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19 August, 2016

The birth of radical rationalism

... and its utilisation for the justification of political failure

In 1967, a strange and brilliant man came to London from America. He was called George Price. By chance, in a library, Price discovered a scientific paper written by Bill Hamilton. It was full of equations that show that human goodness and altruism were really survival strategies devised by our genes. It had been ignored by the scientific establishment.

As Price looked at the equations, he had a sudden shock of recognition. He realised that what he was looking at was a description of machines he already understood – computers. Price had worked originally as a chemist on the Manhattan Project, but then in the 1950s, he had gone to IBM, where he helped design the graphics for early mainframe computers.

Price was an obsessive rationalist and in his spare time, he became a freelance science journalist and he specialised in attacking the myths and superstitions in society. Because he believed that rationality could explain everything.

Above all, Price loved the cold logic of mathematics and computers. He believed that computers gave scientists like him a new power to analyse the world in a completely rational way. He wrote an article proposing that America could mathematically measure unhappiness levels among populations in the world. This would allow them to spot where Communism might take root and so prevent it.

Price's ideas were part of a powerful belief that had grown up in the electronic laboratories of the Cold War - that computers could be the salvation of humanity. The godfather of this belief was the man who had done more than anyone to create the modern digital computer, the mathematician John Von Neumann, who had also built the H-bomb.

And when, in 1967, Price found William Hamilton's paper, he realised that what Hamilton had discovered was a new rational way of looking at human beings and their behaviour. They were simply soft machines, controlled by on-board computers.

Price took Hamilton's mathematics and developed it. But as he did so, he realised that the equations also worked in reverse. That it was not just logical to be good, it was also logical to be spiteful. It made sense to kill yourself, if in the process you also killed people distantly related to you and allowed those closely related to survive. Price's mathematics explained murder, warfare and even genocide as possibly rational strategies for the genes controlling your behaviour.

James Schwartz, George Price's biographer states: “Well, because it meant that you could have genes that were evolved that were coded for murdering people. Such a gene, even if it was bad for the possessor of the gene, as long as it was worse for distantly related people, it could evolve and we might be genetically programmed to be murderers. This was actually what George had been wondering and he sort of proved that in a mathematical sense, it could exist. It grew out of Hamilton's theory because Hamilton had seen that you could harm yourself as long as you helped your relatives. But this was different, you could harm yourself as long as it harmed distantly-related people that we had genetic ways of recognising our closer relatives and our more distant relatives and we were programmed to hate and kill our more distant relatives. These are the implications of the theory. [...] The genes would grow in the population. That's what this was all about.

Price showed his equations to Hamilton. Hamilton was fascinated and together they developed their theory. It would become known as the Selfish Gene. They also became close friends. What Price had done was an incredible piece of mathematics. As Von Neumann had predicted, what Price has also done was bring rationality and a clear logic of mathematics into a new field, into the heart of being human, but with the strangest of consequences.

20 years before, as computers were being developed, Von Neumann had dreamt of the future where machines would be able to replicate themselves. He had written out a description of what would be needed for what he called self-reproducing automata to be invented.

The extraordinary breakthrough that Price and Hamilton had made was to discover that self-reproducing automata didn't have to be invented. They were already here, they were us. The equation has had enormous implications because if everything we did, whether good or bad, was actually a rational strategy computed by the codes inside us, then religion with its moral guidance was irrelevant. And it demolished the Enlightenment idea that human beings were above the rest of nature. In reality, we were no different from all the other animals.

All this had a very strange effect on George Price, the convinced rationalist. He decided that the discovery was so powerful, it must have been a gift from God. In 1973, George Price decided to devote his life to helping the homeless of London. As a result of the equations he had developed, Price had been given a job in the genetics laboratory of the University of London, but he had also converted to Christianity. And he had done so in an extreme way.

Price decided that he was going to follow the teachings of Christ as if they were an exact code. He set out to help the poor and destitute to give them all his worldly goods. He also walked the streets, offering the homeless a place to stay in his flat near Oxford Circus.

William Hamilton became desperately worried about Price. He was convinced that his religious belief was a mad superstition, and pleaded with Price to give up trying to help the homeless and do more work on genetics. But others believed that Price had been so shocked by the implication of his and Hamilton's theory that he was in some desperate personal way trying to disprove it.

Hamilton was by now one of the most famous scientists in the world. He was given the highest honours by the scientific establishment, but his theories had led him into a very dark place. He had written a series of books called Narrow Roads Of Gene Land. In them, Hamilton followed the logic of natural selection to its extreme conclusion. The idea that we should use western science and medicine to prolong the lives of those who would otherwise die, he said, was wrong. It would allow the genetically inferior to survive, and so would weaken society. Nothing should be allowed to interfere with the strategy of the genes.

Then, Hamilton heard a story from a journalist. The journalist believed that the AIDS virus had been accidentally created by American scientists in the Congo in the 1950s when they were testing a polio vaccine. The Americans had set up a laboratory to make the vaccine by growing it in the cells of chimpanzees. And the journalist's theory said that by doing this, the vaccine had become mixed with the chimp version of HIV, which then entered human beings when they took the vaccine.

Hamilton was fascinated. He was convinced that the scientific establishment were trying to suppress the evidence because it was a challenge to the idea that modern medicine was always beneficial.

He decided to break the conspiracy of silence. So he set out for the Congo. He was going to track down the local chimpanzees, study their viruses and prove that modern medicine, in trying to save lives, had inadvertently caused the death of over 20 million people. Hamilton's journey was a vivid expression of what had happened at the end of the 20th century to the western dream of transforming the world for the better. Then, Hamilton died, by the freak accident of the aspirin lodged in his gut, that then caused a haemorrhage.

His theory about the origin of AIDS in the vaccination programmes of the 1950s turned out to be completely untrue. Subsequent research has shown that it had no factual foundation.

But Hamilton's ideas remain powerfully influential in our society. Above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programmes written in their genetic codes.

And the question is: have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences? We know that it was our actions that have helped to cause the horror still unfolding in the Congo. Yet we have no idea what to do about it. So instead, we have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.

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