by Alasdair Gray

Gene Genius

June 27, 2013 | by Alasdair Gray

William Hamilton’s name became known to the general public in 1976 through Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  Written to popularize recent discoveries in Darwinian evolution, this book claimed these were mainly due to Hamilton. Some biologists questioned these discoveries in the following years, but when Bill’s funeral service was held in July 2000 at the Chapel of New College, Oxford, nobody contradicted Dawkins when he said biologists and geneticists mostly agreed that Bill was the world’s greatest evolutionary biologist since Darwin.  Of course total agreement in any region of thought is impossible. Students of science in parts of Ireland, the USA and some Muslim states are taught that new kinds of plant and animal did not evolve from earlier ones, because God separately invented each. Otherwise most folk interested in biology will recognise the importance of Bill Hamilton and this biography. 

This is the fourth Oxford University Press publication about Bill’s life and work. The first three were the trilogy of his collected papers titled, Narrow Roads of Geneland. Bill edited the first two, Evolution of Social Behaviour and The Evolution of Sex, in which his scientific papers were printed in the order they were written, each with his preface explaining the circumstances, with teachers who doubted the value of his research and colleagues who valued it. Not all good scientists believe that the personal struggles producing their best ideas may cast light on them. Kepler did, thinking the mental process by which he found planetary orbits were not circular but elliptical as interesting as the discovery.

Last Words, the trilogy’s third volume, was edited by Mark Ridley with each paper introduced by a co-author or colleague because Bill had died of a disease contracted in Africa. Even without his introductions to Last Words these collected papers are a scientific record and self-portrait – a scientist’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Like all autobiographies it omits much that the author took for granted or thought unimportant, hence our need of Ullica Segerstrale’s biography.

It is an excellent account of a character nineteenth-century writers called an original, meaning not easily classified. As a lecturer Bill had some traits attributed to absent-minded professors — no respect for merely conventional manners and appearances, with carelessness over a pay cheque. This combined with practical though unconventional efficiency on expeditions in equatorial rain forests, and with unusual physical strength few noticed because he never flaunted it. Once, perhaps, he quietly enjoyed disturbing an audience by explaining how he had plugged a leak in a boat while swimming under it in Brazil, ending with the casual remark, “The danger of piranhas is greatly exaggerated.” (When I mentioned this to his wife Christine last year she said impatiently, “There is no danger from piranhas if you aren’t bleeding.”)

Every healthy meerkat community has a member who stands on its hind legs with raised head like a human sentry, looking out for predators while the rest seek nourishment with four feet on the ground. A meerkat community too small to support a sentinel is soon killed off.

Segerstrale shows that Bill’s originality as a thinker derived (as often happens) from highly original parents. Both were New Zealanders who, from the mid 1930s onward, brought up six children in Oaklea, five acres of Kentish woodland surrounding an ordinary two-storey house with useful outbuildings.  Here their offspring found space to develop their own interests and hobbies, with parents who gladly helped when they wanted help. This gave the children freedoms their parents had enjoyed as youngsters in New Zealand, and perhaps  colonial prejudices against what they called posh. They used thriftily mended broken china, dined without tablecloths when guests were not present, avoided hotels and restaurants by travelling in a car with tents and camping equipment. This came easy to a family whose engineer dad had supervised building a road for the British Empire through the mountains of Kurdistan and used prefabricated bridges of his own invention. Life at Oaklea was both tougher and more varied than that of most middle-class British children. Bill’s love of natural history began in the woods of Oaklea.

More about his parents. His mother Bettina had qualified as a general medical doctor who meant to work as a missionary, but after marriage abandoned that, becoming a full-time housekeeping mother. She loved art and literature, read poems and stories to her children, also the Bible which she thought should be part of everyone’s education. Her husband’s influence may have made her more of an agnostic than a Church Christian. A sentence on page 10 of Nature’s Oracle may be misleading: “Archie and Bettina often attended a church on Sunday, sometimes taking the children.” Their eldest child, Mary Bliss, tells me her father was an outspoken Atheist who never went to church. From Archie, Bill picked up engineering skills which, like natural history, stimulated an intelligent imagination also fed by paintings, poetry, the novels of Dostoevsky and Kafka. Two of his closest friends and scientific colleagues, Hugh Ingram and Colin Hudson were practising Christians, and in later life George Price. Bill greatly sympathised with Price, helped publicise his discoveries, could not save him from suicide when Price found living as Jesus commanded and giving all he had to the poor was too difficult.

