Magazine article The Spectator

The Perils of Interference

Magazine article The Spectator

The Perils of Interference

Article excerpt

NARROW ROADS OF GENE LAND: VOLUME TWO, THE EVOLUTION OF SEX collected papers of W. D. Hamilton OUP, L50, pp. 928, ISBN 0198503369

If all those who must be kept alive by elaborate medication during their child-- bearing years are so kept alive and duly bear children, then the genes which cause their condition will also be passed on to the next generation. The likely effect of this over several generations will be that the defective genes become widespread or even universal in the population as a whole. What, then, if the elaborate medication is abruptly removed by some infrastructural or other catastrophe? This is the Planetary Hospital scenario which W.D. Hamilton holds up as a warning to our current practice of passive dysgenics. The remedy, in theory, is to intervene in the germline itself and excise the root of the problem. But even if we make the large assumption that this is, even in principle, possible, there are two problems: will we not eventually produce homogenised humans with effectively identical doctored genes in a world drained of individuality and flair, and may it not be the case that a gene that is currently harmful to its carrier may, in some unforeseeable future context, become a life-saver?

The British have a penchant for neglecting their genuinely original thinkers, which is almost as vexatious as our converse habit of (temporarily) elevating mediocrities. Hamilton is a conspicuous example of the first category, having possessed arguably the most powerful and original mind in biology since Darwin. It was Hamilton who developed and presented a theory of the genetic basis of altruism which led to the inexorable rise of kin selection over group selection and the sociobiological revolution, later brought to the notice of thinking people by Ed Wilson, Richard Dawkins and Steve Pinker, amongst many others. Moreover, he started to do so back in 1964, when what is now the touchstone of orthodoxy was a frowned on eccentricity, and he laboured against a background of ideological discouragement from the prevailing culturalist climate which was almost as pervasive and certainly as uncompromising as the High Church Anglicanism which made Darwin so nervous.

Anyone wishing to learn in detail how Hamilton progressively overcame opposition to his ideas by a combination of mathematical rigour, natural historical polymathy and, on his own admission, near-autistic obstinacy is referred to the first volume of Narrow Roads of Gene Land, which collects his papers up to 1981. …

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