A visit to the grave of W. D. Hamilton

September 16, 2012 • 8:16 am

If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you’ll know about the work of W. D. Hamilton, and if you’re not I don’t have the space to recount it.  Let me just say that he was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century, who worked out the consequences of “inclusive fitness” (otherwise known as kin selection), its application to biological phenomena like sex ratios, and many other problems of social evolution. Born in 1936, he died way too young—in 2000—from complications of malaria contracted on a trip to Africa while investigating whether AIDS might have come from polio vaccine (he had some bad ideas as well as good ones!).

You can read more about his accomplishments at Wikipedia, or, better yet, order the new biography of Hamilton by Ullica Segerstrale, Nature’s Oracle: A Life of W. D. Hamilton, which comes out in January in the UK and February in the US.  I’ve had a look at the prepublication text, and it’s very good.  Many scientific biographies are dull simply because scientists don’t often have interesting lives, and the public wants more than just an analysis of their work (JBS: The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane, by Ronald Clark, is a welcome exception, though a tad light on the science). And Hamilton had an interesting life.

The editor of Hamilton’s biography for Oxford University Press is my friend Latha Menon, who, as you may recall, got Fred Astaire week started.  Yesterday she visited Hamilton’s grave to take pictures of the plot, and she sent me the photos and an account of the visit:

I visited Bill Hamilton’s grave yesterday, in the graveyard of Wytham Village just outside Oxford, next to Wytham Woods.  I have always meant to visit but didn’t know quite where his grave was. It isn’t obvious. Alan G [Grafen] gave me instructions or I wouldn’t have found it. It’s in a small grassy area which acts as an overflow graveyard, and is surrounded by hedges and accessed by a small gate, with no sign of any sort. But a very peaceful spot next to open fields and then the woods.

Here is a picture of his simple gravestone. Nearby is a bench on which his partner Luisa’s deeply affecting words spoken at the graveside are inscribed. It was a peaceful September afternoon. I was quite alone there and felt quite moved. I couldn’t resist placing a beautiful yellowing leaf on the grave—it seemed appropriate.

Note the beetle on the headstone: Hamilton was a keen natural historian as well as a theoretician, and he loved insects:

Here’s the bench with Luisa’s words, which I’ve transcribed below the photo in case you can’t read them. They do make me tear up:

BILL.  Now your body is lying in the Wytham Woods, but from here you will reach again your beloved forests. You will live not only in a beetle, but in billions of spores of fungi and algae brought by the wind higher up into the troposphere, all of you will form the clouds and wandering across the oceans, will fall down and fly up again and again, till eventually a drop of rain will join you to the water of the flooded forest of the Amazon.

Hamilton also wrote his own obituary in an essay called “My intended burial and why” (reference at bottom):

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.

Every biologist should have an epitaph like one of those.


W. D. Hamilton, ‘My intended burial and why’; reprinted in: Ethology, Ecology and Evolution, 12, 111–122.

26 thoughts on “A visit to the grave of W. D. Hamilton

  1. Thanks Jerry. For those who wish to read a bit more on Hamilton, I would just like to recommend a wonderful eulogy given by Richard Dawkins at the memorial service he organized for Bill Hamilton at New College, Oxford, which includes Luisa’s poetic words. It can be found in Narrow Roads of Geneland Vol II (a 3-vol collection of Hamilton’s works), and is also included in the collection of Richard’s essays, A Devil’s Chaplain.

  2. It’s worth recounting the back-story to Luisa’s parting words, quietly and intimately spoken into the open grave while we stood in grieving attendance. Bill had an extraordinary (and typically eccentric) theory, published shortly before his death, that microorganisms manipulate clouds as an adaptation (I’d call it an extended phenotype) to get themselves dispersed in rain. Luisa’s words were making poetic reference not only to “My intended burial and why” but also to the theory of micro-organisms in clouds. I like to think it was her way of acknowledging that his wishes had strictly not been carried out – and yet perhaps they would eventually be fulfilled in a way that might have appealed to him even more than the cloud of iridescent beetle wings.

    I endorse Jerry’s recommendation of Ullica Segerstrale’s forthcoming biography. It is not a hagiography. It mentions his faults as well as extolling him as – in my opinion – the greatest evolutionary biologist since his hero R A Fisher. And a most remarkable man. As John Maynard Smith said, “He’s the only bloody genius we’ve got.”

    Bill, I miss you so much.


    1. Indeed, Richard’s moving eulogy should be read by all. I would also like to point out that Richard did a wonderful job of making Bill’s accomplishments more widely known, and of helping him steer the sometimes-fraught waters of the Zoology Dept at Oxford. I know it was much appreciated. (I was Bill’s PhD student when he was at Michigan.)

  3. Very touching sentiments.

    Tracing HIV transmission to polio eradication efforts isn’t such a far-fetched idea (unless we are talking about HIV in the vaccine itself). It’s quite likely that misguided vaccination campaigns, carried out for entire villages using handfuls of reused syringes propelled HIV out of obscurity. That’s the most efficient HIV spreader there is (and similar practices continue to this day in what passes for clinics in some regions).

