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3.0 out of 5 stars Proof that Great Scientists are Not Always Great Writers, August 31, 2011
This review is from: Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex (Paperback)
Richard Dawkins has described William Hamilton as "the greatest Darwinian since Darwin". The concept of kin selection, in particular, has been described by no lesser figure than Robert Trivers as "the only true advance since Darwin in our understanding of natural selection" (Trivers 2000). The clarity of his writing style, however, leaves much to be desired. Even the title of the work, 'Narrow Roads of Gene Land', is somewhat clumsy.

On the one hand, his papers are notoriously heavily mathematical. His seminal paper on 'the Genetical Theory of Social Behaviour' was, according to John Maynard Smith, passed around several peer reviewers who had failed to understand it before it ended up in his own hands. Even with the modifications Maynard Smith had recommended, the lack of clarity in its style may partially explain why, until the mid-seventies, it was rarely cited (see Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate).

Actually, the mathematics is relatively basic if you take the trouble to understand it (and also rather ugly). However, for non-mathematically inclined biologists and social scientists, it is nevertheless daunting. Given that Hamilton's work is potentially of interest, not only to biologists, but also to many psychologists, anthropologists, other social scientists and even the educated laity, this inaccessibility is problematic.

The autobiographical interludes which frame each of the papers adopt an entirely different style - rambling, poetic and anecdotal - but are only marginally more intelligible. A large part of the difficulty is Hamilton's tendency to adopt poetic analogies drawn from his own field that will be unintelligible to non-specialists. For example, a colleague who had turned down various lectureships and other research opportunities until he received the one he really wanted is commended as practicing "an optimal foraging strategy... in the patchy landscape of Euro-American academia" (p549).

Worse still, the buildings housing the zoology and psychology departments at Oxford University are described as resembling "rather rectangular cilian protozoans syzygy" (p545). To be fair, he does (thankfully!) take the time to explain this analogy. However, given that the explanation itself takes up about a page, this only serves to further illustrate the nature of the problem.

Apart from the difficulty of the writing style, more sensitive potential readers ought also to be cautioned about Hamilton's extreme political incorrectness. While this may seem a refreshing trait in a world cowered by modern McCarthyism, it may also prove unsettling.

Mainstream advocates of evolutionary psychology typically (and rightly) emphasise the lack of connection between their field and such supposedly nefarious and discredited practices as eugenics with which opponents of the field attempt to taint it through guilt by association. It therefore comes as a surprise that the researcher responsible for much of the theoretical basis of evolutionary psychology openly describes himself as an enthusiastic eugenicist and touches on the topic with obsessive frequency throughout his rambling autobiographical interludes.

Having issued this warning, I might add that, to me at least, Hamilton comes across, not so much as a prejudiced bigot, but rather as the stereotypical `absent-minded professor', brilliant in his own field, yet oblivious to changing social attitudes in the outside world. For example, he describes his bemused bewilderment when he gets into trouble for commending a graduate student in a letter of recommendation for having a mathematical ability "especially remarkable in view of her sex" (p307).

More amusingly, he describes how, on being invited to present a paper on a topic of his choice at a conference on biology hosted by - of all places - the Vatican, he proposed to present a paper discussing overpopulation and how "our recent and unnatural ethic that every conceptus, no matter how mutated, was deserving of every technical effort we knew to help it survive" could lead to "the collapse of civilisation" (xli). He then professes to be surprised when the time alotted for his presentation at the Pontifical Academy is conveniently cut and he receives a less than enthusiastic reception. (I might add that, unless his style of humour is so dry and deadpan that I am oblivious to it, Hamilton appears completely oblivious to the humour in this episode.)

Overall, political correctness aside, the Narrow Roads of Geneland is a purchase advised only for serious students of Hamilton's life and work. There is nothing to prevent great scientists from also being great writers. Robert Trivers, a figure responsible, like Hamilton, for a large part of the theoretical basis of sociobiology, behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology, published his collected papers in a format apparently modelled on the work currently under review (i.e. framed by autobiographical interludes). However, the resulting book (Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers (Evolution and Cognition)) is eminently readable and insightful.

However, Hamilton's own collected papers, in contrast, are definitive proof of the old maxim that great scientists are not always great writers.

Trivers R (2000) `Obituary: William Donald Hamilton' Nature 404(6780) p828
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