Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

1 posts categorized "Social sciences"

05 May 2016

Calculating Kindness Revisited

To publicise our event Calculating Kindness: Chasing George Price, to be held Tuesday, 10th May, 6.30 – 8.00 pm at the British Library, we are republishing an edited version of Laura Farnworth’s post on the development of  Undercurrent’s production, Calculating Kindness, using archives held at the British Library.

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Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

I first stumbled across George Price in a Readers Digest article in 2011. Struck by his extraordinary story, which illuminates important questions about who we are, I was compelled to find out more. This led me to the British Library where his manuscripts are held, together with those of his colleague, evolutionary biologist William Hamilton.

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Neal Craig as William Hamilton, Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968. He spent weeks going to libraries, until he discovered a paper by Hamilton.  One of the key ideas in Hamilton’s paper was that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin. George found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

In an attempt to prove the idea wrong, George 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.

George had been a militant atheist, but writing the equation had a strange effect on him. He began to calculate the probabilities of coincidences in his life, including 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.

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Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

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 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 his papers 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 is 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