Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are the best among us good enough?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, genetics, altruism, biographies

How do you know you are good? Of course, everyone thinks they are good, or at the least, better than "that guy over there." But can it be measured? And if so, what does the measurement mean?

Altruism is the central puzzle of human existence. Why are so many people so good to others so much of the time? Is it just because our parents so often admonished us to "play nice"? Why would they do that? Is it because of the Bible (or Q'uran or the Vedas), or whatever god we believe in? Pushing it off onto a god or another generation doesn't answer the question, though.

In some human groups, we cannot expect even tolerance beyond a certain level of relatedness. When my father's cousin was a missionary in New Guinea in the 1950s, the missionaries found that, when two strangers met in the forest, their first priority was to find out if they were related. Only if they could establish kinship could they escape the obligation to fight to the death. This xenophobic/xenocidal tendency made it rather difficult for the missionaries, clearly not related to anyone, to survive early encounters with the native people. They had to earn their trust by being very, very good to them!

Another side is found in an old letter:
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
There is a big caveat here: Christ could get away with it, because He could rise from the dead! But the puzzle is clear: why offer your life for that of another, no matter how "good"?

Somehow, that is what Dr. George Price did, or at least, what he thought he was doing. Sometime before the morning of January 6, 1975, this scientist and humanitarian took his own life with a pair of scissors; for mixed motives, surely, but at least partly because of altruism, thinking his passing would be better for others. Having experienced a religious conversion several years before, then a deeper conversion (to the point he considered the earlier one was "false"), he'd been living among the homeless, giving away everything, eventually squatting in a decaying tenement. He had decided to care a little more for himself, so he wrote to others, but in the end, for reasons truly shrouded in mystery, he removed himself from this life. His biography, and a "biography" of his times, are detailed in The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman.

I have long held that we are dealt a hand at birth, pick up a few more cards here and there through life experiences, but are responsible for the way we play the hand. George Price's hand seems to have been a single ace and four twos, and little he did in life yielded anything stronger than a trey. I know something of myself: when it comes to significant projects, I am a great opener but a poor closer. I have learned how to complete some things, if not all (and it has been hard learning!). Dr. Price was a much poorer closer, and it doesn't seem he ever learned better. One way to look at his life is that he started with a premium-quality brain and a good education, but worked his way down the ladder of success, finding rungs lower than most of us can imagine. Yet by his own report, he was happiest during the homeless years, giving his all for others. How do you count success?

George Price was curious about goodness very early on, and his most significant achievement is uncorking the mathematics of the progress of natural selection, now embodied in the Price Equation:

I am in no way competent to explain this equation. Please refer to the Wikipedia article Price Equation for a derivation and examples. In a very simple way, I can say that the first term is a covariance relationship among genetic variables, and the second is an expectation expression that sums up the faithfulness with which each trait is passed to the later generation. This is a difference equation (notice the delta), so it expresses the increase or decrease of fitness in an aggregate of "genetic vehicles" (which may be individuals, groups, or populations, or a mix), from one generation to a later one.

Though he derived it, he didn't know how to use it. His collaborations with other scientists led to useful results that are just now bearing fruit; see work by Bill Hamilton, for example. I see these collaborations as a "face card" or two, dealt to him at a few critical junctures. Without them, his work would remain unknown. His goal was to elicit the genetic underpinnings of kindness. He understood early that the brain and its workings are subject to natural selection just as much as the color of our eyes, or indeed, the sharpness of our vision. We can see this from some of our experiences.

In a litter of kittens, including one in which care has been taken to ensure the entire litter has been sired by a single tom, a range of personality is seen. One kitten will be more adventuresome, another more cautious; some play nicely by "kitten rules" and keep their claws in, but others are rougher; some like being handled by humans, while others are more standoffish; and one female will make a better mother than her sister, being more prone to fighting off enemies rather than abandoning them to run away.

In the same way, people's children differ, sometimes so much so that people suspect "the mailman" got involved. I've written before of a family I know well. The older boy turned out kind, gentle, and a real achiever. The younger one has spent most of his life since age sixteen incarcerated, and I've never detected a trace of conscience in him. This latter man is very, very unlikely to exhibit altruism. But most people seem to be kind by default, even when they have been wronged (of course, remember the proverb: Beware the anger of a patient man).

No matter what else he was working, on, George Price sought to puzzle out just how "determined" such differences are. This led to internal quandaries, for we seldom know our own minds much better than those of others. Am I being kind so someone else will be kind to me? Do I hope to get some advantage, or even a lover? Considering that civilization depends on some minimum level of tolerance and kindness to strangers, just how selfish are our actions, even the most seemingly altruistic?

Throughout the book, the author takes pains to present the multitude of scientists and other players in both their professional and personal aspects. As he writes, "…the people doing science, their backgrounds, historical context, family histories, education, political views, religious affiliations, temperament—all play a role." Science is done by people. Such an insight is a most valuable attribute of this biography. Oren Harman has said it much better than I could.

And I know I could never do what George Price did, on a human level. I like my comforts, and though I claim to follow Jesus, I've yet to follow Him to a slum. It is unlikely that I shall. I find it more "convenient" to share alms through those who are more capable of navigating the slum, such as Salvation Army or a mission church. But really, why give alms at all? This is a question that no equation can answer. George Price did what he could, both as a scientist and as a humanitarian, to discern the meaning and origin of altruism. We have much to learn from him.

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