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The first idea of population regulation by group selection


Bill Hamilton
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Bill was a graduate student in the - I suppose it must have been right at the end of the '50s and the early '60s - jointly supervised by a man called [John] Hajnal at the London School of Economics, and Cedric Smith, who was in the Galton Laboratory. I have to say, I do not remember ever meeting him when he was a graduate student at University College. And... but it's clear that I did. Bill remembers being introduced to me by Cedric Smith, his supervisor, as being somebody working on altruism. I have to say, I don't recall it. I think the reason is that I did not have an enormously high respect for Cedric Smith as a biologist. I mean, I think Cedric Smith was and is a good statistician but I don't think he understood what biology was all about. If Bill was then anything like he is now, and he probably was more so, he was a deeply inarticulate young man. And I can just imagine myself being introduced to this inarticulate kid by an academic I didn't greatly respect, and not realising I was being introduced to a genius, how the hell do you know? I deeply regret this, it's one of the things in my life I do regret, that I didn't know that I was being introduced to a young man of real genius, working on a profoundly important problem. And I didn't help him. And I've always, as a teacher, liked to help young people, and I failed on that occasion. I think there are lots of excuses, and I can understand how it happened, but it did leave a scar. Bill felt that I had been unsympathetic, unappreciative, when he needed help. However, I have to say that his supervisor, Cedric Smith, worked in the Galton Laboratory, and my wife worked in the Galton Laboratory during that period, and she never remembers having seen him or met him. So he wasn't a very obvious figure, I mean, it was easy not to know he was there. I first knew about him, without realising he'd ever been at the college, when the '64 paper, The Genetic Evolution of Social Behaviour, or whatever it's called, was submitted to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, and it was sent to me by Danielli with a covering letter saying that this had been seen by two referees who say they don't understand it. 'All the same, I think there might be something in it, will you have a look?' And I can remember reading the paper, and struggling with it, and it was deeply obscure. It is a hard paper to read, I don't think many people have ever read it, to be honest. It was made more obscure by the trivial fact that his notation was one of indices which were either open circles or closed circles, but on his typewriter, all circles were closed, it was a messy typewriter. So the whole thing was... I can remember wading through this and saying, I understand why the other referees didn't understand it, I'm not understanding this. Fortunately, I went on just long enough before giving up, and came, about halfway through the paper, to this discussion of social insects, in which he describes how females are more closely related to their sisters than they are to their own daughters, because of the haplo-diploid system in social insects, and how this might have some relevance to the evolution of social behaviour. And I can vividly remember sitting there and thinking, as Huxley is said to have thought about Darwin, 'God, why didn't I think of that?' It's so simple, and I hadn't thought of it, and I remember feeling very cross. And I wrote to the JTB and said, 'I think this chap really is on to something, and I think it's important. But I think people will notice it if he divides the paper into two: one of which deals with the natural history and the social insect stuff, and the other one which deals with the mathematics.' And they persuaded him to do that. But I think he also - and I can understand it - felt resentful of that. Felt that he'd been... and I think he, to some extent, blamed me for having held him up for a long time. So he felt pretty bad about the role I played.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: LSE, Galton Laboratory, University College, Oxford, The Genetic Evolution of Social Behaviour, Journal of Theoretical Biology, WD Hamilton, John Hajnal, Cedric Smith, JF Danielli, TH Huxley

Duration: 4 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008