Bar-Ilan's Oren Harman candidate for top US book prizes

Pulitzer-nominated biography of evolutionary theorist George Price makes ‘Los Angeles Times’ short list for best science book.

Oren Harman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oren Harman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 2010.
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 Prize.
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.
“The 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.
“Darwin framed it as the single greatest challenge to his theory of evolution by natural selection.”
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 Harman.
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.
Price 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.
During 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.
Price had 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.
“Almost the 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 Christian.”
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 City.
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.