Nature’s Oracle finally out in 2013

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.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression