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on 30 January 2013
The last chapter of Nature's Oracle is a killer. It lays out the colourful, wide-ranging and enormously deep reaches of Bill Hamilton's lifework. It marvels with insights, angles, perceptions and appreciations. It lays out the uniqueness of the man and his accomplishments. Too bad it wasn't the first chapter of the book. I would have approached it differently, even anxiously. And I think many more will miss out because the whole book isn't framed by that last chapter.

For someone called the 20th Century Darwin, I think the name Bill Hamilton would not garner any sort of recognition outside his discipline. He needs a little buildup. He had an insatiable (as opposed to obsessive) need to understand the lives of all living things. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of them, and no one else came close to his expertise. He risked life and limb without thought to pursue that knowledge. He developed hugely important theories on altruism and sex in plants and insects. He was a pioneer user of computers. He spent endless hours modeling behaviours, long before that became easy and routine. But his biography was written by an academic colleague, clearly for other academic colleagues. Which is unfortunate, because Bill Hamilton's life is definitely worth examining by a much wider audience.

It's not until page 287 that we get this summation:"He wanted to know how nature worked, he wanted to become one with her. ...she was his inspiration and excitement, she was his true conversation partner." If that were stated up front, it too would have given me a framework to keep reading, but by page 287 it was trite.

On the personal level, it seems as if Hamilton's life got in the way of the story. His wife Christine wanted her own career and ended up moving to the Orkneys (!) to practice dentistry. Hamilton became lonely and morose, and took up with a journalist/colleague, Luisa. Or did he? They seemed to live in different countries, although she appears at his family home with the whole family when Hamilton's mother died. Was she accepted as his spouse? Did he ever divorce from Christine? Did they just agree to pursue separate careers? Did they ever reconcile? Did Luisa cause frictions? How did his daughters deal with it - and him? None of it is explored in what otherwise seems to be an exhaustive biography. It's odd because of the granularity of detail in the rest of the book, right down to the difference between O level and A level exams in the UK. You'd think the mother of his three children would merit at least some sort of closure.

The book could also use a glossary for those of us without doctorates in zoology and biology. Words like sosigonic simply do not factor into most vocabularies. But these five pound words are tossed off with total abandon throughout, and that inevitably slows the flow.

There is a not-so-small irony the author missed in Bill Hamilton's lifelong struggle with peer reviewed journals, particularly Nature. Bill Hamilton's discoveries and observations that resulted in the theories of the Parasite Red Queen, parasite avoidance, deleterious mutation elimination and others - had trouble finding print. These theories very much resemble the process of getting a new idea published in Nature. While Hamilton was busy pushing his revolutionary observations, the system was busy protecting the status quo from this maverick outlier. How ironic. And too bad the author missed it. His theories were clearly the centerpiece of his career, and it wasn't until his death that Nature freely admitted him to its pages. This struggle dominates these pages. But there is so much more to this life than those fights. I hope you will catch that when you read it.
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VINE VOICEon 16 October 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I know of Hamilton because of Richard Dawkins but not through other sources and so I wanted to read this biography to find out if I had missed something important (my area of research is related to molecular evolution). As it is a biography I was expecting to find out what had inspired his ideas and to get a Hamilton perspective of evolution. It is perhaps too much to expect a biography like Gleick's of Feynman but I was hoping for some revelations. Sadly I got a very dull and disjointed account mostly of his work and with very little of his life.

From the title you would expect that Hamilton was the new Darwin and the author seems to think he was, but as I have said apart from Dawkins referring to him I did not recognise the name. It is hard to find him given prominence in any of my biological textbooks. This is because his work does not apply across a wide variety of cases. Regardless of the author's hero worship his theories have limited impact. The reasons why his papers have less impact than the author supposes are because; sexual reproduction is not the prominent form of reproduction on the planet - bacteria do fine without it; sociality is not common and has evolved multiple times and so is a convergent and not a divergent/homologous property; genome studies have shown that the mutation rates are much higher than even Hamilton's nightmare vision.

