Well, what do you think? Is there such a thing as true, pure altruism?
Unquestionably. Do you think there isn’t?
I’m suddenly not sure.
When we behave altruistically toward someone, we experience physiological reactions to that behavior. You encounter a homeless person on the street who smells and has blood running down his leg. You feel tremendously stressed and give him NIS 20, and suddenly you feel a lot better. Is that altruism?
That’s the question.
Right. I think we should occupy ourselves less with the question of motivation, which is a question to which scientific tools cannot offer a meaningful answer. If the result is that you gave to someone else and he gained from it, then it’s altruism.
In your book you try to get to the bottom of the riddle of altruism through the story of George Price, an eccentric genius who succeeded in resolving it and then put an end to his life.
I believe the best way to explain science is through a story, and the story of George Price is a personification of the paradox of altruism.
His biography reads like a screenplay: someone who was part of almost every crucial advance in science − the study of cancer, the computer revolution, the Manhattan Project − yet remained totally anonymous.
There are many forgotten people, but he really is a singular case. His science is difficult to grasp. The equation he wrote is actually very short and simple, but even professional scholars of evolution can’t quite figure out whether it’s something of genius or entirely meaningless.
What was he trying to achieve through the equation?
He wanted to solve an important scientific riddle and gain everlasting fame. He homed in on the riddle that Darwin himself said was the biggest of them all: If evolution is a heartless competition in which the fittest survive, how do we explain the fact that so much self-sacrifice exists in nature?
What answer does the equation provide?
There are sometimes traits in nature which contain a conflict of interests. It’s ostensibly good for the group that its component individuals possess the trait, but it’s bad for the individual. Altruism, for example. If you have a group of altruists competing with a group of egoists, the altruists will win. So altruism is a wonderful trait for a group. But at the level of the self-interest of the individual within the group, if you can benefit from what the group produces but not take part in its sacrifice, you have an advantage.
To illustrate, let’s say an invader enters a beehive and all the bees rally to drive it off. They sting the intruder and pay with their lives. But if I am the one bee that stands aside, I benefit. I am still alive, and others expelled the intruder for me.
Correct. Now, if this trait is hereditary and is passed on to the next generation, within a short time there will be no more bees that sting. That might be good for individuals but it will not be good for the group. The Price equation helps us understand that selection “looks” at all the different levels of the hierarchy simultaneously and tells us at which level it is operating most strongly.
George Price cracked the riddle of altruism mathematically, and that’s a strange story in itself. He wasn’t a scholar of evolution.
At the age of 45, divorced and depressed, he moved from the United States to England. Anonymous, without any academic affiliation, a kind of loser, he rents an apartment and starts to read the relevant scientific articles in the public libraries. When he derives the equation, he doesn’t even know if it is original − after all, this is not his field. It looked quite simple to him, and he knew that all the great minds since Darwin had tried to solve the problem. He entered University College, in London, just walked in from the street, knocked at the door, introduced himself and showed his equation to the professor. Within half an hour he received a key to an office of his own. Extreme. He went back home and started to think about what, exactly, had happened. It looked to him like the hand of chance. He started to think statistically about other coincidences that had happened to him in his life. He calculated the odds that all these coincidences had actually occurred and arrived at the astronomical number of one divided by ten to the power of 30.
In short, he was in the grip of a manic attack.
As a matter of fact, he was a very rational person − all too rational, actually. And the unreasonable number led him, logically − because he didn’t relax his rational thought for a moment − to the conclusion that there must be a guiding hand at work. He thereupon runs to the nearby church, falls on his knees and becomes an Evangelical Christian. He is certain that God has chosen him to tell one great truth to mankind: where altruism comes from. But when he starts to think about the philosophical implications of his equation, he concludes that if it is possible to write a mathematical equation that explains the evolution of a trait that is seemingly paradoxical in nature, such as altruism, then all the displays of altruism in nature are actually egoism in disguise.
A very depressing conclusion.
He understands that, in practice, there is no altruism. But that is not a necessary conclusion from the equation. That is his conclusion, the conclusion of his singular brain and psychological makeup. He inferred that if the natural process can only give rise to adaptive traits, then what appears to be sacrifice is actually selfishness.
That the basis of every manifestation of altruism is self-interest or need.
Thomas Huxley wrote in 1888 that we should not look for morality in nature. Nature is neither moral nor immoral. It is solely about necessity. And George Price, who had become a Christian − and, after all, the whole of Christianity rests on Jesus’ sacrifice − cannot accommodate that thought. So he decides he will prove that the moral spirit can transcend natural necessity, and embarks on the life of a radical altruist. He roams the streets of London looking for homeless people. He gives them money, buys them food and represents them before the police when they get into trouble.
Some of them also move in with him.
Yes, they do. And some of them are violent characters who steal from him and are abusive toward him. But that delights him, because it’s proof for him that he is transcending the equation, that spirit trumps matter. He writes to John Maynard Smith, “I am now down to exactly 15 pence [and] I look forward eagerly to when that 15p will be gone.” For him it was proof of the purity of his altruism.
But that’s not the case, because it too serves an interest, a fantasy. It is not altruism in any way, shape or form.
Yes. And George himself ends up on the street. He spends the last few weeks of his life in a squat. He lives there with, among others, two Israelis who thought this gaunt, filthy man who mumbled about Jesus must be mad. One day, in January 1975, one of the Israelis, Shmuel Atia, finds George Price lifeless and wallowing in a pool of blood. He had cut his own carotid with a pair of scissors.
What a horrific suicide.
Now, how are we to understand this suicide, let alone from a distance of 40 years? From writings he left behind − all kinds of notes he stuffed into his shirt pocket − and letters he sent to friends in his final days, it appears that Price had a very hard time coping with a problem that Aristotle had formulated 2,500 years earlier. Aristotle wrote that the love we feel for others stems from the love we harbor for ourselves; and Price, the rationalist, discovered that he actually had no way to know whether his altruism toward the poor of London was not actually total selfishness.
