Selfish by nature? Two scientific renegades who looked for kindness and paid a price
This is an ABC podcast. Hey welcome this. asides sides friction on the Tesha Mitchell. You know it's been a modern mantra of sorts that greed is good survival of the fittest even our biology elegy gets cast as selfish as in the selfish gene the ID obeying selfishness and competition Somehow in night in all of us in in all species that it's essential to ask survival into our evolution but you know is it really is selfishness the natural way of things so it's journalists so a cane is joining us on the show this week. hazo welcome Hey Natasha yes. I stumbled across his bizarre story of a man who developed an obsession in with altruism and how it came to exist he even came up with a mathematical equation for love but as we'll hear he ended up paying being the ultimate price. Along the way. We'll meet some pioneering. Scientists have challenged the dogma. That competition is king. The whole Western world took an individualistic swing at about the same time in the twentieth century. Certainly economics think of homework onomic because the the rational actor model the idea that everything selfish at the end of the day and that our task is to interpret varieties of selfishness. Chen says it's nice behaviors didn't exist. You still had individuals helping each other but now the way to understand that was basically it was all being manipulated by selfish genes. It's a very difficult dog but to break because it's logic seems to be pretty strong and yet increasingly we are finding and more and more evidence in nature that that's not the case and that in fact the philosophy of the Celtics gene which seemed to us like like very hard nosed science light the more reflection of the Cultural Moors of the day you know of the logic of markets translated into nature rather than just a naive description of what happens in nature. It's difficult to feel feel comfortable in nature. If that's what you feel is going on all around you if you go outside and go for a walk in the park or go on a hike do you feel like you're in hostile territory or do you feel like you're one nature I started out with the problem the problem of altruism in religion the question gets asked how can a kind God let suffering exist in biology. That question it kind of gets flipped and it becomes how can converse exist and evolve if things must compete eight to survive and this is a problem that plagued Dow when he developed his theory of evolution by natural selection so natural selection was the theory of course it explained how the world came to be boosting with such a diversity of life. It was the idea that specific traits behaviors or characteristics that help a species survive and reproduce in their environment get pasta on to the next generation and traits that denied this mission will get waited out and it seems that selfishness was considered to be one of those traits that looking after your own interests above others was pretty much a winning strategy when it comes to have Aleutian yes but there was a spanner in the works fidel on the existence of kindness and the problem he encountered was that if you imagine a pro social individual who is doing good things for others and then imagine that organisms opposite a selfish individual which is taking social the benefits but not providing them. Well who's most fit who's most fed is selfish individuals professor. Sloan Wilson of the Evolution Institute has spent most of his career investigating the origins of altruism. So if natural selection is all about individuals surviving and reproducing better than other individuals than that seems to provide I had an advantage to selfishness over altruism and Darwin was unable to explain all of the behaviors that in human terms we would associate with morality and good so this was not just a problem. This was a major problem. This problem was still unsolved. When asked story starts it's not in? I'm forty America and a young man. Raised in poverty by his mother during the Great Depression is in search of a big idea. He has a dream to leave his mark on science. George price started his career working as a chemist on the Manhattan project to build an atomic bomb processes as an eccentric a maverick staunch atheist. Were working on the project. He fell in love with Julia. A biologist who is his polar opposite conservative breath and Catholic. They got married and had two children and it looked like things were going well for the family. First daughter. Anna Maria was born in Nineteen nineteen forty eight and then a second one. Kathleen came soon after. That aren't Haman is a historian of science and author of the price of altruism but All was not well with the family and I think there's a quotation in one of the letters where George said to his wife that he would rather the daughters become and prostitutes the nuns which was a reflection of him saying to his wife. You know I've had enough with this religion. The marriage maybe doomed from the start disintegrated degraded price picked up stumps and left the family in nineteen fifty three years later he moved to. New York's East village go to jail with IBM and is doing a lot of drugs in the village. A lot of uppers downers barbituates that you. It's and sort of trying to make a name