Bill’s lack of snobbery and remarkable absence of prejudices came from his family being a small republic which quietly supported its members while expecting each to earn their independence, so at the start of her book Segerstrale concentrates on family matters.  After Bill’s professional studies get underway she gives them priority, mentioning lecturers who thought his ideas unimportant or suspect, others who valued them and all his helpful colleagues. Bill had no small talk of the kind most young people use in mating games, so was surprised to learn later that he could be ‘a ladies man’, after meeting women with educations more like his own. Apart from his wife Christine, Segestrale says nothing about other women in his life. She mentions an early proposal of marriage being turned down – the woman refused to accept his condition that of the two children she would bear, the second must have a different father. Bill was not proposing a ménage a trois, but his faith in altruistic kinship made him sure different fathers would give both children a broader range of support in life. He forgot that most women willing to wed one man are instinctively monogamous. He may have abandoned that idea when Christine accepted him. Segestrale leaves later biographers to scavenge for names and details which she rightly thinks gossip irrelevant to Bill’s main story. Here comes some gossip of my own.

I met Bill through friendship with his sister Mary when I was a studying mural design at Glasgow School of Art and he studying genetics at Cambridge University. We were both keen on the work of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. (Palmer’s best paintings were made near Oaklea, at Shoreham where Blake had visited him.) We also discussed behaviour uniquely human – our capacity to eat when not hungry, drink when not thirsty, fuck in almost any season of the year and, alas, hurt or kill other people after making them helpless. It is also obvious that some of us enjoy doing so. Theists blame these traits upon the fall of man and original sin and Atheists upon the nature of things, often called Nature for short. Bill and I were Darwinian enough to think these capacities were inherited from a time when they helped people survive, but we now worried about human survival in a world where belligerent nations threatened each other with nuclear weapons. As a Socialist I thought this belligerence mainly due to needless competition causing poverty and overcrowding. Bill also thought overpopulation dangerous, but believed belligerence had a profounder genetic source.

Our talks in the 1950s have no place in Bill’s biography because they did not influence his work, which explained selfish belligerence and xenophobia indirectly. He saw there was more to be learned about the nature of human and other animals by investigating capacities for self-sacrifice. Most birds live upon insects and seeds, only a minority of bigger ones are predators, yet many smaller birds give a special cry if they see a hawk circling overhead, a cry warning others in earshot of the predator, though the cry will first attract the hawk’s attention to itself. Most people incline to call individuals who risk or lose their lives helping others heroes or idiots, but a species without these self-sacrificers is in danger of extinction. Every healthy meerkat community has a member who stands on its hind legs with raised head like a human sentry, looking out for predators while the rest seek nourishment with four feet on the ground. A meerkat community too small to support a sentinel is soon killed off.

While studying altruism genetically at Cambridge Bill wished to attend anthropology lectures as a second subject but the anthropology department rejected him because he was a scientist.  Anthropologists saw themselves as an arts faculty working at an interface between history and philosophy.  So did most biologists who believed human societies could never undergo experimental proofs required by exact sciences. This disgruntled Bill with Cambridge. He  decided that evidence for genetic altruism could be best investigated in places where animal life was thickest, among the social insects of South America. Nature’s Oracle tells how Bill’s investigations were first dismissed as ‘politically incorrect’, though that phrase was not yet in general use. A historical excursion is needed to explain why.

Malthus’ Essay on the Principal of Population was published in 1798 when the French Revolution was underway, and still welcomed by many critics of the British government.  Among these was Tom Paine who had strongly supported the war for American independence. His book The Rights of Man said hereditary monarchs and aristocracies used taxation to promote warfare while supporting a hoard of unproductive parasites. He said a democratic government could use taxation to abolish hereditary bosses and poverty by setting up what was called a Welfare State over a century later. Malthus argued against this that in every land more people were born than there was food enough to feed, so death from warfare and poverty were needed to keep efficient societies working. He said that if a widespread sharing of social wealth ever produced a wholly well-fed generation, their numbers would increase so much that the next would be decimated by famine.

This argument seemed conclusive to land owners, employers and politicians who had no wish to pay better wages or improve working-class conditions. It was attacked by those who saw it used to justify widespread corruption and selfishness in what Harold Wilson once called ‘the commanding heights of the economy.’ Malthus’ justification of warfare was ancient — in Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale Mars the war-god is praised for cutting down Nature’s excess — but his essay was probably first to suggest that deaths from poverty were good for a nation.

The link between population and food supply in Malthus’ essay gave Charles Darwin a clue to The Origin of Species. This book persuaded Herbert Spencer to invent the phrase survival of the fittest, which became popular with thinkers called Social Darwinists.  These tended to talk as if much money, inherited or earned, was an obvious sign of people fittest to survive. This contradicted Dean Swift’s remark, that if you want to know what God thinks about money, look at those who have most.  Only the sycophants of multi-millionaires can believe they show human nature at its best.  By the 1890s it was also proved that working-class families with good wages tended to have fewer, not more children than their poorer neighbours.

