Dec 14, 2010

An Equation for Good

In a brief snippet from a conversation Robert had with Richard Dawkins at the 92 Street Y in New York City, we learn that natural selection is often a brutal arms race, inherently full of suffering and cruelty. But if Darwin's big idea is really predicated on pain and selfishness, why does selflessness exist?

Lynn Levy brings us the story of George Price, who bopped through the 60s like some kind of scientific Forrest Gump. He worked on the atom bomb, transitors, computer-aided-design, and eventually turned his attention to the problem of altruism. Lynn talks to Oren Harman, author of The Price of Altruism, and George's daughters Annamarie and Kathleen, who help us get to know this complicated genius.  In 1967, George left his family, went to London, and wrote a mathematical equation to explain why one creature might sacrifice its own interests for another. Carl Zimmer helps us understand why altruism is such a problem in the first place, and how family might hold the key to understanding apparently selfless acts. The so-called Price Equation changed biology ... and ultimately led Price to spend the rest of his life trying to transcend his own equation.  

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Robert Krulwich: Let's just do the open.

Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: This is Radiolab.

Robert: Today, we're going to be talking-- Let's do it this way.

Jad: Which way?

Robert: I was at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, big gathering spot for cool people with new books, and that particular week-- Richard Dawkins.

Jad: They like him.

Robert: Yes. Don't make it so easy for him. I decided to begin by quoting him to him. You write, I don't know if it was in this book or some other, "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive. Others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear. Others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites. Thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, disease. It must be so. If there's ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."

Richard Dawkins: Darwin was worried by the same thing. Darwin recognized the total horror of the suffering in nature. It was one of the things that actually made him lose his faith, but he also realized that it's not just a fact that it happens, it's intrinsic to natural selection that it must happen. When you look at a beautiful animal like a cheetah that appears to be beautifully designed for something--

A cheetah is amazingly well designed, apparently for catching gazelles. Gazelles are amazingly well designed for escaping from cheetahs. They are the end products of a sort of evolutionary arms race in which thousands, millions of animals have died. The carving of the shape of a cheetah or a gazelle has come about through millions of unsuccessful gazelles being caught and the successful ones making it through, only to be caught later, probably, but after reproducing and passing on the genes that helped them to escape. The sheer number of deaths that lie behind the sculpting of these beautiful creatures is horrifying. At the same time, it's got a kind of savage beauty.

Jad: Why did you buy me this, exactly?

Robert: I have been sitting here thinking, "I know the cheetah's chasing the antelopes, but wasn't there a nice cheetah once that went over to the antelope and said, "Hi. Have a sandwich together," and that maybe something about the cheetah had something to do with an act of kindness. I can't imagine--

Jad: You're thinking that maybe it's not just meanness that can sculpt. Maybe niceness can sculpt too?

Robert: Exactly. Niceness as a scalpel.

Jad: Niceness as a scalpel. I want to listen to that show. Wait a second. We are that show. We should do it, then. Let's do it today on Radiolab. Goodness.

Robert: Kindness.

Jad: Selflessness.

Robert: Altruism.

Jad: If the world is so cruel, how do you account for it? How should we think about it?

Robert: When you do see generosity, how do you know it's really generous?

Jad: We're going to start the show with a story that embodies the last question you asked. It's about a guy named George Price who is a mathematician we'd never heard of until our producer, Lynn Levy, told us about him. She heard about him from an author, Oren Harman, who wrote a book called The Price, as in George Price, of Altruism.

Oren Harman: This is a High School photo.

Lynn Levy: The people on the radio can't see the picture, so describe what he looks like.

Oren: He looks a bit like some kind of Scandinavian prince in the 17th century. Good-looking guy.

Lynn: Totally. Definitely something about this guy's eyes.

Oren: His eyes. This was described to me by a number of people who knew him. He had a gaze that you walked away from at your own peril. There was something that-- He knew things.

Lynn: You could start George's story anywhere, but let's start in 1943. George graduates from college and he's this--

Oren: Very kinetic guy.

Lynn: Really athletic.

Oren: He'd swim in the surf and he did a lot of rock climbing.

Lynn: By all accounts, he was--

Oren: Incredibly brilliant.

Lynn: Right after college, he starts to bounce through history.

Oren: He was all over the place.

