Andrew Brown Sunday, 13 February 2000
I want to start with a story, because I donít think we understand the ways in which a universal Darwinism might change the way we think of the world. I mean, I donít know what will happen when this present revolution of thought is over; so the best way into the future is to follow a single twisty track, in this instance the one left by one of the discoverers of all this stuff, George Price; and since I started my book in the same way, those of you who have read it may detect a certain familiarity. Never mind. We might get somewhere new by the end.
George Price killed himself in a squat near Euston station in the winter of 1974.: William Hamilton, who identified Priceís body, has described the scene:
"A mattress on the floor, one chair, a table, and several ammunition boxes made the only furniture. Of all the books and furnishings that I remembered from our first meeting in his fairly luxurious flat near Oxford Circus there remained some cheap clothes, a two-volume copy of Proust, and his typewriter. A cheap suitcase, and some cardboard boxes contained most of his papers, others were scattered about on ammunition chests."
The deathbed of an altruist can be a terrible place. Both Price and Hamilton were theoretical biologists, a discipline about as mathematical and abstruse as may be imagined; yet it was Priceís discoveries in the field which had led to his despair and death. He had reformulated a set of mathematical equation that shows how altruism can prosper in a world where it seems that only selfishness is rewarded. The equations had been discovered ten years before by Hamilton, but Priceís reworking was general and more elegant. It provided a general way to measure the direction of any selection process: this ,makes possible, in principle, a Darwinian analysis of any process you can find or imagine.
When Price had first found them he was so shocked that he set himself to do the work again, sure that there must be a flaw. He ended up reformulating them more generally and more powerfully; when this work was completed, he went mad. For though his equations show that truly self-sacrificing behaviour can exist among animals, and even humans, they also seem to show that there is nothing noble in it. Only behaviour which helps to spread the genes that cause it can survive in the very long term. Since man, too, is an animal, the human capacity for altruism must be strictly limited; and our capacity for cruelty, treachery and selfishness impossible to eradicate. Through algebra, George Price had found proof of original sin.
Before then, he had been a dogmatic and optimistic atheist; he seems to have hoped that man might become better and wiser, perhaps slowly, fitfully, and with reverses; but with no natural limit to the process. His proof that this could not happen contains, to a mathematically literate biologist, great beauty and elegance, but it also seems to contain the proof that beauty and elegance mean nothing to the universe. Since human motivation is a complex and difficult matter, one cannot say exactly what drove Price mad. But there is no doubt that the discovery of the equations for altruism plunged him into a profound and severe depression, from which he was rescued by a religious experience which led him into a mania for good.
In an overwhelming moment of spontaneous prayer, just north of the BBCís headquarters, Price became convinced that Christianity was true. The absolute and unconditional altruism that Jesus preached in the parable of the Good Samaritan was to guide the rest of his life. He did not abandon his scientific work; indeed, he came to consider his discovery a miracle, for he had no training in biology.. But he also began to help tramps, alcoholics, and all the wretched of the earth. He gave them time, sympathy and money ó eventually everything he owned.
As an atheist and materialist, Price had been an insufferable zealot; as a Christian, he was just the same. He soon quarrelled with the priest who received him, whom he found insufficiently zealous. He was not a fundamentalist in any normal sense: he completely accepted Darwinian evolution, and continued to work on his equations. He did not believe in the literal truth of the creation narratives. But he followed the voice of Jesus as directly and doggedly as an ant follows the trail its colony has laid down for it
"This has been a rather trying period for me", he wrote to one of his collaborators, the distinguished theoretical biologist John Maynard Smith, in the autumn of 1972, about a year after his breakdown. "You can probably guess in what way I mean. I think I told you when you were here that I preached a sermon last year in which I gave a somewhat new explanation of Matthew 6:25-34." This is the passage in which Jesus says:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin.
Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.
