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Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton

Biography / Memoir
'A good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin' Professor Richard Dawkins on W.D.Hamilton
W.D.Hamilton's theory of gene selection revolutionised biology and led to terms such as 'selfish genes' and 'sociobiology' becoming vital currency in both scientific and public debate
Segerstrale's detailed research reveals the internal tensions and conflicts behind Hamilton's creative genius, and the narrative is peppered with personal anecdotes of this eccentric scientist and tireless truth-seeker
Segerstrale shows how Hamilton throughout his life was a man against the grain, whose iconoclastic views challenged the scientific and medical establishment, and even the Vatican

By: Ullica Segerstrale (Author)

447 pages, 6 plates with 15 b/w photos and 1 b/w illustration

Oxford University Press

Paperback | May 2015 | #216548 | ISBN-13: 9780198607281
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.99 $21/€19 approx
Hardback | Feb 2013 | #162417 | ISBN-13: 9780198607274
Availability: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks Details
NHBS Price: £24.99 $31/€28 approx

About this book

W.D. Hamilton (1936-2000) was responsible for a revolution in thinking about evolutionary biology – a revolution that changed our understanding of life itself.

He played a central role in the realization that what matters in evolution is not the survival of the individual but of the survival of its genes. This provided the solution to the long standing problem of animal altruism that vexed even Darwin himself, and in due course resulted in terms like selfish genes, kin selection, and sociobiology becoming familiar to a wider public. Hamilton went on to solve many more major problems, and open up ever new fields--he shaped much of our current understanding of central problems including the evolution of sexual reproduction and ageing. He became world famous and garnered international prizes.

But this is all in hindsight. In fact, Hamilton's recognition came late – his career is a classic case of misunderstood genius. In this illuminating and moving biography, Ullica Segerstrale documents Hamilton's extraordinary life and work, revealing a man of immense intellectual curiosity, an uncompromising truth-seeker, a naturalist and jungle explorer, a risk-taker, an unconventional scientist with a poet's soul and a deep concern for life on earth and mankind's future.

"with its wealth of new information and anecdotes, Natures Oracle fills an important gap in our knowledge of recent history of evolutionary biology. Historians interested in this topic, or in Bill Hamiltons ideas, will find in the book a useful springboard for further research."
– Guido Caniglia, Journal of the History of Biology

"Segerstrale has done a terrific job. Nature's Oracle is a biography truly worthy of a scientist of Hamiltons stature and it will be an invaluable source of insight for anyone interested in the life and science of one of the giants of twentieth-century biology."
– J. Arvid Agren, Journal of Genetics

"William Hamilton's name stands above all others in evolutionary biology since the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s and '40s. As John Maynard Smith, with whom he had a troubled relationship, said, "He's the only bloody genius we've got." As geniuses often are, he was a complex character and an exceptional challenge for any biographer. Ullica Segerstrale is ideally qualified to rise to that challenge. She achieves a genuinely affectionate yet warts-and-all portrait of her subject, combined with a good understanding of the deep subtleties of his thinking. Those who loved him, as I did, and those who wish to know more of the astonishing originality and versatility of his contributions to science, will treasure this book."
– Richard Dawkins

"This is an outstanding biography of a truly brilliant scientist. Segerstrale beautifully interweaves Hamilton's epic work with the details of his life."
– Robert L. Trivers

"Bill Hamilton's remarkable story has now been told: a truly great naturalist, who thought his way to the very heart of evolution by natural selection, completing and expanding the insights of Darwin as he discovered the disorienting and enlightening perspective of the gene itself."
– Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen


"This is the first biography of one of the 20th century’s boldest and most brilliant thinkers, W D “Bill” Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist and naturalist who died, as he lived, in hot pursuit of an unpopular idea.

Ullica Segerstrale’s generous, conversationally written book allows the general reader to see Hamilton as one of science’s most attractive and outrageous characters. It is paradoxical that Richard Dawkins, whose The Selfish Gene was inspired by Hamilton’s “gene’s eye view”, is a household name, while Hamilton, despite Dawkins’ best efforts, is still biding his time.

Among the many large questions that Hamilton’s fertile mind opened up were the possible evolutionary advantages of altruism (his most influential idea, “inclusive fitness”, explained altruism as a contribution to the fitness of genetically related beings), sexual reproduction, ageing, xenophobia and racism, the dispersal of population, human warfare and barbarian invasion, among others.