for himself. He's really unknown. kind of desperate for some kind of great scientific technological breakthrough to make his name and he was kind of maniacal you really want it to make a name for themselves. But he was so strange in offbeat and people didn't quite understand and who he was and what he wanted. George price was primed to grandiose thinking. This tendency was probably not helped when after cancer diagnosis. He have his thyroid. Removed and price wasn't great at taking medication. and which led to a radic moods and bouts of depression he was corresponding with at one point with four Nobel Prize winners our future Nobel Prize winners in different fields in neuro physiology with echoes in genetics with Hermann Muller with Shockley and Bar Dean and and Shannon Information Formation Theory and with the economists Samuelsson each on a different problem in a different field and offering to them. Some kind of magical solution. Shen to a great conundrum in the field but writing sort of you know out of nowhere. They had no idea who this person was during all this time. He's trying to make a made from self but he hasn't seen his daughters in about ten years and as his daughters grew older he started to muse on his Own Childhood during the Great Depression and obsession was growing a scientific obsession with the origins of family and he understood. That had it not been for his mother's grit his own family. No doubt would have disintegrated to and yet now he himself had abandoned his wife and his daughters and he becomes uh-huh obsessed with. Why why? Why is that? What allowed for some families to stick together while others collapsed and so this becomes a preoccupation the and the kind of obsession and he decides to leave everything behind and to get on a boat and to go to England in London he gets to wack back haunting public libraries and giving himself a crash course in evolutionary biology? He writes to his daughter. This is going to be my big paper on the evolutionary origin of humid humid family precisely after having a bad his family himself and his wife and his little little daughters and without a hint or tinge of irony tides off with love off Daddy. George Price Begins Corresponding with well-known biologist. William Hamilton Hamilton was developing an evolutionary theory. About why my family's care for each other and then like a bolt from the blue an idea comes to price in the form of a mathematical equation L. Straits have traits that promote fitness get selected for in evolution occurred across generations including the trait of being kind to one another he's equation it's solved Dow problem so price writes down the equation and he it looks at it and it seems to him something of a miracle to how did this question wack. What tries showed in his equation? was that natural selection could could work at all the different levels of the biological hierarchy simultaneously. It could work at the level of the gene. It could work at the level of the so at the level of the individual and at the level of the group this is what was new the idea that groups like a herd or village not just individuals could be acted on by the forces of evolution before this DA was dismissed by most biologists and what his equation could teach us was at what level of the biological hierarchy is natural selection. Working most strongly at any given time and if it's working most strongly at the level of the group then true selflessness true altruism can evolve what this means is when members of a group lift each other up rather than tear each other down on the whole group can flourish and reproduce and by group we might mean family or tribe or neighborhood donation or even so Poultry Breeder named William viewer wanted to select a better breed of egg-laying had. This is David Sloan Wilson and he did it in two ways in both cases the Hanley groups Actually there were housed in cases and in the first I experiment you selected the most productive head with any cage and in the second experiment. He selected the most productive cages collectively and use those to be the next generation vision of chickens socially by breeding with the most productive individuals. That is the hens that lay the most eggs. He think you'd get more eggs of roll well so this wasn't a case a few select the most productive individual in a group selection because bully and yes that's highly heritable and so after five generations you've read a nation of psychopaths and they're murdering each other plucking each other's feathers that they're not laying eggs. We music second experiment produced quite a different result instead of breeding. I'm from the individuals that live the most eggs. He read from the hens that came from the most productive cages overall in the second experiment by selecting the most productive cages ages. You were selecting the most docile and cooperative hands or did not interfere with each other and these cooperative Hans laid more eggs overall than the psychopathic ethic chickens. Dude price equation described this group dynamic very well so that is so descriptive of what also takes place is in nature and there's many many examples from the business world of people who employ strategies that are good for their own advancement but not for the good of the company under certain very