Thursday, July 22, 2010

Academic altruism

A bunch of lines in this review caught my attention:
"In The Price of Altruism Oren Harman reiterates this reality, but, importantly he emphasizes that Price felt that it was Hamilton alone in all the world who had perceived the equation’s nature upon first encountering it. The back story, which is told in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, is that George Price had difficulty in getting his papers in this area published because the referees simply did not see the implications. Hamilton, perceiving the importance of Price’s ideas, connived to gain publication by making his own work conditional on the acceptance of Price’s paper (which he cited). As Hamilton already had a reputation the game worked."

Anybody else know comparable examples of academic altruism in the world of science? (I am not interested in supervisors helping their students--kin selection is out.)


  1. There's the recent example of Grisha Perelman, the Russian mathematician who proved Poincare's Conjecture, who has turned down a $1,000,000 prize for his proof, because he considers the way such prizes are awarded to be unjust. Story here:

    I don't know if this counts as altruism or just an amazing example of acting on principle, although part of his complaint is that he thought Richard Hamilton deserved much of the credit for his proof. And I guess this is an example from math not science.

  2. I'm not sure about Perelman because I've gotten the impression that his refusal of prizes may stem from overweening pride as much as anything else, part of his refusal of such prizes in the past seems to have been his sense that judges were not qualified to judge him ( ). Given his personal perspective I suspect money has little if any value to him. I do not think rigidity is the same thing as being morally principled. However, perhaps I am just petty and jealous...

    To me science and scholarship more generally encourages this sort of altruism. A researcher who refuses to share their work risks it dieing still born with no achievement, but by giving it away gains the help of others in his work and quite possibly their recognition. Having other top researchers in the same field enhances your work and allows you to do more. If what you want is to increase knowledge and not money or recognition. It is sort of like that line from the Beatles song "the love you take is equal to the love you make" except with knowledge instead of love. The likes of Newton seem to me maladapted in the extreme to science in this regard.

    Given this I would be surprised if such acts are rare, since they are not apparently maladaptive in the way that altruism can seem to me in more everyday aspects.

    Still I can't think of another dramatic case of a scientists helping their colleagues, but the scientific life seems replete with less dramatic cases, I'm not sure what your threshold for what counts as altruism is. Any number of acknowledgment pages in books are teaming with admissions of one's intellectual debts. Scientists commonly write letters of recommendation for each other and positively (and honestly) review other scientist's work. I don't think such things are always done with the expectation of any direct reward (or by kin selection). What about retired professors who endow chairs and the like do they count?

  3. I agree with Allan Perelman probably refused the prize out of pride. (A virtue that as is quite central to scientific (if not all noble) aspiration.) I also suspect commentators sensed this without being able to name it and this is why he garnered such hostile press (which is product of democratic culture, after all).

    I am more skeptical of your other claims, although I grant that scientific institutions and culture(s) encourage all kinds of activities that do not have clear benefit to individual scientist. But a lot of cooperative behavior you cite is, in fact, either status enhancing or recognition of one's status within one's field. And the way scientists show they have status is their ability to offer gifts (of gratitude, of support, etc). Even so, I am too familiar with the history of science in which priority disputes are fairly common. This is why the Hamilton case struck me as special.

  4. First yes there are priority disputes in science, but I still say its incredibly maladaptive to do so for science in general and the inclusive fitness of the scientist in question (Newton's reputation was ultimately hurt by his priority dispute with Leibniz and English mathematics more generally also). Still it depends what you mean by common and it also depends on the field and period.

    My point was not that generosity/cooperation can not be self seeking, but that scientific culture does not discourage acts like Hamilton's precisely because any such act will always have a great deal of benefit, whether the actor intends it or not.

    I can't prove whether any of the activities I pointed out were done for self-seeking motives or not. It would be hard to prove that Hamilton's act was not equally one of conspicuous consumption to show his own status. The Mathew effect ("on to him that has shall be given") ensured that he would still get more credit than Price even with his acknowledgment of Price's priority. Also, if he was sure they would publish then he risked nothing and we can't be sure they would not have backed down if the publishers had refused his ultimatum.

    I think it more probable that Hamilton had Price's status and not his own in mind, but then I find it probable that is true in at least some large fraction of the more common support of aid and recognition that scientists provide each other.

  5. Allan, we agree about science's institutions. Nevertheless, I would love to learn of more examples in science where somebody uses his/her power to give somebody else credit for a discovery in something like Hamilton's generous manner. (I am sure they exist.)
    By contrast, think of Crick & Watson's lack of generosity toward Franklin.