Inclusive fitness has become kin selection and that has been popularised because of the work of Maynard Smith amongst others. Maynard Smith's work and books including several key textbooks have been more significant than Hamilton's work to the community. The development of ESS and other simulations has done more than Hamilton because he did not understand Carroll's parable of the Red Queen at a personal level. You need to keep running just to stand still. Hamilton spent so much time and energy dwelling on perceived slights that everyone else ran past him. He comes across as petulant, childish, naive and socially inept. The dispute with Maynard Smith especially over the pub joke (it was not a joke it was an aphorism) made by Haldane is symptomatic of someone fighting the wrong battles in the wrong way. If he had got on with his research he would have surpassed Maynard Smith but he was a political novice and in science that means you are going to be the forgotten man.

So Hamilton is hardly an Oracle and from the few snippets you get about his personal life you cannot tell if he was human. There is a vague allusion to his being on the Asperger's spectrum (almost a definite), there are his problems with dealing with women (some odd marriage ideas and a wife who in the end just went to the Orkneys)but there is not much of Hamilton the person. He certainly doesn't come to life. The author has interviewed many of those who knew him and so you get lots of "This is another Bill story ..." where you expect some lively anecdote that turns out to be another dull example of nothing particularly interesting. He had colourful adventure but they are all told in such a stilted way the colour drains out of them completely. Even his colourful last fateful expedition is painted as a "oh no he didn't die of malaria, the parasites didn't get him in the end". He had an exciting accident that nearly killed him that the author butchers completely to turn it into one of the dullest pieces of prose ever. There is no pattern to the text it is not chronological and so the explosion is described as the reason for him missing his finger tips and having a metal plate in his rugby jersey rather than as the even itself. This non-linearity of the text means he is making a decision in one chapter only to talk about what other possibilities he ignored the chapter after. You only find out the author knew him well in the last two chapters and then you never know how they were connected or how they met. It is frustrating in what it doesn't say and how it is skewed. For example the author talks about EO Wilson and sociobiology and how this relates to Hamilton, but when she talks of a Nature paper attacking his theory after his death she fails to mention Wilson is one of the authors along with Nowak who was Bob May (one of Bill's other collaborators post-doc). So it was Hamilton allies who were taking his theory apart.

So after struggling to the end I found out that I hadn't missed out on anything important after all.
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on 15 April 2013
A thoroughly well written biography of a man who was an original thinker and spirit But not as well known as some other scientific luminaries so all the more interesting to read about his life and work, the latter being hugely influential on contemporary thinkers.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
To any evolutionary biologist, Bill Hamilton is a household name. Hamilton described the mathematical foundations for what he called "inclusive fitness"- in a nutshell the idea that individuals can pass their genes onto future generations not only by reproducing but also by ensuring the reproductive success of their relatives (with whom they share genes). This discovery, which seems on the surface so intuitive, sheds light on all kinds of previously puzzling biological phenomena, such as the evolution of sex ratios and the perpetual mystery of how seemingly altruistic behaviours could evolve (an alternative theory is "group selection", or the idea that individuals act for the good of the group). Unfortunately, Segerstrale's claim that Hamilton was "the greatest evolutionary theorist since Darwin" is extremely questionable. Hamilton certainly made important contributions to the field, but so did many other scientists, all of whom took the foundations of evolutionary theory laid down by Darwin (and the population genetics theory developed by Wright, Fisher and Haldane) and developed it.

There is no doubt that Hamilton was important character in modern evolutionary biology and this book does a fine job of exploring his life and work, from both a scientific and a personal perspective. This is certainly a lovingly written and well-researched book and a fascinating insight into Hamilton's life and work. Segerstrale describes in glorious detail Hamilton's love of nature, his skill as a naturalist and how, for example, this love of nature allowed him to realise that his hypotheses could neatly explain the intensely altruistic behaviour of social insects such as wasps and bees, where in many species the sister workers are genetic clones, working to help the queen produce more young.

