Evolution of Altruism, Group Level Selection, and George Price

Over at Discover, Razib Khan has reviewed Oren Harman’s new book The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.  It is fantastic review and I encourage you to read it.  Price was many things, including a theoretical evolutionary biologist with considerable mathematical skills.  As Razib explains:

George Price’s aim was to explain human cooperation, altruism. In short, goodness. This is the domain of angels, but his analytical bent mean that he could not let the phenomenon lay. He had to break it down, reconstruct its fundamentals, and elaborate on how and why goodness, altruism, manifested itself in the world.

What Price produced was an equation that explained the evolution of altruism.  Significantly, this equation included a variable that allowed for the operation of group level selection.  This is most interesting in light of the following, which Razib recently posted over at Gene Expression:

Since I wrote that review I will divulge the fact that I met the author, Oren Harman, and George Price’s daughters. Oren confirmed to me a supposition I arrived at via reading The Price of Altruism, that George Price was already a zealous Christian when he was working on his core contributions to the evolution of social theory and altruism.

Here is what Razib said about this issue in his original review of Harman’s book:

If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist. Price’s last contribution to evolutionary biology was an explication of Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. This formalism has been the subject of so much deep analysis, such that I think Price’s interest in it prefigured his later stab at Biblical textual analysis!

I have long suspected there was some connection between personal religious beliefs on the one hand and group level selection on the other, and this may explain my suspicions.  While this in no way invalidates group level selection as a concept, it does raise questions about its application to the alleged evolution of religion during the Paleolithic.

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