NATURE'S ORACLE by Ullica Segerstrale


A Life of W.D. Hamilton
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Biography of W.D. Hamilton (1936–2000), a revolutionary thinker and scientist whose outlier methods and ideas isolated him from the scientific establishment; he would later be vindicated as a brilliant contributor to evolutionary biology.

For all of Darwin's brilliance, his theories were incomplete: Tricky concepts like altruism and kin selection—even Richard Dawkins' "selfish gene"—were left for future generations to unravel. Hamilton, a mathematician and evolutionary biologist, spent his life in passionate pursuit of clues as to why evolution operates to ensure the survival of the genes of an organism and not the survival of the organism itself. By 1964, while still a graduate student, Hamilton had worked out an elegant mathematical solution, but he struggled to get his peers to see its innovation and prescience. Hamilton struggled to conform to institutional practices and persisted in pursuing unpopular truths he felt were paramount to scientific progress. The result is a body of work rich with insight, and since his death, his work has since been hailed as yielding critical insights to theories of animal altruism. Segerstrale (Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, 2000, etc.) provides a uniquely personal account of Hamilton's adventurous and iconoclastic life, drawing from a rich collection of papers, correspondence, and interviews with family members and colleagues. Her nuanced, linear storytelling reveals a man of complicated genius unusually attuned to the entanglements of science and ethics. Throughout his career, Hamilton traveled across the world, and his experiences with different cultures and creatures had a profound effect on his philosophy. He spent time in the Congo collecting data to support the polio vaccine theory of the origin of AIDS, an issue few others dared broach due to its controversial social and medical implications. The author brings to light the courageous and empathetic character behind the misunderstood and retrospectively appreciated scientist.

A carefully written and surprising biography of one of science's unsung heroes.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-19-860727-4
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2013


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