Tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review highlights two intriguing books, one on religion and the other on science.
The first is Philip Pullman’s latest, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, reviewed by none other than Christopher Hitchens. The novel’s conceit is that Jesus had a twin brother, Christ, and while Jesus was the charismatic one, Christ was the smart one, determined to create a myth around his brother. Hitchens’s review gives more of the plot, omitting the surprise ending. Predictably, Pullman’s book has been denounced as profane, and he proffered this response, which I’ve highlighted before.
Hitchens’s review is surprisingly low-key, lacking the zip I’ve come to expect from his pieces. This may reflect his health problems—or perhaps he’s assumed more gravitas for a NYT review.
The second is The Price of Altruism, Oren Harman’s long awaited biography of population geneticist George R. Price. Price (1922-1975) is famous for developing the “Price equation”, a succinct mathematical formula expressing the conditions under which natural selection would cause a trait to evolve. The equation gave important insights into the likelihood of evolution via group selection, kin selection, and altruism. Price was also a bizarre character—an atheist who later became a stalwart Christian, giving his possessions to the poor and helping—and personally housing—the homeless. He finally committed suicide, slashing his throat with nail scissors.
Harman’s book is reviewed by renowed primatologist Frans de Waal, who likes it. de Waal explains Price’s accomplishments well, recounting some tales of perfidy in the field, including an account of how John Maynard Smith unethically appropriated other people’s work (I can’t vouch for this claim).
Two plaints about the review. I think de Waal’s explanation of the problem with group selection is a bit unclear, and he skirts the issue of whether altruistic behavior is a direct adaptation or only a byproduct of other adaptations like maternal behavior. But otherwise it’s a fine review, and I’ll be reading the book.
George R. Price