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A Reason for Everything by Marek Kohn

This is a popular  account of the lives and ideas of some of the major British figures in evolutionary theory.  

After rather sensibly omitting Darwin, whose life is already adequately covered by several excellent biographies, Kohn concentrates on Alfred Russel Wallace,  Ronald Aylmer Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, John Maynard Smith, William. D. Hamilton, and Richard Dawkins.  Although he tries to portray all of them, except Maynard Smith, as eccentric, I think that Wallace comes across as a fairly normal and sympathetic character, in spite of his interest in spiritualism.  The fact that the right-wing leanings of Fisher and Hamilton are balanced by the communism of Haldane and the young Maynard Smith refutes the common assumption that evolutionary theory supports right-wing politics.

Most of the book seems to have based on Kohn's researches into the letters of the main characters, but the material on Hamilton seems to be based largely on Hamilton's 'Narrow Roads of Gene Land' and concentrates rather too much for my liking on his apocalyptic views on the accumulation of damaged genes.  However, I think that the most valuable contribution of this book are the parts based on interviews with that epitome of evolutionary common sense, John Maynard Smith.  These give interesting insights into his relationship with Hamilton who apparently bore several grudges against him (for instance, Hamilton thought that Maynard Smith had abused his position as a referee of Hamilton's 1964 paper to get his own ideas on kin selection into print first) .   Maynard Smith's death in 2004 was a great loss.

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