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The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness

3.64 of 5 stars 3.64  ·  rating details  ·  297 ratings  ·  47 reviews
Survival of the fittest or survival of the nicest? Since the dawn of time man has contemplated the mystery of altruism, but it was Darwin who posed the question most starkly. From the selfless ant to the stinging bee to the man laying down his life for a stranger, evolution has yielded a goodness that in theory should never be.

Set against the sweeping tale of 150 years of
ebook, 451 pages
Published June 17th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2010)
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Aug 05, 2010 Cindy rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Cindy by: 42 days of...altruism, suggested by Jayme
So many concepts in Price of Altruism just blew me away. Did you know that fMRI images of people being generous light up the same area of the brain as food and sex? Being generous gives us pleasure, and is rewarded in the great evolutionary game of reproduction. Also, female worker bees and ants are more related to their sisters than they would be to children had they had any? And my new word from the book is pabulum: material for intellectual nourishment.

At first blush, you might think altruis
I expected to be blown away. I heard the book reviewed on some podcast, and it, and Price himself, sounded incredibly interesting. Now... I don't know if it's the author's fault or Price's, but I was most definitely not blown away.
First of all, the book is very uneven. Harman moves erratically between decades, back and forth, in a very exhausting and hard-to-follow attempt to cover both the history of altruism and the birth of Price at the same time. Why-oh-why?
Then he continues this confusing d
Elliot Ratzman
If evolution suggests that life is a struggle for survival, how does science account for selfless behavior in the natural world? From amoebae to antelopes, living creatures sacrifice themselves for the good of…what? Since Darwin, scientists have puzzled over the mechanisms of sacrifice. Is it genes? Species? Family? The cunning of Nature? George Price was a vagabond scientist, one of those mad geniuses who combined arrogance with chronic life mismanagement. Harman weaves the history of the pursu ...more
Highly interesting book - in a way, the title is slightly misleading, only about half of the book details the live of the now mostly forgotten George Price (was he ever known in the first place?), the other half describes the history of "modern Darwinism" - the fusion of math and biology at the hands of Fisher, Wright, Haldane, Hamilton etc. For starters, who knew Haldane was such a crazy war hero?

2 things annoyed me about this book:
a) The book is chronologically roughly ordered along the life o
Harman writes what felt like a parody of the life of George Price. Price was a mathematic genius who struggled with the effects of his studies. He reduced his studies of the human mind to theorems studying animal life for comparisons of how minds work. Never able to continue in one line of work, Price worked on the Manhattan Project as well as other technical endeavors. While attempting to understand the relevance of genetics to environment in human relationships, he ostracised his mother, divor ...more
Sep 06, 2010 Jayme rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jayme by: NYT Book Review; 42 days of altruism
Shelves: 2010, biography, science
This was a really good biography of a little known scientist, George Price, interwoven with the history of the search for a scientific understanding of altruism. This booked covered everything. Starting with Darwin and his theory of evolution and going all the way to Richard Dawkins with altruism linked to genes. It even spent a little time with modern techniques such as the use of MRI's to pinpoint altruism in the brain.

Harman could have made this a much better book in a couple different ways t
Oct 18, 2012 Jocelyn rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jocelyn by: NPR Radio Lab
After hearing about Price on Radiolab, I decided to read this book, because I found the podcast totally fascinating. Unfortunately I found the book a little hard to get through, maybe because I'd already had the highlights from the podcast. It was a little heavy for me, I think I was expecting more biography than evolutionary theory, although I did find it quite interesting.
This stunning book provides a historical, scientific, and philosophical examination of altruism through the brilliant discoveries and tragic life of George Price. Painstakingly researched, Harman takes the reader through an in-depth yet approachable explanation of the major findings from evolutionary genetics, economics, and mathematics regarding selflessness in nature and human behavior. From Darwin's theory of evolution to game theory and beyond, we learn that altruism has intrigued scientists ...more
Better than I expected. I came in thinking this was mainly a biography, but it included a lot of good background and status on 'The origins of kindness'. A great lead-in to, or follow out to 'the selfish gene'. 'The selfish gene' is mentioned briefly here, and the view of that book is compared against other evolutionary views here.

It seemed to end a bit abruptly, but I suppose Price's life ended a bit prematurely.

A good introduction to the idea of group or kin selection in evolution. I think I
Harman undertakes an impressive quest in trying to completely ground the life and scientific work of George Price in its historical context. He tackles the problem by reaching far (in the case of mini biographies of influential scientists that predate Price by generations) and very near (geographically speaking, in that he relates relevant historical information about various locales important to Price's life), and succeeds in compiling a thorough frame of reference through which to view an extr ...more
This is an intriguing biography of George Price, a little-known population geneticist, interwoven with an intellectual history of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. While the story of Price's life is diverting and compelling in its own right, the real thrill of this book is that it unveils some very contemporary improvements in the science of group selection and, as the subtitle suggests, the origins of kindness. Oren Harmen does a great job picking through the advanced statistic ...more
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I am really interested in the subject matter, and so I started the book three times. And I never made it past the first 50 pages. Trying to read this book was an unprofitable, even unpleasant experience. I thought long and hard about what made this book so hard to read. I came to the conclusion that the author's desire to show off his erudition trumped his desire to explain and educate. For instance, the book is loaded with details that serve no function at all. For instance, one section starts ...more
Ad Astra
This was a very difficult book for me to get through and finish. The language, style of writing, and subject matter are things I'm only barely familiar with from my philosophy and science courses. None the less, it was a pretty great story about a generally (I think) unknown man who made a lot of great scientific contributions in the area of genetics and understanding behavior. It follows both the professional and personal life, maintaining a unique balance that gave a whole perspective of a per ...more
I struggled to read this book, and I struggled with what to rate it. The first ~40 pages about Kropotkin and Huxley are very dense, erratic, and heavily peppered tiny snippets of quotes and references to a large number of people. Very difficult to follow, and a discouraging start to the book.

