Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A happy individual knows nothing

Basil Brooke
Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa


Socrates and his students. Seljuk manuscript, early 13th century. Mubashshir ibn Fātik. Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul

It seems that most people, most of the time, tend to avoid the really big questions, the hows and whys of existence, preferring to wait and see what happens when they die. They may tell you, and quite rightly, that whilst alive it is best to get on with the business of living. After all, one’s ultimate business is to strive to be happy, whatever happiness means for the individual. Except that individuality is astonishingly hard to come by. When we describe ourselves and others, the terms employed usually relate to career, religious affiliation, cultural or tribal affiliation, musical preferences, artistic preferences, and so on.

We all want to be recognized as individuals, but there is safety and comfort in conformity. The implication is that people generally tend to personify their society’s belief systems, career, and entertainment pursuits. Our life goals are usually allied to what is expected of us by the societies in which we live. But what happens if you step outside of this system? What are the consequences of questioning the very truth and relevance of religion, culture, and social conventions?

George Price was an outsider with questions. Born in America in 1922, he became a brilliant chemist, biologist, geneticist, and science journalist. He died by apparent suicide in 1975. A determined atheist through most of his distinguished career, Price frequently attacked efforts that described the workings of the universe in anything other than the most mechanistic of terms. His atheism differed radically from the beliefs of his Roman Catholic wife, and they divorced in 1955.

Completing a PhD in chemistry, George Price had started his career as a member of the team of US, Canadian, and British army engineers and scientists who conducted the Manhattan Project, which during the Second World War sought to develop atomic weaponry ahead of the Nazi regime. He went on to hold successive positions at Harvard University, the Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Minnesota, and IBM. In 1966, Price was treated for thyroid cancer, which not only left his shoulder partially paralyzed, but also had a profound effect on him emotionally. Relocating to the United Kingdom in 1967 in order to start a new life at University College, London, he developed an interest in population genetics and devised what is probably his most famous scientific contribution—the Price equation.

Viewing selection, and therefore evolution, in very broad terms, this equation is an elegant description of complex evolutionary processes based on the covariant nature of inherited characters and their relative fitness. It implicates numerous fields, including: the psychology of learning by trial and error; the chemistry of pure crystal formation; the profusion of bones, teeth, and pottery in archaeological finds; the shaping and reshaping of phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary in linguistics; the rise of nation states in history; the rise and fall of enterprises and products in economics; and the support or refutation of hypotheses in science. With an interest in applying his ideas to human evolution, he outlined his plans to model the evolution of human behavior mathematically in a research proposal to the Science Research Council of Great Britain in 1969.

Then, on June 6, 1970, George Price had what most sources simply describe as a religious experience. He became disillusioned with his work because “the sort of theoretical mathematical genetics . . . [he] was doing wasn’t very relevant to human problems” (Frank, 1995). Gradually giving up his career in science, he became a Biblical scholar with a profound interest in the New Testament before turning his attention to the poor and needy in North London. Eventually neglecting his own welfare, Price perceived fatalism as the controlling influence in his life and started giving away his money and possessions. Finding work for a few months as a “slow, but dependable” night office cleaner for a contract cleaning firm in 1974 (Frank, 1995), he ultimately gave away all his clothes and possessions to homeless alcoholics, ending his life as a homeless squatter by severing his carotid artery with a pair of nail scissors.

In his book The story of God, Robert Winston associates the despondency that drove Price to suicide with the problem of altruism. Price, through his theories and models of selection, had identified altruism as nothing more than a kind of selfishness with a selective advantage. In his system, by alternating between altruistic and selfish behavior, an individual selected the “fittest” behavior, which would promote the continuance of one’s genes. This debate must have raged in Price’s mind, because without altruism human behavior is just a more sophisticated kind of animal behavior—an anathema to the deep humanist that Price had become, or perhaps always had been.

One can only speculate as to why a career atheist would suddenly invert his world view and become a committed Christian. Yet using Price’s methodology, in which diametrical opposites define each other, an atheistic world view can be rather loosely described as standing in direct opposition to a religious one. The “fittest behavior” would therefore occur within the intervening grey area, occupied by the fence-sitters. Essentially, agnostics continually search for meaning despite science’s ever-accumulating mountain of evidence. Fluctuating between atheism and Christianity, between altruism and selfishness, George Price seemed uncertain as well.

Price was not the first to describe how diametrical opposites define each other or to use this organizing principle to define ideal human behavior. Aristotle described the faculty of reason as the middle path between opposing vices: for example, courage being the reasonable mean between cowardice and rashness and temperance being the reasonable mean between intemperance and insensibility. He further asserted that making choices based on reason leads to dignity and high mindedness.

Aristotle’s use of reason also implies that choice ought to be free. Or is free choice an illusion? Logically, when considering future events, there must be some degree of determinism in what is possible to unfold based on what is currently happening. For example, if it is currently completely overcast and pouring with rain, one cannot reasonably hope to have warm sunshine in five minutes. However, if one projects this hope to a longer period of, say, five hours, then this hope becomes more conceivable. The more remote the future, the less predetermined is its nature, giving a wider array of hopes or choices that can reasonably be made. The closer the future, the more predictable it is. But now consider this: if the workings of the world, of the cosmos, and of the mind are entirely mechanistic, as Price long believed, then the future is entirely predetermined—even the remote future. We only experience indeterminism and unpredictability because we have a limited capacity to consider all the causative factors that will determine the future.

