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

From The Telegraph:

Gee_main_2503106bThis is the first biography of one of the 20th century’s boldest and most brilliant thinkers, W D “Bill” Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist and naturalist who died, as he lived, in hot pursuit of an unpopular idea. Ullica Segerstrale’s generous, conversationally written book allows the general reader to see Hamilton as one of science’s most attractive and outrageous characters. It is paradoxical that Richard Dawkins, whose The Selfish Gene was inspired by Hamilton’s “gene’s eye view”, is a household name, while Hamilton, despite Dawkins’ best efforts, is still biding his time.

Among the many large questions that Hamilton’s fertile mind opened up were the possible evolutionary advantages of altruism (his most influential idea, “inclusive fitness”, explained altruism as a contribution to the fitness of genetically related beings), sexual reproduction, ageing, xenophobia and racism, the dispersal of population, human warfare and barbarian invasion, among others. And despite his pioneering use of computer programming and mathematics, he was no arid theorist: he relished delving under bark in Wytham Woods or in the Amazon, ranged freely in his thought from wasps and horned beetles to ragwort and human beings, and was not so much an anthropomorphic as a poetic thinker, convinced that all living things were connected. Not that they always liked him: he claimed he had been stung by more than 1,000 varieties of wasp, and memorably describes himself, in Brazil, disturbing the wrong kind of nest and watching his hand become a “boxing-glove” of “killer bees”.

…Nor did he let his own successful gene-based theory set boundaries on his thinking. Here is his beautiful formulation about self-sacrificing acts where kin is not involved: “Faith in me says that… the effect of true altruism like this is never lost completely.”

More here.