*Nature’s Oracle*

by on March 22, 2014 at 6:11 am in Books, Science | Permalink

The author is Ullica Segerstrale and the subtitle of this excellent and fascinating book is The Life and Work of W.D. Hamilton.  Here is one bit:

She had decided to break up with him.  The reason for this…was Bill’s strange idea of marriage.  Bill had told her that they should have no more than two children, of which one child would be his and another her child with another man.  His girlfriend thought about this and realized she could not agree.  She also wondered what lay behind this suggestion.  (She probably did not recognize Bill’s experimental scenario as coming straight out of some book like Out of the Night.)

This book has many excellent lines, including:

There is a famous New Zealand expression: “Anything can be fixed with a number 8 wire.”

And:

Who carries around cyanide?

Robert Trivers makes numerous cameos as well.

Steve Sailer March 22, 2014 at 6:58 am

Segerstrale points out that Hamilton, the leading evolutionary theorist of the second half of the 20th Century, grew up in the country about five miles from Charles Darwin’s Down House. As a child, his mother took him on foot from their house to Darwin’s house.

I suspect that one reason the British have dominated advances in evolutionary theorizing is because they long possessed a rural bourgeois intellectual elite. In most countries, the bourgeois lived in burghs, but in Britain a large fraction of the most intellectual people were country boys interested in nature, hunting, animal breeding and the like.

In the U.S., much of the ideological divide among evolutionary theorists seems to follow that cleavage of country (e.g., Edward O. Wilson of small town Alabama) versus city (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould of Queens). The city folk tended to feel, like poor Mr. Salter in Waugh’s “Scoop,” that “agriculture was something alien and highly dangerous … there was something un-English and not quite right about ‘the country.’”

So Much for Subtlety March 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

I suspect that one reason the British have dominated advances in evolutionary theorizing is because they long possessed a rural bourgeois intellectual elite. In most countries, the bourgeois lived in burghs, but in Britain a large fraction of the most intellectual people were country boys interested in nature, hunting, animal breeding and the like.

Thanks to the Church of England by and large. Which distributed a large number of educated men around the countryside in very nice homes, but with little to do. Their offspring were grossly disproportionate in every possible sphere of British life.

I think the ideological divide is more interesting for the ideologies. So few evolutionary biologists seem to be middle of the road liberal democrats. William Hamilton was attracted to eugenics – and his views were extreme in so far as he made them know. So much so that Richard Dawkins is alleged to have refused to help prepare his third volume of collected works. But then doctrinaire Marxists tend to be more common. Which is odd because Marxists must have problems with Darwin in ways that the Nazis did not.

Steve Sailer March 22, 2014 at 8:19 am

“So few evolutionary biologists seem to be middle of the road liberal democrats.”

It seems that way largely due to people like Gould, Lewontin, and Rose getting to frame what’s considered the middle of the road. For example, Edward O. Wilson had to spend decades explaining he’s a normal New Deal Democrat, not the monster proclaimed by Gould et al.

Franklin, Smith, Malthus, Darwin, Galton, Fisher, Hamilton — this is the core mainstream of English-language thought, and that fact generates a lot of resentment.

So Much for Subtlety March 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Well I don’t think they do get to decide what is middle of the road for most of us. They tried to define what is acceptable science and what is not. You can take the scientist out of the Stalinist Party, but you cannot take the Party out of the scientist. And they certainly tried to show Lysenko was not an aberration.

But then as Gould, Lewontin, Hubbard and Rose were all Jewish, they may have had some special sensitivities about people who argued one way on this issue.

Z March 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

“Middle of the road liberal democrats” are like “unicorn riding magic leprechauns.” The reason you never see either of these is they don’t exist. They can’t exist.

In the West, the religion of the elites is the pagan cult that grew out of the French Revolution. All iterations of it have embraced eugenics. After all, if you think biology is infinity negotiable and humans are just lumps of clay, it is a short trip to eugenics of one form or another. The Continental side has preferred to just murder the unfit, while the Island side has gravitated toward various techniques to prevent the unfit from breeding.

So Much for Subtlety March 22, 2014 at 5:29 pm

I am sorry Z, I usually appreciate at least something about your posts, but I think you’re wrong here. Middle of the road liberal democrats do exist. Most of White America can reasonably be described as middle of the road liberal democrats. It is hard to think of any outside a few Communists who think liberal democracy is not the only way to organize society.

As for eugenics, since the French Revolution there has been a strong Leftist trend to view all humans as infinitely malleable – somewhat dented now that the Left has to argue, at the same time, that human culture is infinitely malleable (a basic principle of anthropology for instance) *AND* that homosexuality is innate, eternal, unchangeable and known to all known human societies since the beginning of life on Earth.

Eugenics comes out of the idea that humans are *not* a blank slate. That the children of the poor and feckless will always be poor and feckless no matter what education they get. If you believe children are like lumps of clay, there is no need for eugenics. You just need good public schools.

