Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Narrow Roads of Gene Land: the evolution of sex, by W.D. Hamilton - 4 Stars

“The degeneration of the human genome in the absence of natural selection is the phase we are now entering.”

On a long car journey to Stratford Upon Avon, I was told a story that must be three times as old as I am that an elderly American tourist lady was leaving a performance of Hamlet and was asked what she thought about it. She supposedly replied “It was good but it was so damn full of clichés”. I remembered that story because as I read through this collection of papers and theoretical ideas by the evolutionary theorist W.D. Hamilton, I kept seeing original ideas by him (1945-2000 period) that I had previously attributed to other people. Standing on the shoulders of giants? Who were those giants? Him? Okay, they did a lot of work on them but they adapted ideas and, somehow, the public never saw past the headliner’s name. Game Theory (in biology, John Maynard Smith put in into Economics), a version of the Price Equation in the late 1960s, Selfish Genetics (Richard Dawkins), Kinship Theory, the genetic basis for altruism and related social sacrifice within Group Theory and the role parasites play in evolutionary development are all things that I associate with other people, as if they had the idea fully formed. He didn’t seem to care though. As soon as the insight was out, like a little floating paper lantern lapped out to sea, he moved along to the next problem, which could be a gene upgrade race, squaring Gaia theory mathematically (previously a hippie hallucination), checking to see if clouds could be adaptations by microorganisms used for their own dispersal, then seeing if our lofty ideas about ourselves are even compatible with our nature and how we reached this point.

Hamilton had original ideas, that’s the thing. For other thinkers you can often see that they indeed were ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, or had a peer group they fed from who were publishing similar papers, but Hamilton’s ideas often seemed to come out of a clear blue sky. He liked to go somewhere quiet and listen to bird song, which allowed him a space to think. Sometimes he went to a jungle, as he wasn’t sure how the human world worked.

Where do we come from and where are we going (e.g. in biological design and social adaptation)? What pushes our direction of travel? Why do we age and die? Why does our species have an equal sex ratio? Does natural selection favour spite? (spite means wars etc, not just selfishness and nepotism). Why do animals flock? Why do species extend to areas less favourable to the ones they are living in? (applications to economic markets are obvious but it’s also applicable to colonisation of the Moon and Mars). Why do leaves change colour? Why do drone bees come in two sizes? Why are species that reproduce asexually all small? Will our own advances in medicine weaken us dangerously to the point of dependence, as if the support was withdrawn we would be unviably defective?

The evidence suggests to me that he was autistic, probably Asperger’s Syndrome, as he had little empathy for humans and made un-PC comments with regularity. To justify this observation, when you read the book you’ll have your mind opened by this swimming, twisting shoal of ideas, the images by which Professor Hamilton made sense of the evolved world as he saw it, classic insights and derived meanings but then, just as you’re saying yes, this is really good stuff and I agree with it, you’ll say “hang on, where’s this heading, I’m not sure about that” and then you can see he’s lost the room because he’s said something ruthless and appalling that sensitivity dictates you can’t even think, let alone say out aloud. He knows this himself because, not digging out the exact words, twice he writes “If anyone has read this far” or “for the few who haven’t stopped reading” and then he sighs “sadly, I don’t expect anyone has read as far as this page” – which was a challenge to me to finish and try to understand it; the wisdom of the unsociable in the writing style of a surly crab who recalls the poets but does his thing, not their thing, because he isn’t built like that.

This is a man who expressed a kind of stunted-empathic indifference to the plight of others and yet had decided intellectually to do more for them than the people who care and have feelings would have ever done. He wasn’t interested in money except for the good it could do to others (a logical decision – think Spock) and was perpetually poor because he gave his money away (what a saint) and yet said shitty things like these: Why do people expect to keep their vegetable child? Why do they expect society to support it? If they want to do that, they should pay it themselves (meaning that the corrupted design would be treated harshly at the hands of natural selection. We’ve stopped natural selection by keeping this entity alive and potentially retaining and copying mutant genes harmful to the species’ survival in the future gene pool). The argument is probably better phrased like this: Hamilton thought the power of modern medicine to keep people alive might lead to the situation a few hundred years from now where every human being carries a couple of lethal genes and relies on medical props to stay alive. In the event of a catastrophe, if that supply wagon of support fails, the species collapses. John Maynard Smith recommended gene therapy instead (somatic gene engineering) to fix the lethal genes once and for all, rather than counter the symptoms. Hamilton countered that we have 3,000 million base pairs of DNA coding 100,000 genes capable of mutation or miscopying and protons shooting through our bodies, cosmic radiation, have the capacity to damage those at any second of any day, so the idea of a fix for the next corrupted gene is a pipe dream for one person, let alone 7 billion. In support of genetic engineering though, Hamilton said that “the public horror at the idea of tinkering with natural processes, that went on to create Dolly the sheep, might shortly be applied to humans” – as (paraphrasing) using antibiotics at all is already tinkering with natural processes, i.e. arresting the removal of the mistakes and failed designs by natural selection. The removal of errors is a natural process. Selecting in favour of those most able to survive is a natural process. Arresting this is tinkering with the natural process that made us. Death and removal is a grim thought for the individual but good for the group.

He wrote a reference for his graduate student, recommending her as “excellent at statistical theory, despite her sex” and presented a lifetime of observations that women aren’t as good as men at maths and spatial visualization, but apparently have a better sense of smell (for BS?). He appeared to be suggesting that he approved of people smoking and dying of cancer because people should die young (after passing on their genes) and their deaths would save society having to support them at the frail end of their lives when they were beyond reproduction (what about passing on learning then?). He then retracted the smoking comments, concluding that on the whole it should be banned, although he opposed the politically correct trend to bring pressure on smokers. He was unaware of the racial implications of his comments when refuting the idea that “all men are brothers”, saying that in the subconscious mind they are absolutely not (Kinship Theory, Group Theory), indicating that illusions like race were bizarre ways to assess things (people are just another category of things).

