It was not how anyone expected Bill Hamilton to die. In 1999, Hamilton was celebrating his fifteenth year as a research professor in evolutionary biology at Oxford, where he had cultivated a reputation for unconventional, mathematically sophisticated theorizing. He had recently received both the Crafoord Prize and the Kyoto Prize, arguably the two most prestigious awards for scientists in fields not eligible for the Nobel. His wife had moved out, and the Italian journalist Luisa Bozzi had moved in. He was sixty-three, and with a mop of white hair, looked like an aging Beatle.
That June, Hamilton boarded a plane to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then in the midst of a civil war that would ultimately claim five million lives. He came home about a month later with samples of chimpanzee feces and a mysterious illness. By January of 2000, Hamilton had recovered and gone to the Congo again. This time, when he came back sick, he went into the hospital and did not return. After his death, Richard Dawkins declared that he was “a good candidate for the title of the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin.”
It wasn’t until the fall of 2000 that a mystified public learned why Hamilton had made the Congo expeditions that ultimately cost him his life. Bozzi, Hamilton’s girlfriend, explained in The Guardian that he had gone to collect evidence that he hoped might vindicate a controversial theory about the origins of HIV.
A year earlier, the British journalist Ed Hooper had made headlines with a door-stopper of a book entitled The River, which carried a foreword by Hamilton. In nearly twelve hundred meticulously documented pages, the book expounded the theory that a team of scientists, led by Polish-American virologist Hilary Koprowski, had unwittingly introduced the virus through a contaminated oral polio vaccine (OPV) administered to hundreds of thousands of residents of the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. Koprowski, Hooper claimed, had secretly manufactured the batch of vaccines used in the Congo with kidneys from local chimpanzees who were infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the precursor to HIV.
Set on corroborating the so-called “OPV/AIDS hypothesis,” Hamilton believed that the evidence rested in the troupes of chimpanzees that lived near where Koprowski had purportedly harvested organs. When war broke out in the DRC, Hamilton fretted that food shortages would spur bushmeat hunters to wipe out the chimpanzee populations he was interested in, leaving him with no choice but to collect the desired samples himself—as soon as possible.
If Bozzi’s disclosure helped shed light on the reason for Hamilton’s trip, it did not do much to explain why he had become almost suicidally obsessed with the OPV/AIDS theory in the first place. Two decades later, the full story of Hamilton and the debate about the origins of HIV still hold important lessons, as we confront a new batch of conspiracy theories and recriminations in the midst of the worst pandemic since HIV/AIDS.
When a cluster of gay men began to contract bizarre and often fatal infections in 1981, it was not initially obvious that a single virus was to blame. The homophobic mainstream press christened the syndrome “GRID,” for “gay-related immunodeficiency.” Even as evidence mounted that heterosexuals could contract the disease, the initial assumption that its etiology was somehow linked to the identity of its victims persisted. The CDC began to refer to the “4H disease,” for homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitian immigrants, some of whom had begun to develop symptoms in New York City.
Finally, in 1983, the journal Science published a pair of articles by two different teams, one at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland and the other at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Each claimed to have identified a novel retrovirus responsible for causing the immunodeficiency disorder. After years of debate, scientists demonstrated in 1986 that the two teams had, in fact, independently discovered the same virus, which was christened HIV: human immunodeficiency virus.
The discovery of the simian immunodeficiency virus in 1991 suggested that HIV had only recently made the jump from chimpanzees to humans. Because viruses mutate constantly, HIV would not have retained the striking genetic similarity to its simian predecessor if the transfer had not been recent. The most common theory of transmission came to be known as the “cut hunter” hypothesis: some unlucky fellow had gone bushmeat hunting with an open wound that was exposed to SIV-positive chimpanzee blood. The rest was history.
It’s not entirely clear who was first to formulate the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, but it first entered the public eye in the pages of Rolling Stone in 1992. A Houston-based journalist named Tom Curtis had stumbled onto the theory and become a true believer, amassing far more evidence than any prior proponent. Curtis laid out the case in a feature story that March, followed by a series of pieces over the next sixth months. When Hilary Koprowski, the inventor of the vaccine in question (codenamed “CHAT”), threatened to sue Curtis and Rolling Stone for libel, the magazine published a “clarification” that Curtis was merely describing one intriguing hypothesis, not definitively asserting that Koprowski had unleashed AIDS on the world. In the meantime, the Wistar Institute, where Koprowski spent most of his career, convened a panel of scientists to investigate Curtis’s claims, which they soon dismissed summarily. The media, by and large, lost interest.