If we knew the current state of, quite literally, everything, then we would know the future exactly and would have no free choice. Thus free choice is an illusion because our brains are somewhat incapacitated. So if you thought you chose to read this article freely, you did not. Make sense? Not really. Quantum physics inevitably refutes mechanistic determinism by insisting that indeterminism is at the heart of all phenomena. Thus reality comes from a probabilistic universe, not a mechanistic one. This means that our intentions can be directed in such a way that they stand a good chance of occurring, or they can be directed with little chance of occurring.

The probabilities vary according to quantum principles, which may, in some bizarre way, interlock with conscious choice. This is where the faculty of reason becomes so critical. Plato thought a great deal about the best choices to make. He listed virtues in two distinct groups: cardinal virtues and human virtues. The cardinal virtues are: wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage. The human virtues are: health, beauty, strength, and wealth. Plato reasoned that the human virtues hang on the cardinal, meaning that the human virtues cannot be achieved without aspiring to the higher cardinal virtues. What is important here is that Plato (and Aristotle) identified reason as a key faculty that elevates thought, giving power to understanding and the making of rational choices that enhance the quality of life—in other words, give it meaning. Adherence to Plato’s virtues requires discipline in thought and behavior.

In contrast, the Cynic movement, also born in ancient Greece, was almost the antithesis of Plato’s ideals. It was personified most spectacularly in a man called Diogenes, who rejected all the accoutrements of civilization. He taught people to drop their social conventions, give up their possessions, and ignore the law. He believed that a purely “natural” life was the only route to true happiness. He reflected his beliefs most profoundly in his behavior. For example, he would perform his bodily functions in public, he was unwashed and disheveled, he wore only a dirty cloak, which doubled as a blanket, and he frequently hurled abuse at people. The Cynics abhorred physical violence and scorned all kinds of religion and ritual as well as study and academic inquiry. They preferred to live as animals, focusing only on the most basic needs of survival. Yet the wild Cynic movement was instrumental in producing a far more disciplined movement: the Stoics. They developed a system of ethics based on community and natural living and adopted Plato’s list of cardinal virtues as their own, regarding the faculty of reason as one of the great universal organizing principles. Thus two apparently divergent world views were welded together to form a new philosophical system.

Like the philosophies of Aristotle and Diogenes, the modern disciplines of neurology and quantum physics tend to avoid each other with little exception. The theories of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, however, attempt to tackle the interface between the classical physical processes of neuroscience and quantum physics. They describe an objective reduction system embedded in microtubules of individual brain neurons, which link quantum processes to brain function, producing consciousness. But their critics claim that quantum processes ultimately do nothing to enhance explanations around how the brain produces consciousness because the brain is a macroscopic organ more closely allied to deterministic and mechanistic classical processes than probability-based quantum processes.

Yet what keeps academic disciplines and belief systems apart may have more to do with cynicism than a real chasm in logic. To those who aspire to a religious faith, the sciences of mechanistic determinism have the feel of cynicism—clever kinds of philosophy devoid of expansive hope. To those who subscribe to mechanistic science, any kind of idealistic belief or faith is just hopeful silliness—a dogmatic way of thinking with no attempt to grasp real truth. Like cynicism, dogma can be incredibly destructive. But dogma is not unique to religion, and having crept into institutionalized academia, it has made research into certain subjects taboo. Maybe what is really needed is the organizing principle of reason that balances a healthy skepticism with reverence and hope.

It seems that Price, in his pursuit of the extremes of skepticism and faith, was never able to find the hope he needed to continue his endeavor to understand human behavior and, especially, to attach meaning to it. The sad story of his life is one illustration of why the Delphic oracle, so long ago, advised one to “know thyself,” alluding to the importance of introspection and cultivating a deeply personal spiritual life, which is where individuality really lies. The Delphic oracle expanded this advice by identifying Socrates as the wisest of all men. He claimed his wisdom was rooted in his perfect understanding that he knew nothing—as opposed to Price who sought to know and understand a great deal, but could not reconcile the massive discrepancies he uncovered in the process. The story of George Price and the wisdom of Socrates do not of course imply that one should dismiss understanding the fundamental processes that govern all things, but they do suggest that one should never lose sight of the possibility of being wrong, for that is where hope resides.


Further reading

  1. Frank, S. A. (1995). George Price’s contributions to evolutionary genetics. Journal of Theoretical Biology 175, 373-388.
  2. Hameroff, S. (2001). Consciousness, the brain and spacetime geometry. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 929, 74-104.
  3. Penrose, R. (2001). Consciousness, the brain and spacetime geometry: an addendum. Some new developments on the Orch OR model for consciousness. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 929: 105-110.
  4. Porter, R. (2004). Flesh in the age of reason. New York: Penguin Books.
  5. Winston, R. (2005). The story of God. New York: Bantam Books.



BASIL BROOKE, PhD, is a geneticist and medical entomologist specializing in insect-borne diseases, especially malaria. He has a keen interest in pre-, ancient, and medieval history and is especially interested in the interaction between religion, culture, and philosophy.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 3

Fall 2011  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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