Ultimate Acts of Sacrifice: On Bees and Men

07/15/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was a boy I stepped on a beehive at my uncle's farm. It was an honest mistake, but the consequences were grim. My sister, just behind me, was stung by tens of angry honeybees: on her legs, and arms, and stomach, even in her ears. The guilty culprit, I escaped with but a single sting on my little finger. As our panicked mother rushed to help sis with chunks of ice in soothing wet towels, I sat on the grass and found the bee whose sting remained launched in my pinky. It lay dead, it's entrails severed by the sting's penetration of my skin. Danna was crying out loud now, as much from pain as from fright. But all I can remember thinking to myself was: What a valiant bee it was, laying severed in the grass, who would sacrifice itself for the good of the hive.

Turns out Darwin had the same thought 120 years earlier, when he finally sat down to pen the Origin of Species. If nature, as the poet Tennyson had put it, was always "red in tooth and claw", how could one explain benevolence and sacrifice? The persistence over evolutionary time of behaviors that reduce fitness seemed an utter paradox if evolution was nothing but a game of survival of the fitness. This was Darwin's great riddle, and ever since biologists and economists, philosophers and psychologists have all been trying to crack it.

Which is why when I discovered the amazing story of George Price, the memory of that lazy morning gone wrong on my uncle's farm immediately came back to me. Just like a bee, George had partaken in radical altruism, except that his story was even more fabulous. George had been a genius who had worked at the Manhattan Project, Bell Labs, and IBM, but following a botched thyroid operation in the 1960s, decided that life was no longer worth living. Before he left this world, however, he'd try his hand at one last great scientific mystery: the origins of acts of sacrifice. Almost miraculously, without any training in biology and unknown to anyone in the field, he came up with a short and beautiful mathematical equation to explain sacrificial behavior in nature. It was a dramatic insight, a flash of original brilliance, but the equation proved less than satisfying. After all, George thought, if altruism can survive the ruthless cull of natural selection, as shown so clearly by his math, then it must always somehow provide a benefit: Far from pure and selfless, altruistic behavior was nothing but self interest disguised as benevolence.

This was a terrible realization, and George was not about to accept it without a fight. If stinging bees were acting at the behest of selfish genes, humans could do better. Setting out to disprove his own equation in an attempt to show that true selflessness was in fact possible, George began a program of radical altruism, descending on the streets of London like an angel in search of homeless derelicts to whom he could give his all. Soon, having dispensed all his own money, he became a homeless vagabond himself, sleeping rough in the streets and living hand to mouth. Gaunt, growing weaker by the minute, his teeth rotting and his body failing, George was the happiest he'd ever been: Clearly, in his own actions, he was proving that science could be conquered by the human spirit. I won't tell you what happened next - you can read about it in my latest book, The Price of Altruism, just out from W.W. Norton. What I can say is that George's equation finally helped to crack Darwin's great natural mystery - explaining not only why bees sacrifice themselves but also why amoeba and plants and birds and snakes and gazelles and monkeys do too. More importantly still, the incredible life of this unknown and virtually anonymous genius teaches a sobering but soaring lesson about where kindness and altruism come from in humans. In the end - a dramatic one, I promise - we need more than science to understand why, just ever so often and dramatically, man goes the way of the bee.