specific conditions. Natural selection could see a group of people acid individual. It could look to natural selection like it's at individual tool because it's so cohesive and so cooperative it's like you know about termites or ants that come together together to create a super organism when that kind of cohesion exists in nature that a group can be almost like an individual and in that sense. The individuals within the group turned into sort of cells within the body they each have function which serves the higher good and the higher higher good is a more cooperative happier healthier population back in nineteen sixty. Ah George Price New Hughes onto something big aren Haman and so he walks off the street into the biostatistics department at University College London and he introduces himself by David George Price and have a look at this equation and off the the street. You know a complete unknown and within the hour he is given keys to his own office and visiting professorship at what was at that time one of the great centers in the world for the Study of population dynamics and it seems quite unlikely to that of all the great minds ever since Darwin Darwin. It should be him little george price who isn't even trained in the field to have cracked this very stubborn problem of where altruism comes from. But almost as quickly things started to unravel FA- George price really unraveled. And so he begins thinking about it as a kind of coincidence. It's and begins contemplating other coincidences. That had happened to him during his life. Type very strange things like he'd have girlfriends. Whose name was the last four digits? It's of his phone number work. Two three nine two hip. Bet that signified like a minute before midnight. It should be of two three five nine but it doesn't matter he was. You know who's a little bit manic and he multiplied all these coincidences and reached an astronomical number one over ten to the thirtieth miniscule tiny little chance that all all of these things should have happened to him by chance and so he read out of his apartment down little Littlefield road and into all souls Atlantic it to the Evangelical Church and fell on his knees at literally on the spot became a Christian. Having come come to the realization that God must have chosen him to tell some great truth to your vanity and that was where does skype is comfortable and there we will leave George price for a moment. It's nineteen seventy. He's on his knees before Lacrosse in a state of rapture before his world truly crumble. I don't know what to make of George Prices Story at this point Zoe. He's wild yeah it really is but now I want you to make another scientist and this scientist lack price. She believes that kindness and Lavin Alvin collaboration there really worthy of study in evolutionary biology. Like I say we're fast forwarding from the nineteen seventies. Now it's nineteen ninety-seven and professor sir. John Rough Garden is an accomplished. Biology professor at Stanford University join is in a fifties. And she's about to transition as a transgender woman and she's just arrived. I ever pride much different. Cisco these are really huge productions thing quite the mark it was obvious that there is a huge amount of diversity in gender expression and sexuality that was really being exhibited and at at the time. I don't think I even knew any gay. People at Stanford Gay folks were not well represented among the faculty and on the campus. Generally and a a curriculum didn't mention the existence of species in which there was natural same sex sexuality being expressed And not only that same sex sexuality was seen as bizarre anomaly by scientists ultimately it didn't produce babies so what. What was the point of it but going to the pride March got join rough garden thinking why was science so silent on the group of People Shay was marching with? When she started to dig she meant interesting discovery about the frequency of same sex sexual behavior in nature? It became clear that even in the primary literature there was a huge number serve cases that have been documented but just not reported the real tip off that something fishy was going on with biological study of gender sexual ahead to do with the pejorative descriptions that the biologists were using for the very phenomenon. They were observing. They were embarrassed almost to be writing about same mm sexuality in the very species they were describing. It says there was a stigma and they were afraid of catching the stigma. Professor Rough Garden thought. She'd find enough to publish published a pamphlet on animal. Same sexually in fact. She had a book's worth in two thousand and four she published evolution's Rainbow Diversity the gender and sexuality in nature and people. The book issued a challenge to her profession over what she saw as narrow minded lens among mammals. Who certainly we get a lot of same sex sexuality? There's no doubt about that and this multiple times. There's like a real social role for same sex sexuality and among in primates specifically its most developed in the primate groups with the most complex social systems. Can you tell me a little bit about that. How how that plays out and what scientic sexuality looks like and what role it might play? So it's it's quite variable. I personally