Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

June 7, 2018

W. D. Hamilton, Darwin’s 20th century heir

Filed under: Evolutionary Genetics,W. D. Hamilton — Razib Khan @ 11:17 pm

Today on Twitter there was a discussion about why there wasn’t a biography of John Manyard Smith. One reason might be that John Maynard Smith was a pretty nice and congenial fellow. There wasn’t much excitement from what I know.

In contrast, if you read R.A. Fisher: The Life of a Scientist, you get the sense that he was a bit of a dick (the book was written by his daughter). Of course, Fisher was a great scientist, an eminence is both statistics and evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, his irascible personality lends itself to biographical treatment, though rarely hagiographical (a friend is writing a book on Fisher’s life; he too confirms, the guy was a dick).

The evolutionary biologist who yearned to be Fisher’s heir, W. D. Hamilton, was not a dick, but something of a dope. Hamilton has had a full-length biography devoted to him, Nature’s Oracle. But he makes appearances in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness, and A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the British Imagination.

I say Hamilton was a dope because he was socially awkward, and obviously got himself in trouble through his guilelessness. If he were alive today Hamilton would be in a whole lot of trouble I suspect, except for the fact that he’d be emeritus. Unfortunately, Bill Hamilton died in 2000 due to malaria contracted from field work (or malaria medication).

Yet Hamilton has left us two books where provides autobiographical sketches interleaved between his scientific papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behavior, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex (the third volume has biographical sketches from collaborators). In case you are not aware, Hamilton was the originator of the idea of “inclusive fitness.” At the same time, John Maynard Smith was developing “kin selection.” Hamilton distrusted Maynard Smith because of this coincidence, suspecting some sort of scientific fraud (both of them were in communication with George Price at the time).

Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex was published without revisions to a very long draft of autobiographical sketches because Hamilton had died. It is quite a rambling and sometimes incoherent piece of work because editors couldn’t give any feedback. But it’s fascinating because it’s an unvarnished window into Hamilton’s strange brain.

Of course, the primary reasons to read the three volumes on the scientific papers. I’ve read the famously notationally-inscrutable paper on inclusive fitness published in 1964 many a time. Bill Hamilton had an interesting life and a quirky mind. I’m quite sad that he’s not here anymore.

September 16, 2012

Nature’s Oracle finally out in 2013

Filed under: Evolutionary Genetics,Nature's Oracle,W. D. Hamilton — Razib Khan @ 1:03 pm

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 ...

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