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October 04, 2004

The Greatest?

In Steve's latest column he refers to William D. Hamilton as "the leading evolutionary theorist of the second half of the 20th Century." My first instinct is to agree with this assertion. But what do readers think? Can you think of someone more prominent in evolutionary biology between 1950-2000 in terms of their impact?

Why Hamilton? Well, during the 1960s he was the central figure that rejected the form of group selection forwarded by Vero Wynne-Edwards and turned toward kin selection & inclusive fitness. Hamilton's influence has been further expanded by Richard Dawkins, the foremost popularizer of evolutionary biology of our age, not to mention shaping the ideas of lesser, but still bright, lights like Matt Ridley.

For the first 50 years of the 20th century I think that the title of eminent evolutionary biologist should go Ronald A. Fisher (though perhaps some will argue for John B.S. Haldane), who was the early Hamilton's hero. But what about Fisher's American rival, Sewall Wright? He lived until 1988, and the later Hamilton looked to Wright as a hero. Perhaps we can acknowledge that Wright was Clyde Drexler to Fisher's Michael Jordan, and he was more a figure of the first half of the century than the latter.

The only other person who I think is within spitting distance is John Maynard Smith, of evolutionarily stable strategy fame.

Why is this sort of Ruth vs. Gehrig comparison important? Well, in the past few weeks it seems everyone (me included) has been using Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2 as if it is a sort of Bible. What would Hamilton say?

Posted by razib at 08:34 PM