photographed elephants male elephants meeting. They can find lots of pictures of the charismatic vertebrates so Pionts Tigers Giraffes this impression. Sometimes the same sex sexuality involve also a power dynamic that it's like a rape or something but it definitely isn't. It's a bonding kind of behavior. Is these two lions. Is it by Golly nozzles up next to the other and one lies down and then the other amounts and then they get up and they stay together and they're really good. Buddies Professor Rough Garden found many examples of same sex sexuality in spacey's from those male lions ends that mount each other and cut Lofta to oyster catchers shore birds who often live in Malaysia. TWAT research shows that if the threesome All have sex with each other. They're more successful at raising the chicks as a tame then if they only have heterosexual couplings within the trio and and then the other Bernarda is. You've probably heard of our hyper sexual primate cousins. Hey just love to get it on and those all the animals participate in and same sex sexuality. They're having sex all the time. It's quite remarkable and they all have a rather low level of aggression as a result so they very amusing write ups about the Novas and sex says a social mediating device but turning a a blind eye to same sex sexuality in nature join rough guns since that evolutionary biologists might be missing a trick running right off the bat. It was clear that there's a lot of these behaviors were reducing competition same sex sexuality a reduces it it's a way of building friendships way building bonds and the the fundamental challenge to same sex sexuality. It's not so much that they do it but why they do it. Why why are they not competing? Why are they not fighting with each other? Why are they building friendships? So why aren't they being selfish to heart back to the selfish gene here. We have animals definitely being friends definitely working together so the sexuality and also the gender expressions all involve of contexts in which there's cooperation taking place rather than competition and it's like their vehicles to facilitate and realize cooperation Russian in John's mind competition plays a role but signs was blind to another fundamental fuel of evolution so excited what biologists just on the notion. That competition was an evolutionary driver of success. They were a blind to collaboration. And it didn't help one of the most expensive expensive. Examples of collaboration might them blush same sex sexuality professor are in Hamad from bar. Ilan University sites science that we think of as a kind of very objective description of reality something that's driven by logic and observation and not tainted by politics or by ideology time and time again when you look at the history of science you see that that's not actually the case you ever. Since that very famous popular science book the selfish gene a kind of way of looking at nature has really captured the field in evolutionary theory. And and it really. Is this notion of stark individualism. We can explain every behavior that we encounter in nature by looking at the logic. Chick of selfishness aren't Haman describes. Join as a maverick. And he believes her work is expanding on the legacy of George Price. Who Story Story? We started earlier and I worry we haven't forgotten about price. He's still on his knees in front of that Chris fix the price equation. Showed that and we did it. We need to think about jeeves. Entirely selfish terms could be also cooperative. Jeans what Joan is doing is really expanding that in a way away trying to break through from this very dominant philosophy and to show that there might be other logics in the history of the evolution of life life on our planet logics. That are much more cooperative that have to do with helping one another with up to do with the dynamics of cohesion within a group I think the Joan you know is a maverick. She's a radical you know and she's the Mavericks is kind of in a way that is reminiscent of George. He was really an individual and knowing Joan so you sort of get the same feeling you know. She's she's her own person and she will go with her truth until the end. Notwithstanding was standing and in fact she has been attacked for many of our ideas but that doesn't matter to her because she sees a path she sees a truth and she goes after it but doing this work comes at a cost join was considered outside of the mainstream and as George. Let's return to him. I'm in one thousand nine hundred seventy. He's come up with his magnum opus. A mathematical equation that describes how traits like altruism evolve and promote the survival of groups. But not all is rosy altruism exists in the world. Yes George comes to understand. It's not driven purely by good comes to the conclusion that altruism must always be a form of selfishness because if it evolved then it evolved because it was adaptive for those who held it for those organisms who held it and therefore if it was adaptive live what that means is that it helped their fitness and therefore was selfish rather than selfless so altruistic behavior may look like it's the form of kindness but actually that saying that terrible saying scratching out to us and watch an egoistic bleed that seem to price an inescapable conclusion from the