It does not follow that all Leftists are opposed to eugenics. The Social Democrats accepted the science of the day and the logic of the welfare state – if you pay more for feckless people, you get more feckless people and the only solution is to remove them from the gene pool. That is why Sweden was forcibly sterilizing people into the 1970s. In this the Nazis were well within the Socialist mainstream.

But the Marxists remained firmly opposed to the idea. And to Darwin in general. Well into the 1950s the Communists were condemning Darwin. Shamefully a number of Western biologists were willing to defend Lysenko and the murder of Russia’s real biologists.

J March 22, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Lol, dude you are so dramatic. People have opinions about stuff. Sometimes you will disagree with those opinions. “Worshiping at the altar of blah blah blah” is a little extreme, don’t you think?

msgkings March 23, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Nah, dude’s a clown.

Steve Sailer March 22, 2014 at 11:01 am

“Thanks to the Church of England by and large. Which distributed a large number of educated men around the countryside in very nice homes, but with little to do.”

Good point. Much of “The Origin of Species” consists of observations passed on from the likes of the Rev. Augustus Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier in deepest Lincolnshire.

carlospln March 24, 2014 at 3:24 am

Thanks to the Church of England by and large’ (snip)

Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, Rev. Jack Russell bred the terrier, Rev. Michael Greenwell invented modern archeology, Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine, Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day, Rev. M.J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi, Rev. John Mitchell discovered Uranus, etc. source: ‘anti fragile’, nassim nicholas taleb

carlospln March 24, 2014 at 3:27 am

Thanks to the Church of England by and large’ (snip)

Bullseye. For example, Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, Rev. Jack Russell bred the terrier, Rev. Michael Greenwell invented modern archeology, Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine, Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day, Rev. M.J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi, Rev. John Mitchell discovered Uranus, etc. source: ‘anti fragile’, nassim nicholas taleb

Rahul March 22, 2014 at 11:24 am

Could it have been geography? In England you could be rural and still enjoy the luxuries and utilities of the cities (libraries, meetings, demonstrations etc. ) pretty easily. Distances weren’t forbiddingly large and city density was high and intellectual centers relatively many.

An American rural intellectual in 1800′s would need days or maybe even weeks of hard travel to hit a city capable of catering to his intellectual tastes.

Z March 22, 2014 at 12:22 pm

I’d also discount the CofE stuff too. The fetish for church building goes back to the fifth century. The Welsh would build a church on any spare patch of grass they could find. But, the relatively high literacy rates resulting from a monk in every meeting house seems to be unique to the island. Of course they practiced concubinage into the fourth century, thus allowing the elite to populate the lower classes, so to speak.

So Much for Subtlety March 22, 2014 at 4:52 pm

I think that the CofE clergymen have to come with some other things as well – a growth in newspapers and a decline in book printing. So that even in remote, backward, darkest Yorkshire, the Bronte family could produce well educated daughters – with no help from their actual schooling.

However the evidence of the massive role played by the families of Church of England clergy is so grossly overwhelming I don’t think that denying it is going to work. At least it is so overwhelming in every other field of British endeavor from literature to military command, that it would be unusual if it was not also true for evolution.

Steve Sailer March 22, 2014 at 9:16 pm

“Could it have been geography?”

Yes, especially after the development of a thick web of railways made it easy to get around this densely populated countryside. Darwin’s Down House, for instance, is only 14.25 miles from Charing Cross Station in London, so today it’s suburban. In Darwin’s day it was not, but it was still easy for visiting dignitaries to come see him (he was a homebody for the second half of his life). Hamilton grew up some number of miles further out to the southeast of London, but it was still rural in the 1950s.

Rahul March 23, 2014 at 3:44 am

In effect, there’s no real similarity between a rural American and a rural Englishman.

Steve Sailer March 22, 2014 at 7:11 am

Segerstrale mentions that Hamilton’s rugby teammates nicknamed him “Caveman” and “Apeman.” As a professor, he had this head of white hair with the kind of hair-do favored by aged sapphists, but he had extremely rugged facial features. He looked like Unfrozen Caveman Biologist:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/92/W_D_Hamilton.jpg

And Hamilton tended to alarm more delicately boned academics.

Hopefully, somebody has a sample of Hamilton’s DNA on ice somewhere so it can someday be genome scanned. I suspect whatever genes control brow ridges and jaws, he inherited a lot of them from Neanderthals.

carlospln March 24, 2014 at 2:27 am

But what about the bumps on his head?

Prior Probability March 22, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Segerstrale’s previous tome on the history of the field of sociobiology was an excellent read, so I can’t wait to get my hands on this new book … I am especially eager to see how she treats John Maynard Smith, who essentially stole many ideas from fellow theoretical biologists (and delayed the publication of their papers) in his capacity as anonymous referee of their papers

Harold March 23, 2014 at 1:15 am

“Anything can be fixed with a number 8 wire.” No New Zelander would say that. They would say either “Anything can be fixed with a bit of number 8 wire”, or “Anything can be fixed with number 8 wire”. Moreover, while the sentiment is ubiquitous, I don‘t think a specific phrasing is.

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