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William Hamilton

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In Nature Oren Harman has a review up of Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W. D. Hamilton. It seems as if he gives it a B. Not enough science? Too much biography? For those who want more science and depth, Hamilton’s collected papers are where you should start: Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Last Words. These books consist of an alternating series of (auto)biographical sketches and scientific papers. Unfortunately Hamilton died before much work went into the last volume, so we don’t get to hear him in his own voice. This is a shame, because the first two volumes place much of the science in fascinating, if not necessary, social context. The equivalent chapters for the last volume were written by colleagues and collaborators, but the outcome is not surprisingly more pedestrian. The second volume in particular is worth picking up because it is basically unedited Hamilton (his untimely death meant that the normal back and forth which would have slimmed down the verbosity and softened the candor was simply not possible).

But Hamilton is a man of enough stature that he makes more than cameo appearances in other works of scientific biography and narrative. He looms large in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. You can find less sympathetic portraits of him in The Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man and A Reason for Everything (the latter focuses on the Oxford School of evolutionary biology; you’ve heard of them). Robert Trivers remembers him fondly in Natural Selection and Social Theory, which has a format similar to Hamilton’s own first two collections of short papers. Finally, he has a large role to play in Harman’s biography, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

W. D. Hamilton is controversial because he had naked eugenicist sympathies. This was the norm among British evolutionary biologists before World War II, and continued to be expressed by some after, down to the present day. Richard Dawkins, who early on in his career in the 1970s could arguably be termed “Hamilton’s bulldog,” continues to carry that torch to some extent, though far less stridently. Part of the issue here is probably cultural, insofar as “positive eugenics” was much more prominent in Britain than it was in the United States or Germany, where “negative eugenics” was practiced (positive in the promotion of “good traits,” negative in the selection against “bad traits”). From what I know Britain simply has a less traumatic history with state sponsored eugenics than other developed nations, so it is held in less bad odor.

But there’s no point in diminishing the fact that Hamilton was a full-spectrum eugenicist. This is why Michael Ruse has used him as a foil in the past, as the sort of evolutionist who oversteps his bounds. And the reality is those who worry about “genetic determinism” will be horrified by some of the threads laced through Hamilton’s ouvre (see the discussion of the “fascist paper” in the first volume of his Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour). I believe this is why there is so much biographical coverage of Hamilton’s life, as opposed to his peer John Maynard Smith. Unlike Hamilton, or E. O. Wilson, Maynard Smith was careful to equivocate or avoid delicate issues of social consequence, even if scientifically his own work may have supported explosive inferences. This is probably a reflection of his sophistication in non-scientific matters (he being an ex-Communist). In any case, both John Maynard Smith and W. D. Hamilton made important contributions to evolutionary genetics (in various ways both were responsible for the modern formal framework of inclusive fitness). The fact that the former did not encroach on the territory of the human sciences (something he expressively admitted being a conscious choice), while the latter did so without self-consciousness, does not impact their scientific contributions in the least.

Both these stances have their utility. Speculating or engaging in matters outside narrow disciplinary domains is not always beneficial to one’s career (ask Robert Trivers), or to the subject matter at hand. And yet I believe that W. D. Hamilton’s forays, if often misguided and naive, were important because he asked hard and unpleasant questions. At some fundamental level life is a unity. I do not want to leave bioethics to ethicists. Rather, it should be a joint project between biologists and ethicists, and to a great extent society as a whole. If so, then there needs to be a level of candor and frankness which is unrestrained by normal conventions of politeness or fear of controversy. Because of Hamilton’s guileless nature he stepped into minefields constantly when he expanded beyond pure theoretical evolutionary genetic domains. And I think the world is better for it, because past experience tells us that hard questions are often the best, and at some point needful.

As an example of this Richard Dawkins is now broaching the issue of extensive cousin marriage among Pakistani Britons as a public health matter. Obviously there are social and political dimension to this question, but there are also genetic ones, and it is fitting that Dawkins should address those. As it is I suspect most scientists would rather not confront these issues, and be accused of “Islamophobia.” But in inbred populations eugenics always comes into play, one way or another.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution, William Hamilton 
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Sometimes in a narrative you have secondary characters who you want to revisit. What do to do after the story is complete? An convenient “work-around” to this problem is to find the story rewritten from the perspective of the secondary character. In broad strokes the picture is unchanged, but in the finer grained shadings different details come into sharper relief. Though the exterior action may be unaltered, it gains different context, and the interior motive may radically alter, as the nature of subjective perspective matters so greatly in the last instance. In many ways Oren Harman’s The Price of Altruism reads to me like a narrative rewritten from the perspective of a character who was a supporting protagonist in other stories. George Price, almost a novelty act elsewhere, now becomes the primary point of view character.