If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' "
"At one point in the sermon I said something to the effect that ĎI hold an ordinary job, live in an ordinary flat, dress conventionally, am paid a regular salary.í I sort of knew back then that at some time this would have to change, but I did not really know it. Wishful thinking kept me supposing that it was not really going to happen to me ó or at least not in the extreme way that it seemed to always to happen in the accounts I had read by missionaries and others who had themselves lived Ďthe life of faithí. In those accounts the saving cheque always arrives at the last possible moment when disaster is at hand. I had optimistically calculated that deliverance had to arrive around the 20th of September in order to avert disaster. However, it appears that Godís standards of what constitutes Ďdisasterí are on a different scale form mine. Furthermore, it appears that His standards are more accurate than mine, for in fact here I am almost a month later, still with food and other necessities and with all essential accounts paid. I donít know how much longer this is gong to go on. The encouraging part is that I am now down to exactly 15p and my visitorís permit for staying in the UK expires in less than a month. Thus I reassure myself by telling myself that Godís standards of disaster will shortly be satisfied. I look forward eagerly to when that 15p will be gone."
Maynard Smith was horrified by this letter. He wrote immediately, offering financial help, and even rang with the same message, only for Price to tell him that things had not reached crisis point. He still had two cans of baked beans in the fridge ó and his Barclaycard. The mention of the credit card persuaded Maynard Smith that there was little he could do to turn Price from his chosen course.
Despite the increasing fervour of his Tolstoyan Christianity, Price continued his scientific work while the rest of his life crumbled around him. The science was very successful. Immediately after announcing that he had only 15p left in the world, the letter I quoted above took off into a discussion of a short paper that he and Maynard Smith were writing for Nature, the most important and prestigious scientific journal in the world. The two men had met because Price had submitted to Nature an article the theory of animal conflict in 1968. It had been sent on to Maynard Smith, even then a recognised authority, for his advice on whether it was worth publishing. This process of "refereeing" is the essential quality control mechanism of science. Reputable journals will only publish work which has been formally approved by other experts in the field in question ó partly because no one editor of a general science journal can hope to understand all the fields it covers. The referees, who are usually anonymous, must vouch for the importance and quality of the discoveries claimed by a paperís author, so their role is crucial in forming generators of the alliances, friendships, and occasional deep hatreds which map the social history of science. The paper that brought them together was far too long for Nature to publish, and as referee, Maynard Smith said so. But he also wrote to Price urging him either to submit a drastically cut version to Nature or to submit it at full length to the Journal of Theoretical Biology, where he thought he could guarantee publication. Price, characteristically, did neither, and the paper was never published in its original form. Instead, he started his work on Hamiltonís equations, and was soon collaborating with him.
Price came to biology as an amateur, when he was 44. He had trained as a chemist, working on uranium analysis for the Manhattan project in his early twenties, and getting a doctorate in the subject from Harvard, where he taught for a couple of years. He did medical research at the University of Minnesota in the early Fifties, and then spent four years as a freelance journalist and technical writer, while trying to write a book about Cold War strategy. He then spent six years working for IBM in New York State before emigrating to London. This final move followed his divorce from a devoutly Catholic wife, and surgery for a tumour on his thyroid which left him dependent on medication to supply the missing products of his thyroid gland for the rest of his life: in his last years he would sometimes stop taking this to see if God would arrange a miracle to keep him alive. God did; he finally had to kill himself by snipping his carotid artery with nail scissors.
"Sell all you have and give the poor." The derelicts he entertained stole from him and made scenes. He was forced to leave his comfortable flat, and ended up dossing on the floor of the lab at University College in Bloomsbury where he had worked for six years. Not even that lasted. An alcoholic whose wife he had tried to help started to harass him at the lab, and finally took to shouting at him from the street below. So he had to leave there, too, and descended by degrees to the squat in Tolmers Square, north of Euston Station where he killed himself.
In a cv drawn up in the last autumn of 1974, he listed various accomplishments, his doctorate and positions; he had left University College, he said, because "I felt that the sort of theoretical mathematical genetics I was doing wasnít very relevant to human problems and I wanted to change to economics." The last entry read: "Worked June 14th to August 17th as a night office cleaner for a contract cleaning firm. (This work was undertaken for reasons having something to do with Christianity. I was considered to be slow but unusually dependable, so that after a while the supervisor did not bother to inspect my work. Left because my reasons for wanting a night job no longer held.)"
