Article in Science / Biology & Nature
Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene was instrumental in promoting the ideas of WD Hamilton.
W D Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin.
Richard Dawkins WD Hamilton 1936-2000 The Independent 3.10.2000

The natural world is full of examples of altruistic behaviours: mothers defending their young; animals warning others of predators; ants dying in defence of a colony.

But in the 1960s and early 1970s the evolution of such altruistic behaviours was still something of a puzzle, one of the last great unsolved mysteries of neo-Darwinism[1].

How could nature, “red in tooth and claw”, permit the emergence of such altruistic behaviours?

“Group selection” was the workaround, or fudge, used to account for the evolution of such behaviour. For “the good of the species” became common currency in any nature documentary of the time.

Meanwhile theoretical biologists continued to explore the puzzle.

To motivate theoretical discussion, the notion of altruistic genes and selfish genes were introduced as a convenient shorthand. References to altruistic and selfish genes began to pepper the conference circuit and theoretical discussions.

It just didn’t make sense that altruistic genes coding for altruistic behaviours should persist in a population. For what would stop a selfish gene exploiting such altruism, spreading rapidly throughout the population replacing the altruistic gene?

The solution lay in the concept of inclusive fitness rather than individual fitness. The notion that it is the survival of the gene and not the individual that is critical to understanding evolution. The idea that if by performing an altruistic act I ensure the survival of copies of my genes in others, then the altruistic gene can persist. Even though as an individual carrying that gene I might perish.

The four key figures working on the mathematics at the time were Bill Hamilton, Bob Trivers, George Williams and John Maynard-Smith.

Enter Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins was a young post-doctoral researcher at the time. He recognized the mathematics pointed to a highly gene-centric view of evolution. Richard was anxious to bring these new ideas of evolutionary theory and this gene-centric outlook to a mainstream audience.

The Selfish Gene is a synthesis of the ideas of all four of his heroes.

None more so than the ideas of his hero Bill Hamilton.

The Selfish Gene references nine of Hamilton’s papers and makes 91 references to Hamilton’s work in the text and endnotes.

You can read Hamilton’s enthusiastic review of Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene in the journal Science[2] and his blistering defence of The Selfish Gene in Nature[3].

The Selfish Gene… not only the best existing outsiders introduction to a new paradigm and a new field of knowledge but, in its overview of the situation and in many original details, is itself a significant contribution to this field.
Hamilton, WD 1977 The Selfish Gene Nature 267, 102

By the time of his death in 2000, Bill Hamilton’s contributions to evolutionary theory were well recognized and celebrated[4,5].

You can read Dawkins’ tribute in his obituary to Hamilton[6].

And you can listen to Dawkins’ celebration of his hero Bill Hamilton in the Radio 4 series Great Lives[7].

Bill Hamilton’s sister, Dr Mary Bliss, probably best captures the importance of The Selfish Gene and Dawkins’ contribution in popularizing her brother’s ideas.

“Well, of course, he (Richard Dawkins) has always championed him (Bill Hamilton). Bill wasn’t very good at explaining himself and Richard has a wonderful facility for doing that. And I think Richard explained…not only to the general public, but also to other scientists such that they were able to take up his (Bill Hamilton’s) ideas.”
Dr Mary Bliss - Bill Hamilton's sister - 2010


[1] Maynard Smith J. 1977 The limitations of evolutionary theory. In The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance, ed. Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., 235-42. Oxford, Pergamon Press.

[2] Hamilton, WD 1977 The play by nature: review of The Selfish Gene by R Dawkins, Science, 196, 757-9

[3] Hamilton, WD 1977 The Selfish Gene Nature, 267, 102

[4] Moran N, Pierce N, Seger J 2000 Bill Hamilton 1936-2000 Nature Medicine, 6, 367

[5] Guardian Obituary by Professor Alan Grafen

[6] Obituary in The Independent by Professor Richard Dawkins

[7] BBC Radio 4 - Great Lives, Series 20, Bill Hamilton

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