How did a brilliant genetic theorist come to be found dead in Euston squat?

Neal Craig and Adam Burton rehearse Calculating Kindness

Neal Craig and Adam Burton rehearse Calculating Kindness - Credit: Archant

Actor Adam Burton tells Bridget Galton about playing George Price, a brilliant theorist who killed himself after discovering our selfish genes.

How did brilliant genetic theorist George Price come to be found dead in a Euston squat?

A handful of tramps and eminent evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and WD Hamilton attended his funeral in an unmarked grave at St Pancras Cemetery.

Leaving behind a failed marriage, the American chemist came to the UK in 1967 after stints at The Manhattan Project, Harvard and IBM.

He was drawn to Hamilton’s work on kin selection and despite no training in the subject, refined an equation or mathematical explanation of the evolution of altruism which he handed to Smith in person at The Galton Lab at UCL.

He was soon given a research post, but was dead seven years later at the age of 43. Calculating Kindness at Camden People’s Theatre - yards from the squat in Tolmer’s Square where Price cut his own throat with a pair of nail scissors - asks how this work led to his downward spiral.

Muswell Hill actor Adam Burton plays the little known tragic genius: “Apart from the book The Price of Altruism there’s little in the press about him. This is a guy who came into the field of genetics as a complete outsider, taught himself human evolution and came up with a theory that’s not far off relativity in its revolutionary abstract brilliance.

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“Just as he was going through a huge break up with his family he starts looking at kinship and blood relatedness. How that relates to his private life was a big question for him and is a resonance I’ve found a useful pointer to why he did what he did.”

Hamilton theorised that organisms are more likely to show altruism towards each other the more genetically similar they are.

Because close relatives’ genetic make up contains 50 percent of our genes, organisms will sometimes die as a result of an altruistic act (a bee stinging to protect the hive) as long as the survivors can still replicate its genes.

“We’re less likely to show altruistic behaviour to first cousins, or nephews,” says Burton. “Hamilton said you would get up early to take your sister to the airport to ensure she gets there safely but you wouldn’t do it for a second cousin.”

But Price’s realisation that apparently loving behaviour is merely a selfish mechanism to promote our genetic heritage, left him dismayed.

He also helped Hamilton devise his “spite” theory that just as an organism may sacrifice itself to further its genes, it might do so to eliminate others if it enabled closely related organisms to survive and thrive.

Depressed by the implications of his equation and hoping to prove it wrong Price carried out random acts of kindness to complete strangers, inviting the homeless into his Marylebone flat and giving his possessions to alcoholics.

“There’s that constant niggle for George; if my equation means we are kind to those close to us, is the flip side that we can be spiteful to those who are strangers?” says Burton.

“Are humans inherently spiteful as well as kind?”

A damascene moment in a North London church led Price to convert to Christianity. After being asked to leave his flat he made himself intentionally penniless.

“We’ve tracked down people who knew him in the squat. He didn’t fall on hard times he made a conscious decision to take that path and it was to do with the equation - the catalyst that sent him on his journey. Us being an essentially selfish species was a hard thing to deal with.

“I think he was in a box where this summed up everything that was wrong but didn’t totally explain what he had done in his personal life. It got to the point where the box he created was too small. He had to step outside of it – he went from a committed atheist to an evangelical Christian who saw himself as a vessel of Christ.”Lydia Adetunji’s play may be about a scientist, but Burton is focusing on the very human struggle of a man who was still writing ‘love daddy letters to his abandoned daughters.

“It’s the wrestle, the contradictions in his life that I need to interpret. It’s important to look at the human side of him and his relationships rather than the maths of it. That’s the landscape that led to this increbible emotional journey. There are a lot of personal demons within this piece.”

Calculating Kindness is at CPT from March 29 until April 16.