Review of Nature’s Oracle. The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton (Journal of the History of Biology)

Review of Nature’s Oracle. The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton (Journal of the History of Biology)

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   Nature’s Oracle . The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), viii+441pp, illus., $25  Nature’s Oracle . The life and work of W.D. Hamilton is the first thorough biography of William Donald Hamilton, the intellectual father of Sociobiology and the scientist who contributed to our understanding of the evolution of sex, host-parasite relations, mate choice and senescence. Right from the title, the book portrays Bill Hamilton as an oracle of nature, a “scientific hero” (364), the “ Indian a Jones of evolutionary biology”  (367). The most revealing as well as the most problematic aspects of Ullica Segerstrale’s work for Oxford University Press lie in this oracular depiction of Bill Hamilton’ life and work.    Nature’s Oracle   unfolds chronologically following Bill Hamilton’s changing interests and scientific achievements. The book is laid out in 24 short chapters followed  by a useful Glossary with explanations of the main technical terms. Most of the book focuses on Hamilton’s work on the evolution of social life. Hamilton’s early interest in animal congregations in the British countryside and at Tonbridge, the encounter with Fischer’s work and the first t rips to Brazil occupy the first part of the book (Chapters, 1- 7). Its central chapters outline the immediate reception of Hamilton’s work as well as his encounters with important personalities of the time, from John Maynard Smith to George Price (Chapters, 8-14). The rest of the book covers the many interests and passions that Hamilton developed before and after his Oxford move: his use of game theory to address evolutionary questions, the famous Red Queen Hypothesis and the research about the srcins of HIV (Chapters, 15-20). Towards the end of the book, in some reflexive c hapters, the author expands on “Bill’s creative strategies” , his controversial ideas about human kind and his intellectual legacy (Chapters, 21-24).  Hamilton’s personal memories as well as the numerous interviews with his many colleagues, friends and family members are the most informative aspects of the book. The memories of the people interviewed provide unique clues to help interpret Hamilton’s scientific achievements in light of his work and private life. We see the virtues of the memory based reconstruction in many parts of  Nature’s Oracle : the description of Hamilton’s early life; the sections dealing with the reasons of Hamilton’s constant relocations; the many stories about Hamilton’s trips in South America; the story of how Hamilton  put together the three volumes of Narrow Roads of Gene Lands, and many others.   Nature’s Oracle   definitely succeeds in telling Hamilton’s life according to his own memories and those of the people that shared their lives with him. Yet, the almost hagiographic tone of the book is not totally persuasive in depi cting the epistemic and historical dynamics behind both Hamilton’s astonishing achievements and their oracular reception. Given the oral history based approach, it is not surprising that Segerstrale depicts Hamilton as an oracular figure in the landscape of 21st century evolutionary science. In this respect,  Nature’s Oracle  strongly resonates with the almost religious attitude that most scientists, historians and philosophers have towards the British scientist. Given the numerous contributions of Hamilton to the development of evolutionary biology, this attitude is totally understandable. However, at times it prevents from getting deeper into the creative processes behind both Hamilton’s groundbreaking achievements and their oracular reception. An example of a missed opportunity to provide a deeper understanding of the reasoning and creative processes of Hamilton’s genius is the description of the srcins and meaning of the famous formula for the evolution of altruism. In the final and more  interpretative chapters of  Nature’s Oracle , Segerstrale describes Hamilton’s heuristic approach as the result of the interaction of naturalistic and theoretical interests, the Kafka/Bates cyclic model, as she calls it (291-294). When it comes to using these two dimensions t o describe Hamilton’s discoveries, the picture that emerges risks to be too simplistic to actually fit Hamilton’s heuristics. In the case of the altruism formula, for instance, there are interesting questions that emerge but that do not find any answers in  Nature’s Oracle . Whereas it is likely true that Hamilton in his trips to the Amazon was looking for examples to test his theory, it would be worth asking: beside the passion and love for nature in all its forms, what did the naturalistic work actually contribute to Hamilton’s idea of Inclusive Fitness? More specifically, how did his work on wasps influence, and maybe shape, Hamilton’s perspective on cooperative behavior, both before and after 1964? Did his trips to the Amazon really aim just to test clearly formulated theoretical results, or did they also play a more creative and constructive role? These questions deserve more space in Bill Hamilton’s intellectual biography.  Another missed opportunity to get deeper into the historical and epistemic dimens ions of Hamilton’s work emerges when it comes to the evaluation of its fortune and reception. In Chapter 11 (Creativity in a Tight Spot) and Chapter 16 (Cooperation without Kinship), Segerstrale shows that Hamilton’s fascination of life under bark reveals interesting dimensions of his research on the srcins of eusocial behaviors in insects. The author makes clear how Hamilton’s focus was on the pre -adaptations that facilitated the srcins of altruistic behavior in the form of a sterile worker caste. The widespread opinion attributes to Hamilton an almost deterministic relationship between haplodiploid sex determination and emergence of altruistic behaviors. Segerstrale shows that,  according to the British biologist, altruistic behavior can evolve also in absence of the haplodiploid skewed relatedness ratios as long as there is some self-interest involved and the right ecological conditions. Such a reassessment raises important questions about hot topics in current evolutionary biology, such as multilevel selection, the role of pre-adaptations, the importance of ecological factors in the emergence of eusocial behavior and the distinction, if any, between natural selection and inclusive fitness. The questions raised by Segerstrale’s book could help clarify the roots of some heated contemporary debates about the evolution of altruistic behavior, such as the one that recently broke out around E.O. Wilson’s work and the famous so called Nowak’s 2005 paper. Nature’s Oracle, however, does not go that far and rather hides the important implications of its own discoveries. In fact, the last chapter of the book, instead of critically addressing the contemporary debates, concludes that Hamilton’s ideas were always able to held up to their critiques, from the early rejections in Nature to the last attacks in recent sociobiology. In her previous book, Defenders of the Truth, sociologist Ullica Segerstrale addressed the complex Sociobiology debate in the 1970s and early 1980s. In her last work,  Nature’s Oracle , she takes up the challenge to write an intellectual biography of William Hamilton, one of the intellectual founders of Sociobiology. She addresses Hamilton’s intellectual endeavors in the branching out of interests and passions, expectations and disillusions that characterized his life. It is too bad that the book does not go deeper into the historical and epistemic dynamics animating Bill Hamilton’s work. Yet, with its wealth of new information and anecdotes,  Nature’s Oracle  fills an important gap in our knowledge of recent history of evolutionary biology . Historians interested in  this topic, or in Bill Hamilton’s ideas, will find in the book a useful springboard for further research. Guido Caniglia (Arizona State University, Center for Biology and Society)
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