And despite his pioneering use of computer programming and mathematics, he was no arid theorist: he relished delving under bark in Wytham Woods or in the Amazon, ranged freely in his thought from wasps and horned beetles to ragwort and human beings, and was not so much an anthropomorphic as a poetic thinker, convinced that all living things were connected.

Not that they always liked him: he claimed he had been stung by more than 1000 varieties of wasp, and memorably describes himself, in Brazil, disturbing the wrong kind of nest and watching his hand become a “boxing-glove” of “killer bees”.

Human subjects could be equally touchy. He decided that the hostile reviewers of his ground-breaking paper on sexual reproduction (viewed as a stratagem that helped genes to recombine, thwarting the adaptive efforts of would-be parasites) were offended by the unromantic light it threw on their own sex lives.

Opposed to political correctness and, even as an undergraduate at Cambridge, only willing to study what interested him, Hamilton did not fit naturally into university hierarchies. He was promoted slowly in the UK and left for the United States. In 1984 he came home to become Royal Society Research Professor at New College, Oxford.

The opposition he aroused on the way up can be partly explained by his conviction that unfashionable ideas were the most interesting: as the inaugural president of the American “Human Behaviour and Evolution Society” he urged his audience to “dare… to try out ideas which might estrange colleagues and ruin careers”, telling them to look out for “the poor stranger among those ideas who may be a king in disguise”.

“So I must take to the road again. Farewell, my friends.” That is the nature-loving 17th-century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, whose solitary journey across Japan inspired the title and form of Hamilton’s collected papers, The Narrow Roads of Gene Land.

I came across Hamilton’s papers in 1996 and fell in love with his supple, truthful, beautifully cadenced literary style. The Bible was in there, but so was his wide reading of European literature and his unusual ability to reflect with humour on his own mistakes and his own passions, so that The Narrow Roads is, for my money, one of the most revealing and fascinating memoirs ever written.

Some passages, and nearly all the maths, defeated me, but the “prefaces” to each paper were so packed with philosophical insight into life on this planet, including human life and human creativity, that I kept returning to it. Here, I thought, is a great mind and a great writer. Last year I published a short story about him.

Segerstrale is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic biographer, and I soon grew used to her remarkably informal, direct style – Hamilton’s capacity to do or think surprising things induces frequent exclamation marks. One blind spot is the beauty of W.D. Hamilton’s writing style, which she refers to rather dismissively as “typical flight-of-fancy Bill style” or “typical earnestly meant Bill style”. But she does justice to the ideas and to Hamilton’s over-sensitive, obstinate, democratic and obsessively curious nature.

Hamilton died aged 63, in 2000, of an internal haemorrhage, after returning exhausted from a trip to the Congo to collect chimpanzee faeces. This was a gallant attempt to get a fair hearing in the scientific journals for an unpopular idea (not his own) about HIV: could it have originated through a species-jump from polio vaccine cultivated on infected chimps?

The HIV hypothesis has never been validated, but Hamilton’s quixotic trip through a war zone seems to embody in action the altruism and self-sacrifice that he always argued was common in nature.

Nor did he let his own successful gene-based theory set boundaries on his thinking. Here is his beautiful formulation about self-sacrificing acts where kin is not involved: “Faith in me says that… the effect of true altruism like this is never lost completely.”"

– Maggie Gee, The Telegraph, 24-03-2013



1. Growing up at Oaklea
2. Finding Life's Pattern
3. Schoolboy at Tonbridge
4. Fisher Found and Lost
5. The Struggle for Altruism
6. Altruism through the Looking Glass
7. Brazilian Break
8. Sex and Death
9. Challenges of Social Life
10. The Price Effect
11. Creativity in a Tight Spot
12. Priority Matters
13. When Leaving is Better than Staying
14. Encounters with Sociobiology
15. The Parasite Paradigm
16. Cooperation without Kinship
17. The Oxford Move
18. Defending the Queen
19. In Tune With Nature
20. Truth at any Price
21. Creative Strategies
22. Through a Glass Darkly
23. The Final Defiance
24. The Edge of Creativity


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Ullica Segerstrale is Professor of Sociology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and director of its Camras Scholars Program. She holds a PhD in sociology from Harvard, a MA in communication from the University of Pennsylvania, and MS degrees in both organic chemistry and sociology from the University of Helsinki. She has held Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, and been supported by the American Philosophical Society, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, among others. She is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Finnish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Segerstrale has written and lectured widely internationally on science and values, the ethics of research, and the debates about what it means to be human. Her books include Defenders of the Truth: The battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond, and Beyond the Science Wars: The missing discourse about science and society.

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