The spreading stain of selfishness

Tom Farsides reviews Calculating Kindness at the Camden People's Theatre.

A quote on the cover of Oren Harman’s biography of American population geneticist George Price says that it ‘would make a great film (probably starring Matt Damon).’ Whatever the truth of this claim, Price’s life certainly provides the template for a very impressive play.

Bursting onto the stage, Price (played by Adam Burton) announces that most people probably won’t understand much of what he says, given that he has inherited traits of extraordinarily high intellect and a genius for all things reasonable and scientific. He makes these claims at breakneck speed and with such a charming, disarming, finely honed wit that the audience immediately warms to him. Almost the first thing he does after coming on stage is shake hands with everyone in the front row. But very little in this play has a single unambiguous meaning and even this gesture of seemingly straightforward intimacy and connection deserves reflection and interpretation. And as the play and Price’s life story unfolds, keeping a firm grip on what things truly mean becomes ever more challenging.

In a key scene early in the play, Price mansplains to a receptionist that she is mistaken in her thoughts about humanity. Whatever people may feel about free will, morality, and love, he says, everything about us is the result of deterministic genetic evolution. With hints of mania, Price proclaims that he has recently fashioned a particularly elegant mathematical formula that expresses the crux of evolutionary theory perfectly. In almost the same breath, he mentions that he has also recently abandoned his wife and two small children.

In this scene, Price clearly articulates the difference between 'evolutionary altruism' and near-synonyms for 'altruism' in everyday life, such as benevolence, charity, and kindness. The former is a theoretically-described phenomenon in which genes for inherited traits become less numerous in successive generations, a process which should usually result in extinction of those traits as inherited characteristics. Despite common use of the word 'altruism', evolutionary altruism and behaviours motivated by desires to help others have no necessary connection. Being considerate and helpful might sometimes lead to evolutionary altruism but so too might being unerringly socially oblivious and utterly self-serving. Depending on the environment, almost any behavioural trait can result in evolutionary altruism – or indeed in evolutionary 'selfishness'. Besides, most everyday behaviours are neither determined solely by specific inherited traits nor have any significant evolutionary effect.

Price gradually loses both the clarity of this distinction and his grasp of reality more generally. He begins to see everything as resulting solely from evolutionary processes and he increasingly desperately struggles to find room in the world for anything else of value or meaning. At one stage he appears to claim that the colour of the shirts in his wardrobe is the result of Darwinian selection. Price’s descent into madness is echoed by increasingly chaotic scenes on stage. As his connection with the world becomes ever more tenuous, people who care about him find it increasingly difficult to maintain or re-establish a connection with him. At the play’s bleakest moment, Price completely disappears from view and is replaced by a slowly-spreading dark stain. Despite many excellent comic moments throughout the play, the mood moves inexorably from ebullience to a sombre and troubling sense of loss.

This is a clever play and with great creativity it explores multiple issues, including ambition, identity, meaning, responsibility, sanity, truth, and value. Ultimately, it concerns relationships of all sorts, e.g. between science and theatre, intellect and feeling, theory and practice, reality and illusion, continuity and change, intentions and consequences, and, of course, between people.

Camden’s People’s Theatre is an intimate venue and the talented cast of three portray many characters, often in quick succession – even though one of them only plays Price. The sparse but inventive staging is equally impressive and several of the few props have almost as many roles as the actors. Fittingly, the use of light is dazzling, both for illumination and as a metaphor.

It is a testament to the play that I remember with at least imagined clarity many specific scenes and themes. I heartily recommend that you try to see it during its regrettably short run. You’d be doing yourself a favour.

- Reviewed by Tom Farsides, Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Sussex.

- Calculating Kindness ends its run on 16 April.

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