Gene Expression

I would like to give a heads up that the last volume of W.D. Hamilton’s papers are out, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 3: Last Words. Of course, you should check our volume 1, on social theory, and volume 2, the evolution of sex. If you don’t know who Hamilton is, you should. Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins as we know them are in large part due to Hamilton’s body of work, from his gene-centered social models to exploration of the “Red Queen” theory of the origins of sex. Hamilton’s hero early in life was the great evolutionary biologist R.A. Fisher, while later in he expressed a fondness for Sewall Wright.

Unlike other evolutionary biologists who had broad interests such as E.O. Wilson, Hamilton never became a popularizer. Rather, his attempts at communication toward the general public unmediated by wordsmiths such as Dawkins can be found in the introductions to his seminal papers. And it is in the second volume of his collected works you see why Hamilton never became a prominent popularizer, he was the scientific version of Craig Newmark, a lover of humanity with little intuitive feel for humanity. In the year 2000 Hamilton died in the Democratic Republic of Congo doing field work. Therefore, his second collection of papers were published without editorial revisions, and they expose to us the mind of a man who was highly heterodox. The second half of Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is devoted to a non-technical analysis of human eugenics, and Hamilton still held to this worldview. His own years at University College London were difficult because the department of eugenics, soon to be the department of genetics, was being purged of its old Galtonian taint by Lionel Penrose (yes, father of Roger Penrose). Hamilton was long worried about processes like mutational meltdown in human beings (though he was cautious about positive eugenics by the end of his life because he seemed to be skeptical that human analysis would do better than what nature wrought). In volume 2 of his papers he recounts his hurt feelings at being marginalized at a scientific conference sponsored by the Vatican where he alluded to his opinions regarding overpopulation and the morality of infanticide! This is the tip of the iceberg. He takes aim at Jewish ethno-nationalism,1 moots race differences and offers how a politically incorrect recommendation letter led to his eventual intention to leave the United States, a nation whose political sensitivites he seemed to never truly grasp.

Though Hamilton’s death was a loss for science, the naked candor that comes through in volume 2 of his papers is to some extent priceless. I am sure many individuals will find Hamilton’s opinions abhorrent, and yet I have been in the presence of biologists who express obviously eugenical sentiments, even if not seriously. What Hamilton put to paper I have heard many speak of, though they surely wouldn’t have the gall or lack of caution to moot the implications of the evolutionary science they study to human demography.2 If, like Martin Heidegger or Konrad Lorenz, Hamilton had put his intellect in the service of political abomination than of course he would have deserved censure,3 but though I disagree with the general details of his worldview at many points I can not but help sympathize with the plight of a man who empathized with humanity, all the while being somewhat mystified by the intents, needs and priorities of humanity.

1 – This chapter in part reflects Hamilton’s ignorance in areas outside of biology. He accuses Karl Popper of hypocrisy, he, being an ethnic Jew who promoted classical liberalism. The reality is that Popper defended his family’s conversion to Christianity in the interests of assimilation and asked that his name be left off of lists of “famous Jews” because he felt no such group identification. Popper did not just promote the post-ethnic worldview, he lived it.

2 – In The Cooperative Gene Mark Ridley, an Oxford biologist who is better known for his thick textbook, Evolution, takes Hamilton’s concerns about mutational meltdown seriously. Ridley ends by hoping that spontaneous abortions will purge enough deleterious mutations for the long term viability of our species. From this, it seems clear that many mainstream biologists did consider Hamilton’s ideas, though few of them elaborated publically the details as Hamilton himself did. I happen to suspect Ridley is correct and Hamilton is wrong. Or at least I hope.

3 – Though Hamilton was I think clearly a latter day eugenecist, in volume 2 he spoke against “group selection” on the grounds that it opened the door toward totalitarianism, so moving from science to politics can be quite tricky.


  1. #1 Wowbagger
    May 9, 2006

    I bought Volume 2 just for the introductions he wrote for his papers, rather than the papers themselves (which can be downloaded free by those who have university access anyway). They are frank and beautifully written and slightly barmy at points, contrasting nicely with the hard cold equations in the papers themselves. Unfortunately each of these volumes costs a bomb. I only own Volume 2 because I lucked out and found it in a used bookstore for $18.

  2. #2 razib
    May 9, 2006

    here are some cheap copies of volume 2. 1 & 3 are pretty $$$, but in part i think that’s because fewer people purchase(d) them so fewer make it onto the used market.

  3. #3 David B
    May 10, 2006

    Volume 3 lacks Hamilton’s introductions (cos he was dead), but there are some nice semi-autobiographical lectures, and informative intros to the papers by various colleagues. The papers themselves are not earth-shaking compared to Hamilton’s previous work.

  4. #4 michael vassar
    May 10, 2006

    Why hope Ridley was right?
    I would assume that you would think mutational meltdown was interesting but a moot point for technological humans. In a sense it’s even something to hope for. If we are already the result of such a process, biotech enhancement should be easier.

  5. #5 Matt McIntosh
    May 10, 2006

    I just read his review of Lynn’s Dysgenics and can see exactly what you mean: he offhandedly says things that to me sound reasonable enough, but then I think about it and realize “good lord, this would clear a room if said in polite company.” Give me an aloof but compassionate genius over a hundred socially savvy mediocrities any day.

    “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson