W.D. Hamilton & group selection & ideology

By Razib Khan | January 22, 2007 11:57 pm

My post below, Group selection & the naturalistic fallacy, elicited some interesting comments. First, I mentinoed W.D. Hamilton’s allusion to a relationship between fascism & group selection. Here is what he said:

‘Liberal’ thinkers should realize from the outset that fervent ‘belief’ in evolution at the group level, and especially any idea that group selection obviates supposedly unnecesssary or non-existent harsh aspects of natural selection, actually starts them at once on a course that heads straight towards Fascist ideology….

(page 385, Defenders of the Truth)

I believe I should retract the force of my assertion a bit, because here Hamilton was basically making the same argument that “Colugo” does, that those who believe group selection is somehow more human are deluding themselves. Nevertheless, these sentiments and ideological posturings are not entirely absent from Hamilton’s collected papers (Narrow Roads of Gene Land I, Narrow Roads of Gene Land II). I tire of this line of thought because Hamilton the god of science becomes very much Hamilton the man. To connect any scientific theory with fascism is imprudent, because the taint of fascism runs deep. Steve Sailer offers that Hamilton was a guileless and naive scientist, but reading his memoirs it is clear he knows of the implications of National Socialism and how it reshaped evolutionary discourse. After all Hamilton was at University College London when Lionel Penrose transformed the Galton Laboratory of Eugenics to that of Human Genetics. Ideological posturing was in the air, and though Hamilton was not an adroit manipulator the use of the “f-word” is simply not comprehensible aside from the reality that he knew the force that the world held.
Now, keep in mind that I tend toward Hamilton’s general views in regards to biology, but that does not mean that I will not “call a foul” on “my own side.” Such short sighted political moves do a disservice to lady science, who deserves the best from us. I found Dawkins’ dodge on punctuated equilibrium (or at least the ubiquity of selection in evolutionary process) distasteful and fundamentally dishonest as well, though I tend to agree with the man’s science. Whatever short term rhetorical victories are gained, it comes at the exhaustion of the precious capital of scientific goodwill and a sense of fair play which is necessary for the endeavor.
Finally, in regards to whether Hamilton was an individual selectionist par excellence, I will withdraw that claim, as I was uncomfortable making it in the first place, though I offered it up in the interests of economy of prose. George C. Williams more properly is the avatar of the ultra-individualist perspective. Nevertheless, Hamilton was one to engage in many circumlocutions and reversals in his opinions (e.g., he turned away from the plausibility of directed eugenics by the 1990s, though he had once been a promoter), so I think it is difficult to say he had one specific opinion which could be expressed in an unsubtle sentence or so.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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