Return Home

An Equation for Good

Back to Episode

question mark hand question mark hand (Abscond/flickr)

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.  


Richard Dawkins, Oren Harman and Carl Zimmer


Lynn Levy

Comments [36]

Two things:
I agree with the piece on true, evolutionary selfishness. I LOVE to do nice things for people! It makes me feel good. So that's selfish, right? I have come to the conclusion that we all need a degree of selfishness to thrive and/or survive. It's when people stop self-regulating that intrinsic (perhaps genetic) necessity of selfishness, and the balance becomes uneven, with selfishness infringing upon others: their happiness, their self-awareness, their safety- that's when selfishness becomes BAD!
I disagree with the percentages of math that guides your genes to choose to save a close family member that shares your genes over someone that doesn't... we adopted our sons, and I would do ANYTHING for them! I don't think there is a mathematical way to explain the way your brain makes a commitment, that somehow transfers to an innate commitment, to protect the ones that are YOURS, the people you love!

Jan. 28 2017 03:26 PM


Jul. 20 2016 02:53 PM

2 siblings would not equal your whole genomes.

Sep. 02 2015 07:22 AM
Glen Treilhard from Toronto

I enjoyed this show.
I took my ten-year-old son to a skateboard park and forgot to bring my weekly Guardian so turned on the radio.
I'm now going to download the episode so that we can listen to it together as I think he will find it thought provoking.

Aug. 11 2015 03:36 PM
frank from Ottawa, ON

Natural selection happens at a societal level as well as on an individual basis. Societies that did not cooperate don't get very far. So we are selected to be communal and empathetic, largely (on a population basis). It may only be related to DNA in a superficial way.

As for altruism, I think that's a red herring. A more relevant question is whether someone has the wellbeing of others in mind. People who think about how to prevent others from descending into addiction are just as commendable as those who take the shirt off their back to give people temporary relief from the symptoms of a decline that started long ago. People who think about the balance between capitalism and social safety nets so that we have a thriving society without going into bankruptcy, they are just as commendable as those who work in the soup kitchens. Their impact may be much greaer, too, (though so might the damage for the suboptimal ideas).

Aug. 09 2015 03:02 PM
Michael Ossar from Portland, OR

It was a terrific show but I wish you had taken some time to talk about the naturalist, geographer, and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, and his book, Mutual Aid, which addressed exactly the question you posed, but in the pre-DNA age.

Aug. 08 2015 06:30 PM
Sam Juno from Ownes Valley.

One flaw in the drowning sister/cousin thought experiment is that any two humans acutally share 99% of their chromosomes at minimum. That completely messes up this math.

Aug. 08 2015 02:21 PM
Sorceress K from Massachusetts

Was this segment supposed to be science? Animals aren't being 'mean' when they (and humans) eat other animals. This is the basis of life. Humans are the only animal that is capable of being 'mean', because we kill and hurt for entertainment. Price's life was selfish from start to finish. Rather than giving to his family after he became aware of his selfishness, he instead gave 'altruistically' to strangers. Lastly, the premise that it is terrible that there is pain and suffering sounds like it is based on a purely Western fear of death and pain. This was so poorly written.

Dec. 21 2013 04:16 PM

Does anyone (besides myself), purpose that he proved his theorem wrong by electing to take his own life in what I suspect he might have deemed a totally selfless act?

Oct. 31 2013 07:44 PM
Robert H Schaible from Monroe County, IN

An Equation for Good. Radiolab is one of the best programs on the air in my view, but presenters need to be careful how they present their material. Making the aside comment that the death of a rescuer and saving of his sister and brother "is a wash" with respect to the possible transmission of his genes is not only an incorrect oversimplification but the colloquialism "is a wash" makes that example more likely to be remembered than anything else that was presented. Only 75% of the rescuer's genes would have the potential of being passed on by the two siblings, 50% by one sibling and 1/2 of the remaining 50% by the other. Never mind that 25% of the rescuer's genes have double the opportunity of being transmitted; the loss of possible transmission of 25% is what is most important.

I have not studied George Price's equation but it probably takes into account that the fitness of the rescuer is enhanced by his bravery (willingness to take risk) so that there would be a relatively high probability that he, as well as his siblings, would survive and pass on his genes. If so, altruism would pay off. This is probably why an individual will risk his life, not only for close relatives, but also for those in his community, nation, and race even though those in the latter categories are less likely to transmit many of his specific genes. I don't recall whether Richard Dawkins has stated the same in his concept of the selfish gene but I believe this is a reasonable extension thereof.

