As we abjure from physical pleasures for 25 hours this Tisha B’Av, fasting, mourning, deep in contemplative prayer, reading the Kinot and the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other calamities that befell the Jews, I give you the strange case of George R. Price.
Several weeks ago, I caught the tail end of an NPR (820 am on the radio dial) segment. The piece described George R. Price- physical chemist, population geneticist, science journalist, mathematical and theoretical biologist, a quirky eccentric genius. He worked on the Manhattan Project, acted as consultant on graphic data processing for IBM, and even worked as a cancer research assistant.
George Price was also a man obsessed with the apparent altruism found in nature (a term coined by August Comte) and its negation drawn from the Darwinian Theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. (Don’t leave just yet, there is a point drawn from the reference.) Unlike reciprocal symbiotic relationships typified by the primate behavior of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, biological altruism refers to cases in nature where life forms as divergent as bacteria and dolphins exhibit behaviors analogous to kindness and sacrifice for the greater good. The honey bee, for example, may perform 100 times or more a ‘waggle dance’ -a pin-pointing signal for beehive members to spot food and new nesting sites. Essential for the colony’s survival, it does not directly benefit the waggle dancer worker bee. There are cooperative behaviors found in social insects like bees, wasps and ants; for example, sterile females in the colonies assist reproducing females with their offspring. The loud squawk of the ‘watchman’ bird alerts other birds to the approach of predators like hawks, giving the flock time to fly off, while drawing the attention of the prey to itself. Wolves, lions and other animals risk their lives hunting prey, bringing back food for other members of their pack. The pelican will provide fish for blind pelicans within their flock. “The Arabian babblers (small birds) dance and take baths together, offer themselves gifts, clean themselves, and sometimes enter into conflict with each other for the privilege of helping another babbler. They may also feed their counterparts” (wiki) Dogs and other ‘sympathetic’ creatures often adopt strays or orphaned animals outside their species. Dolphins support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time, pushing them to the surface so they can breathe. Darwin knew of these altruistic behaviors and it is said to have vexed him. Others came up with game theories (see John von Neumann, Oskar Morgenstern, John Maynard Smith) that mathematically tried to quantify, rationalize and find equilibrium (see Nash equilibrium) to behaviors in humans and in animals in which one individual benefits at another’s expense.
George Price, expanded on game theory, and spent years trying to come up with a mathematical equation to express altruistic behavior in nature and how such traits are genetically passed on. Eventually he did, and it became known as the Price Equation. The ability to quantify such an equation actually depressed George Price, for it meant that altruism was now a quantifiable, pre-determined, not chance or willed action, but rather inevitable. He abandoned his deep-seated atheism, coming to believe that it was beyond coincidence, but rather an act of Divine intervention, that led him to such a highly improbable equation. He obsessively spent his remaining days trying to prove that the human spirit was greater than any random probability or equation; helping the poor, giving all his possessions to street beggars and drunks. The depletion of his funds to aid the needy, the cruel actions of others, along with his physical/emotional deterioration, resulted in the tragic taking of his own life in 1975.
What struck me so strongly in all of this, was how a heretofore atheist came to see the ‘spirit’ of man to have the powers to dominate above all scientific reason or postulate. That in spite of the pre-programmed altruism in nature, such a brilliant mind could come to cherish the notion of a human spirit capable of willful good and selfless kindness toward others as such a strong driver that man can free himself from his animalistic, limited, determined nature and spirit the cause of something higher than himself.
The Jewish concept of sympathetic altruism whether reciprocal in nature or not is one of the cornerstones of the Jewish people. The reward system and reciprocal benefits of the world to come is secondary to the obligation of each Jew to act for the well-being of his fellow Jew. “Kol Yisroel arevim ze laze”. We are intertwined, arms and legs of the same tree trunk rooted to His will and divine Torah. What affects one affects us all. We are responsible for one another and are obligated in demonstrating kindness and sympathy toward our fellow man, even at the expense of ourselves or possessions. If altruism is evident in animal behaviors, what can the collective conscious collaboration of man accomplish if his actions and goals are acclimatized for the greater good?
Absorbed in the minutia of our lives and practices, we may become misdirected; missing emotional, physical, spiritual cues of others in our midst or beyond our normal perimeters. The jig of quantifiable causes, ‘meaningful’ actions, or pursuit of golden idols and placards often distracts us. Our ‘on loan’ possessions, tools and talents are by our choosing capable of manifesting sweet harmonics of creation of the highest human endeavors. May we never lose sight of our altruistic capabilities and may we collectively rebuild a binyan adei ad bimhera biyamenu.