Since I finished all that, I have learnt something rather strange form an American journalist who also became interested in the whole story; and this was that Priceís final collapse was precipitated by a loss of faith. The glorious irrational exuberance of submission to the command to love your neighbour as yourself which had been all that made his great discoveries bearable ebbed away: the tide of faith subsided, and left him wrecked on the great towering extinct volcanoes, the Azores of the human heart. Great black spiky basaltic truth.
But there is something unsatisfying, at least to me, about this account. I found myself sitting close to Richard Dawkins at a dinner in Oxford one night, and asked him about Price. "Oh, he went mad" he replied. Obviously thatís a bit true. But is it enough true to explain all that anguish away?
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Is that mad, or, as Tennyson went on to ask.
Derives it not from what we have
That likest God within the soul?
The question I am approaching is what, exactly, constitutes a sane response to the universe, and especially to the realisation that suffering and misery are the engines of progress. Fifty or a hundred years ago, people would have put a higher value on progress. They would have thought that at least the suffering and misery is going somewhere. That was, I believe, Priceís original, faith. Eventually we would evolve into better or more perfect beings. But thatís harder to believe now. If there is one moral conclusion that can be drawn from mathematics, selfish-gene theory suggests that we will never evolve into beings whose behaviour would make no sense to Macchiavelli; and neither social any other social animal. Wherever the final balance between group selection and selection at a lower level turns out to be struck, itís clear enough that the only thing which makes group selection really powerful is the concomitant disadvantages it brings to other, unselected groups. Disinterested altruism is not to find.
This isnít new: the evidence for pessimism goes back through the whole of human history, even if it took Macchiavelli to draw it all together without flinching. But he was, it is often forgotten, a pretty devout man. He was a minister in Savonarolaís first government. I think that he was one of those rare and rather admirable Christians who use their faith in the perfection as a sort of counterweight to make bearable the imperfections of the world. It is obviously easier to study the lack of distinterested altruism here if you can postulate some other world where the equations balance, so to say, some being or mode of being which compensates not just for the injustice of the world, but for all its other lacks: its incoherence, and heartlessness and lack of beauty.
Dawkinsí questions goes to the heart of the sort of thing I am interested in: should the world as we find it make sense. Is it a sort of insanity to suppose it conceals a moral order? Do we have any kind of privileged access to a third person perspective on the world where we can understand that it is so beautiful and ordered that all this horror is in some sense ordered? People have indeed thought so ó smarter and better-read people than I, perhaps than you: Plato and Spinoza come to mind.
One of the features of these kind of grand perspectives has been that in almost all cases they have required a God to hold them in mind. Spinoza, Plato, again. Bertrand Russell an obvious counter-example, but we know now that Russellís theories of perception not very good. We donít have the kind of unmediated access to the facts of the matter that he supposed. Weíre not, in a Darwinian perspective, that kind of animal. The cold, lonely and very beautiful love of truth which consoled Russell is not I think ignoble, but actually he thought he had become Spinozaís God.
So the whole thing looks like a struggle between God and Darwin; one which the love of truth compels us to suppose that Darwin will win.
But itís not that simple. There are two ways in which a religious person might justify their faith in a Darwinian world. The first starts again, from Price: makes experience bearable. If believing the weird things he did made it possible for him to go on working ó and there is some evidence that it did ó then they were worth it. They were instrumentally true. The most sophisticated argument for religious belief in a Darwinian world is that it works. It persists. If the ultimate ambition of a universal Darwinism is to be a science that explains why some things exist and other do not, or do so no longer, then survival becomes an unanswerable argument. You canít ask what a thing is good for, in the grand scheme of things. There is no grand scheme. Existence is its own reward.
