For your evening’s entertainment, one evolutionary biologist extols another

W. D. “Bill” Hamilton is regarded by many as the greatest evolutionary theorist of his generation. Although he had some wonky ideas, he also had some great ones as well. (He was a fount of ideas!) Rather than read me telling you about him, listen to this 30-minute “Great Lives” show on the BBC,  in which Richard Dawkins talks about Hamilton and his achievements. Dr. Mary Bliss, Hamilton’s sister, adds her perspective.  Click on the screenshot to go to the free audio:

Many of my contemporaries, and those of Richard’s slightly older cohort, knew or worked with Bill, and to a person they praised his kindness, humility, generosity (especially toward young people) and his brilliance. Sadly, he’s one of the greats I never met. He died in 2000 at only 63, perhaps of complications from malaria—it’s not clear—and I somehow never crossed paths with him. That was my loss.

Do read this post, written largely by my friend Latha Menon, who knew him well, describing a visit to his grave. And have a look at his tombstone and the stone bench erected in his memory. It’s very touching—and biological.  This man had an intense love of nature, and his theory was always directed toward explaining real phenomena in the wild.

h/t: Kevin


  1. Jody Hey
    Posted October 26, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Among theorists of Hamilton’s generation – I’d have to give the nod to Motoo Kimura as the greatest. Tough call, as their impacts are so different, and certainly Hamilton’s work touched on many areas that intersect lay persons’ understanding of evolution, while Kimura’s did not. But Kimura truly pioneered the neutral theory, including the math to a very deep level, and thus his work underlies virtually all modern population genomics.

  2. Christopher
    Posted October 26, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I’d forgotten about Great Lives. A wonderful program where Christopher Hitchens got into a bit of an argument with the host over his choice, Leon Trotsky, if memory serves. I look forward to listening to this!

  3. Posted October 26, 2017 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I met Hamilton a few times in the 1970s. He always wanted to talk technical population genetics, which endeared him to me. At one point he visited our university and gave a public lecture. A colleague of mine was so excited that Hamilton was lecturing that he emptied his undergraduate class into the talk. Hamilton chose to present, in full technical detail, his thoughts on George Price’s covariance formulation of the effects of group selection. The 300 listeners, many undergraduates, were mystified. I had the thought that maybe I was the only person in the audience who knew what he was talking about.

    His greatest hit was the 1964 rules for when kin selection would be able to counteract individual selection. He did not try to work out the biological details of the fitness cost and the fitness benefit but had the wisdom to aggregate them into two quantities (c and b) and present an illuminating condition involving them and the coefficient of relationship r.
    The quantitative geneticist Jay Lush had seen the essential logic of kin selection in 1948 but had not seen the utility of calculating the total cost (c) and the total benefit (b).

  4. Posted October 27, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I listened – somehow missed it when first on.

    thanks for sharing…

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