William D. Hamilton: science without artifice

By Razib Khan | March 20, 2013 6:27 pm

In Nature Oren Harman has a review up of Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W. D. Hamilton. It seems as if he gives it a B. Not enough science? Too much biography? For those who want more science and depth, Hamilton’s collected papers are where you should start: Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour, Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Sex, and Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Last Words. These books consist of an alternating series of (auto)biographical sketches and scientific papers. Unfortunately Hamilton died before much work went into the last volume, so we don’t get to hear him in his own voice. This is a shame, because the first two volumes place much of the science in fascinating, if not necessary, social context. The equivalent chapters for the last volume were written by colleagues and collaborators, but the outcome is not surprisingly more pedestrian. The second volume in particular is worth picking up because it is basically unedited Hamilton (his untimely death meant that the normal back and forth which would have slimmed down the verbosity and softened the candor was simply not possible).


But Hamilton is a man of enough stature that he makes more than cameo appearances in other works of scientific biography and narrative. He looms large in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate. You can find less sympathetic portraits of him in The Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man and A Reason for Everything (the latter focuses on the Oxford School of evolutionary biology; you’ve heard of them). Robert Trivers remembers him fondly in Natural Selection and Social Theory, which has a format similar to Hamilton’s own first two collections of short papers. Finally, he has a large role to play in Harman’s biography, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness.

W. D. Hamilton is controversial because he had naked eugenicist sympathies. This was the norm among British evolutionary biologists before World War II, and continued to be expressed by some after, down to the present day. Richard Dawkins, who early on in his career in the 1970s could arguably be termed “Hamilton’s bulldog,” continues to carry that torch to some extent, though far less stridently. Part of the issue here is probably cultural, insofar as “positive eugenics” was much more prominent in Britain than it was in the United States or Germany, where “negative eugenics” was practiced (positive in the promotion of “good traits,” negative in the selection against “bad traits”). From what I know Britain simply has a less traumatic history with state sponsored eugenics than other developed nations, so it is held in less bad odor.

But there’s no point in diminishing the fact that Hamilton was a full-spectrum eugenicist. This is why Michael Ruse has used him as a foil in the past, as the sort of evolutionist who oversteps his bounds. And the reality is those who worry about “genetic determinism” will be horrified by some of the threads laced through Hamilton’s ouvre (see the discussion of the “fascist paper” in the first volume of his Narrow Roads of Gene Land: Evolution of Social Behaviour). I believe this is why there is so much biographical coverage of Hamilton’s life, as opposed to his peer John Maynard Smith. Unlike Hamilton, or E. O. Wilson, Maynard Smith was careful to equivocate or avoid delicate issues of social consequence, even if scientifically his own work may have supported explosive inferences. This is probably a reflection of his sophistication in non-scientific matters (he being an ex-Communist). In any case, both John Maynard Smith and W. D. Hamilton made important contributions to evolutionary genetics (in various ways both were responsible for the modern formal framework of inclusive fitness). The fact that the former did not encroach on the territory of the human sciences (something he expressively admitted being a conscious choice), while the latter did so without self-consciousness, does not impact their scientific contributions in the least.

Both these stances have their utility. Speculating or engaging in matters outside narrow disciplinary domains is not always beneficial to one’s career (ask Robert Trivers), or to the subject matter at hand. And yet I believe that W. D. Hamilton’s forays, if often misguided and naive, were important because he asked hard and unpleasant questions. At some fundamental level life is a unity. I do not want to leave bioethics to ethicists. Rather, it should be a joint project between biologists and ethicists, and to a great extent society as a whole. If so, then there needs to be a level of candor and frankness which is unrestrained by normal conventions of politeness or fear of controversy. Because of Hamilton’s guileless nature he stepped into minefields constantly when he expanded beyond pure theoretical evolutionary genetic domains. And I think the world is better for it, because past experience tells us that hard questions are often the best, and at some point needful.

As an example of this Richard Dawkins is now broaching the issue of extensive cousin marriage among Pakistani Britons as a public health matter. Obviously there are social and political dimension to this question, but there are also genetic ones, and it is fitting that Dawkins should address those. As it is I suspect most scientists would rather not confront these issues, and be accused of “Islamophobia.” But in inbred populations eugenics always comes into play, one way or another.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
MORE ABOUT: William Hamilton
  • marcel proust

    Copy editing/proofreading:

    … does impact their scientific contributions in the least.

    I think you dropped a “not” here.

  • Dan

    I’m about halfway through the book. A ‘B’ seems fair to me but think it’s a little unreasonable for Harman to criticise on the grounds of ‘fuzzy’ facts, when I found his own biography of Price a little inconsistent in terms of scientific clarity. At points I even doubted whether he really understands the differences between kin and group selection. In fairness some of his examples and illustrations are very good, and by the end of the book I concluded that my quibbles must be down to shortcomings in communication rather than comprehension.

    Anyway, science education is not what I ask of these kinds of books (although a better treatment of the science, done accessibly, is always an improvement, especially for readers who might be students or non-scientists), and in all other respects I found ‘The Price of Altruism’ a fine piece of work.

  • Emil Kirkegaard

    Negative eugenics was widespread in Europe, not just Germany. Sweden seems to have been the leader in sterilization. I refer to Richard Lynn’s Eugenics: A reassessment, chapter 2 “The Rise and Fall of Eugenics”.

    Download link: http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Richard-Lynn-Eugenics.pdf

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The rapid decline in the popularity of eugenics seems puzzling to me. The common explanation is that it was a reaction against Nazi Germany, but as mentioned Sweden and much of the northern U.S practiced it as well without going down the same route. And the most objectionable things about the Nazis were the murderous militarism, totalitarianism and sometimes explicit irrationalism, rather than their concern with good breeding.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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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