Segerstrale does a decent job of explaining Hamilton's science -for a more detailed explanation, I would point readers to Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene- but the main thrust of her book seems to be to somehow vindicate Hamilton's place in the biological canon, by painting him as something of a "tortured genius" and suggesting that his work failed to gain the recognition it deserved.

This is not the case. Hamilton is widely -and quite rightfully- regarded as having made key breakthroughs in our understanding of kin selection and the evolution of altruism. However the impression I get from this book and from talking with colleagues is that his enthusiasm for the study of altruism was such that he felt this area of the field did not gain enough recognition-leading to, for example, his famous falling-out with John Maynard-Smith (who certainly would have been another possible contender for the title of greatest biologist since Darwin, were that title a meaningful one). There were certainly political hurdles to overcome to even be allowed to study altruism, as the field was tainted by whiffs of both socialism and totalitarianism from the right and left. But there is no doubt that other scientists did not disregard Hamilton to the extent that he perhaps felt they did.

Of course Hamilton struggled to get published in Nature-every scientist does. Of course he felt his work was important; without that sense that one's work is worth doing, it is virtually impossible to keep on struggling with the difficult problems of theoretical evolutionary biology, a field that requires one to juggle the messy data presented by nature with extremely abstract concepts and models. It's not surprising that this single-mindedness and frustration when people didn't grasp his ideas as quickly as he would have liked. Too often, this leads to academic bitchiness and backstabbing and it's a shame that aspect of Hamilton's career is given so much attention in this book, which otherwise is extremely interesting, because Hamilton led an interesting life.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D.Hamilton" is an account of the intellectual career of W. D. Hamilton. Hamilton was an evolutionary biologist who helped to shape neo-Darwinism: the idea that biology can best be explained by selection among genes. If you want to read about Hamilton's ideas and how he created them and the internal politics of science, like acceptance and rejection of papers, priority claims and that sort of thing, you will find this book interesting.

The best parts of the book explain Hamilton's ideas, how he came up with them and how he struggled to get some of them published. Hamilton explained the willingness of animals to take a chance of not having offspring of having fewer offspring to save their relatives because those relatives share some of their genes and he undertook fieldwork to test this theory. He had a priority dispute he had with another biologist (John Maynard Smith) over this idea. Hamilton also had trouble getting some of his papers on it published and he blamed Maynard Smith for this as he was a referee for one of Hamilton's papers and advised that it should have major revisions before publication. Hamilton also came up with other interesting ideas, such as sex being a means to out evolve parasites.

As an account of Hamilton's ideas and the politics of science it seems accurate, but the book has some flaws. I think that some of those ideas, such as Hamilton's idea that medical treatment is problematic because it preserves bad genes, are bad, but they are explained accurately. There are some minor irritations like a couple of references to Hamilton using induction: a process that somehow turns observations into ideas. This can't happen since you can't know what observations will be relevant without ideas to guide you in what to look for and there are other problems too. The claims that Hamilton used induction is also contradicted by the text of the book, which describes how Hamilton came up with ideas and then tested them by observation. More annoying still is the fact that the author mentions the philosopher who refuted inductivism: Karl Popper but ignores his criticism of inductivism. I deducted one star for some of Hamilton's bad ideas and for the inductivism mistake.
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on 28 March 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Almost everybody has heard of the Selfish Gene via Richard Dawkins and perhaps rather fewer of the Red Queen via Matt Ridley but few may have heard of William Hamilton, the subject of this engrossing book, who was the originator of the Gene Centric view of evolution, and who was arguably the most important evolutionary theorist since Darwin. The book covers both the life and work of Hamilton and the account of his career and difficulty in getting published and the evolvment of his ideas is a work which can sit alongside Watson's "Double Helix" as an account of scientific creativity. It also gives an accessable introduction to his ideas such as kin selection {as opposed to Darwin's Species}, altruism and the evolution of sex (the Red Queen).

Hamilton was an unusual individual who said he did not understand,or like,other human beings but who persued his ideas obsessionally. Evolution is central to modern biology and anyone interested (which should be everybody) will find this book a readable and enjoyable introduction to its current state.
Rating 5 out of 5.
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