  4. Did Hamilton come out strongly against group selection theory? We had a discussion this morning regarding that topic- and E O Wilson’s latest book was discussed. Hsmilton’s name was also mentioned along with the other Wilson against, if my memory serves me. Question: what is the prevailing or most commonly accepted stance on that question among scientists in that field?

    1. Well, I’ve come out on the anti-group-selection side, so you might consider me biased, but judging by the barrage of negative sentiment that followed the publication of a pro-group-selection paper in Nature by Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson, I’d say that the “conventional wisdom” is that group selection isn’t all that important in explaining adaptations.

      See this post for more information.

  5. Jerry has anyone ever told you that you bear more than a passing resemblance to W.D. Hamilton? Because you do! At first glance of the picture you included, and before having read the post, I thought it was a picture of you.

    1. I second that.

      My initial impression on seeing the picture was why is Jerry Coyne putting his picture in this article and what did he do to his hair ?

    2. Google images has a couple more photos of Hamilton. The resemblance to Jerry fits in the “separated at birth” category. It’s been said everyone has an identical twin. This is proof.

  6. I would just like to register my appreciation of Latha’s description of her visit to Wytham, and Richard’s fine comments. I remember writing to Louisa after Bill’s death, explaining that, as a science television producer fascinated by evolution, Bill had been an unfailingly friendly, frequently-used and entirely helpful resource in my research over a number of years. It had seemed to me, I said, as if a giant tree had suddenly fallen in the forest. Louisa replied, affectionately, and drily, that my description of his demise was more accurate than I could possibly have known.

    I’m another one who misses him.

    Jeremy Taylor.

  7. Coyne, Hamilton, and Dawkins on a beautiful Sunday morning. Doesn’t get much better.

    How many of these kinds of mornings did I miss as a Catholic youth, listening to biblical babble?

    Too many to count.

    1. I’ll admit that there is some resemblance, and I’d never noticed that. Pity that the phenotypic resemblance doesn’t extend to the brain!

      1. Such modesty, from the brilliant Jerry Coyne.

        It won’t get him into heaven, only further into our hearts.


  8. I would like to be laid out on the ground to be eaten, but I don’t mind it being bluebottles or flesh eating flies. All are welcome! A friend has left her body to the Natural History Museum she tells me, for teaching, & they use flesh eating beetles to clean skeletal remains, but I hope they have to wait a good while!

  9. The years pass but how can we forget Bill? As his undergraduate student in the first class he taught (in 1968)I addictively follow the stream of post-mortem comments = partly voyeuristically but, mainly, because thus he lives on. Richard has it right – he’s the only genius we’ve got (or, sadly, had). Copies of the Segerstrale biography arrived in Australia this week and mine is in the post. It had better be good!
    Roger Kitching, Brisbane

  10. Beautiful account, especially Bill’s words, Luisa’s and Richard’s.

    I tell my children that if i die anywhere but on Jamaica, kindly cremate me, and if i die in Jamaica, carry me to my property, have three men dig a hole straight down, as far as they can go (minimum of 8′), and plant me head first (vertically) fling in some dirt and call it a day.

    I still remember the day an undergraduate came running down the hall and said, “did you hear that Hamilton just said bacteria use clouds to disperse/”, and i called back, “did he explain how they make it rain when they want to come down?”. That was part of the beauty of Bill’s ideas, you could get into the spirit of them real quick.

    i had a special interest in the latter possibility because rural Jamaicans have a theory that trees cause rain to fall on them, a theory i first ridiculed as getting cause and effect backwards–of course trees are found more frequently in areas of high rate–but then i began to doubt this explanation for the correlation observed was sufficient, and Bill’s idea suddenly provided a possible mechanism–perhaps bacteria detect the presence of trees underneath or their imminent appearance, then they could evolve to cause rain near trees, if that is where they wish to land, the rain helping both themselves and their new host environment.

  11. 26.01.2014
    Nice photographs of WD Hamiltobn’s grave in Wytham church yard and of the inscription on its secular counterpart, the white marble bench a few paces beyond it on a rise in the ground, but no explanation is provided about how this odd combination came to be placed in the consecrated ground of All Saints Church, Wytham, an ancient establishment described as an “Anglican church that offers Christian fellowship to all who come to worship.”
    Nature’s Oracle, the biography of Bill by Ullica Segerstrale published by Oxford University Press last year, offers no explanation about how this juxtaposition came about in the church yard either. A number of significant aspects of Bill’s life and death which might be of interest to those trying to piece together the truth about the life of this complex thinker are obscure in the book.
    Nice though it is in so many ways, Nature’s Oracle contains quite a number of factual errors and the interpretation of errors can lead to considerable distortions which can then be extrapolated even further away from the truth. There is a prepared list available of the factual errors and some misinterpretations that readers have been reporting which might usefully be read in conjunction with Nature’s Oracle for those who value more information in order to reach a more realistic picture of Bill’s 63 years of life.
    Those who attended Bill’s funeral on March 18th 2000 will remember following the coffin into the bright spring sunshine after the service in Wytham church to the place in the grave yard where his body now lies.

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