04/09/2013 03:24 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

W. D. (Bill) Hamilton -- A Case of Life-long Creativity

Scientists as they mature typically assume roles that allow them to promote the overall scientific effort through advising and managing younger scientists rather than sustaining an intense research agenda themselves. Bill Hamilton, who many see as the Darwin of the 20th century, is one of the exceptions. He continued the intense scientific quest he began as a teenager until his accidental death in 2000. By then he had garnered a great number of international honors and prizes. Because of his interdisciplinary orientation many fields claimed him as theirs, including genetics, evolutionary biology, ethology, parasitology, and evolutionary psychology.

Rather than building on his previous successes and creating an academic empire, as many scientists do, Hamilton retained his capacity for primary research throughout his life. He followed his own research program, largely self-taught and acting as his own adviser and critic. He set very high standards for his papers, but they often remained obscure to his naturalist colleagues. He was always looking for universal principles across observations from nature and relishing in evolutionary oddities and paradoxes. For Hamilton, nature was a big puzzle that needed solving. A physical and intellectual risk taker, he loved challenges, never happier than when faced with an unexpected problem. He retained a dislike for authorities throughout his life, had little patience with formalities, and escaped people for the natural world when he could.

Hamilton was a deliberate challenger of prevailing paradigms. First there was the question of altruism. Here Hamilton supplanted the post-war "good for the species" group selection idea with his kinship theory (or the idea of kin selection). Later, in regard to the explanation of the origin of sexual reproduction, he offered an alternative to the existing mutation elimination explanation in the form of his Parasite Red Queen hypothesis, according to which the main goal of sexual reproduction is to create continuing genetic diversity and in this way fool parasites (or pathogens). At the same time he also gave a new interpretation of sexual selection: the traits selected for are not arbitrary -- females want healthy males. Later one of his main concerns was the transfer of animal viruses to humans and the threat of a future pandemic. He followed his inner conviction as to what topics were important and the need for scientists to pursue the truth, no matter what.

Hamilton was a scientific trail blazer who kept on entering new territory -- be it in the Amazon or in his study -- opening up ever new pathways. As he left behind him fields that soon turned into burgeoning scientific "industries," he kept constantly moving forward himself. He was always aiming for the biggest possible challenges that might be resolved by the means of evolutionary theory. No wonder that he from solving Darwin's big puzzle of the evolution of altruism as a graduate student later went on to tackle Darwin's second big puzzle, the reason for sex. And many other challenges in parallel -- he worked on half a dozen topics at the same time.

Hamilton's scientific style meant that he was typically a few steps ahead of his colleagues. As they started engaging with his ideas, he had already moved on to something else -- a new unexplored area where he was again the pioneer! Because this was what he did best -- open up and model new areas for research. He left for others to find empirical evidence and conduct the necessary tests. (And they did.) He also left to others to popularize his ideas and give them catchy names in books -- many readers are surely familiar with Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue and The Red Queen. Hamilton was a scientists' scientist, publishing for his colleagues rather than the public.

His mind was a spontaneous theory-generating machine. Colleagues recall his habit of spinning off theories in regard to just about everything. (Of course he also had his own methods for discarding non-workable ideas.) But getting published was always difficult. Every step of the way was a struggle with journal referees who could not follow his way of thinking. We can imagine his referees like mountain climbers desperately looking for footholds, as Hamilton enthusiastically introduced new theory, new method and new example organisms all at the same time in a paper. Once he had to struggle three years for a paper to get accepted. Did he give up? No. One of his leading features was extreme persistence. The resulting rejections and publication delays, though, led to bouts of loneliness and alienation.

From an early point on, Hamilton followed his internal radar in regard to science. As he grew older he taught himself new theories and methods that seemed important (such as population genetics, matrix algebra, and computer programming). It was he who found the problems that he wanted to solve, and he who drew the implications for further research. In this way he constructed an evolving research agenda of his own early on, which he later continued during his formal education at Tonbridge, Cambridge, and London School of Economics/University College, and his subsequent professorships at Imperial College, University of Michigan, and Oxford. Needless to say, his teachers and advisers did not always approve of his independent style. He experienced great difficulties in trying to get accepted as a graduate student and later struggled with advisers who gave him a lot of trouble with his Ph. D. thesis. In fact, for some time he thought he wouldn't get a Ph. D. at all.

It is easy to sympathize with Hamilton's difficulties. But at the same time we should note that he was in fact supported in his scientific career. There always seemed to be some teacher or superior somewhere who believed in him and helped him find scholarships or grants of one type or another. And this cannot be attributed to mere "luck." Hamilton would not have been supported had he not had something to offer, such as extensive naturalist knowledge and exciting theoretical ideas. He was really a walking encyclopedia and thinking machine all in one. Also, from the very beginning he was operating at the level of professional biologists -- he was never really anybody's graduate student but largely his own adviser. He was let to do what he wanted, but he kept his part of the contract: he delivered results!

The life of Bill Hamilton shows that there are important cases where the typical criteria for academic performance may need to be modified. How does one identify extraordinary promise? The criteria used today may screen out students like him. The "academic" Hamilton was reticent and nonforthcoming, although with strong inner convictions. One strategy in science is to cultivate good social skills. Hamilton chose a different strategy that suited the intense focusing that goes with creative work, and which let him work largely alone. Would Bill Hamilton have been able to make his mark in today's academic world? Are there enough avenues available for self-directed creative individuals, much needed in science? Equally important, do we have people today who can identify, encourage and find support for these as youngsters and as they mature? Identifying and nurturing unusual scientific talent is an important challenge for educators. What is being done today to ensure that great creative potential is given a chance?

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