Lynn: First place he ends up is--

Oren: The Manhattan Project on uranium enrichment. He was working as a chemist on the atom bomb. When he was done with that-

Lynn: After a couple of years--

Oren: -he made a 90-degree turn and started working at Bell Labs on transistor research, solved some very basic problems there, and then disappeared like a phantom. Started working at a medical center on oncology research.

Lynn: Meaning cancer.

Kathleen Price: I remember going to his lab, playing hide and seek, all these bottles and test tubes.

Lynn: By this time, George had a wife and two kids-

Annamarie Price: He would look under the microscope at slides of blood.

Lynn: -Anna and Kathleen, but he never really saw them that much.

Oren: He'd work 56 hours straight without sleeping on Benzedrine-

Annamarie: I remember he was always-

Oren: -stuff like that.

Annamarie: -gone a lot.

Lynn: When the kids were still pretty young--

Annamarie: We were five and six.

Oren: He--

Lynn: Left his family.

Oren: Yes.

Lynn: Just left.

Oren: Turned another 90-degree corner and began working on computer-aided design. In fact, he invented computer-aided design. He was firing in all directions.

Lynn: What do you think was driving him to keep moving from thing to thing?

Oren: He just wanted to succeed at any cost. It made no difference in what field. At one point in time, he was corresponding with about five Nobel laureates, each in a different field. He wanted to have one great discovery that would make his name.

Lynn: That's George.

Jad: Wow, quite a guy.

Lynn: Very interesting guy.

Jad: What happens next?

Lynn: Next, what happens is he gets on a boat and he goes to London.

Jad: When was this, by the way?

Lynn: It's November 1967. In London, that's where things, for our purposes, start to really happen.

Jad: Why? What happens in London?

Lynn: Well, he starts looking for this question. He goes from library to library. There are 13 libraries that he would hang out at. The question that he finds for himself, which is weird considering his personal history, is--

Oren: Why family?

Jad: Why do people have families?

Lynn: Why do families stick together?

Oren: There are a lot of dynamics within the family where it would make more sense for an individual to break out-

Lynn: Go it alone like he had.

Oren: -and yet family persists. There should be a good reason for it.

Lynn: He even wrote about the question to his daughter.

Kathleen: "Dear Kathleen, my big paper will be on the Evolutionary Origin of the Human Family. In most species, the father just mates with the mother and she does all the child-rearing herself, but in the human species, the dominant pattern has involved care by adult males towards their own children. Why did our species evolve this way?" It just brings back what kind of a father our father was towards us. Basically, there was this benign neglect.

Lynn: This question, why family, was only the beginning. Why family led him to a bigger question, which is why does anybody help anybody?

Jad: Well, what do you mean?

Lynn: If you think about Darwin's idea, survival of the fittest, think about what that really means. It means if you are a creature, you have two big important jobs.

Jad: You got to survive, and you got to be fit.

Lynn: Right.

Jad: Whatever that means.

Lynn: Fitness really means how many babies can you make? How many babies are you making? If you do some stupid, harebrained thing that means you can't stay alive and/or you can't make babies, that doesn't make any sense.

Jad: Right.

Oren: Yet wherever you look in nature--

Lynn: You see creatures doing this.

Oren: From bacteria--

Lynn: To insects.

Oren: Birds.

Jad: Bees, ants, and wasps.

Oren: Fish. I'll give you an example. There's a species of amoeba called Dictyostelium discoideum, which usually, the amoeba lives on its own. It's a single-celled organism in the forest, but when resources are low, what it does is it sends out this chemical signal and all the other amoeba who are also single-celled--

Lynn: They start sending out signals.

Oren: They start crawling until they all meet and they become one slug, which is now a single organism.

Lynn: The slug begins to move along until it finds a place that's windy and sunny, at which point--

Oren: It stops. The top 20% of the slug, the top 20% amoeba in the head of the slug begin to create out of their own body a stalk which hardens, and they die while doing so. The stalk allows the bottom 80% to climb up the stalk and to create an orb at the top of the stalk.

Lynn: From there, all the amoeba that aren't dead, they can catch a wind.

Oren: To better pastures.

Lynn: It's like a dandelion.

Oren: What's happened is that the top 20% have really sacrificed themselves for the back 80%. That's an amoeba. He figured, "What the hell is happening here?" This was a great mystery to Darwin, and Darwin said, "This is in fact the greatest mystery and the greatest riddle. If I can't answer it, then my theory isn't worth anything."

Lynn: For 100 years, when people talked about evolution, this thing, altruism, is the elephant in the room.