Hamilton travelled for five days in the rain forest with a native guide, whom he quizzed repeatedly on endless species of indigenous flora, yet never thought to ask his name or whether he was married or had children – all irrelevant to that man’s value for knowledge transfer. Another recommendation Hamilton made was that since HIV1 had crossed from the Chimpanzee species (who have some limited immunity to it) into the human species by sexual contact (it is thought there were at least three separate events of crossover), encouraging humans to have sex with chimpanzees could in theory transfer some of their immunity into the human population too. Lovely. His idea was that a human with hereditary exposure could do this, e.g. a Nairobi prostitute, who should then transfer it by sleeping with a different population group, e.g. Scandinavians, who could then propagate their immunity further. I sense a look of horror on your faces, or perhaps you’re laughing? When people showed no interest in his most absorbing ideas, or when the room went silent, Hamilton admits he doubted his own sanity. When you read that he wasn’t completely bothered by being infested with an Amazonian parasite because he liked the idea of being host to such an ancient life form, you’ll doubt his sanity too.

He liked other people’s theories and cast new light on them. The Prisoner’s Dilemma and its most efficient solutions was one. Another was his overlap with E.O. Wilson: If individual advantage is to be optimal, cheating is good – but society fails. If group advantage is optimal, individuals become dumb followers and the group’s leaders can then benefit themselves by exploiting them. The individuals then cease to trust the group (which fails) as the leaders have branched off into a sub-group, no longer providing optimal advantage to anyone in the group who is not in the leadership sub-group. Do we then benefit from group or selfish tactics or neither? Predation is good for a species as a whole, not the victims, because available food per head increases (fewer heads), but it sucks for the individual. Disease, war etc reduce numbers but also remove famine. With fewer prey, predator numbers fall then prey numbers rise as there’s more food but less predation – then Hamilton pointed out that lots of kestrels preying on an abundance of mice this year might be because the kestrels were feasting on an over population of voles last year.

Parasite theory is suitably creepy: Parasites kill and handicap animals but also force them to select in favour of alternative mutations that the parasite is less able to affect, so gradually the victim’s (eventual) descendants have designs that move out of reach of the parasite’s scope. The parasite then, to avoid extinction, must select in favour of something better able to attack the newly adapted form. Both change over time, both evolve. If separated, neither would evolve (except in response to different levers, such as changing environment). Parasites were one of the influences that prodded human evolution (not just – for all animals and plants) into the design we occupy today. Without these mechanisms, these agitations to change and adapt, we might still be simple clusters of cells.

Hamilton approved of and without irony applied James Thurber’s advice on debating with people: “He found it best not to listen to his opponent at all because this enabled him to keep his mind calm and keenly focussed on what he was going to say when his opponent stopped talking.”

W.D. Hamilton died in 2000, after an expedition to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he’d intended to get to the source of simian immunodeficiency syndrome. He thought he might stop HIV, not quite but almost alone, but mosquitoes and tablets for the symptoms of malaria cut him down. Hamilton, now referred to as the greatest evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin, had a dying wish to be left on the Amazonian forest floor and be naturally dispersed by beetles to feed their larvae. It’s probably worth republishing in full because of the lively, colourful and biologically influenced turn of phrase from this wannabee poet:

“I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”

He liked poetry, which for most people is a sensitive route of entry to the human soul but to him was probably attractive as might be the complicated spectrum of a forest canopy, teeming with bugs, as he drew forth his little killing jar. There’s a line of Wordsworth’s on the statue of Isaac Newton at Cambridge which seems worth quoting here: “The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

Page 872 has flicked past I still can’t tell if Hamilton’s absent mindlessness and antagositic rudeness was affected or whether he was genuinely unaware as he said these things that they caused any offence. Richard Dawkins said it was real but I suspect that he was flicking matches on our haystack to see if any of them would go whooomph. This book would obviously get 5 stars for scientific thought and evidence, no question about that, but if I have to rate it as a publication, arrogance drags it down. If he didn't want to have his personal nature critiqued in a review, he shouldn't have put so much of it in. If he was unaware of his social needling, he wouldn’t have almost gleefully included mention of the many occasions when he’d so upset people and been so keen to tell us what he’d said. His self-importance shows through, in contrast to a robotic thinking machine that would be unaware of themselves in the greater scheme of science. As work, this is excellent. As a book, as a recounting of a human life in pursuit of one obsession, evolution, he doesn’t impress as much. His frequent inclusion of poetry is odd, personal ornamentation perhaps, but is he really asking us to feel endeared to him? Is this book about ‘truth’ and building blocks of knowledge, like the originality of the papers, or is it about the autist within? Me-stuff? He shouldn’t care if we feel sympathetic, amazed or annoyed by his ideas, so why’s he interested in our reaction? Yes though, these theories are an outstanding a legacy. He’s bundled together the science and himself in this publication and the man, the eccentric, is the flaw. I was advised at the start to just read the introduction (maths is too hard for women, surely) but, having read it all, my advice to a serious theoretician is to just read the journal papers, learn the theories (Red Queen Parasite is a hard nut) and cut the personality out of the equation.

If the way he was trying to portray his own personality was true (detachment, clarity), he wouldn’t have decorated it with ego.

As a final footnote to his nature as an unpractical and confused wanderer, this savant yet not-quite sympathetic man, he hadn’t the money in his estate to carry out his dying wish and he’d completely overlooked getting his last will and testament witnessed anyway. They left his body in Wytham Woods in England, which was cheaper.

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