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W. D. Hamilton

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After reading Nature’s Oracle (yes, a lengthy review will be up soonish) I am even more struck by how evolutionary process suffused W. D. Hamilton’s whole worldview. This resulted in some peculiar conflicts over his career with those who wished to partition evolutionary and biological processes away from the domain of humans. Of course Hamilton himself focused for most of his scientific life on non-human phenomena in the specific details (e.g., the utilization of hymenoptera to illustrate inclusive fitness), but he always believed that his evolutionary insights were general. This makes sense in light of his idolization of R. A. Fisher, for whom evolutionary genetics was a practical science (he was a eugenicist). One of the biographical details which receives great attention in Nature’s Oracle is Hamilton’s untimely approach of an anthropology department the early 1960s in the interest of pursuing graduate work on the evolution of social behavior. It was a reflection of his absolute naivete as to the political climate during this period.

Many of Hamilton’s speculations seem likely to be wrong. Some of them are clear patently offensive to many. And yet the more I think about it the more I suspect that the Hamiltonian way of looking at things, where evolution is seamlessly integrated with the broader phenomena of living organisms, allows for maximal insight. E. O. Wilson famously asserted that “genes keep culture on the leash.” Hamilton agreed with this perspective. To some extent it is true and trivial. But it not always trivial.

I have suggested periodically that to a great extent even many biologists who don’t focus upon evolution don’t understand the process in their bones. By this, I don’t mean that these biologists don’t grasp the descriptive process of evolutionary change. They may even understand the conditions necessary for adaptation, or the power of stochastic forces on the genomic level. But very rarely do these biologists view evolution as part of a synoptic whole, a theory of the phenomena of living organisms. W. D. Hamilton had such a view, even if in the details many of his inferences generated from his internal framework were wrong. He was a master of the algebra of evolution, and evolutionary processes loomed large in the mechanism of his inferential engine.

This need not be so. There are areas where biological evolutionary process is not informative, at least in a non-trivial sense. There may even be domains where cultural evolutionary models are also uninformative. Rather, evolutionary process is a tool in a broader project to understand human culture. This is anathema to many social scientists, who do not believe that biological forces, and in particular evolution forces, present us with non-trivial implications. Because this is the a priori position it is almost impossible to make many social scientists (those familiar with formal modeling are generally excepted from this category) understand why evolutionary processes might actually be relevant.

Part of the problem here is that for various reasons that the sample space of researchers engaging in this sort of consilience is small, and restricted to particular scientific subcultures (e.g., evolutionary psychologists, the group of anthropologists around Robert Boyd, etc.). That means that the full range of nuanced possibilities often gets ignored, and big splashy assertions get press and acclaim. With all due to respect to E. O. Wilson his speculations about humans often indicate a lack of genuine focus on the topic. He is fundamentally steeped in ants, and people are a sidelight.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, W. D. Hamilton 
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The W. D. Hamilton biography, Nature’s Oracle finally has a publication date. Amazon says March 1st, and other places say April 1st (For the USA). I don’t care much either way, I pre-ordered. Now it would be nice if more academic books were available in Kindl format though. I’m not anticipating the “physical pleasure” of have it shipped to me when I could just get it emailed to me on the day of its release.

• Category: Science • Tags: Evolution, W. D. Hamilton 
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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"