mathematics if altruism had evolved to promote survival then it must ultimately exist for selfish reasons to promote the transmission of our own genes anes into the next generation. Even when we were doing good things for people we weren't genetically related to altruism was motivated. Did selfish reasons. This profoundly depressed George Price but John Rough Garden Professor America at Stanford University doesn't integrate with Georgia's pessimism altruism can still be valuable and pure you can increase your frequency and then jean-paul through altruistic behavior fever that doesn't mean it's selfish because it was manifestly altruistic at the behavioral level. You actually did help somebody at some cost to yourself that is altruism. It doesn't it doesn't matter if there's a genetic benefit to that because Jane itself can't be consciously selfish so if it's manifesting its sense of altruism altruism remains untouched. Yeah you're still is operatives because we classify altruism based on the behavior not based on its impact to the gene pool but sadly it was all still downhill for George Price Altruism was not all well he thought it was cracked up to be. This is terrible realization for George Price. Because he's just come Christian Evangelical Christian and Christianity Hannity to him is all about love and giving and yet his science his own signs his own. Mathematics is telling him that there is no such thing as pure giving as pure or altruism and pure love and so he decides that through his own behavior he will prove that the human spirit can transcend is owned own miraculous mathematics can transcend the dictates of evolution and of nature and prove that there is in fact a genuine kindness and altruism out there and and so he goes out to the streets of London and begins helping all the DACA bonds and down and outs and homeless people that he encounters I buy. Just go buying them sandwich or giving them a tattoo and then increasingly in a more involved way by helping them in the court of law and in their scuffles with the police and he the rights to John Smith at one point down to my last fifteen p. and I can't wait to get rid of them because this was proof to him that Ubad spirit could in fact back tread said evolution. Finally he gives away everything and falls into the streets of London himself. Becoming a homeless person and living rough on the benches of the various parks sometimes taking shelter in the train station at night and all the while. He's working on his mathematical equations. His paper appears in the pages of nature which which is incredible even while he's homeless he's still doing a science but the psychological comment that has been shadowing him for years. Is it begins to take hold and George Price takes is on life at his funeral. Some weeks later they're about ten people. Two two of whom Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith are the great evolutionist of their age and the rest are homeless. People whom George had befriended on the streets of London London and upon whom he had descended as a kind of angel to help them. These were the handful of people who took George to his grave on a cold January morning in nineteen seventy five. What Stories Zoe? He paid the ultimate price. Didn't he his passion. Yeah he he really did and demand for that. Competition is king. It still lives on to this day. I'll say it does lives La. Ah lived on this hi four note. He though because David Sloan Wilson doing some interesting work yet he really is. He's taking notions from evolutionary biology and applying them to schools to neighborhoods to communities to try and develop communities that promote compassion altruism and kindness over competition last week. We go to David to reply. Evolutionary theory to our current aren't lives And all of the fast pace changes taking place around us in other words cultural evolution. That's something that's very new and we're only just coming to appreciate with. Darwin always suspected Darwin didn't know but he his intuition told him this theory would explain the length breadth of humanity. I often say imagine that you're a nice person who really nice but unluckily for you. You're surrounded by not so nice people so what can you do. You have four options. You can leave. Maybe you can try to convert vert those people around you turn them Nice. You could do that. You could defensively turn off your niceness or you remain nice and suffer the consequences those for options and who would counsel a person remained nice under those circumstances. But you need to do is you need. To of course create social environments that rewards awards niceness. And if you do that then you can get people to become more pro social. You don't even have to teach them. They perceive their environment and they basically they open up like personnel. Coming out of its shell very interesting. Practical work thank you so much for joining us on the show this week Zoey. Thanks for having me. It's been a blast and Zoe. Is Darren Osborne Regional Science ons. Get it this year. You can talk to me on twitter at Natasha. Mitchell and you can catch me on at Zoe UNDIS- cocaine at Cayenne. Catchy next week by you've been listening to an A._B._C.. podcast discover more great A._B._C.. podcasts live radio and exclusives on the A._B._C. Listen Up.