Book Review: Nature’s Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton

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“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.”

My Review:

When I was at University studying for my bachelor’s degree in Ecology, I studied the principles of natural selection and evolution that were developed and discovered by W.D.Hamilton. This included The Red Queen Hypothesis (an explanation for coevolution i.e. A Zebra has to evolve to outrun the Lion and in turn the Lion has to evolve to catch the Zebra), and The Theory of Inclusive Fitness which measures an individuals ability to pass their genes on to the next generation, also taking into account close relatives ability to pass on a percentage of identical copies of their relatives genes. When studying these theories, I at the time thought nothing of the man behind them. 
This biography enlightened me to the kind of person that Bill Hamilton was and the struggles he overcame in his personal and professional life. One of the things I have learned was how strongly Hamilton valued truth in all things, it is thus a credit to the author how unbiased this biography feels.   

I enjoyed how the book presented Hamilton in both negative and positive lights showing off the many facets of his nature. For instance, using John Maynard Smith as a recurring example of his ability to hold a grudge. On the other hand, it was inspiring to read how he, despite many pushbacks from the academics of the day, was able to change the way we view socio and evolutionary biology. Put simply Bill has been the underdog and the victor, and you simply cannot help but root for him. 

My only complaint is that the book was a little longer than it needed to be with some areas slightly drawn out. Additionally, because it covers such a specialised topic, readers with minimal prior knowledge of evolutionary biology theories that have been developed within the last century may struggle with the scientific terminology. 

To Conclude:

If like me, you have an interest in evolutionary biology, I think this book is absolutely worth a read! Ullica Segerstrale has created a book that shows W.D. Hamilton’s creative processes clearly and accurately pinpointing the very thought processes that have lead to some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in terms of understanding ourselves and the world around us. 

Rating: 4/5

P.S. I`m sorry about the quality of the photograph, I will do better next time!

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