Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Civilization

Lee Alan Dugatkin

Extended Book Review

Even Darwin was plagued by doubts. For a decade he pondered and tweaked his theory until he heard Wallace was preparing a manuscript. Moved at last to polish his notes, he published his pioneering “Origins of the Species.” One of Darwin’s reservations was the simple question, "If natural selection and survival of the fittest is the true state of affairs in nature, why are there so many examples of goodness in so many species." In the fifteen decades that have elapsed since Darwin pondered the question, not that much has changed in the public mind. Dugatkin explains that while that may be so, it is not the true state-of-the-art for evolutionary theory. In fact, Dugatkin relates vividly how Darwin’s legacy has evolved to the point where not only does goodness arise through Darwinian selection, it can be reduced to a simple cost / benefit equation from economic theory that contains a factor derived directly from the degree of relatedness between individuals. In each case, mystery upon mystery suddenly found a common explanation. This occurred mostly under the public radar over the last half century or so. Dugatkin relates how seven British, Russian, and American scientists played prominent roles.

If you doubt that goodness can be explained by an algebraic equation, you have lots of company. We were stunned and left breathless, how a simple inequality of three quantities, rb>c, can be so descriptive. But hold on. “r” is relatedness we have with others involving the fraction of our genes we inherit from each parent, not always a strict multiple of 1/2. “b" is benefit derived. “c” is cost. Biologists had long observed that the more closely a giver and receiver are related, the more intense the altruistic behavior. In one brilliant stroke, Hamilton showed why.

Some observers think the Hamilton inequality did for evolutionary biology, what Kepler’s planetary rules did for physics. In each case, initial results enabled deeper understandings with a watershed of new results soon to follow. Like Kepler who stood on Brahe’s giant shoulders, Hamilton stood on Darwin, Huxley, and Haldane. Hamilton is the central character in Dugatkin’s highly readable book, and deservedly so. He opened the doors to new perspectives which others were quick to extend and expand upon. Dugatkin is thorough. He includes the brief, but important contribution by one George Price, who reformulated Hamilton’s rule in statistical terms more familiar to scientists of our time. We prefer Price’s analytical technique for it provides a direct way to calculate “r” with error bars. Here Hamilton’s “r” is Sewell Wright’s coefficient, which is a continuous variable with values between 0 and 1. More completely, completely, “r” can have negative values, which Price showed could result in the survival of genes for spite, that well-know human trait, that is only very rarely expressed by our fellow primates. Used properly, Price's inequality is relatively immune to observer bias. Hamilton is indeed the conceptual father, quantifier, and founder of a new branch of science. Richard Dawkins and other prominent scientists have extended Hamilton's basic concept.

In a very real way, Degatkin’s history fills in many blanks along with missing mortar in the edifice of peace coming together on His book, along with those of Adorno, Milgram, Zimbardo, Altemeyer, Stout, Stern, Wilson, Dawkins and De Waal, provide the tapestry of human society in the modern era. The "whats" have been known for some decades; the "hows" and "whys" are now coming into much sharper focus. Dugatkin is a first-rate raconteur. Vague concepts come alive with his pen. Mini dramas give life to the characters and even the science. Dugatkin's book rates five stars--more like ten in reference to the major concerns on this web site.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.