Jad: Should we just jump in? We were curious about this. How might you take this elephant, this niceness thing that seems to be everywhere, and shove it back into the mean old theory of evolution? There's got to be a way. We called up Carl Zimmer, who's a journalist we have on the show quite often, who writes a lot about evolution. He told us that in the 1960s, just as George Price was starting to ask these questions, some scientists came up with a new way of thinking about altruism, a thought experiment, which he ran us through.

Carl Zimmer: Robert, do you have siblings?

Robert: I have a sister.

Carl: You have a sister.

Robert: Sara.

Carl: Let's just imagine that you guys are home from college, say, and there's a flood at the Krulwich manor. The water is flooding around and you can see that your sister is about to die. If you save your sister's life and die in the process, your genes, Robert Krulwich's genes, are gone.

Jad: Right. This is the problem.

Carl: Yes, but you and your sister have the same parents. Your sister has 50% of your genes.

Robert: If I rescue her, then half my genes survive?

Carl: Right. 50% move on. Now, if you had a sister and a brother and you save them both, they'd each have 50%.

Jad: It's a wash.

Carl: Effectively, it's like saving Robert Krulwich in his entirety.

Robert: Mathematically speaking.

Carl: Mathematically speaking, right.

Jad: Can you do this with cousins?

Carl: Yes, actually. If you step it back to cousins--

Robert: What percentages-- That's a quarter in the case of the first cousins?

Carl: It's an eighth.

Jad: Eight cousins.

Robert: I have to have eight first cousins to equal my full genome?

Carl: Right, yes.

Jad: Do you have that many?

Robert: I have 32 third cousins, and that's why I always round them up at a rodeo every year.

Jad: You place them all together just in case--

Robert: You guys stay here in case something happens to me.

Jad: Here's what I don't get. How does this actually operate? Robert's not going to sit there while the manor's flooding and be like, "Well, let's see. I have a cousin, that's 1/8. Then a second cousin, that's 1/32."

Carl: No, you don't understand. The math has already been done.

Jad: The math has already been--

Carl: The math has been done by evolution on genes, and those are the genes you've got.

Jad: Oh, so you're saying that evolution has turned the math into an instinct?

Carl: Yes, you got it.

Robert: I don't think I get it. What is the instinct here? I know I want to save my sister.

Jad: Here's how I understand it. Since sis has half your genes and since second cousin only has 1/32, theoretically, your instinct to save your sis should be 16 times stronger than your instinct to save--

Robert: Oh. You know, that's actually roughly proportionally correct.

Jad: Keep in mind this was just an idea. It was just a thought experiment until our guy, George Price, comes along and writes an equation, which shows mathematically how an instinct like this could evolve.

Carl: It's very powerful. Do you want me to just read the letters?

Jad: Yes.

Lynn: What is the equation? What equals what?

Carl: wΔz=Cov(wi,zi)+E(wi,zi)

Jad: Of course.

Carl: There you go.

Jad: So complicated. It was simple a second ago.

Lynn: Yes, it sounds a little complicated. He's not just dealing with a simple setup. He's got the traits, and how they affect the different groups, and how things change over time, so there's a lot going on in there.

Jad: All right. Do you understand what you just said?

Lynn: Not--

Annamarie: Here, this is a really interesting letter, which maybe I should read.

Oren: When he did write the equation, he walked off the street into the university.

Annamarie: University College of the University of London.

Oren: In London, a complete unknown, had just moved from America. No one knew who he was.

Annamarie: "I went to talk to a Professor Smith, an expert on--"

Oren: He showed the equation to the professor and said, "Is this new?"

Annamarie: "I felt sure that someone must have discovered it before."

Oren: The professor looked at it and after a very, very short amount of minutes, gave him an honorary professorship and the keys to an office. One of the best genetics departments in the world.

Lynn: George is sitting in his office, which, by the way, is on the site of Darwin's old house. He's made this big discovery and he's thinking, thinking, thinking.

Oren: Thinking philosophically about what it all meant. "If I can write a formal mathematical treatment of the evolution of a trait like altruism, what it means about the trait is that the trait is never really purely altruistic."

Lynn: If making a sacrifice helps me in the end or helps my genes--

Jad: It's selfishness in disguise.

Lynn: Yes.

Oren: "If that's true, the world is a terrible place because it means that there can never be true selflessness in the world. My math means that there cannot ever be true selflessness and I can't accept a world like that."

Jad: Why could he suddenly not accept a world like that?