But Ed Hooper did not. His interest in the origins of HIV/AIDS was piqued while he worked on a BBC documentary about the course of the epidemic in Uganda in the late eighties, and after two years of research, he had become dissatisfied with the mainstream explanation. After reading Curtis’s article, he became enchanted by the OPV/AIDS hypothesis, and spent the next seven years assembling the interviews and documentary materials that ultimately became The River.
The book ventures two key claims. First, Hooper argued that even Curtis had underestimated the extent of Koprowski’s vaccination campaign in the Belgian Congo. By his estimation, the total tally was close to a million vaccine recipients, distributed geographically in a pattern that, on first glance, looked remarkably similar to the pattern of early AIDS cases documented in the Congo region. Even more controversially, Hooper asserted that Koprowski had prepared batches of the vaccine on-site in the Congo using chimpanzee tissues, insinuating that Koprowski understood at the time that he was doing something risky and proceeded to lie about it for the next four decades. (Koprowski had always insisted that CHAT was manufactured exclusively at the Wistar Institute using rhesus monkey tissues, then-standard in vaccine production.)
Hooper had succeeded in transforming himself into a legitimate subject-matter expert who grasped the science as well as, if not better than, most of his interlocutors. He also did his best to poison the well for any critics by implying that scientists and the media alike had simply rolled over for the litigious Koprowski rather than giving Curtis’s ideas a fair shake. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that the reading public would have taken the book quite so seriously if it had not been published with a preface by “the most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin.”
For an evolutionary biologist, William Donald Hamilton did not like people very much. In the first volume of his memoirs, published before his death, he reminisced about his student days, when he would walk for hours through London and try to imagine the landscape that had once existed before human civilization emerged to deface it.
Hamilton’s interest in the natural world was inseparable from a reactionary, racist brand of environmentalism that flowered in the 1960s and 1970s. At a symposium on euthanasia organized by the Vatican, Hamilton made the shocking assertion that he would grieve more over the death of a single giant panda than that of “a hundred unknown Chinese.”As the Rachel Carson branch of the early green movement focused on the environmental consequences of unchecked corporate power, another saw overpopulation as the root of all ecological problems. Most of the alarmism focused on the nations of the Global South, depicting its citizens as hyper-fertile and incapable of self-restraint. In majority-white nations, this version of environmentalism dovetailed with nativism and xenophobia. Well into the 1980s, The Sierra Club advocated restrictions on immigration to the United States in the name of “population stability.”
Hamilton’s unique accomplishment was to launder this right-wing ecological vision into a more abstract, and enduringly influential, scientific worldview. Put simply, he devoted his career to using the tools of evolutionary theory to try to knock humanity down a peg. He insisted that much of what humans prized most about themselves—capacities for altruism, generosity, and compassion—were merely evolutionary “strategies” that subsisted because they helped humans reproduce. Likewise, Hamilton argued that the things humanity claimed to abhor the most—war, genocide, racism, and so on—were equally natural adaptations. Trying to eliminate them represented a potentially disastrous interference with the natural evolutionary process.
Because he did not hold his fellow scientists in much higher esteem than the rest of humanity, Hamilton did not particularly care whether his colleagues were persuaded by his arguments, or even if they understood him. Most of his early research was presented in the form of complex mathematical proofs that many evolutionary biologists did not have the background to assess.
In the 1970s, however, a coterie of rising-star biologists became enamored with Hamilton’s approach and sought to renovate Darwinian research on the foundations that he had laid out. Richard Dawkins helped popularize Hamilton’s counterintuitive explanation of altruism in his 1975 book The Selfish Gene, which has sold over a million copies. The Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “sociobiology” to describe the approach to the discipline that Hamilton pioneered—a field that went beyond investigations of the origin of species to study the origin of societies and social behavior. Not only altruism, Wilson speculated, but gender roles, homosexuality, child-rearing practices, systems of caste and dominance, and linguistic practices might all have a genetic origin.
Coming on the eve of the Reagan revolution, the timing was fortuitous. As the historian Naomi Beck has shown, the social Darwinist theories propounded by Hamilton’s predecessors thoroughly molded the worldview of arguably the most influential neoliberal theorist, the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Hayek claimed that free markets and ecosystems were both “spontaneous orders” best left to evolve according to their own internal logic. Now, Gary Becker, one of Hayek’s successors at the University of Chicago, saw the new advances in sociobiology as a scientific vindication of his own neoliberal worldview. Even genes themselves, it seemed, acted like the self-interested utility-maximizing market actors of Becker’s economics. It was easy to depict government regulation, planning, and private ownership as a form of dangerous interference in the “natural,” quasi-Darwinian dynamic of the market. If compassion was merely one more product of natural selection, why not Walmart as well?
