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Nature's Oracle

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Credit: Bksimonb

One could argue that William Donald Hamilton is one of the most prominent scientific figures who has been influential upon the public understanding of the world around us, who the public nonetheless is totally unaware of. Many well educated individuals with an interest in science have some understanding of the concept of inclusive fitness, at least in an inchoate sense. And, there is also an awareness that sex is somehow a biological conundrum, with the Red Queen hypothesis stepping into the explanatory void (amongst others). Hamilton’s standing within science is without question, and it was externally validated by his being awarded the Crafoord Prize, which attempts to fill in the disciplinary gaps in the Nobel awards. And yet to the world at large he is a shadowy entity in the diffuse and anonymous background of science from which writers draw their source material.

Hamilton’s influence was particularly strong upon the popular expositions of evolutionary biology of Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley. His theories as to the origins of altruism shaped how E. O. Wilson and Robert Trivers viewed the question more broadly. Finally, one could argue that the Hamiltonian paradigm was one of the primary sources of antagonism for Stephen Jay Gould and his relationship to adaptationism and the biological basis of human behavior. Hamilton’s scientific opinions were complex, and too often they have been reduced down to inaccurate essences. This is somewhat evident in Hamilton’s own collections of papers, especially the first volume, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Evolution of Social Behavior. The legend of Hamilton’s framework for inclusive fitness had had many decades to mature and twist into shapes which the creator did not necessarily agree with, and he attempted to set the record straight where he thought it appropriate (e.g., inclusive fitness is not just about the origin of eusocial insects). In Nature’s Oracle Ullica Segerstrale extends Hamilton’s own reflections, and introduces a more objective third party observer into the process of evaluating the historical arc of scientific production of this one particular man.

Segerstrale is no newcomer to the life of Hamilton. A sociologist of science, her book Defenders of the Truth chronicled the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s. Segerstrale’s method included immersion into the events of the time as a participant-observer, made possible by the fact that she was at Harvard during the period when E. O. Wilson was the target of critiques from his colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. Though the central axis of the narrative in Defenders of the Truth revolves around Wilson’s conflict with his detractors at Harvard, much of the story also unfolds on the other side of the Atlantic, where Hamilton and John Maynard Smith were pioneering the elements of the superstructure which Wilson unveiled in his magnum opus, Sociobiology. Even if W. D. Hamilton was not one of the stars of Defenders of the Truth (I would argue that Wilson and Lewontin were respectively the protagonist and antagonist in the dramatis personae), he was a major supporting character.

And Segerstrale is not a cool and detached observer either. It is clear throughout Defenders of the Truth that E. O. Wilson was, in her opinion, on the side of the angels. Seeing as how E. O. Wilson was physically attacked at a conference by activists it is not hard to paint him as a courageous figure speaking truth to orthodoxy. In Nature’s Oracle Segerstrale makes even less effort to hide her personal relationship with Hamilton, which seems to have gone beyond acquaintanceship toward a genuine friendship. If you are curious for a darker treatment of Hamilton and his influence I would suggest Andrew Brown’s Darwin Wars and Marek Kohn’s A Reason for Everything. Granted, Nature’s Oracle devotes a great deal of time to the “dark” Hamilton, who entertained bizarre eugenic ideas as the logical consequence of his understanding of the origins of altruism and sex. But the treatment is broadly sympathetic, and W. D. Hamilton the scientist is sharply differentiated from W. D. Hamilton the freelance public intellectual.

In Oren Harman‘s review of Nature’s Oracle he suggests that Segerstrale was a touch too light on the scientific meat. In contrast the one reader review at Amazon gives a different perspective:

For someone called the 20th Century Darwin, I think the name Bill Hamilton would not garner any sort of recognition outside his discipline. He needs a little buildup. He had an insatiable (as opposed to obsessive) need to understand the lives of all living things. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of them, and no one else came close to his expertise. He risked life and limb without thought to purse that knowledge. He developed hugely important theories on altruism and sex in plants and insects. He was a pioneer user of computers. He spent endless hours modeling behaviors, long before that became easy and routine. But his biography was written by an academic colleague, clearly for other academic colleagues. Which is unfortunate, because Bill Hamilton’s life is definitely worth examining by a much wider audience.