Lynn: I don't know. Oren thinks it might be because--

Oren: Precisely because he had been so selfish for most of his life. He decided in his own life to embark on a program of radical altruism that would prove that there was true selflessness in this world. That's what led him to the streets of London in search of homeless people, derelicts, down and outs. He began by just walking up to them, introducing himself. "Hello. My name is George. What's your name? How can I help you?"

Jad: To random people on the street?

Lynn: Yes.

Annamarie: "Everywhere I go, I keep running into down and out alcoholics to whom I give when I have anything, and with whom I sit and drink from their bottle if they offer me a drink.

Oren: He'd buy people sandwiches or give them a few pounds.

Annamarie: Whether it's by giving them money, cleaning a filthy kitchen, talking to a landlord--

Oren: Then it got bigger.

Lynn: He started giving out keys to his place.

Oren: Inviting these guys into his home.

Lynn: People were coming and going. He was giving them food, clothes. After a few months of charity like that, he was out of money.

Oren: There was one letter that he had written to John Maynard Smith, another great biologist of the era, which said, "John, I'm down to my last 15p and I can't wait to get rid of the last 15." He thought he was proving his equation wrong.

Jad: By getting poorer and poorer and giving away all the stuff, he was somehow negating the thing his math seemed to say was inevitable? The selfish instinct?

Lynn: Yes. He had the self-preservation instinct, and he was going to fight the self-preservation instinct and he was going to win.

Oren: To beat the mathematics that he himself had written.

Lynn: He was approaching it almost like a math proof.

Oren: Yes.

Lynn: When he ran out of money, George moved out of his apartment and into this abandoned house in a part of London called Tolmer's Square.

Sylvia: Which one does the volume for my headphones?

Speaker 1: That one there.

Lynn: -which is where he met Sylvia-

Sylvia: It was rough. There were just poles holding the walls up. Some places had walls.

Lynn: She was a young artist also squatting at the time.

Sylvia: The buildings were crumbling. People had made makeshift staircases.

Lynn: George had a room?

Sylvia: Well, a few clothes on the floor. Not much. You could see he was always thinking. He would go around asking other people, "Does anybody have shoes they don't want? So-and-so needs a pair of shoes." That would be part of it, but it might also be if somebody was sick, getting them to a doctor because if you were homeless, it's very hard to have a doctor. Like I said, all this is going on at the same time. He was getting thinner and thinner, a thin little neck. These clothes, it just hung around him.

Lynn: He began writing letters to his daughters.

Oren: Apologizing. Weeping.

Annamarie: "Dear Annamarie, sorry I deserted you like that and I'm sorry I was such a poor father to you."

Oren: "I've been a terrible father."

Annamarie: "Looking at your picture now makes me wish I could do it all over again."

Sylvia: Maybe where I come into the picture is he wanted to begin again.

Lynn: She says George asked her to marry him over and over.

Sylvia: First, I thought it was a joke. I would say, "George, we can't get married."

Lynn: She said no each time and that at a certain point, he gave up.

Sylvia: It's hard to really, really remember but it was cold or as the winter came on, you wouldn't see George as often. He became quieter, I think. I just remember-- Quieter.

Lynn: One morning, this guy that was sharing a squat with George-

Oren: Name is [unintelligible 00:20:17]

Lynn: -he was heading out the door.

Oren: As he was going out of the building, he found beneath the door a letter. Since they were living in a squat, he was afraid that this was some kind of eviction notice or something like that. He didn't read English. He couldn't read English. He ran up the stairs and knocked on George's door because George was the only one who could read English.

When he knocked, the door went in a bit and he could see in the aperture that there was blood all over the linoleum floor. When he had enough of an opening, he could see that George was sitting there with no blood left in his body.

Jad: He killed himself?

Lynn: Yes.

Oren: He took a pair of scissors and cut through his carotid artery, which is a very, very terrible death. Poor George.


Jad: Thanks to producer Lynn Levy. For more on George Price, be sure to read Oren Harman's book, The Price of Altruism. Thanks also to Carl Zimmer. His latest is Microcosm.

Robert: We'll be right back.

Annamarie: Hi. This is Annamarie Price.

Kathleen: This is Kathleen Price. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Annamarie: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

Kathleen: More information about Sloan at

Oren: This is Oren calling. Radiolab is produced by WNYC-

Carl: -and distributed by NPR. This is Carl Zimmer. Bye.


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