Hamilton’s rise to mainstream academic acceptance in the ’70s did little to leaven his misanthropy. On the contrary, Hamilton became increasingly convinced that contemporary civilization, and especially the successes of modern medicine, had halted the process of natural selection, with disastrous consequences. The second volume of his memoirs, published posthumously in 2001, revealed the full extent of his eugenicist worldview.
“I predict that in two generations the damage being done to the human genome by the ante and post-natal life-saving efforts of modern medicine will be obvious to all,” he wrote. Medical developments from eyeglasses to C-sections were allowing the genetically inferior to reproduce and pass on their genes to an extent that was previously impossible. Hamilton speculated that it might not even be enough simply to cease saving those who could not save themselves—a more proactive program of infanticidal culling could become necessary. Otherwise, the bill would inevitably come due for all the defectives humanity was now allowing to consume scarce resources. “I also have little doubt,” Hamilton wrote, “that if trying to make out on Robinson Crusoe’s island alone with my wife, I would indeed with my own hands kill a defective baby.”
Hamilton thought that the bill was already coming due, in spectacularly bloody fashion. He hypothesized that genocide may have originally risen as an evolutionary response to out-of-control reproduction in neighboring populations, and insinuated that this dynamic had, on some instinctual level, inspired the recent slaughter of Albanians in Kosovo. It was a waste of resources, Hamilton argued, for the UN to send in peacekeeping troops to a region where genocidal population-reduction had already broken out. Better to pursue a preventative policy, he argued, by restricting World Bank lending to nations and regions that demonstrated a commitment to deliberate population-control policies.
The new revelations of Hamilton’s odious views cast his preface to The River, published just two years prior, in a different, chilling light. Hamilton had not simply been convinced by Hooper’s arguments; he had seen the OPV/AIDS story as a parable for the catastrophe being unleashed on the world by medical innovations such as vaccination. A story as dramatic and horrifying as Hooper’s, he thought, could have the potential to puncture the groupthink that kept the cult of life-saving insulated from criticism.
In retrospect, Hamilton’s foreword was replete with ominous references to the “unintended consequences” of modern medicine. He suggested that the connection between polio vaccination and AIDS was just a preview of what might be coming with “xenotransplantation,” a popular item of concern around the turn of the twenty-first century. If vaccines prepared with monkey kidneys had given us HIV, one shuddered to imagine what sorts of pathogens could be introduced into the human population by the widespread transplantation of organs from apes or even pigs.
Ironically, Hamilton’s deepest worry was not that procedures such as vaccination or xenotransplantation would malfunction, but that they would succeed all too well—that they would help save lives that nature never intended to be saved. But Hamilton had spent decades arguing that humans are basically self-centered and short-sighted. The only way to convince people to eschew the benefits of modern medicine for the good of the species would be to persuade them that the risk of the cure was worse than the disease.
Before his fatal second expedition to the Congo, Hamilton used his clout to convince the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences, to hold a special meeting devoted to The River. Hamilton hoped that the conference would serve as the OPV/AIDS theory’s coronation ceremony. He would triumphantly deliver hard evidence of the prevalence of SIV in the chimpanzees near the site where Hooper alleged Koprowski to have harvested organs and prepared the vaccine. Then, he imagined, the rest of the scientific community would fall in line.
Instead, everything fell apart. First, Hamilton’s death left Hooper to fend for himself at the conference without his most important scientific ally. At the meeting, a team of scientists announced that advances in genetic sequencing and data about the typical rate of mutation of HIV had allowed them to estimate the virus’s “molecular clock”—that is to say, when it first made the jump to humans and began to diverge genetically from SIV. There was a margin of error, but according to the calculations, it appeared impossible that the transfer was linked to Koprowski’s vaccination campaign in the late 1950s. It had almost certainly happened decades earlier, in the 1930s or even the 1920s.
In The River, Hooper had pointed out that the most straightforward test of the OPV/AIDS theory would be to actually examine samples of Koprowski’s vaccine, looking both for chimpanzee DNA and for evidence of SIV or HIV contamination. Remarkably, after the book’s publication, samples of the original vaccine were discovered in the freezer of a British virology institute. At the Royal Society meeting, several independent teams of scientists reported on their analysis of the samples. The results were unanimous: no trace of SIV or HIV was to be found, and the primate cells used came from rhesus monkeys, as Koprowski had always maintained. Faced with such devastating results, Hooper and his closest allies retreated further into conspiratorial thinking. Convinced that scientists would do anything to cover up the true story, Hooper chronicled his own descent into isolation on his self-published blog.
