Top image

EMBL Forum Lectures

Oren Harman

Oren Harman

Tuesday, 17 July 2012, 16:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Oren Harman, Bar Ilan University, Israel

The price of altruism


The origin of kindness is a mystery. Where do giving and altruism come from: were they inherited on the wings of natural selection - a gift bestowed upon us via the inching, evolutionary march of sacrificial amoeba, selfless penguins, and charitable baboons? Or is altruism a unique refinement, a singular human triumph over "nature bloody in tooth in claw"? Darwin called this a great riddle and ever since thinkers have tried to crack it.

One hundred and fifty years of attempts to crack the mystery of altruism can teach us a lot about how prior ideological commitments find their way directly into the scientific enterprise. Beginning with the debate between “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Henry Huxley, and the Russian anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin, the history of such attempts tells a story of direct contact, and mutual interplay, between social, political and scientific thought. Whether it is the Chicago ecologists of the 1920s through 1940s, arguing for group selection and the “superorganism” as Fascism tore through Europe, or John von Neumann and the progenitors of Game Theory touting a belief in the utter selfishness of the “maximizing agent” as they modelled games on their swivel chairs at RAND, theories of altruism and cooperation have been closely linked to scientists’ own understanding of the moral good and its social consequences.

Neurogenetics and fMRI studies are showing today that kindness may be located in our genes and in particular parts of our brain. Coupled to animal behaviour studies, brain damage studies, evolutionary psychology logic, and mathematical modelling, they are supposedly pointed in the direction of cracking the altruism mystery. Precisely for this reason, we need to remember the fate of George Price, who will be the focus of this presentation. The achievements and tragedy of this hitherto forgotten American genius chemist-turned-evolutionist-turned-homeless vagabond, I will argue, provide salutary lessons regarding our understanding of altruism, as well as the limits of scientific inquiry. “Even if all possible scientific questions be answered”, the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer”. Price's dramatic life story will be presented to argue this point.


Prof. Oren Harman is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University. He was trained in history and biology at the Hebrew University, Oxford, and Harvard, and is a historian of biology and a writer.

He teaches evolutionary theory, the interplay between scientific, social, and philosophical thought, and writing. He is especially fascinated by the juxtaposition of the transcendence of nature's laws with the frailties and peculiarities of the transient human experience. His books include The Man Who Invented the Chromosome (Harvard, 2004), Rebels, Mavericks and Heretics in Biology (with Michael Dietrich; Yale, 2008), and The Price of Altruism (W.W. Norton, 2010; Bodley Head/Random House, 2010), which won the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the best book of the year in Science and Technology, and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

He is a frequent contributor to The New Republic, and the co-creator of the Israeli Oscar-nominated documentary series Did Herzl Really Say That?. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The London Times, Nature, Science, The Economist, Forbes, New Scientist, Times Higher Education, Discover, The Huffington Post, RADIOLAB and many others. He grew up in Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv.