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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.
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 and his blistering defence of The Selfish Gene in Nature.
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.
And you can listen to Dawkins’ celebration of his hero Bill Hamilton in the Radio 4 series Great Lives.
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.
 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.
 Hamilton, WD 1977 The play by nature: review of The Selfish Gene by R Dawkins, Science, 196, 757-9
 Hamilton, WD 1977 The Selfish Gene Nature, 267, 102
 Moran N, Pierce N, Seger J 2000 Bill Hamilton 1936-2000 Nature Medicine, 6, 367
 Guardian Obituary by Professor Alan Grafen http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2000/mar/09/guardianobituaries3
 Obituary in The Independent by Professor Richard Dawkins http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/hamilton/hamilton_index.html
 BBC Radio 4 - Great Lives, Series 20, Bill Hamilton http://bbc.in/L5nBGn
I enjoyed that, thank you, and also for alluding to those two pieces by Hamilton in Nature and Science. I also tracked down the Lewontin review; that guy (he’s just turned 84) is quite an interesting character too.
I’m afraid I don’t understand your title.
Hi Frederik and Dennis
I learned from a colleague last week that one of the organizers from Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub - who read my blog on the Dawkins Selfish Gene Mythbust - went up to Dawkins at the QED conference in April two weeks ago and asked Dawkins directly whether or not he coined the phrase selfish gene. According to my colleague, the SITP guy was informed by Dawkins in no uncertain terms that he did coin the phrase. And then Dawkins stalked off. Funny that - because the elder Hamilton published it years before Dawkins did. Nullius in verba!
Hamilton in fact coined that phrase selfish gene and originated the concept.
As my earlier blog on Best Thinking a few weeks ago revealed, Dawkins - rather self-servingly -has never admitted that all those books are wrong that say he coined the phrase "selfish gene". Are we to be so generous towards Dawkins as to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding why he never cited - in any edition of The Selfish Gene - the one article where Hamilton published the phrase and from where he lifted it? Can there be any reasonable doubt that his failure to cite this one key Hamilton paper was a deliberate - or at best subconscious - act to give the impression that the phrase and concept is his? The fact that you've identified areas where Dawkins' and his entourage have credited Hamilton's greatness shows how beneath everyone's radar Dawkins' acknowledgment of Hamilton is. Where, however, does Dawkins cede priority to the great Hamilton? Nowhere. Why not?
And this an important point, because the public so often see the phrase as the concept. Consequently, Dawkins is fallaciously hailed by the vast majority of the public and scientists as the originator of the selfish gene phrase and concept.
No wonder Dawkins' million copy best seller book of the same name as Hamilton's phrase sold so well. It sold so well because people want to read the work of great and unique intellectual giants - not those who stand on the shoulders of Hamilton-like giants.
Weirdly, Dawkins has been so successful in developing Hamilton's concept that nobody ever noticed it was Hamilton who coined the phrase and not Dawkins until - as you know - I discovered the fact- and published it here
Interestingly, Dawkins is not alone in being such an invented originator. Darwin actually followed an amazingly similar trajectory.
Beyond the current industry of books that assess Patrick Matthew's claim to priority of the concept of natural selection (he actually coined the phrase 'natural process of selection' 29 years before Darwin used the phrases 'natural means of selection' (1858) and 'Natural Selection' (1859). I've discovered some very powerful new data. Unfortunately I can no longer share it online before I go into print because Wikipedia will plagiarize it, which means that it would be highly likely that some 'unethical' academic would be fallaciously invented as the originator of my work.
While the myth busting technique I'm using is essentially what Dawkins disparagingly calls all social science - shallow and easy - as opposed to the deep, difficult and hard research of the natural sciences, it does not rely upon rhetoric to test hypotheses - it simply relies upon the cold hard data of the publication record, which is often supported by what Umberto Eco refers to as the most important publications of all. Namely, the unread (neglected) books in the library.
Both Darwin and Dawkins are repeat offenders when it comes to self-serving false impressions of origination by way of misleading"selfish replication" without citation of the terms first coined by others.By way of further example here are some more "newly discovered" examples from my research
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