" by Suuns.

Dec. 16 2010 05:44 AM

perhaps there is a better place for me to offer technical comments, and perhaps it's just my old computer rebelling, but i've tried multiple times and in two different ways to download this podcast (both itunes and clicking the "download" button above), and the download always stops a little under halfway through, saying it has 4 minutes left, but never progressing. I've downloaded loads of other things since I first tried to download this. I'm dying to hear it, but can't seem to make it happen! Do i stand alone with this problem?

Dec. 16 2010 01:20 AM
Jonathan from NYC, USA

Wow, what a great episode! I wish there could be one every week! Does anyone know what that electronic track is that plays right as the show is ending. It had a good beat. Keep up the stellar work!

Dec. 15 2010 07:34 PM

Beautiful episode! I know that balancing spirituality with science can be difficult, especially because the issue is so contentious for certain people, but you handled that balance excellently.

This is an excellent Christmas gift. My sincere thanks to everyone involved in its production!

Dec. 15 2010 04:52 PM
ariel from Vancouver, Canada

Loved the computer model of tit for tat plus a little bit of Jesus. Seems like a high school would be a good place to test the "personal" end of the model. Any high school students out there willing to strictly execute the model in social relations?

Dec. 15 2010 04:06 PM
bryan from Provo, UT

this is a GREAT episode! the story from WWI at the end has also been made into a movie, called "Joyeux Noel." the movie is wonderful, too.

Dec. 15 2010 12:56 PM
yoni turner from Cleveland

I absolutely loved this episode - it's one of my all time favorites, and I've been with Radiolab from the beginning. I particular, the story of George Price fascinated and touched me. Price's attempt to transcend science with the human spirit helps to penetrate the very essence of the scientific enterprise - both it's majesty and it's limits. I look forward to reading Oren Harman's book, "The Price of Altruism" very much. Thanks again, Radiolab!

Dec. 15 2010 11:56 AM

Hi Daire,
The cello song is Dorval, by Julia Kent.

Dec. 15 2010 11:38 AM

After the first 40 minutes of this show, I must say I'm disappointed--the content is more human interest than science. The stories are interesting, but I want more science out of Radiolab.

Dec. 15 2010 10:19 AM
Marty from Dallas

After hearing this show, I definitely am proud to have donated. :) Keep up with the great podcast!

Dec. 15 2010 10:13 AM

...ever since Bing started paying for ads it has disabled iTunes podcast functionality. Don't let the $$$ bring you down!

Dec. 15 2010 10:05 AM
Daire from London

Hi, what's the song at the beginning? When Jad and Robert are talking, the cello song, does anyone know what it is called?

Dec. 15 2010 08:52 AM
Ivan Verkempinck

High art and popular science combined.
Nec plus ultra.
I r-rr-really love your show.

Dec. 15 2010 04:53 AM

Second commenter!
Anyway, I really loved this podcast. This is just great. I heart radiolab-- you need to make shirts of that!

Dec. 15 2010 01:15 AM

At the recent TEDWomen conference, there was a presentation about a leopard by Beverly and Dereck Joubert that might be interesting to those who enjoyed this show. Watch footage here:

Dec. 14 2010 10:51 PM

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