However, once I had muddled through that part, I found the book to get progressively easier to follow and the jumps in time or person discussed seeming to make more and more sense. Maybe it did get better or
Jessica  Gwen
Perhaps the most rewarding book I've read lately. It took me a while to get through it. I'm not sure if that was because I haven't studied biology or anthropology for years and I had to re-read the concepts described in the book for a fuller understanding...or maybe it was because I didn't have a chunk of 8 hours in the past few weeks in which I could sit down and read it. In any event, all the effort was worth it.

It is difficult to make scientific material palatable for a wide audience, and Ha
Harman skillfully interweaves the biography of a man and an idea. Does altruism stand up as a fact in the cold glare of scientific inquiry? If it does, can it act without benefit of close genetic ties? And can the strange life of the man who discovered the answer be illuminated by his own research? Science-minded altruists will be both heartened, and a little disappointed, by the answer in George Price's mathematical questions put to nature. But I suspect one's own experience of historical and e ...more
Amanda Weaver
this book is an interesting account of George Price's life and death, but I think the title is misleading.
Jun 03, 2012 Michelle rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Very few, unfortunately, have the fortitude to grasp this powerful message
Hauntingly raw & underestimated, this book demarcates the beauty of benevolence from the cost of ambivalence in such a way that poses the insight of societal depraved indifference. If this scientist would have existed in perhaps another time, he would have been sainted and legendary. Unfortunately, I fear his death may be in vain without at least the consideration and informed discussion of a genuine desire to forsake cruel intentions and malevolent mindlessness... I for one will not soon fo ...more
Fascinating, especially as a history of the study of evolution. I wasn't crazy about the ending, but the main reason it got 3 stars instead of 4 is due to my own distractions. I put the book down a little more than midway through and when I picked it up again, I was pretty lost with the history and science. There are a LOT of historical characters and a lot of theories and philosophies to hold on to. If you can manage to hold onto them, you'll probably get more out of it than I did. Still, a ver ...more
A lot of extra background information makes it easy to skip paragraphs and pages. I like the posturing of the early scientists as opposing each other. Finally got through it. Tragedy for George Price, but the author leads us into the very heated debate of evolution of individuals, groups, species, and the role of altruism. It is not so much the results of this one George Price, but the swirling world of genes and nature-versus-nurture. As I stated before - quite a lot of George-specific informat ...more
Christopher Brennan
Fascinating book. So much exposition about the biology, philosophy, and practices of altruism, natural selection, and ultimately society that one can see the web that connects all the above and more.
A poignant story of a brilliant scientist whose life took some strange turns in his search to determine how altruism fits into the evolutionary survival-of-the-fittest scheme. (Is it really just selfishness in disguise?) Includes quite a bit of technical detail and information about other scientists working on the same question. Didn't really understand it all. Suffice it to say, the question remains unanswered and George Price died penniless after devoting the last years of his life unsuccessfu ...more
Jenny Brown
I found the author's explanation of what exactly it was that Price did that was so important almost impossible to follow. I found it even more inexplicable why Price's slide into severe mental illness is portrayed as if it were a legitimate religious experience rather than a tragic disaster all too familiar to those of us who have seen people experience psychotic breakdowns.

I would have to say this book is a waste of time for the lay reader (as opposed to those who specialize in mathematical for
Gerry Kantor
It was pretty good but I kept getting bogged down in a lot of background theory, which I was told was included because it had something to do with the author's doctoral dissertation, don't know if that was the case or not, but every other chapter was this, and kind of boring if you are not a geneticist. Otherwise an interesting read of an unfortunate individual who went off the edge during the hippie movement, neglecting his daughters. A real genius in theoretics, but whose life was a shambles.
Cassandra Kay Silva
Altruism is a much debated topic among evolutionists and creationists and I the bits that I picked up from this book made it well worth it. However the majority of this book is a biography and the author attempts to weave in a few other characters with the story of prices life and work. I would have personally appreciated a bit more streamlining to this story, sticking with the main character and fleshing it out a bit more with the science but overall it was still very enjoyable though sad.
Catherine Woodman
I wonder what George Price's diagnosis is--psychiatric? TLE? Hard to say, but he clearly had a downward spiral into what ended up being his death. he wrote several papers exploring a model for altruism, something to go hand in hand with Darwin's theory on evolution. He was a unique thinker, and the book points that out, as well as all the people and events of the time that would have had an influence on him. Very interesting book
Both a history of evolutionary biology and the story of George R. Price. His thinking, his actions, his faults and eccentricities are as compelling as the science in this story.

I'm drawn to the questions' progression from survival of the fittest, to kin selection, to group survival, to gene's eye view, to altruism, to faith, to illness. It's a strange tale and the science is important.
EXTREMELY hard to read & understand unless you're a scientist, or very familiar with the history of the theory of evolution, but fascinating nonetheless. I will have to read it again to be able to digest more of it. Well worth the trouble of slogging through it in order to learn some of the miraculous things that go on in nature, and some of the thoughts about the nature of those processes.
David Melbie
Dec 02, 2010 David Melbie rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone!
Recommended to David by: Found it at my local library
This was a good read indeed. I stumbled upon this book in my local library on the 'new non-fiction shelf. After I read the blurbs and dust jacket flaps I went for it. Awesome story. I had never heard of George Price, but his story is one that all people that are curious about altruism and its evolution in mankind should check out this book.
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Oren Harman, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University and a professor of the history of science. He is the author of The Man Who Invented the Chromosome, a documentary film maker, and a frequent contributor to The New Republic. He lives in Tel Aviv and New York.
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