Darwin never wrote or said a word that would identify him with those called Social Darwinists, but his distant cousin Francis Galton was a good scientist, meteorologist and investigator of hereditary traits who added the word eugenics to the English language. Galton worried about the general health of the British people.  He saw the aristocracy threatened by the dangers of inbreeding, which the European royal families had made notorious.  He saw workers in the cities plagued by tuberculosis and a host of other diseases which he thought might become hereditary.  Since the fourteenth-century Black Death London’s population had grown steadily bigger, though parish registers showed that the death rate there always exceeded the birth rate. This proved that the expansion had been caused by people constantly arriving from healthier places outside.  Stockbreeders knew how to strengthen traits they approved of in horses, cattle and fowls. Galton thought public health should be improved by breeding people in the same way, and endowed a Eugenic Society to foster a healthier, more intelligent race of Britons.

Galton was no more a fascist than other prosperous Victorians blind to the fact that people of any intelligence will always choose mates for reasons that have nothing to do with public health, so eugenics never became a science. But its arguments were welcomed by people who liked dividing humanity into their own race, class or religion and those outside it, usually folk they wanted to exploit.  That is how all imperial governments divide the human race. Four enforced eugenic laws. Nazi Germany set out to kill all Jews, gypsies and (before the Catholic Church protested) the incurably sick. For some decades before the twentieth century ended the USA, Norway and Sweden forcibly, legally sterilised those judged mentally subnormal for reasons later found inadequate.

Fascism was defeated after World War Two and Social Darwinism rejected, but a scientist studying genetic traits common to mankind and other animals was suspected of Nazi tendencies, especially when he related these to birth, death rates and food supplies.  On leaving Cambridge Bill decided his best chance of a regular income was in secondary school education, and applied to train as a teacher of science at Moray House in Edinburgh University.  He was told his degree in genetics only qualified him for training to teach in primary schools. Bill appealed against this decision because his degree had depended on passes in three other sciences, but the appeal was dismissed.

Nature’s Oracle tells how Bill gradually overcame that prejudice, though some papers now widely accepted were first denounced as fascist.  He went on researching and publishing because he thought scientifically proved facts politically neutral, no matter what moral codes people choose to base upon them. Many left-wing people like myself were probably repelled by the title of Dawkins’ book which first popularised Bill’s ideas, just as it may have attracted right-wing thinkers of the anti-Christian Ayn Rand kind.  The Selfish Gene could have been more accurately named The Altruistic Gene Functioning Between Near And Distant Relatives Of The Same Species, a more difficult name to remember, so less likely to help a book survive.

My incapacity for mathematics unfits me to understand the whole range of the achievements that made Bill first president of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society, but when I translate them into human terms they seem sensible. The heroism of sentry meerkats, the warning cries of small birds are like the willingness of thinkers to tell unwelcome truths, and why greedy dictatorships censor free speech. Bill thought the effects of genetic inclinations to xenophobia in social circumstances could be predicted, and did not doubt that extra-genetic altruism between those who shared unselfish ideas could act against it.  He called behaviour which benefits our self and harms others selfish, which benefits our self and others, co-operation, which benefits others at our own expense, altruism. Behaviour damaging both our self and others he first called stupid then re-defined as spite. The purest example of spite is Hitler’s attitude before his suicide in the bunker – he hoped every German would be exterminated because they had let him down by failing to conquer Britain, Russia and the USA.  The importance of spite is known to psychologists, but mainly ignored by historians.

Nature’s Oracle is a success story because Bill did not fade out like most of us but died still masterfully investigating the nature of things, still open to new ideas and helping to generate them. Unlike many scientists he never rejected a suggestion by someone younger because it was unfamiliar or unproved, but reacted by first examining the evidence.  He gave the Gaia hypothesis some support by recognising the part played by clouds in seed-distribution. He realised the fact that the brilliant variety of autumn leaf colours is not a just a sign of decay, but a pre-winter signal to attract or repel helpful or damaging insects.

His death was partly the result of willingness to investigate an unpopular idea. He had written an introduction in 1999 to Edward Hooper’s The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and Aids. This book argued that the Aids epidemic had an African origin in the experiments there of pharmaceutical companies. Bill’s introduction said there might be truth in the argument.  His mother Bettina, still alive and a qualified GP, told him he would make many enemies by doing so. He believed the argument could be made by finding onsite for analysis the dung of anthropoid apes.  He was flown back from Africa with what proved a fatal haemorrhage before finding any.  His line of investigation may never be reopened.

Since his death in 2000 some biologists who find his theory of altruism distasteful have been casting doubt on his kin-selection formulas in order to suggest he has undervalued co-operative traits.  These include Nowak, Harvard professor of biology and mathematics, Wilson an emeritus professor there and former colleague of Bill, and the mathematician Tomita.  Their revision has been repudiated by the majority of biologists who find Bill’s concepts a useful source of new thinking and experiment. The value of scientific ideas can only be tested scientifically, so those who highly value Bill’s achievements need not be disturbed by attacks which will test them further.

More than scientists will find Nature’s Oracle interesting. Bill’s sister Mary calls it a tour de force, while listing some factual errors easy to correct in a future edition. Segestrale should be proud of this book.


Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton
Ullica Segerstrale

Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 978 0 19 860727 4

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by Wood Ian S.

Gene Genius

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