Saturday, September 17, 2016

Wisdom Of The Week

Price had set himself the ‘problem’ of explaining why humans lived in families – particularly what fatherhood was for, scientifically speaking. This, in turn, led him to the question of how altruism had evolved, and it was while studying new theories around this topic that he derived what is now called the Price equation, almost by accident.

This is what it looked like:

It captured the essence of evolution by natural selection in one simple formula. It describes how in a population of reproducing individuals, be they people, plants or self-replicating robots, any trait (z) that increases fitness (w) will increase in the population with each new generation; if a trait decreases fitness, it will decrease. It’s a type of statistical relationship called covariance, and it was so elegant that Price couldn’t quite believe no one had stumbled across it before.

So in September 1968, this obscure middle-aged American scientist walked in off the street to the Galton Laboratory, the home of human genetics at University College London. No one there knew who he was – he had no credentials, held no academic position and had no appointment. All he had was an equation. When he confidently proclaimed in his condescending, high-pitched voice that his equation could explain the evolution of altruism, they probably thought he was a crank. Nevertheless, when he walked out 90 minutes later, Price had a job and the keys to his own office.

He continued to hone his equation there, but at the same time began giving away his possessions. He would seek out the homeless in Soho Square or at the nearest railway stations, Euston and King’s Cross, and give them anything they asked for, from the money out of his pay packet right down to the clothes off his back. If they needed a place to sleep, he would invite them back to his flat indefinitely. Eventually he had given away so much that he became as destitute as the men he was helping. When the lease ran out on his flat, he took to squatting, moving often, somehow continuing to do research as well.

By the end of 1974, Price had given up everything. Some time before dawn on 6 January 1975, in a squat not far from Euston, he killed himself.

How discovering an equation for altruism cost George Price everything

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