The complaint here is that there is too much abstruse science, and not enough biographical sketch. As pure descriptions both this reader and Harman’s positions have truth to them. For evolutionary geneticists and ethologists Nature’s Oracle will seem to skimp on science, while for the lay public there are strange lacunae in the biographical details of Hamilton’s daily life. I think the issue here is that as Segerstrale progresses over time the science starts to loom much larger, and overshadows personal detail. Therefore you know much more about W. D. Hamilton’s family and childhood than you do about the deterioration and dissolution of his marriage. But by the time the latter had occurred the subject of Nature’s Oracle was living a life overwhelmed with scientific controversy, leaving little time for personal controversies (there is, for example, very little about Hamilton’s relationship with his daughters, aside from the fact that they existed!).

Ultimately I think it is fair to say Nature’s Oracle is targeted toward an audience of individuals already familiar with William Donald Hamilton’s science, and also somewhat aware of aspects of his life which influenced the science. What Ullica Segerstrale does is clarify and correct may “facts” which have become part of the Hamilton legend, some promoted by Hamilton himself. A small factual detail is that Hamilton did not die of malaria, as is assumed by many due to initial misreports. Rather, it seems he had a preexisting condition which was exacerbated by the stress he was putting on his body in his various late in life scientific expeditions. This issue was rooted in the fact that Hamilton had a life long aversion to conventional medical treatment (despite the fact that his mother and one of his sisters were doctors!). A charming element of Hamilton’s scientific life, well known to those who care to inquire, is that he was an avid naturalist. This shines through in his autobiographical reflections, and is reported by others whenever Hamilton’s career is profiled. But Segerstrale makes this much more vivid with her anecdata; for example she tells us that Hamilton had a compulsion whereby he would stick his fingers into wasp nests, so that he received thousands of stings over the course of his life.

Then there are aspects of myth which Nature’s Oracle revises, and reshape our understanding of the origins of the Hamiltonian paradigm. In the early 1960s few were interested in Hamilton’s fixation on the evolutionary origins of social behavior, in particular altruism. In his own telling his loneliness was such that he became somewhat of a hermit, doing theoretical derivations in public train stations. This is recounted in many books. Through interviews with those who knew Hamilton at the time Segerstrale makes it clear that this was not an accurate representation of the facts. Apparently Hamilton had an active social life apart from his science. It may be that his scientific loneliness colored his perceptions of the rest of his life, but numerous individuals attested to his friendships, and relationships, during these years. In his personal telling Hamilton had only a few meetings with R. A. Fisher, his intellectual hero, and those encounters were discouraging. But others who were involved in the genetics group at Cambridge during this period recall Hamilton and Fisher talking frequently, with Hamilton being a prominent presence at these teas.

Though Sergerstrale is sympathetic to Hamilton, in Nature’s Oracle she leaves you with the impression that Hamilton’s early struggles were somewhat exaggerated in subsequent years when he was moderately famous amongst his peers. This is understandable and natural in terms of how humans utilize memory to recreate the past. W. D. Hamilton perceived himself to be a lonely heroic figure, who had risen to the pinnacle of professional success despite formidable obstacles. What better way to accentuate this meteoric rise than to shade the depths from which he had hefted himself up? In an act of interpretation Segerstrale makes the overarching case that Hamilton in fact sought loneliness and singular isolation throughout his career (rather than it being foisted upon him against his well). Reading Hamilton’s own recollections one is confronted with painful rejection after rejection, but in Nature’s Oracle you are faced with the possibility that in fact he provoked rejection by the choices he made of his free will, and repeatedly seemed to flourish when surrounded by those who would leave him to his own devices.

What does come through in Nature’s Oracle is that Hamilton had an almost childlike curiosity about the world around him, and the patterns which nature presented. Even those who were not sympathetic to Hamilton, or perceived him to be a sinister character, have difficulty not representing his naive character. He was classic absentminded professor, and ill-suited toward academic politics or the precise formulations necessary for polite acceptability in the modern world. Only his spectacular professional accomplishments shielded him from the sort of censure which one might have expected (and, likely the fact that little of his work was on humans).

