Laura is a director and theatre maker, Artistic Director of Undercurrent, and Associate Director of Shared Experience.
For Undercurrent I am currently developing our new show, Calculating Kindness, which is based on the life of American evolutionary geneticist George Price, 1922 – 1975. Price is hardly known outside of evolutionary biology – yet his story illuminates important ideas and questions about how we behave and understand ourselves.
The development of this show brought me to the British Library, where his collection of manuscripts is kept, and also that of his collaborators, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.
First let me tell you a little about Price. He was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968 hungry to make his name. He spent weeks visiting thirteen different libraries – until he stumbled across a paper by William Hamilton, nicknamed “the second Darwin”, that discussed several aspects of social behaviour, one of which was that we are genetically predisposed to be kindest to our kin.
If this were true, Price found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?
An outsider to evolutionary theory, he taught himself the basics of evolutionary genetics, and ended up formulating an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism – something science had been trying to do since Darwin. His equation proved Hamilton right. This ‘Price Equation’ was so extraordinary that University College London gave Price an honorary position within ninety minutes of him walking in off the street.
Up until then, Price had been a militant atheist. But writing the equation had a strange affect on him. He started to look at all the coincidences that had happened in his life. Incidental things – phone numbers, calendar dates, the fact that he’d had several girlfriends called Anne. He worked out the probability of each coincidence. He finally worked out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, that he concluded it could only be a gift from God and he converted to Christianity overnight.
From then on he started to apply mathematics to the Bible – aiming to decode the true meaning of the Bible. Jesus appeared to him. He understood it as a message that decoding the Bible was not important, what really mattered was helping people. Price then embarked on a radical quest towards altruism – helping complete strangers. He would go to extraordinary lengths, giving away everything he had, including his flat, which he opened up to homeless people, until he became homeless himself.
The show weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is only kind to his own kin? Three years after writing the equation, Price was discovered in a squat – a matter of yards from where CPT is now located – having slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral – five homeless people and two of Britain’s greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.
Calculating Kindness is a completely new show, developed from scratch and so the process began with research.
Very little is published about Price, there are only two biographies. It was Oren Harman’s biography that led me to the British Library to look at The George Price Collection. This collection was my best hope of uncovering as much as I could about Price. Working through the manuscripts I was particularly looking for:
- Context to details mentioned in the biographies.
- Salient events that could be used to improvise from to generate potential scenes for the show
- Any clues to who Price was, so that I could begin to create a three-dimensional character.
- For my writer and I, we wanted to get a sense of Price’s voice and how he thought about things.
- And I hoped it might give me some answers to his motives for the rather extraordinary choices he made.
To begin with I mainly focused on The George Price Collection. What I found were personal letters, grant applications, manuscripts and pieces of work. Having been slightly obsessed with Price for so long, to now hold his letters in my hand I must admit gave me goose bumps. Often it was the very ‘normal’ letters that evoked the most for me. Such as letters to his daughters ‘Dear Babies’ from when he first arrived in London, stories about favourite Indian Restaurants and freezing cold libraries. What started to happen was that Price began to come to life for me – with each letter I got to know him a little more. His scientific writings and grant applications I understood less, but with each reading I would pick up the odd gem. I started to understand what preoccupied Price, how he thought about things, and what was important to him.
To be scientifically accurate and sensitive to Price has always been paramount to the development of this show. To this end I have four advisors I’ve partnered with; Professor Alan Grafen, Oxford University and Dr Andy Gardner, St Andrews – both of whom use the Price Equation in their work; Professor Pomiankowski, Head of Genetics at UCL where Price is an alumnus. None of these advisors had accessed Price’s collection before, and so this new research that I brought back to them, they say, has given them a better understanding of Price, the man, and in doing so, given them new insights into his work.
I am also working with Dr Isabel Valli, from the Institute of Psychiatry. A significant breakthrough was sharing the research with Dr Valli. Various guesses had been made about Price’s mental health, with hypotheses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or the result of neglecting to take thyroid medication. If I were to create Price on stage, it felt an important question to explore. Dr Valli and I spent a great deal of time, rigorously looking through Price’s letters – one of which really stood out for us. Price wrote a long letter to Hamilton describing an equation he had developed to address the issues of life on earth, versus the afterlife, from both the perspective of an atheist and a Christian. He then gave extensive, very complex, reasons to justify his belief about life on earth being equivalent to an examination. This became one of the main access points into George’s state of mind. My conversations with Dr Valli helped me connect seemingly contradictory aspects of Price’s character together.
More recently, the British Library granted me access to Hamilton’s collection that is otherwise not open to the public. Here I found some real gems, letters between Hamilton and Price’s brother, and daughters, following George’s suicide, new information about conversations I did not know had happened, and fond reflections of what they thought of Price. I almost missed it, but on a torn scrap of paper, with faint pencil markings, I realised I was looking at Hamilton’s annotations about Price’s inquest, where he considered Price’s very brief suicide notes. These moments help me feel closer to Price and all the more compelled to tell his story.
When Price died, Hamilton was called to his squat to tidy up his papers. Hamilton sent some of his manuscripts to the British Library; and the rest back to Price’s daughters in America. I’d like to finish with a quote from one of Hamilton’s letters, that he wrote after clearing Price’s squat, that for me sums up rather well my own experience of researching Price.
‘I regard his ideas as of such originality and of such significance for evolutionary theory that I believe that some time some one may think it worthwhile to find out something more about him and wish to go through his letters and papers with some care – and of course the strange life he has led for the past few years makes it quite a story.’
This is a transcript of a talk from the North American Panel session as part of History Day at Senate House Library, 27 November 2015.
Calculating Kindness is a co-production with CPT, and will be running for three weeks from Tue 29 March – Sat 16 April. Find out more.