Do you think he committed suicide because he wasn’t able to cope with that?
I think he committed suicide because there is no scientific way to find out. He wanted to believe that science can provide the answer to every question, yet here the question had no answer. Biological altruism is defined according to the result of the behavior: If the organism acts in such a way that another organism benefits in terms of fitness, while it pays a price in terms of its fitness it is an altruist. But altruism between people, psychological altruism, is something different. Here the definition relates to the intention behind the behavior, not necessarily its result. Altruism in a human being and altruism in an amoeba are not the same thing. But our brain, too, is a product of natural selection, just like the amoeba’s behavior. How could evolution produce something that acts in a way that is contrary to biological interest? Is it possible for a human being to escape his own nature?
And for that there is no answer. There is no way to reach the primal root of the subject.
That is the wall Price felt he had run into. I call it “Wittgenstein’s wall,” because Wittgenstein wrote that even after we solve all the scientific riddles, we have not started to scratch the deep problems. At that place, he wrote, there are no more questions. And that is precisely the answer.
Where does spirituality come into this story? Altruism is built into all the major religions.
There are all kinds of explanations of evolutionary psychology, but I don’t want to go there, because taking the evolution route makes the story much shallower; it needs to be historical, not biological. But, you know, the idea of faith in an external power on which you are dependent and on which the group is dependent, and the ability to hold onto that faith collectively, serves an interest of cohesion: the group coheres around this, and cohesion, from a utilitarian perspective, is important for the individual. The great biologist Bill Hamilton argued that group altruism is the only pure altruism that exists. But his was a bittersweet conclusion. When you have an “other” against whom you do battle, you unite within the group and genuinely help your fellows.
In other words, true altruism is possible only when it is aimed against someone else.
Yes. When there is an “other” whom your group identifies as a threat.
Are we geared to do good by nature?
The Darwinists placed the emphasis on the fact that nature portrays a state of perpetual war, in which the fittest win. For a long time we translated the fittest to mean the more egoistical. But the truth is that we are a social species, and for a social species to succeed, cooperation between the individuals of the species is necessary. The more social we become in the evolutionary process, the greater becomes the need for cooperation.
Evolution implants in us all kinds of physiological and cognitive mechanisms that enable better cooperation. For example, the ability to read the thoughts of others. Or synchronization. You go to a concert: there are 5,000 people in the hall and within a few seconds they are all applauding together in sync. Synchronization, empathy, justice, anger, punishment and shame are all mechanisms that are intended to solve the most basic problem: how to live within a group.
If utilitarianism is implanted within our very being, why does it make us feel uncomfortable on an emotional level? Why is it a trait we tend to shun?
Why are we not all Ayn Rands? Why do we not understand that the supreme moral law is to look after yourself and take pride in that? Because we are a social being that lives in groups and possesses mutual dependence. Because of that dependence and its function, evolution has imprinted in us traits that enable us to enter into utilitarian interactions. Empathy, for example, is beneficial to us and is utilitarian, but once it was engendered as such, culture took it to many different places, expanded it and imbued it with other meanings, some of them blatantly nonutilitarian.
Then we do not fake it.
Some less, others more. But completely pure empathy can be engendered by utilitarian empathy.
The circle is closed.
Exactly. An essentially egoistic utilitarianism has imbued us, via the evolutionary process, with genuine capacities for identification, inclusion, empathy and sacrifice.
So again, it is impossible to know which came first. You believe it is superfluous even to think about that.
I think it is possible to understand reality at different levels: physical, chemical, through evolution, through history. Each problem has the level of resolution that extracts the greatest amount of information from it. So to say that everything is chemistry is true, factually, but doesn’t always get us very far. To understand the Second Lebanon War, will you establish a committee of chemists? No, because that is not the right level of resolution to look at the problem. There are very interesting questions relating to our psychological structure and to our motivation: which molecules play a part, which genes, how they underwent evolution and in response to what environments. It is a good thing that we are investigating all this, but we shouldn’t stop there. There are places where the scientific tools simply stop being relevant, at which point you need to use different sets of tools to understand the world and ourselves: history, art, music, experience. In the last analysis, you will learn far more about altruism by living it or by thinking and writing about it, or by reading poetry, than by occupying yourself with molecules.
It’s like trying to understand love by means of scientific tools. Falling in love really is just chemistry. But what can chemistry teach us about love?
There are a great many scientists today who are engaged in defining the molecular basis of love. And there are molecules that play a part − of course there are − but again, after you have described that entire system, will you be able to say you understand love better? There are people who think the answer to that question is yes. I say it is possible to understand reality at that level but that I prefer a poem by Yehuda Amichai.
What is your final conclusion? What did you learn from this journey? What do you now understand about altruism that you did not understand before?
Above all, I learned a great deal of science. I also learned that we have a deep longing for answers. We want to understand why we behave as we do, and even though science has a great deal to say about these matters, it also has limitations. The journey reinforced my opinion that in order to enjoy the human adventure in the broadest sense, we need to both experience it and study it. We have many sets of tools for doing that, some of them scientific, some of them external to science.
The mythographer Joseph Campbell noted that people say they are looking for the meaning of life, but what they actually want is to “feel the rapture of being alive.” When you have sex or jump out of a plane, at that moment you are not a philosopher. It’s something tremendously primeval. And I have no doubt that if you do something for the sake of someone else and are capable of appreciating the fact that the other person enjoys the act, this bears a power and a meaning that far transcend any reduction of altruism to the level of molecules and genes. I am understanding this more and more in life, and that gives me great joy.