Nature's Oracle finally out in 2013

By Razib Khan | September 16, 2012 2:03 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 Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 3: Last Words. Though all three volumes are chock full of science (I go back and reread papers from my own personal volumes of these works relatively frequently), there are differences in the nature of the biography. The last volume was put together after W. D. Hamilton’s death, and so has reflections from his collaborators. The first volume encapsulates Hamilton’s own thoughts with economy and polish. But it is the middle volume which has a special quality: Hamilton’s biographical sections could not be thoroughly edited because he had already died. Therefore, in the second volume you’ll treated to some of Hamilton’s unexpurgated thoughts, in their full glory and and overgrown gnarl.

The most controversial aspects of Hamilton’s ideas had to do with the fact that to a great extent he was an heir of the British eugenic tradition, going back to R. A. Fisher, and Francis Galton. Though in his science Hamilton was the subject of acclaim for the second half of his life, his naive and unguarded speculations which tread politically incorrect territory rendered him on occasion moderately toxic (see the section on his ‘Nazi paper’ in volume 1). But W. D. Hamilton was not a political philosopher, he was a scientist. Unlike some scientists he was somewhat unguarded about his fixations on ideas which were becoming heterodox in the age in which he matured. This doesn’t speak to his quality as a scientist, and I hope that people can appreciate that Hamilton’s personal set of values put straightforward and naked honesty higher than any cultivation of deft social intelligence.* One would hope that the former is more of the outlook we’d hope that a scientist would have, for good or ill.

* In regards to Hamilton’s nature, from read his recollections of George Price I would have thought that his collaborator was an ascetic man. But in The Price of Altruism there is a whole of Price, sexually obsessive of women who were objects of his infatuation, which was a total surprise to me. I had the pleasure of dining & drinking with the author of The Price of Altruism, and George Price’s daughters, a few years back, and it seems to me that his scientific collaborators were treated to only a particular slice of the man’s life, resulting in the lacunae which were exposed to me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolutionary Genetics

Comments (4)

  1. Hamilton was a heckuva guy, although not the most transparent of prose stylists. The combination of his obscure style and his dying young probably saved him from a Watson-Summers style inquisitorial roasting.

    In contrast, personality psychologist Raymond Cattell lived into his 90s, so he could be humiliated at 92 for holding out of fashion political views:

  2. ryan

    Off topic, so I thought I’d drop back a day or two so as not to clutter a live thread, but in the hopes you might see this.

    You have what I consider great confidence in your sense of how genetics will ultimately prove to relate to the variability of intelligence.

    I wonder what you would make of the research of Robert Pianta, described this morning on NPR:

    Along with the research described on This American Life this weekend:

    I believe you have a skepticism about how mainstream media presents science, yet in both cases, I think they primarily let the researchers speak, so my guess is the distortion isn’t enormous. (Admittedly I haven’t tracked down the research of these people since hearing these stories. Though I plan to.)

    Taken together, I think they present a rather enormous challenge to the idea that many kids perform to their abilities. Which undercuts the idea that measured intelligence relates systematically

    One of Pianta’s primary insights is into the effects of a teacher’s attitude towards a given child on that child’s performance.

    The TAL segment is rather different, and I think misses on some points. It tries to suggest that ‘non-cognitive’ skills are more important than intelligence in predicting a child’s future success. I’d turn it in a different direction. Non-cognitive skills are enormously important, not least in making it possible for children to develop their cognitive abilities.

    I think these things relate to child-rearing techniques that are cultural, not genetic. I know you’ve started to explore the idea that temperament may have a genetic basis. But I think some of the results presented here offer a strong challenge to much of what you’ve written on that topic. If teaching methods can substantially alter a child’s non-cognitive abilities, then many of the underpinnings of social science as it relates to demographics will have to be re-written.

    Or maybe I’m drastically inflating the importance of these stories. But I thought you’d find them interesting and challenging and might devote a post at some point.

  3. just wait to post that stuff in open thread in the future.


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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


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