Jul. 18 2013 11:25 AM
Brendan from Hoyt Lakes, MN

A previous post takes the commentators to task for their casual use of the terms 'Moses' and 'Jesus'. As a theologian and pastor, I agree that the use of Jesus to denote pacifism and Moses to denote tit for tat was, at best, an imprecise and limited analogy, and deserved better context for the majority o people less familiar with non-stereotypical generalizations - Christianity has contributed to such a rich and nuanced 'just war' tradition that that in itself is worthy of its own show.

Be that as it may, most listeners would have heard it for what it was - a quick superficial trite analogy.

Jul. 18 2013 12:15 AM
John C

I enjoyed the subject but not the style of presentation. Different voices talking over each other all the time, like people poorly skilled at conversation. One voice dissolves into another reading the same thing. And cutesy jokes between the hosts. Why I can't stand radio programs sometimes, the need to spice it up with too much music and dumb commentary to compete with a television mind - music in between paragraphs, etc. Just get the take from the subject, let them tell the story.

Jul. 15 2013 04:44 PM
Norman Sider from Indianapolis

My local NPR affiliate aired this yesterday. The supposed contrast offered between Moses (eye for an eye) and Jesus (turn the other cheek) is offensive, ignorant, and perpetuates the ancient canard against Judaism that it advocates vengeance. The producers of the segment should be ashamed of allowing it to air.

If the speakers had bothered to research the Jewish interpretation of the Jewish scripture they would have learned that the phrase is applied as part
of the administration of a legal system that sought to assure that punishment or restitution was proportionate to the harm done, and that except for a criminal homicide appropriate money damages could resolve the matter. Although I don't claim to be an expert about Christian scripture it is hard for me to to believe that Jesus taught that society had no need for a legal system that would allow for appropriate punishment for serious criminal behavior or for reasonable restitution for serious civil wrongs.

Jul. 14 2013 10:30 AM
Fatima from texas

First I love radiolab..
The program of be nice and then do what the other does with an exception of sometime reminds me of something. I feel being moses most of the time and jesus some time reminds me of islamic teaching. Its like the "mohamad" an eye for and eye but forgivness is better. And the person who starts the problem is in the wrong.
Anyway awesome show love all of it

Feb. 03 2012 12:07 AM

Poor George Price
Did all he could to prove that good could exist without the greed

Would I have the courage to know
All the reactions caused by my own
Love and hate peace and rage
The bounty of my bones

Poor George Price
did everything he could to be a better man than I
Horrified by what he had found
In the equations that he broke down
Selflessness does not exist according to the math

How far would I go to survive
Would I be willing to sacrifice
The good I know and let it go
to see the animal Inside

Poor George Price
Crimson soaked scissors
Struggle in vain
to forget the absence of grace

( by TJ Arriaga)

Dec. 30 2011 11:51 PM
Emily from Chicago, IL

I also want to know what music is played from minutes 3-4? Who wrote it? It's beautiful!


Sep. 22 2011 03:59 PM
J.C. Saavedra from California

The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod, emphasizes such notions of altruism as he embarks on the explanation of the "Prisoners Dilemma." It's a great simplified book to understand the mathematics thats involved.

Aug. 16 2011 03:13 PM

It seems that there's a basic evolutionary element to cooperation that is ultimately a matter of self-interest or species-interest. But humans, and perhaps some other higher animals, have reached the point of there being some mental and emotional aspects that potentially take things to a whole new level. You can't say that of an amoeba.

Jul. 07 2011 12:10 AM
bjornagain from Sweden

I admit I dont fully understand Daves calculation, but I think dawkians are a bit to simplistic. Humans are very, very complex and add to that very, very complex cultures.

You cant calculate how the so called selfish gene will behave. I have CHOSEN not to have (biological) children. We do not have to do what the genes tell us to do, we can do the exact opposite if we like.

Jul. 03 2011 03:53 PM

Would have loved to hear a discussion of biological altruism added to this story. Greenbeards, for example, illustrate the biological aspect of altruism, which is different from (at least) some aspects of human altruism. It informs and expands the conversation...

