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Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D.Hamilton (edition 2013)

by Ullica Segerstrale

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161615,960 (3.5)None
Member:DavidWineberg
Title:Nature's Oracle: The Life and Work of W.D.Hamilton
Authors:Ullica Segerstrale
Info:OUP Oxford (2013), Hardcover, 496 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***
Tags:biography, evolution, publishing, Darwin

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

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The last chapter of Nature's Oracle is a killer. It lays out the colourful, wide-ranging and enormously deep reaches of Bill Hamilton's lifework. It marvels with insights, angles, perceptions and appreciations. It lays out the uniqueness of the man and his accomplishments. Too bad it wasn't the first chapter of the book. I would have approached it differently, even anxiously. And I think many more will miss out because the whole book isn't framed by that last chapter.

For someone called the 20th Century Darwin, I think the name Bill Hamilton would not garner any sort of recognition outside his discipline. He needs a little buildup. He had an insatiable (as opposed to obsessive) need to understand the lives of all living things. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of them, and no one else came close to his expertise. He risked life and limb without thought to purse that knowledge. He developed hugely important theories on altruism and sex in plants and insects. He was a pioneer user of computers. He spent endless hours modeling behaviors, long before that became easy and routine. But his biography was written by an academic colleague, clearly for other academic colleagues. Which is unfortunate, because Bill Hamilton's life is definitely worth examining by a much wider audience.

It's not until page 287 that we get this summation:"He wanted to know how nature worked, he wanted to become one with her. ...she was his inspiration and excitement, she was his true conversation partner." If that were stated up front, it too would have given me a framework to keep reading, but by page 287 it was trite.

On the personal level, it seems as if Hamilton's life got in the way of the story. His wife Christine wanted her own career and ended up moving to the Orkneys (!) to practice dentistry. Hamilton became lonely and morose, and took up with a journalist/colleague, Luisa. Or did he? They seemed to live in different countries, although she appears at his family home with the whole family when Hamilton's mother died. Was she accepted as his spouse? Did he ever divorce from Christine? Did they just agree to pursue separate careers? Did they ever reconcile? Did Luisa cause frictions? How did his daughters deal with it - and him? None of it is explored in what otherwise seems to be an exhaustive biography. It's odd because of the granularity of detail in the rest of the book, right down to the difference between O level and A level exams in the UK. You'd think the mother of his three children would merit at least some sort of closure.

The book could also use a glossary for those of us without doctorates in zoology and biology. Words like sosigonic simply do not factor into most vocabularies. But these five pound words are tossed off with total abandon throughout, and that inevitably slows the flow.

There is a not-so-small irony the author missed in Bill Hamilton's lifelong struggle with peer reviewed journals, particularly Nature. Bill Hamilton's discoveries and observations that resulted in the theories of the Parasite Red Queen, parasite avoidance, deleterious mutation elimination and others - had trouble finding print. These theories very much resemble the process of getting a new idea published in Nature. While Hamilton was busy pushing his revolutionary observations, the system was busy protecting the status quo from this maverick outlier. How ironic. And too bad the author missed it. His theories were clearly the centerpiece of his career, and it wasn't until his death that Nature freely admitted him to its pages. This struggle dominates these pages. But there is so much more to this life than those fights. I hope you will catch that when you read it. ( )
  DavidWineberg | Nov 10, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 019860727X, Hardcover)

Hailed by Richard Dawkins as "the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin," W. D. Hamilton was one of the truly innovative scientists of the 20th century, responsible for a sea change in our thinking about evolution--and in our understanding of life itself.

In this illuminating and moving biography, Ullica Segerstrale captures Hamilton's extraordinary life and work, revealing a man of immense intellectual curiosity, an uncompromising truth-seeker, a naturalist and jungle explorer. 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 yet brilliant scientist. The book shows how Hamilton throughout his life was a man against the grain, whose iconoclastic views challenged the scientific and medical establishment--and even caused controversy at the Vatican. In fact, Hamilton was so against the grain that his early career was a classic case of misunderstood genius, whose work was invariably attacked upon publication and only later proclaimed a major breakthrough. Among his insights was that what matters in evolution is not the survival of the individual but of the survival of its genes, an idea that solved the longstanding problem of animal altruism that vexed even Darwin himself. He also proposed the well-known Red Queen theory of the evolution of sex and he helped open up many new fields (including sociobiology), shaping much of our current understanding of evolution. He died tragically from malaria contracted on an expedition to the Congo in 2000.

Here then is an informed and engaging biography of one of the most influential scientists of our time, an unconventional thinker with a poet's soul and a deep concern for life on earth and mankind's future.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:45 -0400)

In this illuminating and moving biography, Ullica Segerstrale captures Hamilton's extraordinary life and work, revealing a man of immense intellectual curiosity, an uncompromising truth-seeker, a naturalist and jungle explorer. 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 yet brilliant scientist. The book shows how Hamilton throughout his life was a man against the grain, whose iconoclastic views challenged the scientific and medical establishment--and even caused controversy at the Vatican. In fact, Hamilton was so against the grain that his early career was a classic case of misunderstood genius, whose work was invariably attacked upon publication and only later proclaimed a major breakthrough. Among his insights was that what matters in evolution is not the survival of the individual but of the survival of its genes, an idea that solved the longstanding problem of animal altruism that vexed even Darwin himself. He also proposed the well-known Red Queen theory of the evolution of sex and he helped open up many new fields (including sociobiology), shaping much of our current understanding of evolution.… (more)

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