I could almost say that Harman, a historian of science, has given us a novel from a “shared universe” of stories. That universe is the real world. The other stories are the lives of great scientists, and the plot consists of the working out of their ideas. In the acknowledgments Harman alludes to the wide range of works where fragments of George Price’s life filters through. I have read many of the mentioned works, The Darwin Wars, Defenders of the Truth, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land. In all of these George Price cuts a quixotic figure, mercurial, brilliant and exceedingly eccentric. His plain biography already peculiar. Price began his career as a chemist, shifted to journalism and became what we today would term a professional “skeptic,” then entered into a period of productivity as an evolutionary theorist of some major impact, and finally spent his last years attempting to live the life of a serious Christian who followed God’s commands to the best of his abilities. He died tragically, committing suicide in his early 50s in 1975, homeless, destitute, and serious ill.

Much of what I already know comes through the memories of William Hamilton in his collections of papers, titled Narrow Roads of Gene Land. In Narrow Roads of Gene Land Hamilton admits that he did not perceive in totality the implications of Price’s eponymous equation when he first encountered it (in particular, he did not initially comprehend that the two elements within the Price equation allowed for the possibility of group selection as you move up the nested hierarchies of organization and reassign the elements to ascending levels). In The Price of Altruism Oren Harman reiterates this reality, but, importantly he emphasizes that Price felt that it was Hamilton alone in all the world who had perceived the equation’s nature upon first encountering it. The back story, which is told in Narrow Roads of Gene Land, is that George Price had difficulty in getting his papers in this area published because the referees simply did not see the implications. Hamilton, perceiving the importance of Price’s ideas, connived to gain publication by making his own work conditional on the acceptance of Price’s paper (which he cited). As Hamilton already had a reputation the game worked.

The necessity of these strategies makes more sense in light of Price’s unconventional background and affect. In evolutionary biology Price was self-taught, and he entered the field in large part because he was interested in the topic, and perceived that he was going to make some difference in the world. He arrived in London in the late 1960s, impressed people at the Galton Laboratory and managed to obtain a research grant and desk, and became an important stimulator of and collaborator with both William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, arguably Britain’s two most prominent theoretical evolutionary biologists at the time. Price’s relationship to John Maynard Smith is referenced in Hamilton’s own biography, as well as third person narratives such as The Darwin Wars and Defenders of the Truth, but The Price of Altruism fleshes out many of the details. While Price extended Hamilton’s original work on inclusive fitness, for Maynard Smith he served more as a prod and collaborator as they explored the intersection of game theory and biology which eventually led to the ideas outlined in Evolution and Theory of Games. The “hawk” and “dove” morphs made famous by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene go back to Maynard Smith’s work, but the terms themselves were of Price’s invention according to Harman. If I read Harman’s chronology correctly Price was already a fervent Christian by this time, having left atheism in the same period as he launched his career as an evolutionary biologist, and there is some hint that the term “dove” may have been influenced by his particular religious leanings. This possibility seems all the more amusing in light of Dawkins’ later career as an atheist polemicist. Price’s last contribution to evolutionary biology was an explication of Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. This formalism has been the subject of so much deep analysis, such that I think Price’s interest in it prefigured his later stab at Biblical textual analysis!

The Price of Altruism is a biography of a scientist, so naturally there’s a great deal of science. The meat and heart of the work is George Price’s life trajectory, with all its travails (many) and triumphs (few, but lasting and of importance). Yet the story begins with an exploration of the lives and opinions of men who seem of a different age, Thomas Huxley and Peter Kropotkin. Huxley and Kropotkin were archetypes, who anticipated two streams of evolutionary ecology and social theory which battled it out through the 20th century. Huxley was a man who saw nature as “red in tooth and claw,” the working out of amoral competitive forces, and human virtue as having emerged out and above nature, just as he had risen up from his working class origins to eminence. Kropotkin reflected a Russian viewpoint which saw cooperation as the norm, and competition as the deviation. For him virtue emerged from our natural tendencies. Lee Alan Dugatkin covers much of the same ground in The Altruism Equation. Great men who you meet elsewhere inevitably make cameo appearances in Harman’s narrative; R. A. Fisher, the brilliant cipher, J. B. S. Haldane, the hereditarian Marxist, and Sewall Wright, the American (also see The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics). The bright lights of Price’s generation also make prominent appearances; William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith, their characters manifesting no great surprises, but also the schizophrenic genius Robert Trivers, with whom Price perhaps shares a great deal excepting his dark ending, as well as E. O. Wilson.

