The Man Who Cracked the Code of Altruism Killed Himself

The fascinating story of George Price
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 15, 2016 10:36 AM CDT
The Man Who Cracked the Code of Altruism Killed Himself
   (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

If you've heard the name George Price, it's likely in relation to his fame for having produced in the late 1960s an equation to explain altruism. For the record, this is the final version: (wΔz=Cov(wi,zi)+E(wi,zi). Complicated, yes. In fact, "the Price equation is the closest thing biology has to E=mc2," writes Michael Regnier writes at Mosaic. In a nutshell, Price makes the case that selflessness is actually selfish and genetic in nature—an individual might sacrifice himself, but in the end it benefits a bigger group—but the story isn't so much about his groundbreaking equation as what followed. Price would go on to give away all his money and possessions, become homeless, and eventually commit suicide in 1975.

However, it's far too simple to say that Price's "extreme altruism" led to his suicide, writes Regnier, whose article draws on research done by Laura Farnworth for her play on Price's life called Calculating Kindness. Along the way, he suffered a botched thyroid operation that left him in need of medication to replace hormones, depression during the times he skipped that medication, a conversion from atheism to fervent Christianity, possible psychotic episodes, a divorce, and more. "It’s not that his altruism was a symptom of mental illness, nor that his equation turned him into an altruist," writes Regnier. "It was just another part of his increasingly disordered life that he was trying to incorporate into a consistent worldview." Dig in to the full article here. (More altruism stories.)

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