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04 April 2016

Investigating the Price of Kindness

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Laura Farnworth on the creation and development of ‘Calculating Kindness’

Laura is a director and theatre maker, Artistic Director of Undercurrent, and Associate Director of Shared Experience. This is an edited transcript of a talk from the North American Panel session as part of History Day at Senate House Library, 27 November 2015

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For Undercurrent I am currently developing our new show, Calculating Kindness, which is based on the life of American evolutionary geneticist George Price, 1922 - 1975.

Price is hardly known outside of evolutionary biology and yet his story illuminates important ideas and questions about how we behave and understand ourselves.

The development of this show brought me to the British Library, where his collection of manuscripts is kept, and also that of his collaborators, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

First let me tell you a little about George Price.

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George Price, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968 hungry to make his name.

He spent weeks visiting thirteen different libraries - until he stumbled across a paper by William Hamilton, nicknamed “second Darwin”, that discussed several aspects of social behaviour, one of which was that we are genetically predisposed to be kindest to our kin.

If this were true, Price found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

An outsider to evolutionary theory he taught himself the basics of evolutionary genetics, and ended up formulating an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism - something science had been trying to do since Darwin. His equation proved Hamilton right.

The Price Equation was so extraordinary that University College London gave Price an honorary position within ninety minutes of him walking in off the street.

Up until then, Price had been a militant atheist. But writing the equation had a strange affect on him. He started to look at all the coincidences that had happened in his life. Incidental things, like he’d had several girlfriends called Anne, phone numbers, calendar dates. He worked out the probability of each coincidence. He finally worked out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, that he concluded it could only be a gift from God and he converted to Christianity overnight.

From then on he started to apply mathematics to the Bible - aiming to decode the true meaning of the Bible.

He then underwent what he referred to in his letters as a ‘real conversion’. Jesus appeared to him. He understood it as a message that decoding the Bible was not important, what really mattered was helping people.

Price then embarked on a radical quest towards altruism - helping complete strangers. He would go to extraordinary lengths, giving away everything he had, including his flat, which he opened up to homeless people, until he became homeless himself.

The show weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is only kind to his own kin?

Three years after writing the equation, Price was discovered in a squat having had slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two of Britain’s greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

Research begins to inform the show…

Calculating Kindness is a completely new show, developed from scratch and so the process began with research.

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Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To begin with I mainly focused on The George Price Collection. What I found were personal letters, grant applications, manuscripts and pieces of work.

Having been slightly obsessed with Price for so long, to now hold his letters in my hand I must admit gave me goose bumps. Often it was the very ‘normal’ letters that evoked the most for me. Such as letters to his daughters ‘Dear Babies’ from when he first arrived in London, stories about favourite Indian Restaurants and freezing cold libraries.

What started to happen was that Price began to come to life for me - with each letter I got to know him a little more. His scientific writings and grant applications I understood less but with each reading I would pick up the odd gem, even if it might be a pencil annotation that gave me a clue to what he might be thinking. I started to understand better what preoccupied Price, how he thought about things, and what was important to him. This research was invaluable and has become the bedrock of all the development work we have done over the last few years. It is material I keep coming back to, and I find that as my understanding of Price’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings, which then help me make the work stronger.

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Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To be scientifically accurate and sensitive to Price has always been paramount to the development of this show. Price wrote a long letter to Hamilton describing an equation he had developed to address the issues of life on earth, versus the afterlife, from both the perspective of an atheist and a Christian. He then gave extensive, very complex, reasons to justify his belief about life on earth being equivalent to an examination. This became one of the main access points into George’s state of mind. My conversations with Dr Isabel Valli, from the Institute of Psychiatry, based on this research, finally helped me begin to connect seemingly contradictory aspects of Price’s character together.

More recently, I have been lucky enough to receive the help of Rachel Foss, Jonathan Pledge and Cara Rodway from the British Library. They granted me access to Hamilton’s collection that is otherwise not open to the public. Here I found some real gems, several letters between Hamilton, and Price’s brother, and daughters, following George’s suicide. Suddenly, here was new information about conversations I did not know had happened, and fond reflections of what they thought of Price. I almost missed it, but on a torn scrap of paper, with faint pencil markings, I realised I was looking at Hamilton’s annotations about Price’s inquest, where he considered Price’s very brief suicide notes. These moments help me feel closer to Price and all the more compelled to tell his story.

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Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

When Price died, Hamilton was called to his squat to tidy up his papers. Hamilton sent some of his manuscripts to the British Library; and the rest back to Price’s daughters in America. I’d like to finish with a quote from one of Hamilton’s letters, that he wrote after clearing Price’s squat, that for me sums up rather well my own experience of researching Price.

‘I regard his ideas as of such originality and of such significance for evolutionary theory that I believe that some time some one may think it worthwhile to find out something more about him and wish to go through his letters and papers with some care - - and of course the strange life he has led for the past few years makes it quite a story.’

'Calculating Kindness' is on at the Camden People's Theatre until 16th April 2016.

See the 'Calculating Kindness' website for details of post-discussion talks, including one featuring British Library curators.

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Price rehearsal

Read more about the development of this production here: Science and Art in the Rehearsal Room

All images used with kind permission of Undercurrent UK.