The Extremity of Altruism: A Biological Benefit or Biological Weapon for Demise?

by Nicole Drepaul

In Oren Harman’s 2011 biography, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, the main character, George Price, aims to answer the age old debate—is kindness or altruism a human evolutionary element? Like kindness, altruism is a moral principle that defines the belief in or practice of selfless acts and concern for the well-being of others. Harman focuses on the altruistic components of George R. Price’s paradoxical yet painful life. In this arduous process, Price attempts to discover the origin of kindness through analyzing species’ development. The book’s structural module is chronologically conducive to Price’s life with the first section describing Price’s life filled with altruism and the second focusing on the profundity of morality that led to the diminution of Price’s life. The structural division allows us to inquire about the origin of kindness. Is altruism a biological benefit or biological weapon for demise?

Theorists first advocated for the biological evolution of kindness from the intermixing of ethology and altruistic perspectives. Theorists, to advance their perspectives, gathered proof from the ethology of starfishes. In this particular experiment, the cooperative behavior of starfishes is contingent on eelgrass. Harman writes, for example, “When he put them in containers with no eelgrass, immediately they clumped together into groups; when he planted eelgrass, the groups disbanded.” I made the natural assumption that starfishes’ concurrently group together because they value the advantages of ephemeral shelter. However, Price’s primatology research shows more by proving the natural preference of in-group cooperation dynamics. The ascendancy of group dynamics is exemplified with the starfishes’ adaptive harmony, which is indicative that groups are valued more than the individual is. The plausible hypothesis of starfish aggregation rested not in their cluster movement for shelter, but in nature favoring group collaboration more than group dichotomy.

The biological and evolutionary studies of species remind me of the great naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin. I wonder what Charles Darwin would think of evolutionary kindness. Darwin advances the view of inter-species and intra-species competitive struggles; yet, we find a multiplicity of contradictory examples in life that consist of species’ collaboration. For example, we see elephants forming protective rings to guard against vicious predators and visiting their deceased loved ones.

The book divulges, in its latter context, towards the opposition of evolutionary kindness. We learn that biological kindness did not favor George Price. At first, we are given much contextual basis for Prices’ success. Price spent years in research for Manhattan Project, Bells Labs, and IBM, he completed his doctorate in Chemistry at University of Chicago, opened his home to the homeless, and distributed money to individuals who took advantage of him. Yet, in the end, he endured provisional success. George Price had the professional elements of success but lacked harmonic relationships with loved ones. The book concludes when “George Price killed himself sometime between January 5 and the morning of January 6, 1975.” The book’s textual function of Price’s death seems to fossilize the view against evolutionary kindness. Price, a proponent of evolutionary altruism, did not experience the same symmetry of species’ kindness. Price’s isolated and remote death, without the presence of loved ones, served as evidence that human kindness seemed impenetrable to his life.

As is evident with Price’s suicide, the sad satirical value of love has a high experiential value and weight on the success and demise of human life. The epilogue eloquently echoes the main paradox in Price’s life as he diligently aims to understand kindness and yet fails to experience it. Ironically, the answers to the inquiries of kindness are just outside his door — they are artifacts that are deeply rooted in the humanity and livelihood of individuals. This leads to the question: Is altruism necessary in our lives? Does the necessity of altruism lead us down a righteous path of optimism or a long road of solitude? Does altruism augment our pursuit of felicity or despondency? These thoughts incite the gravity of the question, what is the origin of kindness? The genesis of altruism may never be found. However, I have learned that altruism remains at the crux of human evolution and prosperity.

The book serves as a constant reminder that kindness can act as a biological benefit or as a biological weapon. Unfortunately for Price, altruism acted as a weapon that led to his death. The lack of humility and kindness towards Price serves as an example of the significance of kindness. It saddened me to learn that,

“George Price lies in an unmarked grave in the Saint Pancreas Cemetery in North         London, flanked by a proud sycamore and a young weeping willow. Too weak or         too ill or too heartbroken to follow this path peacefully, perhaps it was his                     ultimate and enduring message to the world he left behind.”

The book’s pivotal principle is its didactic moral framework. The book’s components of morality provide support to Adam’s Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith states “man possesses the capacities which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” The quote’s fecundity allows me to deduce that selflessness belongs to a framework beyond the scientific realm, invisible to the naked eye, and in places known only to the human soul. Unfortunately, George Price may not have experienced this level of kindness, but it’s not too late for humanity to permeate into the souls of every individual, acknowledging that altruism is a double-edged sword in the pursuit of life.

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