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Oren Harman

The price of altruism

Evolutionary theory seems to say that every creature is battling with every other for survival, but in nature there are plenty of examples of cooperation. This is a paradox which has been argued about for many years. In The price of altruism: George Price and the search for the origins of kindness Oren Harman tells the story of how one mans work has helped to clarify the arguments.

The book alternates between the story of George Price, and the work of others on how altruism fits in with evolution. We hear of Price's early life, and how he seemed to be heading towards a successful career in mid-20th Century America - he worked on the Manhattan project for a while, he got a job at IBM and wrote controversial popular science articles. But instead he was becoming a drifter, and he moved to London without a job. Here he had a stroke of luck - his genius was recognised and he got a grant to work on the mathematics of evolution. This is when he came up with the Price Equation, which helped to resolve the paradox of altruism. Unfortunately he drifted away from his new career, and committed suicide aged just 52.

I felt that altruism is rather a broad subject, and the alternation between Prices biography and the other work - often at a different time period - sometimes made the book difficult to read. It might have been better to focus on group selection and how its problems were resolved by Price's work. That said the book contains plenty of interesting material if you don't mind the flipping between different stories. info
Paperback 464 pages  
ISBN: 0393339998
Salesrank: 625437
Published: 2011 W. W. Norton & Company
Amazon price $15.51
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Paperback 464 pages  
ISBN: 0099531666
Salesrank: 106952
Weight:1.01 lbs
Published: 2011 Vintage
Amazon price £12.99
Marketplace:New from £8.26:Used from £5.06
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Paperback 464 pages  
ISBN: 0393339998
Salesrank: 279862
Weight:0.85 lbs
Published: 2011 WW Norton
Amazon price CDN$ 21.15
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 19.29:Used from CDN$ 7.42
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Product Description

"Enthralling." ―Frans de Waal, New York Times Book Review

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 scientific attempts to explain kindness, The Price of Altruism tells for the first time the moving story of the eccentric American genius George Price (1922–1975), as he strives to answer evolution's greatest riddle. An original and penetrating picture of twentieth century thought, it is also a deeply personal journey. From the heights of the Manhattan Project to the inspired equation that explains altruism to the depths of homelessness and despair, Price's life embodies the paradoxes of Darwin’s enigma. His tragic suicide in a squatter’s flat, among the vagabonds to whom he gave all his possessions, provides the ultimate contemplation on the possibility of genuine benevolence.

24 black-and-white illustrations