The second is a kind of theodicy. It has become increasingly popular among thoughtful theologians, and among those Christians who see that it is a problem with the bible that so much of it is palpably untrue. People like Kieth Ward and Richard Harries spring to mind. They are, in a sense, the successors of Archdeacon Paley: that beauty and elegance are both evidence and justification of God ó as to some temperaments they are ó and they see in the algorithmic beauty of Darwinism, in the fact that evolution works, or at least, that it finally produces us, the evidence of beauty and order in the universe that is needed to justify faith in a designer. They argue that God only wants the love that is freely given; and a creature free to give love must also be free to do evil. Equally, the claim a world unpredictable enough to be interesting, and to evolve in interesting ways, is bound to have things happen to its inhabitants which are, in the sense of the Chines proverb, interesting, too: earthquakes, mass extinctions, famines, stuff like that. And these are all to the good, because they provide the conditions in which we can evolve. Would anything have bothered to colonise the land if the pools it lived in had not first dried up? Would we even have had multicellular organisms without a billion years of preceding cannibalism before digestions turned to symbiosis?
Iím being, perhaps a tiny bit unfair, but I have to say that I think that this reading of the world is monstrous. It expresses a grotesque and infantile megalomania. When I first read Kieth Wardís book on this matter, I came to the conclusion that his argument could essentially be reduced the proposition that God wants to be loved and appreciated by people who really truly understand his nature: ie liberal Christians of the type of Keith Ward, admirable men in many ways, and that evolution in the world as we know it was the only way to produce such beings. In other words, all the suffering and all the horror of the world, and of any other conceivable world on which Priceís equations are true, are worthwhile if their effect is to produce Oxonian theologians.
Itís worth remembering what destroyed this smugness for the Victorians. It wasnít Darwin. Indeed, Darwinism, as I have suggested, by making the processes of evolution comprehensible and patterned can make them also seem evidence of Godís providence, at least to those toads who have escape the harrow.
It was the discovery of time: the overwhelming, proportion-snapping realisation of just how small a part humans have played in the history of the world, and how long it has been gone without us. The problem that fossils raise for the biblical world view is not that they have evolved but that they represent animals that have disappeared, whether or not they left descendants.
Here again itís worth going back to Tennyson: He veers, in this section of in memoriam, between trying to find solace, as modern Christians do, in the grand design: that nature, so careless of a single life, seems so careful of the type. But then he stands beneath a cliff of fossils, such as you night find in Lyme Regis: one of those cliffs that represenset thousands of millions of years if life, squashed down to dusty and gritty sediments.
'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, 'A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
Darwin might perhaps have saved Tennyson from the next despair that struck him, as he saved Olaf Stapledon in a similar case:
And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?
He would certianly, I think, have changed the privileged position . What seemed, in pre-Darwinian days, to make belief impossible was something which I hope we have now largely outgorwn: the notion that man is more deserving than most animals. For between the bits that I have quoted, Tennyson went on to make the following argument for manís exemption form the laws of the rest of nature: that he had turned his
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final lawó
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creedó
Curiously this expression, so often applied to Darwinism, seems to me, read in context, to predate it in two important ways. As well as the important, chronological one. Th poem was written 16 years before Darwin published. It cannot too often be stated that the fact of human and animal suffering, and the fact that cruelty is often rewarded ó the whole business of shrieking nature red in tooth and claw ó arose as an objection to God when it was still merely a brute brute fact, without any theory or mechanism to explain it. And, as I said, Darwinism has come to some thinkers to appear as a mechanism which does let God off the hook, and to provide him with, if not an alibi, at any rate a medical report proving that he is not competent to stand trial, damaged as he is by logical necessity.
The second is that man is meant to be rewarded for pretending that nature is not like that. "Who trusted God was love indeed, and love, Creationís final law." This is one of those pleas whose meaning depends crucially on the hearer. If it is not addressed to a benevolent providence that actually exists and listens, it becomes a pathetic and infantile attempt to buy off old Nobodaddy. And that is, I think, where it must always remain for us, post-Darwin. But I donít want to dismiss Tennyson. In many ways, if we were to play the balloon game with those three old men, he would be the one I would argue should be thrown out last. This is because I take him to represent the human capacity to think about our predicament and to try to make sense of it. Itís not just that I think that poets are more valuable than scientists or god, though in some moods I do believe that, as everyone does.
