Hamilton’s work has caused the field of evolutionary biology to explode in surprising directions – from discovering why queen bees alone lay eggs in a hive to understanding what triggers social conflict to why cancer cells replicate uncontrollably.
As well, his legacy has changed “the way [that] doctors are thinking about diseases” and how illnesses can change over time, says Joan Herbers, professor of evolution and ecology at Ohio State University.
Herbers says that Hamiltonian thinking guides the work of scientists searching for everything from cures for types of cancer to the causes of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and what therapies we can use to conquer it.
Despite their deep influence on an array of scientific disciplines, Hamilton’s theories had a comparatively humble origin.
Hamilton was born in 1936 in Cairo, Egypt, but his family moved to Europe and settled in Kent, England. Although he published fewer than 60 papers during his career, he was arguably the most influential evolutionary biologist since Darwin. Darwin’s theories of natural selection explained the form, function and behaviours of many different animals, but failed to account for altruism in bees and humans. Altruism is basically selflessness. It’s helping another individual for their benefit while suffering a personal cost. In nature, this often manifests as a trait that prevents the helper from having their own babies.
More than 100 years after Darwin’s theory was published, Hamilton found the key to “Darwin’s special problem” of altruism that explained why this seemingly counter-intuitive lifestyle came to be, says Herbers.