The Imprinted Brain

How genes set the balance between autism and psychosis

WHO WΔZ GEORGE PRICE?

Price was a diametric genius: autistic and psychotic by turns

The first I heard of him was from Bill Hamilton, who was ready to tell the story of George Price (1922-75) to anyone who would listen. I gathered that this strange American had arrived in 1960s London soon after Hamilton had published the papers which were to make him famous and to launch the revolution in biology associated with the selfish gene, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology—all of which were deeply indebted to Hamilton’s solution of the fundamental problem of social evolution: altruism.

Critics sometimes try to portray sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and selfish gene theorists as inhuman monsters, latter-day Nazis, or born-again Social Darwinists. But the great thing about George Price was that he was a genuine, practicing altruist: a Jewish born-again Christian who spent the last years of his life ministering to the poor and needy, became destitute as a result and finally committed suicide in a student squat. Most of all though, Price discovered the so-called covariance expression of Hamilton’s fundamental equation—a much more elegant and inclusive one than Hamilton’s original (and the basis of the pun in the title: WΔZ, the left hand term of the covariance expression).

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Now we have a biography which attempts to reveal something of the secret of Price's genius. Hamilton, as I have argued at length elsewhere, was definitely a high-functioning autistic, as he himself openly admitted, and Price noticed what he called Hamilton’s high degree of “intellectual honesty, of Mosaic ‘meekness’… and of non-sneeringness, non-condescension.” Price’s biographer mentions Asperger’s syndrome as a possible diagnosis for Price too, and describes him as “aloof and often indifferent to people.” In any event, Price seems to have anticipated the diametric model of cognition to some extent when he is described as seeing mechanism as the essence of science and animism as that of magic. Hamilton took to him strongly, seems to have identified with him, and revealingly in the light of my earlier post about the genius of detective fiction, described Price as “an intellectual Sherlock Holmes in real life with a brilliant mind to work on any problem that appeared to him of being of permanent significance to man.”

But the most permanently significant problem of all in Price’s own eyes—more significant by far than the co-variance solution of Hamilton’s equation—was something that again anticipates one of the most counter-intuitive insights of the diametric model. The most common form of autistic savant expertise is calendar-calculation, and the most common delusions of psychotics are religious ones. Price fused them perfectly in his belief that there was a hidden message in the Bible centered on the date of Easter which God had chosen him to reveal to the world with momentous consequences!

If genius rests on a more-or-less stable and successful fusion of autistic and psychotic savantism to produce a super-savantism embracing the whole cognitive spectrum as I have suggested, then Price’s divinely-inspired revelation of the true date of Easter is a paradigmatic example. But the fact that he could have been elaborating this delusion at the very same time that he was doing some of his best work on mathematical genetics is from this point of view no more surprising than Newton’s parallel division of his time between mathematical physics, alchemy, and Biblical numerology. In both cases, these prodigious minds could work simultaneously at the opposite extremes of an enormous cognitive register which spanned the entire mentalistic spectrum. 

But more than anything, what this biography reveals is the central place of hyper-mentalism in psychosis. As its author points out, Price’s slide into madness and eventual suicide began when he started to hyper-mentalize about coincidences which he believed had occurred in his life. In the words of this biographer, “Nothing in this world was without meaning, not even the tiniest, least significant detail.” Price was not just religious, he had a cancer of the mind which was mentally metastasizing into true madness.

But Price wasn’t completely mad, and nor was he completely autistic—albeit high-functioning. With the benefit of the hindsight of the diametric model of mental illness, Price now seems comparable to John Nash, another great twentieth-century mathematician with an autistic background on which a florid psychosis later supervened, as I argue in my book. In neither case do we know why the psychotic episode occurred when it did, and Price's drug-taking and medical problems may well have played a role, as his biographer hints. But both produced land-mark achievements in mathematics which may not fully match those of Newton, but which were probably based on a similar cognitive configuration.

As his biographer rightly concludes, Price's "life and death continue to provide invaluable instruction"—not to mention another paradigmatic example for the diametric model of the mind.

Christopher Robert Badcock, Ph.D., is author of The Imprinted Brain: how genes set the balance between autism and psychosis. 

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