A historical slice of evolutionary genetics

A few friends pointed out that I likely garbled my attribution of who were the guiding forces between the “classical” and “balance” in the post below (Muller & Dobzhansky as opposed to Fisher & Wright as I said). I’ll probably do some reading and update the post shortly…but it did make me reflect that in the hurry to keep up on the current literature it is easy to lose historical perspective and muddle what one had learned.

Of course on some level science is not as dependent on history as many other disciplines. The history is “baked-into-the-cake.” This is clear when you read The Origin of Species. But if you are interested in a historical and sociological perspective on science, with a heavy dose of narrative biography, I highly recommend Ullica Segerstrale’s Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond and Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton.

Defenders of the Truth in particular paints a broad and vivid picture of a period in the 1960s and later into the 1970s when evolutionary thinkers began to grapple with ideas such as inclusive fitness. E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology famously triggered a counter-reaction by some intellectuals (Wilson was also physically assaulted in the 1978 AAAS meeting). Characters such as Noam Chomsky make cameo appearances.

Segerstrale’s Nature’s Oracle focuses particularly on the life and times of W. D. Hamilton, though if you want that at high speed and max density, read Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2. Because Hamilton died before the editing phase, the biographical text is relatively unexpurgated. Hamilton also makes an appearance in The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

The death of L. L. Cavalli-Sforza reminds us that the last of the students of the first generation of population geneticists are now passing on. With that, a great of history is going to be inaccessible. The same is not yet true of the acolytes of W. D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, or Robert Trivers.

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