I can best explain his attraction by reference to Douglas Adams, who is himself a fine dramatiser of the concerns of the age. Now somewhere in the hitchhikers guide to the galaxy there is a device that drives people mad for ever: a torture so terrible and so overwhelming that no sentient being can survive it. It is called the Total Perspective Vortex. All it does is to show the victim exactly how important they are to the rest of the universe. Instead of being spiritually crushed, as Tennyson was, by one miserable cliff going back half a billion years on the south coast of England, the Victim of the total Perspective Vortex is placed at the foot of all the time and space there has ever been and from this no one ever recovers. Well, Zaphod Beeblebrox does, but thereís a trick to it. Heís in a parallel universe contained in his own coat pocket so in a sense he is the most important creature in it.
But thereís another way out of the total, or even the very large, perspective vortex, which I think that Tennyson shows us. And this is to ride a bicycle. You keep on falling, but you never hit the ground. Somehow the act of describing the universe is intolerable and incoherent contradicts itself, and, while you keep going, the place stays tolerable and coherent, at least locally.
The one thing we cannot do is to ask our genes for a coherent and satisfying explanation of what we are. Genes canít substitute for God, even if we feel we need such a substitute. This was and is well understood Bill Hamilton, Priceís friend and collaborator. Matt Ridley quotes him as saying that he realised that we ere merely a tool or plaything of a committee of self-interested genes.
But what Hamilton actually wrote in this context was rather different in emphasis. "In life, what wasit I really wanted? My own conscious and seemingly indivisible self was turning out far from what I had imagined and I need not be so ashamed of my self-pity! I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire. Still baffled about the very nature of the policies I was supposed to support, I was being asked to act, and to act at onceóto analyse, report on, influence the world about me. Given my realization of an eternal disquiet within, couldnít I feel better about my own inability to be consistent in what I was doing, about my indecision in matters ranging from daily trivialities up to the very nature of right and wrong?"
An ambassador has freedom; a machine does not. Dawkins (and Ridley) seem to be arguing that the prime directive is "Do what is best for your genes". Hamilton sees that this is completely unworkable, if only because the genes themselves will always have conflicting interests. It might indeed be a great relief to cast off all our all our worries and moralities, and simply, clear-eyed, serve the omnipotent genome. But we cannot. The road is closed by the nature of natural selection: either our genes contain no directions for us, or, if they do, these directions will conflict because all the interesting ones are being selected between. To that extent, Dr Johnson was simply wrong when he wrote He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." The triumph of the gene has made beasts of all of us, but shown by this that the pain of being human is quite inescapable. Neither Gods nor Genes can take it away from us.
In this context, George Priceís looks rather less than mad to believe in a God who shared this pain even if he could neither diminish it, nor even save Price from suicide. Certainly the church was no use to him. At Priceís funeral, the preacher told his grieving, bewildered tiny congregation that "The trouble with George was that he took his Christianity too seriously." At this Hamilton rebuked him: "I think George felt that if it was good enough for St Paul, it was good enough for him."
Perhaps, deep down inside, anyone who tries to strike a moral balance in the universe ends up with an equation something like this. I feel good to be alive. Therefore the universe is all worthwhile. But the conclusion to draw from that is either that there is no moral balance or (as some strains of Christianity have always held) that humans are completely unfitted to discern it and if they wish to stay sane had better keep pedalling.
As far as I understand it, by the way, this was Priceís position when he was a Christian.
This has been a rather more theological paper than than I set out to write. But perhaps that is right. For what I wanted to show was Christianity is perfectly compatible with Darwinism. It the facts of the world, not their explanations, which make the difficulties for monotheism. It is history and biology: the unmistakable evidence of universal waste and suffering extending for billions of years which makes Christianity problematical, and which made it so for Tennyson long before Darwinís theory was published. Of course it is possible for a sufficiently determined apologist to construct a role for God even in that universe: C.S. Lewis had a go. But one of the more noble things about Harries and Ward is being anti-Lewis.
The best arguments against God are theological and always have been.