All of these individuals have an interest in evolutionary biology, but biology of a behavioral sort. Though molecular evolutionists such as Richard Lewontin and Motoo Kimura are references in The Price of Altruism, they’re ancillary to the thrust of the book’s central idea (though Lewontin seems to serve as a type, the brilliant scientist who saw the import of Price’s equation too late to engage in a productive exchange with George Price himself). Evolution, like theoretical physics, spans may domains of subject, from the aggregations of millions of individual life forms, to evolution of elements within individual genomes! The Price equation’s generality is such that it does speak to the phenomena which bubble just above the level of organizations of the substrate, DNA itself. But George Price’s focus was on higher, not lower, levels of organizations, human societies. Oren Harman makes this clear, for he brings to light Price’s correspondence with Paul Samuelson, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. Before Price left for London and began his collaboration with Hamilton and Maynard Smith on altruism, he fancied reconstructing the basis of 20th century economics. By the end of his life Price suggested that he was going to go back to this initial impulse, and attempted to renew his correspondence with Samuelson in the hopes of obtaining a research fellowship of some sort. Price also engaged with the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, though as with many of his encounters it seems that the two soured on each other, in part due to Price’s impolitic tendencies.

George Price’s aim was to explain human cooperation, altruism. In short, goodness. This is the domain of angels, but his analytical bent mean that he could not let the phenomenon lay. He had to break it down, reconstruct its fundamentals, and elaborate on how and why goodness, altruism, manifested itself in the world. From the details reported in The Price of Altruism I would have to admit that Price himself was a Janus-like figure, often being in a manifestly selfish fashion, abandoning his family to follow his intellectual bliss, and yet also radically altruistic, allowing himself to be exploited by the dregs of the London underclass near the end of his life because scripture told him so (or his reading of scripture). What I had previous read did not emphasize Price’s selfishness, his need to satisfy his own wants, and place his own elective priorities ahead of the mandatory ones which decency bound him to honor (e.g., supporting his wife and daughters). Harman has a rich catalog of George Price’s selfish actions and the small vendettas which wracked his soul. No saint was he. Much of what Harmon recounts was simply not evident from other sources. Perhaps in Hamilton’s case he wished to highlight the positive aspects of a good friend who had died tragically. More plausibly I suspect that Hamilton was simply not aware of the selfish sequence of acts which led George Price to the Galton Laboratory in the late 1960s. And it was during this period that George Price became a zealous Christian and a radical altruist. Hamilton’s perceptions may simply have been colored by the slice of Price’s life to which he was privy.

Oren Harman wonders at the end of the book if George Price may have been rather far along the asperger’s spectrum. If so, combined with his fierce intelligence, one is not surprised that Price exhibited a fixation on why and how humans behaved, and why and how it came to be that humans did not seem to be rational psychopaths. Though I do not know if, and honestly do not believe, that George Price was a rational psychopath, in The Price of Altruism Oren Harman paints a picture of a man with immediate urges and impulses, earthy hedonic priorities, and a strong tendency to discount the costs which his choices may have for those close to him. George Price was not the first man to not be a good father, but he was one who perhaps wondered why there were good fathers and bad fathers, those who followed their bliss despite the consequences to their progeny, and those who sacrificed so that their children could enjoy the comforts and pleasures which they elected to forgo. The science is well elucidated in works such as Unto Others, The Origins of Virtue and The Evolution of Cooperation. The Price of Altruism is rather a case study not of the theory of altruism, but of the concrete embodied human experience which eventually gave fruit to an important slice of the theory of altruism. From the small details of his day-t0-day actions, to the arc of his life, George Price played out some of the implications of his own intellectual edifice, both through contradiction and confirmation.

Recommended Reading: The Darwin Wars, The Evolutionists, A Reason for Everything, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Natural Selection and Social Theory, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology, R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, Defenders of the Truth, Unto Others and The Selfish Gene.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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Razib Khan
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