The Autism and Genius of Bill Hamilton

W. D. Hamilton both inspired and epitomized the diametric model of genius.

Posted Mar 23, 2013

As I pointed out in the first of these posts, if history were the way it ought to be rather than the way it is, W. D. Hamilton—the Darwin of the twentieth century—might have lived to be a co-author of the imprinted brain theory along with his ex-student, Bernard Crespi, and myself. And at the very least, I know for a fact that we would have invited him to be.

Hamilton anticipated the imprinted brain theory’s diametric model of the mind when he distinguished between what he called “people people” as opposed to “things people.” He observed that “people people just need people to interact with, not necessarily the understanding of them: They tend to be conformist and are seldom more than superficially critical of any ethos of their time.”

But Hamilton himself was obviously one of the things people:

in us things people … there occurs some aberration of a natural sequence that has been evolved for the purpose of bonding person to person. In us this sequence has grown awry somehow and gained untypical intensity directed towards inhuman objects … Yet the same misdirection, which is so often disastrous socially … can be very helpful in the making of [a] scientist, an engineer, or the like. Thus it is probably not wholly maladaptive. I believe it is in essence an aberration of this kind that makes me a successful scientist.

Indeed, he went on, “It is known now how autists, for all that they cannot do in the way of human relationships, detect better out of confusing minimal sketches on paper the true, physical 3-D objects an artist worked from, than do ordinary un-handicapped socialites.” He concluded—evidently with himself in mind—that “so may some kinds of autists, unaffected by all the propaganda they have failed to hear, see further into the true shapes that underlie social phenomena.”

As if to leave no doubt about it, Hamilton described himself as “almost idiot savant,”—or what today we would call autistic savant. As a child, Hamilton recalled typical autistic behavior such as “pointless routine actions,” making “odd clicking sounds,” and hours spent “bouncing a ball into a corner to watch it spin.” In games with other children he “was usually the one out of step and the slowest to pick up the rules.” As an adult, he described himself as possessing “notably a trait approaching to autism about what most regard as the higher attributes of our species,” and went on to portray himself as “a person who … believes he understands the human species in many ways better than anyone and yet who manifestly doesn’t understand in any practical way how the human world works—neither how he himself fits in and nor, it seems, the conventions.”

According to Ullica Segerstrale’s account of an informal conversation with me over a meal in a Chinese restaurant recounted on page 405 of her recently published biography of Hamilton:

Badcock told me that he and Bill often discussed the Asperger syndrome together. Badcock believed that he himself, too, had the syndrome and added that Asperger Syndrome people like to talk to each other. From our discussion I got the feeling that Bill may have started to think of himself along these lines (Badcock, personal communication).

In fact, I never ever “discussed the Asperger syndrome” with Hamilton. On the contrary, Englishmen of our age and somewhat autistic, stiff-upper-lip cultural background simply do not go in for personal heart-to-heart discussions of our supposed syndromes! What I actually gave voice to in my remarks to Segerstrale were the very comments that I quote Hamilton making above, and it is a mystery to me why she “got the feeling that Bill may have started to think of himself along these lines” from me rather than from reading what he said about himself in print.

The reason may be that Segerstrale goes on to emphasize other aspects of Hamilton that she feels do not fit with the diagnosis of autism. But had she bothered to consult me before publishing my alleged comments (or even to have looked at The Imprinted Brain or these posts) she would have realized that the diametric model also argues that genius is a rare and creative combination of both autistic and psychotic savantism.

Certainly, this seems an altogether simpler and more scientific psychological scenario for Hamilton’s peculiar genius than the literary one Segerstrale advances. Indeed, her biography brings out some of the more theatrical aspects of Hamilton’s psychotic savantism in his guru-like posturing and dire prophecies of impending doom. And his final, fatal, quixotic expedition to Africa to collect evidence for the polio-vaccine theory of the origin of AIDS seems to combine both the monomanic quirkiness of an autistic mind with elements of both paranoia and conspiracy theorizing. Indeed, it strikingly illustrates the model’s prediction that, since autism is an early onset disorder and psychosis a late one, the autistic savantism should come first, and the psychotic savantism later in life.

The real tragedy of Hamilton’s life is that he died just as a completely new dimension to the intragenomic conflicts he had already described was becoming known: the epigenetic one epitomized in genomic imprinting and copy number variation. This, combined with being already half-way towards the diametric model of the mind with his things/people people distinction and having previously published insights into the psychological consequences of intragenomic conflict might easily have predisposed him to put it all together to produce what today we know as the imprinted brain theory.

The frustrating thing about this biography is that it could have used the theory’s diametric model of genius to elucidate the mind of the person who more than anyone else anticipated and prepared the way for it. But one thing is certain: Bill Hamilton is too important a figure to be left to the attentions of just one biographer. And if the imprinted brain theory eventually triumphs as I am sure it will, it will not only be seen as the crowning glory of the whole Hamiltonian enterprise, but as the key to the mind of the man himself.