Oren Harman, chair of Bar-Ilan University’s science, technology and society
graduate program, has been named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
His biography of American evolutionary theorist George Price, The Price of
Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, made the
newspaper’s short list for the best science and technology book of
Harman’s book, published by W.W. Norton and Co., was previously
chosen by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2010. In
addition, W.W. Norton nominated The Price of Altruism for a Pulitzer
Harman first came across Price’s name over a decade ago while
reading a book about evolutionary theory.
“It was in the context of some
short, off-hand comment in a book that said Price wrote an equation that helped
to solve the mystery of the evolution of altruism, and then he killed himself
for reasons that had to do with that equation,” Harman recalled. “That seemed
like a movie.”
At the time, Harman’s doctoral studies distracted him from
finding out more about Price and his work.
Then, five years ago, he was
writing a review of a book on the biology of altruism for The New Republic and
during the course of his research, he read a biography of Price in the
now-defunct academic magazine Lingua Franca.
The author, James Schwartz,
put Harman in touch with Price’s two daughters. Harman was the first person
outside of the family to be given access to Price’s archive, which included
thousands of letters and scientific papers.
“I began to piece together
this story by telling the larger tale of attempts to crack the mystery of
altruism going back to [Charles] Darwin,” he said.
“I realized I could
tell that tale through the personal history of this particular man, who played
an important role and killed himself for reasons that help us understand the
mystery of altruism itself.”
Price was originally a chemist and writer
who became a cancer researcher.
He then worked for IBM doing computer and
transister research. After suffering a mental breakdown, he left the US for
Britain and became determined to solve the mystery of altruism.
biological definition of altruism is any action in nature by an organism which
confers a fitness benefit on another while incurring the fitness cost, so by
definition altruism is something that reduces one’s fitness, and evolution is
supposed to be the survival of the fittest,” said Harman, 38.
framed it as the single greatest challenge to his theory of evolution by natural
Price created what became known as the Price Equation, a
mathematical treatment of natural selection which takes into account altruism
and other traits.
Afterward, he began to think about the various
coincidences and turns of events in his life, and went from being an atheist to
an Evangelical Christian.
“He realized the existence of God by
mathematical coincidence,” said Harman.
“He became an Evangelical
Christian who then decided that the meaning of his equation was that the natural
process of evolution could only create a second-hand kindness, so what looked
like altruism was actually selfishness.”
This was a terrible realization
for a committed Christian, so he decided that he would transcend self-interest
and “beat out his own miraculous equation by proving that we can actually be
truly selfless as opposed to doing good things for selfish reasons,” said
In the early 1970s, Price began seeking out homeless people on
the streets of London and invited them to live in his home. Eventually, he gave
away all his money and possessions and became homeless himself.
committed suicide on January 6, 1975, at age 52.
“What happened with
George was he was unable to explain to himself what his deep motivations were
for embarking on this program of radical altruism and whether those motivations
were truly selfless, and science couldn’t tell him,” said Harman.
the research for the book, Harman discovered that Price, who also studied Bible
codes, had a Jewish father. His father was born to Jewish immigrants from
Russia, and changed his name in an attempt to start a new life.
assumed his father, who died when he was four, was a Christian or a Freemason,
but shortly after he converted to Christianity he found an old letter his father
had written to a cousin, which proved his father was Jewish.
day after he became a Christian, he discovered that he was in fact Jewish as
well,” said Harman.
“All of his attempts to try to find codes in the New
and Old Testaments were colored by this knowledge that he was both a Jew and a
Harman thinks of Price as “a real-life Forrest Gump – he was
at the center of scientific and technological revolutions of the 20th century
and then just disappeared.”
A Hebrew edition of The Price of Altruism
will be published later this year.
Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists
will be announced on April 18 at Columbia University in New York
The winners of the Los Angeles Times
prizes will be revealed at a
ceremony at the newspaper’s headquarters on April 29, which Harman will attend.