This immaturity also had its unpleasant sides. I’ll leave the details out of this review, but one definitely gets the sense from the depiction in Nature’s Oracle that Hamilton was very churlish to John Maynard Smith due to a perceived slight. Though Segerstrale suggests that Maynard Smith (who died in 2004) did behave in a manner which should have resulted in some antagonism from Hamilton, ultimately the situation became one where all the negative aspects of childish obstinacy were on display on Hamilton’s part. But none of us are saints, and overall this seems to be the primary black mark against Hamilton in his relationships with colleagues and peers.

Ultimately what Nature’s Oracle reminds us is that there are limits to positivism in understanding the history of science, while reiterating the value of positivism in science itself. In other words, how W. D. Hamilton arrived at the formalism for inclusive fitness is a matter for debate, revisionism, and deconstruction. Even Segerstrale, sympathetic to Hamilton, seems to indicate that he manufactured aspects of his own back story in terms of how he was perceived and how he arrived at his insights (in particular, it seems that she suspects Hamilton was far more influenced by his teas with Fisher and other geneticists at Cambridge than he himself let on, to himself or to others). But whether inclusive fitness or his theory for the origins of sex are true or not, that is a matter for science to sort out. And that is what ultimately matters in terms of the legacy of W. D. Hamilton.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolutionary Genetics, Genetics, Nature's Oracle 
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Jerry Coyne alerts me to the fact that Ullica Segerstrale’s Nature’s Oracle: A Life of W. D. Hamilton is finally near publication. Specifically, early 2013. Coyne has looked at he pre-publication text, so it is probably in revision, though the meat has already been laid upon the bones. Hamilton was one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists of the second half of the 20th century. Though to my knowledge he never wrote an autobiography as such the details of his life was liberally strewn out across dozens of books. You can find them in Segerstrale’s Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate, or The Darwin Wars. He makes a cameo appearance in Robert Trivers’ Natural Selection and Social Theory, as well as The Price of Altruism, a scientific biography of Hamilton’s collaborator George Price.

But the best place to go for understanding Hamilton as he understood himself are his collected papers, which have biographical sections laying out the scientific, cultural, and historical context for a given publication. They are, in chronological order Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 3: Last Words. Though all three volumes are chock full of science (I go back and reread papers from my own personal volumes of these works relatively frequently), there are differences in the nature of the biography. The last volume was put together after W. D. Hamilton’s death, and so has reflections from his collaborators. The first volume encapsulates Hamilton’s own thoughts with economy and polish. But it is the middle volume which has a special quality: Hamilton’s biographical sections could not be thoroughly edited because he had already died. Therefore, in the second volume you’ll treated to some of Hamilton’s unexpurgated thoughts, in their full glory and and overgrown gnarl.

The most controversial aspects of Hamilton’s ideas had to do with the fact that to a great extent he was an heir of the British eugenic tradition, going back to R. A. Fisher, and Francis Galton. Though in his science Hamilton was the subject of acclaim for the second half of his life, his naive and unguarded speculations which tread politically incorrect territory rendered him on occasion moderately toxic (see the section on his ‘Nazi paper’ in volume 1). But W. D. Hamilton was not a political philosopher, he was a scientist. Unlike some scientists he was somewhat unguarded about his fixations on ideas which were becoming heterodox in the age in which he matured. This doesn’t speak to his quality as a scientist, and I hope that people can appreciate that Hamilton’s personal set of values put straightforward and naked honesty higher than any cultivation of deft social intelligence.* One would hope that the former is more of the outlook we’d hope that a scientist would have, for good or ill.

* In regards to Hamilton’s nature, from read his recollections of George Price I would have thought that his collaborator was an ascetic man. But in The Price of Altruism there is a whole of Price, sexually obsessive of women who were objects of his infatuation, which was a total surprise to me. I had the pleasure of dining & drinking with the author of The Price of Altruism, and George Price’s daughters, a few years back, and it seems to me that his scientific collaborators were treated to only a particular slice of the man’s life, resulting in the lacunae which were exposed to me.

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"