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

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.

2 thoughts on “W. D. Hamilton, Darwin’s 20th century heir

  1. Is E.O. Wilson likewise too much a mensch to generate a book-length biography?

  2. I had the pleasure of attending his memorial services at HBES meeting at Amherst in 2002. The stories were great. Robert Trivers was self-effacing and funny in recounting W.D.’s kind advise to him to rework his maths. Trivers also said talking theory with W.D. was to have a normal careers’ worth of ideas dumped on you as leftover crumbs. Who’s who of evolutionary anthropology and psychology in attendance. A real honor to present that year and soak it all in.

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