If Bill Hamilton lost this particular battle, there is a sense in which he ultimately won the war. His broader intellectual framework is certainly more influential than ever, with latter-day sociobiologists including Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and Jordan Peterson selling millions of books each year about the genetic determinants of human behavior. What these “evolutionary psychologists” share with Hamilton, above all, is a “just-so story” attitude: a conviction that we attempt to improve upon the natural outcomes of evolutionary—and market—processes at our own peril.
Decades after the demise of the OPV/AIDS theory, this belief that meddling with the natural order inexorably produces disaster still looms large in our discourse about epidemic disease. In a way, Hamilton’s eugenicist interpretation of the OPV/AIDS hypothesis simply recast the logic of the earliest theory about AIDS’s origins: that the “gay lifestyle” of the 1970s was so profoundly unnatural that a reckoning was bound to ensue.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the journalist David Quammen, author of his own book on the origin of AIDS, took to the New York Times to explain what he had learned. Like Hamilton before him, Quammen surmised that humanity was paying the price for excessive breeding. “We know from the fossil record, by absence of evidence, that no large-bodied animal has ever been nearly so abundant as humans are now, let alone so effective at arrogating resources,” Quammen wrote. “One consequence of that abundance, that power, and the consequent ecological disturbances is increasing viral exchanges — first from animal to human, then from human to human, sometimes on a pandemic scale.” In April, Simon & Schuster announced the acquisition of a book by Quammen, set for a 2021 release, which “will explain why the current pandemic ‘was predictable (and even predicted).’”
Quammen has recommended vigorous action to contain the novel coronavirus, but it’s not surprising that many commentators and policymakers have drawn the opposite conclusion. The mantra, repeated by everyone from Thomas Friedman to Donald Trump, that “we can’t let the cure be worse than the disease” would have been music to Bill Hamilton’s ears. It comes as no surprise to learn that Richard Epstein, the right-wing legal scholar who influenced the Trump administration’s laissez-faire response to the virus, has spoken publicly about how he has long been “enchanted” by sociobiology.
The most fervent advocates of a do-nothing approach to the pandemic—from Friedman, Epstein, and Trump to many of the ex-Tea Partiers who have protested measures like masks, social distancing, and economic disruptions—are similarly devoted to a right-wing economic vision of deregulation, privatization, and “free markets.”
The most striking aspect of the analogy is that both epidemiologically and economically, the “laissez-faire” approach actually requires a lot of work. Just as business leaders and conservative politicians have had to deliberately exert power to crush trade unions, re-allocate contracts for public services to private firms, and create new structures of capital mobility, leaders who want to let the virus run its course will have to go out of their way to overrule experts and lower-level bureaucrats and to cajole a fearful populace into venturing back outside. Hamilton understood the paradox: in order to restore the rule of “nature” over human evolution, he would drastically reverse the course of human behavior by proving that large-scale vaccination campaigns were doing more harm than good.
Of course, the history of European involvement in twentieth-century Africa is hardly, as Hamilton and Hooper implied, a story of “good intentions” gone awry. As scholars and activists since Walter Rodney have insisted, it is a story of deliberate “underdevelopment,” of efforts to deprive subject populations of any alternatives to the performance of exploitative labor (and service as test subjects for medical experimenters). By the time that millions across the continent began to contract HIV in the late twentieth century, Western powers had spent decades undermining indigenous efforts to build up infrastructure and state capacity.
The irony is that deliberate inaction of the sort Hamilton sought to cultivate, was exactly the kind of human error that did, in fact, exacerbate the AIDS crisis. It was cruel silence and deliberate passivity, rather than errors of unwise meddling, that allowed the epidemic to spin out of control. In the United States, the Reagan administration was responsible for untold thousands of AIDS deaths by its refusal to take action, slashing healthcare funding nationwide and denying support to researchers because the people the virus was killing were deemed unworthy of treatment.
Our capacity for collective action in the face of a pandemic has been hollowed out by nearly half a century of governmental self-sabotage, of skepticism of scientific consensus, and of insistence that individuals should be made responsible for their own healthcare. To be clear, the institutions we might seek to rebuild, such as trade unions and public health care, are no more—or less—“natural” than deregulation and privatization. Nor should we expect science and medicine to furnish an infallible template for action. As the career of Bill Hamilton and sociobiology itself illustrates, a doctorate and a lab coat do not bestow unmediated access to truth, or to moral integrity. Rather, science and medicine are tools which can be wielded in the interests of justice and emancipation as well as those of power and entrenched hierarchies. What is not tenable is to sit the struggle out—to attempt to justify inaction by appealing to a misguided sense of the “natural.” Whether we like it or not, we are always engaged in the process of making our own history.
Erik Baker is a Lecturer on the History of Science at Harvard University and an associate editor at The Drift.