If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you’ll know about the work of W. D. Hamilton, and if you’re not I don’t have the space to recount it. Let me just say that he was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, who worked out the consequences of “inclusive fitness” (otherwise known as kin selection), its application to biological phenomena like sex ratios, and many other problems of social evolution. Born in 1936, he died way too young—in 2000—from complications of malaria contracted on a trip to Africa while investigating whether AIDS might have come from polio vaccine (he had some bad ideas as well as good ones!).
You can read more about his accomplishments at Wikipedia, or, better yet, order the new biography of Hamilton by Ullica Segerstrale, Nature’s Oracle: A Life of W. D. Hamilton, which comes out in January in the UK and February in the US. I’ve had a look at the prepublication text, and it’s very good. Many scientific biographies are dull simply because scientists don’t often have interesting lives, and the public wants more than just an analysis of their work (JBS: The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane, by Ronald Clark, is a welcome exception, though a tad light on the science). And Hamilton had an interesting life.
The editor of Hamilton’s biography for Oxford University Press is my friend Latha Menon, who, as you may recall, got Fred Astaire week started. Yesterday she visited Hamilton’s grave to take pictures of the plot, and she sent me the photos and an account of the visit:
I visited Bill Hamilton’s grave yesterday, in the graveyard of Wytham Village just outside Oxford, next to Wytham Woods. I have always meant to visit but didn’t know quite where his grave was. It isn’t obvious. Alan G [Grafen] gave me instructions or I wouldn’t have found it. It’s in a small grassy area which acts as an overflow graveyard, and is surrounded by hedges and accessed by a small gate, with no sign of any sort. But a very peaceful spot next to open fields and then the woods.
Here is a picture of his simple gravestone. Nearby is a bench on which his partner Luisa’s deeply affecting words spoken at the graveside are inscribed. It was a peaceful September afternoon. I was quite alone there and felt quite moved. I couldn’t resist placing a beautiful yellowing leaf on the grave—it seemed appropriate.
Note the beetle on the headstone: Hamilton was a keen natural historian as well as a theoretician, and he loved insects:
Here’s the bench with Luisa’s words, which I’ve transcribed below the photo in case you can’t read them. They do make me tear up:
BILL. Now your body is lying in the Wytham Woods, but from here you will reach again your beloved forests. You will live not only in a beetle, but in billions of spores of fungi and algae brought by the wind higher up into the troposphere, all of you will form the clouds and wandering across the oceans, will fall down and fly up again and again, till eventually a drop of rain will join you to the water of the flooded forest of the Amazon.
Hamilton also wrote his own obituary in an essay called “My intended burial and why” (reference at bottom):
I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.
Every biologist should have an epitaph like one of those.
W. D. Hamilton, ‘My intended burial and why’; reprinted in: Ethology, Ecology and Evolution, 12, 111–122.