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Reminiscence: Author of altruism equation committed suicide

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File:George Robert Price.jpg
Gorge Robert Price
George Price (1922–1975) From science writer Michael Regnier at Digg:

He’d met his wife, Julia, on the Manhattan Project, but as well as being a scientist she was a devout Roman Catholic. The marriage was hard-pressed to survive Price’s scathing views on religion, and after eight years and two daughters – Annamarie and Kathleen – they divorced. Fed up with his job, his life and the distinct lack of recognition in America, Price cut his ties in 1967 and crossed the Atlantic to London, intent on making a great scientific discovery there. He felt he had just a few more years to make his mark, but as it turned out, he needed only one.

Price had set himself the ‘problem’ of explaining why humans lived in families – particularly what fatherhood was for, scientifically speaking. This, in turn, led him to the question of how altruism had evolved, and it was while studying new theories around this topic that he derived what is now called the Price equation, almost by accident.

It captured the essence of evolution by natural selection in one simple formula. …

He would seek out the homeless in Soho Square or at the nearest railway stations, Euston and King’s Cross, and give them anything they asked for, from the money out of his pay packet right down to the clothes off his back. If they needed a place to sleep, he would invite them back to his flat indefinitely. Eventually he had given away so much that he became as destitute as the men he was helping. When the lease ran out on his flat, he took to squatting, moving often, somehow continuing to do research as well.

By the end of 1974, Price had given up everything. Some time before dawn on 6 January 1975, in a squat not far from Euston, he killed himself. More.

The story is not, of course, simple, and it is well worth a read. Let’s just say, as Regnier tells it, he was prepared to do anything and anything to defend a theory derived from Darwinism.

See also: Claim: Our brains are hardwired for altruism


An evolutionary challenge: explaining away compassion, philanthropy, and self-sacrifice

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4 Replies to “Reminiscence: Author of altruism equation committed suicide

  1. 1
    DarelRex says:

    I have to wonder: Arguendo, let’s say that Darwinian evolution did not (and could not) transform bacteria into humans in the time available. So we were intelligently designed.

    Does that disprove Price’s theories on hard-coded altruism, and how it might benefit the species (and therefore be preserved by natural selection)? If Price’s ideas disturb you, then prepare to be even more disturbed: Our designer(s) may have purposely made us that way.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Suicide seems an extreme reaction, however. Like we said, it is a complex story.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    The equations of evolution – March 24, 2013
    Excerpt: Darwin introduced no math whatsoever in his theory of origin of species. Darwin hated math (not by chance). Therefore one had to wait for (a) few XX century mathematicians before seeing some math in evolutionary theory. It is specifically in population genetics that one finally encounters some applications of probability theory and statistics. They consist basically in two main equations: the Hardy-Weinberg law and the Price equation.,,,
    To claim that the Hardy-Weinberg law explains evolution is as to say that in mechanics a principle of statics (immobility) explains dynamics (movement and the forces causing it).,,,
    For a detailed critic of Price’s analysis by serious statisticians see here (How to Quit the Price Equation).,,,
    “the data explain the data” […] “for doing statistics the Price equation did not help” […] “can’t think of anything remotely useful about the Price equation” […] “some of us remember a feeling of doubt when first confronted with the Price equation, it may be a relief to hear John Maynard Smith [the famous evolutionist] say ‘I’m not going to tell you what Price’s theorem is, because I don’t actually understand it’ …”
    The final point to take is that, also to be very generous, the Price equation does not explain at all how new systems arise in the species in the first place. It gets them as input systems already created by an unknown organizational cause. But the Darwinist claim is that evolution does create biological systems, and the Price equation, like the Hardy-Weinberg law, helps exactly zero to explain such creation.
    So the initial question, how well (does) math support Darwinian evolution, (here’s) the short answer: it doesn’t support evolution at all.

    How to Quit the Price Equation
    Excerpt: The Price equation zooms in on transitions from one generation to the next. This suggests that it could be a fundamental tool for understanding this process of evolution. It was formulated by George Richard Price in 1970 in an article in Nature, and acclaimed by some, maybe even quite a few, to be a fundamental ingredient for models of evolution (Gardner, Frank, Grafen). We think not. The reason why it is hard to identify it as such is that it is all about probability theory and statistics, and those two topics are just not that easy. The following tutorial will help by looking at what proper probability theory or statistics would do and compare that to what the Price equation does to numbers that represent those transitions.,,,
    the Price equation is not what some say it is.

    In Frank (1995), I wrote: ‘What problems can the Price equation solve that cannot be solved by other methods?
    The answer is, of course, none, because the Price Equation is derived from, and is no more than, a set of notational conventions. It is a mathematical tautology’.
    Nowak & Highfield (2011) and van Veelen et al. (2012) emphasize the same point in their critique of the Price equation, although they present the argument as a novel insight without attribution. Given that the Price equation is a set of notational conventions, it cannot uniquely specify any predictions or insights.,,,
    From Frank, Natural Selection, Price Equation 2012

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Price’s uncontrolled altruism is an anomaly for a committed atheist. Atheists on a whole tend to be more psychopathic, i.e. display more antisocial behavior, have impaired empathy, than the majority of people who believe in God or in a higher power of some type.

    Specifically, people who hold a naturalistic view of the mind are positively correlated with the primary psychopathic trait of callousness:

    Why Don’t Psychopaths Believe in Dualism?
    The Role of Opposing Brain Networks Anthony Jack (Case Western Reserve University, Cognitive Science, Cleveland, OH
    In a theoretical paper linking the attribution of phenomenal consciousness to moral cognition, Robbins and Jack (Philosophical Studies, 2006) predicted that psychopaths would not perceive the problem of consciousness. New experimental evidence is presented which supports this claim: in a group of undergraduates it was found that support for a naturalistic view of the mind is positively correlated with the primary psychopathic trait of callousness.

    A scientific case for conceptual dualism: The problem of consciousness and the opposing domains hypothesis. – Anthony I. Jack – 2013
    Excerpt page 18: we predicted that psychopaths would not be able to perceive the problem of consciousness.,,
    In a series of five experiments (Jack, in preparation), we found a highly replicable and robust negative correlation (r~-0.34) between belief in dualism and the primary psychopathic trait of callous affect7.
    Page 24: Clearly these findings fit well with the hypothesis (Robbins and Jack, 2006) that psychopaths can’t see the problem of consciousness8. Taking these finding together with other work on dehumanization and the anti-social effects of denying the soul and free will, they present a powerful picture. When we see persons, that is, when we see others as fellow humans, then our percept is of something essentially non-physical nature. This feature of our psychology appears to be relevant to a number of other philosophical issues, including the tension between utilitarian principles and deontological concerns about harming persons (Jack et al., accepted), the question of whether God exists (Jack et al., under review-b), and the problem of free will9.

    As well, people who do not believe they have free will are found to be more amoral than people who believe they do have free will:

    (Materialistic) Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!” -2010
    Excerpt: Studies found people who were told there is no such thing as free will were more likely to cheat under experimental conditions. “One of the most striking findings to emerge recently in the science of free will is that when people believe—or are led to believe—that free will is just an illusion, they tend to become more antisocial.” For example, in an experiment involving money, some participants were randomly assigned to what was called a determinism condition:
    They were asked to read statements such as, “A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science.” Those participants stole more money than those who had been randomly assigned to read statements from what was called a free-will condition–who had read statements such as, “Avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will.”

    The (moral) value of believing in free will (several studies):

    In fact, “The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.”

    “, I maintain that whatever else faith may be, it cannot be a delusion.
    The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land.”
    – Professor Andrew Sims former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists – Is Faith Delusion?: Why religion is good for your health – preface

    “In the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism; purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction… We concluded that for the vast majority of people the apparent benefits of devout belief and practice probably outweigh the risks.”
    – Professor Andrew Sims former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists – Is Faith Delusion?: Why religion is good for your health – page 100

    Of snakebites and suicide – February 18, 2014
    RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation.

    Of supplemental note:

    Knowledge of the afterlife deters suicide. Lessons From the Light by Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser p.257-258:
    As far as I know, the first clinician to make use of NDE material in this context was a New York psychologist named John McDonagh. In 1979, he presented a paper at a psychological convention that described his success with several suicidal patients using a device he called “NDE bibliotherapy.” His “technique” was actually little more than having his patients read some relevant passages from Raymond Moody’s book, Reflections on Life after Life, after which the therapist and his patient would discuss its implications for the latter’s own situation. McDonagh reports that such an approach was generally quite successful not only in reducing suicidal thoughts but also in preventing the deed altogether.

    Since McDonagh’s pioneering efforts, other clinicians knowledgeable about the NDE who have had the opportunity to counsel suicidal patients have also reported similar success. Perhaps the most notable of these therapists is Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist now at the University of Virginia, whose specialty as a clinician has been suicidology. He is also the author of a classic paper on NDEs and suicide which the specialist may wish to consult for its therapeutic implications. (14)
    Quite apart from the clinicians who have developed this form of what we might call “NDE-assisted therapy,” I can draw upon my own personal experience here to provide additional evidence of how the NDE has helped to deter suicide. The following case,,,


    John 14:27
    Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

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