May. 10 2011 12:24 AM

Hey RadioLab! There's probably another great show about Harvard evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, both his work and his life. Ten years before Axelrod, Trivers was the one of the first to explore the implications of the Prisoner's Dilemma for evolution and coined the expression "reciprocal altruism."

Apr. 22 2011 12:04 PM
skip from Washington DC

E. O. Wilson is causing a huge public controversy by challenging the validity of the math behind the kin selection theory of altruism. Please consider doing a short that discusses this development. Be warned, Dawkins and Wilson on opposite sides and are saying inflammatory things about their opponents.

Apr. 21 2011 10:57 AM
dave from New Hampshire

I really enjoyed this show, but it is ashame that on a segment on math (an equation) you fall for and perpetuate a common type of error people make when dealing with percentages or probabilities. You share 50% percent of your genes with your sister and 50% with your brother, but your sister also shares 50% with your brother. Half of those genes your sister and brother share you also have (since you each get a random 50% of the pool of genes from each of your parents). This means that by saving both your siblings, you are saving 75% of the genes. Of course there are two of them so they could potentially have twice the number of kids you would have had if you'd let them drown. If you would have ended up having two kids then 75% of your genes get passed down to the next generation meaning it's a wash on diversity but a loss on effective descendants (since your brothers plus your sisters kids would make four in total). If you would have had three kids then you're at a loss when it comes to gene diversity (75% vs 87.5%) but you're still double on effective descendants (interesting trade off there).

Apr. 14 2011 11:16 PM

What is the song that is playing when they discuss George Price's suicide, approx/ 21:30-21:40 into the show?

Thanks for any help!

Apr. 07 2011 11:52 AM
Peter Pappas from Portland, OR

Enjoyed your analysis of the "Prisoner's Dilemma" Here's a version I adapted to use in the classroom. Made for a great activity to explore decision-making and communications.

Apr. 06 2011 11:55 PM
Libby Byers

Radiolab is just the kind of info and discussion I want and need to hear. I'm a long retired professor who taught aspects of human development and I find in my oldness that the craving of the intellect doesn't go away!
Thank you for your work.
Libby Byers

Apr. 03 2011 08:34 PM
G from Philadelphia

What an engrossing segment. I listened with rapt attention. The ending hit me like a ton of bricks, I must say.

Feb. 21 2011 02:01 PM

Does anybody know how exactly Biological and Cultural (or Social) Evolution are similar AND differ?
Any good article out there summarizing it?


Feb. 10 2011 02:41 PM
GVS from Chicago

If there is no true altruism why did the brother not save himself before his sister? Why does anyone go in harms way, in order to protect someone else.

Any response?

Feb. 04 2011 02:14 AM
Kendrix from San marcos, tx

Can anyone tell me any books over the "Why Families stick Together" subject?

Feb. 02 2011 04:39 AM
Anvil from Germany

Can someone tell me what the music is called that starts at 16:35? :)

Terrific show by the way!

Jan. 29 2011 12:14 PM

The music in the beginning is Dorval by Julia Kent (from the album Delay). Quite lovely. And a lovely show.

Jan. 06 2011 01:39 AM

Great show, however I just want to mention an unfortunate falsehood in your application of the "equation". If your sister has 50% of your genes, and your brother has 50% of your genes, you won't be saving 100% of your genes. The genes that you share with them are random. Some of those genes that your sister and brother share with you are identical, and some will be identical between them but not the one you have.

Jan. 05 2011 11:06 PM
dan! from Seattle, WA

Great show!

I really want to know what the music is from minute 3 to 4? On the longer podcast version I got via itunes the music was a little longer.
What is it? Who wrote it? where can I get more like it?

Keep up the great work Radiolab!

Jan. 05 2011 05:37 PM
shihab from nyc

I am new to this web/blog site. It appears intellectually addicting and thought provoking. I am glad I digressed and clicked away to Radiolab.

Dec. 20 2010 08:52 AM
gilad malach from California

What an amazing program - thank you RADIOLAB!!! George Price's story is the
dramatic embodiment of the deepest mysteries of altruism. I highly recommend Oren Harman's book, The Price of Altruism, which is one of the best books I've read in recent (and not so recent) memory. The tale is deep and beautiful,
and should become a feature film. It's the kind
of moving human story that comes around very rarely, and that will touch every one's heart.

Dec. 15 2010 06:51 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.