Intellectual odyssey to gene land

Narrow Roads of Gene Land

June 14, 1996

This is a fascinating and rewarding book that deserves a wide audience among academics and all those interested in ideas and the life of intellectuals. Its subtitle, The collected papers of W. D. Hamilton, Volume one, Evolution of Social Behaviour, accurately describes the two-thirds of the book that will be of particular interest to social scientists.

Hamilton, who is currently a Royal Society research professor at the University of Oxford, is one of the most original and influential 20th-century theoretical biologists. His reputation derives from a relatively few papers which are not always as accessible as they should be. Students, in particular nonbiologists, will be grateful for this book which, when the second volume is published, will make it possible for them to read all of the work of one of the century's seminal thinkers whilst working over a summer vacation. Those teaching them will be grateful for having in one handy package both "heavy" papers from places like the Journal of Theoretical Biology and less mathematically demanding, shorter pieces from Nature, Science, The American Naturalist etc. Those looking for book prizes to give to students should look no further; this is the solution to their problem, although sixth-formers might be told that it is okay to skip some of the maths.

The real fascination of the book for me, though, was in the other third which consists of an extended introduction to and commentary on each of the 15 reprinted papers. Interwoven with the scholarly commentary are anecdotal accounts of how and why the paper was written and often why Hamilton thinks (or thought) it was important - amounting in fact to an account of his intellectual odyssey.

As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Hamilton found that his lecturers were neither interested in the problems of the evolution of social behaviour nor, worse, could they see quite what the problem was that this diffident but determined student wished to study. At that time, the 1960s, it was accepted in Cambridge that selection for attributes, such as apparently altruistic behaviour, could occur at the species or population level. Hamilton, a fan of Fisher's and Haldane's mathematical approaches to population genetics, realised that this was impossible and eventually found a place at the London School of Economics, where he was given a Leverhulme scholarship, to do a PhD. It is greatly to the LSE's credit that they took on this biology graduate. Perhaps, as he puts it, " I repressed deep in the soul of that institution lies a streak of heterodoxy" that made the LSE recognise a brilliant maverick. There is no sign, however, that the LSE did very much else for this unusual student, whose isolated existence seems to have gone unremarked even by his notional supervisor in a way that I fondly hope would not be possible today. The description of the solitary, lonely and penniless life of a postgraduate student commuting from digs to library, uncertain whether he is "onto something" or not and with no one able to provide much in the way of guidance has rarely been better done.

The seemingly inevitable rejection of the first paper on "The evolution of altruistic behaviour" by Nature, the nagging worry about jobs, will be familiar to readers of The THES, as will the sheer intellectual excitement of trying to do something both very difficult and original. With hindsight it is, of course, very odd that no one realised what Hamilton was "onto". Perhaps it is inevitable that truly innovative "break-throughs" will never be seen at the time for what they are. But those whose work borders on the social sciences often suffer an additional handicap when dealing with those from whom they might have expected support. As Hamilton puts it, "I wonder if people who struggle to extend the frontiers of a discipline against a current of peer disapproval sometimes need to convince themselves and others that they are not quite the heretics and outlaws everyone thinks and that this need is expressed through an extra militancy against further extension in the direction they themselves have been taking."

Hamilton's rather more mathematical approach did not attract the public hostility in the 1970s that E. O. Wilson suffered as a consequence of the last chapter of his book Sociobiology, although they both drew on very similar ideas and observations.

As this book makes very clear Hamilton is unrepentant and the passages in which he rebuts those critics of his (and Wilson's) views are refreshing and guaranteed to stimulate debate amongst those sociologists, anthropologists, economists and psychologists who are slowly coming to realise that at last the biologists have something intellectually serious to offer them.

The current publicly visible aspect of these tensions is the debate on "political correctness"; and Hamilton's wry comments on whether the use of the word "rape" is justifiable for the male-enforced copulation frequently seen amongst beetles and birds is a delight. He points out that in that and similar connections, "Practically none of our basic behaviour, perhaps only our linguistic behaviour and even that uncertainly, is wholly unique to humans.

"Any scientist who saw a barnyard cock copulating with an unwilling hen and then tried to explain the act in terms of reflexes and hormonal states of the animals would not be talking nonsense but would certainly be missing the main point: he would be failing to see an adaptation.

"Boring, likewise, would be he who, while accepting to think in terms of an adaptive life programme for Gallus gallus, still refuses to anthropomorphise or to speculate on any possible connection between, say, the usual subordinate social status of the cock in question [a matter of fact] and the typical low social status of human rapists [likewise well attested]."

This is a most unusual and welcome book. It will disconcert many, but fascinate more. Every institution with any pretension to having a library should buy it. Volume two is already, as far as I am concerned, overdue.

John Ashworth is director, London School of Economics, and a biologist.

Narrow Roads of Gene Land

Author - W. D. Hamilton
ISBN - 0 7167 4551 8 and 4530 5
Publisher - W. H. Freeman/Spektrum
Price - £40.00 and £20.00
Pages - 528

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