W.D. Hamilton (1936-2000) was one of the most influential evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. He is best known as the originator of Inclusive Fitness Theory, which at the time was regarded as a breakthrough solution to the evolution of altruism compared to the failed theory of group selection.

Less well known is that Hamilton changed his mind about the relationship between his theory and group selection, based on the work of another theoretical biologist named George Price. The fact that this is still news to many people is curious, since Hamilton himself wrote about it over 40 years ago[1], Elliott Sober and I called attention to it in our book Unto Others over 20 years ago, and the historian of science Oren Harman wrote about it in his best-selling book The Price of Altruism almost ten years ago.

In my interview with Harman, we tell the story of Hamilton’s conversion one more time and then tackle the fascinating question of why it remains news to so many people after all these years.

This is the second of a series of interviews designed to achieve a long overdue consensus on Multilevel Selection Theory. The first interview, with Elliott Sober, is titled “Was Darwin a Group Selectionist?”.


[1] Hamilton, W. D. (1975). Innate social aptitudes in man, an approach from evolutionary genetics. In R. Fox (Ed.), Biosocial anthropology (pp. 133–155). London: Malaby Press.


Published On: December 18, 2018

Oren Harman

Oren Harman

Oren Harman is the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He has written widely for popular and professional audiences on genetics, evolution, history and philosophy of science, altruism, biography, and science and mythology. His books include The Man Who Invented the ChromosomeEvolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, and The Price of Altruism which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Oren sings bass with the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir. His website is OrenHarman.com

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • ishi crew says:

    I think the reason that 1975 paper by Hamilton is unknown is because it is not easy to find. Also Hamilton’s rule rB>C is such an easy equation that it has become religion. Price fixed up that equation i part; but now there are even more very complex versions (which still don’t cover everything) so nobody even tries to read those. (They are highly nonlinear , so you end up with something that looks like General Relativity.)

    There are lots of simple equations which people seize on so they become an orthodoxy. one has Piketty’s (r,g) theory of economic inequality–and that comes from MIT—Paul Samueson, for all his faults, knew more math analyses than that. Libertarians forgot that Adam Smith wrote a book called ‘the moral sentiments’, so they have half a theory. Self-proclaimed Marxists never read marx’s original article on ‘anomie’ (similar to Durkheim) , nor did they read the ladt chapters on marx so they have some sort of version of marxism as viable as a baby with its head cut off.

  • ishi crew says:

    p.s. one can also note that Price after writing down his equation dropped out of science , became a christian social worker working with the poor. That approach doesn’t work either. My area has many christian social workers, and it still has alot of poverty, violence, addiction, and other problems. Some call christian social workers poverty pimps.

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