Untold lives blog

01 March 2016

Calculating Kindness: Meeting George Price

I’m currently making a new theatre production called ‘Calculating Kindness’ based on American evolutionary geneticist George Price (1922-1975) at Camden People’s Theatre, yards from where George lived, worked and died. Hardly known outside evolutionary circles, George’s story illuminates important questions about who we are.

I first stumbled across George in Readers Digest in 2011. Struck by his extraordinary story, I was compelled to find out more. This led me to the British Library where his manuscripts are held, together with  those of his collaborator William Hamilton.

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968. He spent weeks going to libraries, until he discovered a paper by evolutionary biologist William Hamilton.  This talked about many things, one of which was that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin. If this were true, George found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

In an attempt to prove this idea wrong, George taught himself evolutionary theory and formulated an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism. The Price Equation proved Hamilton right and was so extraordinary that University College London gave George an honorary position within eighty minutes of him walking in off the street.

  Poster for ‘Calculating Kindness’   
‘Calculating Kindness’  - image by kind permission of Undercurrent.

Until now, George had been a militant atheist, but writing the equation had a strange effect on him. George began to calculate the probabilities of coincidences in his life, working out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, George decided the equation was a gift from God and converted to fundamental Christianity overnight.

George then embarked on a radical phase of altruism - helping complete strangers. He gave away everything he had and ended up homeless. In America, George had undergone an operation for thyroid cancer. Now, testing God, he had stopped his thyroid medicine, which can contribute to depression. George was pushing the extremes of survival, living on a pint of milk a day and celebrating his last 15 pence.

A few years later, Price was discovered in a squat having slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two of our greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

‘Calculating Kindness’ weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is kindest to his kin?

Whilst reading through the collection George began to come to life for me - with each document I got to know him a little more. I started to understand what preoccupied George and how he thought about things. This invaluable research has formed the bedrock for developing the show. It’s material I keep coming back to, and as my understanding of George’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings.

Laura Farnworth
Artistic Director of Undercurrent

Further reading :
The papers of George R Price and W.D. Hamilton are listed in the British Library catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

‘Calculating Kindness’ is at Camden People’s Theatre from 29 March – 16 April 2016.



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