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The Curious Case of George Price


THE CURIOUS CASE OF GEORGE PRICE

What might be the consequences for somebody who found proof of the non-existence of God? Something like this could be said of one George Price, and the consequences are likely to be quite unlike what you would imagine.

In order to understand what George Price did to prove that God did not exist, we need to talk first about Darwin's theory of evolution, and a challenge to that theory thrown up by nature.

As is well-known, Charles Darwin came up with a theory for how the diversity of life came about. He hypothesised that plants and animals are replicators that seek to survive long enough to have offspring. Those offspring are imperfect copies of their parents. Since they are imperfect copies those offspring are slightly different to their parents and if that difference happens to confer a survival advantage in the environment they live in, that will likely enhance their chances of living long enough to have offspring themselves. On the other hand, adaptations that happen to be disadvantageous stand more chance of being weeded out.

However, sometimes life seemed not to follow this call to have offspring and pass on genes to the next generation. Examples could be found of animals that would sacrifice themselves in a seemingly selfless act. Bees, for example, will use their stings even though doing so can cost them their lives. And, of course, humans are known to sometimes engage in heroic acts whereby they lay down their lives so that others may live. Behaviour such as this seemed totally contrary to the Darwinian drive to preserve one's genes and pass them onto the next generation.

Eventually, a scientist called William Hamilton figured out what was going on in these examples of altruism, and in order to solve the puzzle, he had to change perspective. Darwin had considered life from the perspective of plants and animals. Around 1963, Hamilton began to understand that, in order to really understand evolution, one had to focus not on species but rather what life carried inside it. In other words, the focus should really be on the gene. From this perspective, plants and animals were but temporary carriers for genes, and genes were like tiny, calculating machines that could work out the mathematically-best outcome. The explanation for altruism in a Darwinian world was that genes could destroy themselves if, in the process, that would allow more related copies of those genes to survive. So, in the case of bees, such insects may lay down their lives to ensure the colony- and hence copies of their genes- may be passed onto future generations.

By 1967 Hamilton had developed his hypothesis and produced papers full of equations that showed how goodness and altruism could be explained in terms of survival strategies calculated by the genetic code riding within temporary bodies. It is at this point that George Price enters the story.

Since the 1950s, Price had been working at IBM where he designed the graphics for early mainframe computers. Calculating machines such as these really spoke to Price's worldview, because he was a committed rationalist who had no time for irrational beliefs. In fact, in his spare time he was a freelance science writer who specialised in attacking superstitions and myths. Price was convinced that computers presented us with a way of looking at the world in a completely rational way. He came up with ideas like how America could mathematically measure the world's unhappiness levels and so spot where communism might take root and prevent that from happening.

When Price came across Hamilton's paper with all its equations, he quickly realised that the maths could just as easily be referring to computer code as well as genes. He also figured out that the 'gene's eye view' not only explained goodness but evil as well. This was because the equations worked just as well in reverse, which is to say it was sometimes logical to be evil. Basically, it could make sense to kill those distantly related to you if, in the process, you increased the chances of those closer to you genetically surviving.

Price and Hamilton became friends and together they developed what became known as the 'Selfish Gene' theory. The maths of this theory seemed to show that all behaviour and consequences of behaviour- love, hate, charity, war, you name it- could ultimately be explained by the rational strategy of genes. The implications of this discovery were enormous, because if everything we do, whether for good or for ill, could ultimately be attributed to rational strategies computed by our genes, then religion was irrelevant. Since time immemorial, people had made up just-so stories to explain the existence of good and evil, like Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden, or the opening of Pandora's box. Hamilton and Price's paper (in the words of documentary maker Adam Curtis) "brought rationality and the clear logic of maths into the very heart of being human".

At the beginning I said that this discovery would have a consequence for Price that might well be unexpected. This is what happened. Price, the committed rationalist, was pretty disturbed by both the power and the implications of the Selfish Gene theory. For him, this theory was so powerful, he decided that it had to have been a gift from God. In 1973 he converted to Christianity and committed himself to the teachings of Christ with all the fervour with which he had once attacked superstitions and myths. He devoted his life to helping those less fortunate than himself. He allowed homeless people to live in his home, and it is said that he once even gave his shoes to a tramp and walked home barefoot. George Price was absolutely determined to give away his worldly goods and act in a completely altruistic way.

According to some who knew him, this behaviour was a reaction against the implications of the Selfish Gene theory and its implication that all we do and all we are can ultimately be reduced to the rational calculations of mindless code. Price went out of his way to help those who were only distantly related (according to Darwin's theory, all life on Earth is related so when we say of someone 's/he is no relation' that is just genetically and evolutionarily impossible. Trace any two lifeforms back far enough and they all have common ancestors). He wanted to believe that there had to be more to life than just acting out the rational strategies of selfish genes and he devoted his life to Christian charity as a way of refuting the implications of a theory he himself had co-developed.

Sadly, his commitment to charity was not enough to quiet the demons in his mind. George Price would go onto commit suicide, using nail scissors to sever the artery in his neck. Perhaps this, too, was an act of defiance against the selfish gene? In his suicide note, Price made a reference to the 'Hound Of Heaven'. This was a poem about how people spend their lives running away from God, who relentlessly pursues them and always catches them in the end.

REFERENCES

"All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace" by Adam Curtis

"The Selfish Gene' By Richard Dawkins
1/4/2018, 2:59 am Link to this post PM Extropia DaSilva Blog
 


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