Here's one more. I figured some of you brain dorks like me would find this incredibally interesting.
The deathbed of an altruist can be a terrible place: "A mattress on the floor, one chair, a table, and several ammunition boxes made the only furniture. Of all the books and furnishings that I remembered from our first meeting in his fairly luxurious flat near Oxford Circus there remained some cheap clothes, a two-volume copy of Proust, and his typewriter. A cheap suitcase and some cardboard boxes contained most of his papers, others were scattered about on ammunition chests."
These were the effects of George Price, an American science journalist. He had perfected an existing mathematical equation that shows how altruism can prosper among basically selfish animals - even humans. So shocked was he by his success in this, and the darker truths about human nature implied by the equation, that he embarked on a desperate career of service to the outcast, and finally killed himself with a pair of nail scissors in a London squat in January 1975.
The equations for altruism are not a figure of speech. They were first discovered by WD Hamilton, an Oxford biologist, who tells the story in his newly published collected papers. He is now Royal Society Research Professor of Zoology at Oxford, laden with scientific honours, but was then scrabbling around the fringes of the academic world with only a second- class degree from Cambridge, poor and so lonely that he sometimes worked at night on a bench in Waterloo station rather than return to his bedsit.
Even now, when he is one of the most revered biologists in the world, there is an extraordinary shyness and simplicity about his manner. When I went to see him in his office, he had entirely forgotten our appointment, and yet talked for 40 minutes with the utmost courtesy.
The first, clumsy equations that he produced represent one of the great explanatory triumphs of Darwinism. They show how genes for self-sacrificing behaviour can spread through a population even though they harm some carriers of the genes in question. They demonstrate how animals can develop astonishingly selfless behaviour: how bees can evolve that sting fearlessly even though they must die in consequence. The secret is to ensure that altruistic actions also benefit relatives of the altruist - who are themselves likely to share the gene in question. This helps to clarify why a mother may lay down her life for her children. But how much should she risk for a third cousin twice removed? The equations produce answers to such questions for every living thing on earth.
When Price first read Hamilton's equations he recognised that they raised a terrible problem. He saw that altruism in this biological and equation- bound sense is limited. It cannot supply the absolute and universal commandment of Christianity or the other global ethical systems.
The Hamilton/Price equations may tell us we must love our neighbours, but in ways that are about as far from the religious sense of the words as possible. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. There is no "ought" about their command to love. We love our neighbours because our genes built us that way, the equations say; and because the neighbours have probably been built the same way, too, and so will love us back.
This insight so shocked Price that he set out to check Hamilton's work himself and find the flaw he was convinced must be there. Instead, he ended up with a more elegant and general way to express them.
This new formulation made even clearer a worrying implication that he had already grasped: that the same equations that demands the spread of altruistic behaviour may sometimes demand its opposite. He recognised that a fondness for torturing, raping and murdering your neighbours is just as heritable and may be as easily spread as the urge to love them.
When Price discovered this, he was a militant atheist. Indeed, his atheism had played a role in his divorce from a Catholic in America and emigration to London. The discovery plunged him into a severe depression, from which he was delivered by an experience of God. "He never described it to me in detail," says Hamilton, explaining the story in his recent book. "He could tell that I was practically as he had been in his former life, and not open to anything that would seem intrinsically supernatural.
"He described himself running through the streets of London in the neighbourhood of his flat in Marylebone. He was looking for a church, he said, and entered the first he came to and prayed for guidance. The immediate result was his complete dedication to Christianity."
As an atheist and materialist, Price had been insufferable: for instance, he had proposed controls of almost impossible stringency on any experiment designed to prove ESP to eliminate the remotest possibility of fraud. As a Christian, he was just the same. He soon quarelled with with the priest who received him, whom he found insufficiently zealous. He was not a fundamentalist in any normal sense: he completely accepted Darwinian evolution, and continued to work on his equations. He did not believe in the literal truth of biblical narratives. But he seems to have heard the sayings of Jesus as directly and unarguably as a bee feels the imperative to defend its nest