Stories of Lives Lived, Lessons for Living?

by Sarah A. Swenson, D.Phil Candidate in History of Science and Medicine, University of Oxford

[Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles by Rhodes Scholars who chose to focus on the history of science at Oxford.]

A series of accidents heightened my interest in stories. The first, a car crash at the age of sixteen, dissolved my naive sense of certainty and left me searching. Long after my somewhat unexpected but full recovery seemed complete, I was hounded by an awareness that death could come to anyone and at any time.

At its center, my post-accident dilemma was ethical. I asked, given the limitations of a single life, what is the best way to live? Inasmuch as it triggered this question, my accident also activated my passion for history. When residual back pain kept me in bed for weeks at a time, my desire to ace Advanced Placement U.S. History was quickly eclipsed by a fascination for the lessons that could be drawn from a critical examination of historical fact and the narratives surrounding it. In trying to understand the nuanced lives of those who had lived before, I serendipitously discovered a variety of models for living that took into account both individual particularities and cultural commonalities.

It was with my personal ethical struggle in the background that I first learned of W.D. Hamilton’s attempts to understand phenomena from a biological view, such as altruism and its less admirable foil, selfishness. A few semesters into university, I was a zoology major (somehow thinking that was a more practical choice than history), and, of course, I had no idea that I would go on to study Hamilton’s work and its influence through a historical lens. What struck me most at that point was that Hamilton had not only extended evolutionary theory to speak to topics outside the traditional range of biology but also that he had accomplished his widely celebrated feat at such a young age. When I took my first course on the history of biology, I began to understand the tangible and intangible ways in which the culture of a particular time not only influenced the questions scientists asked, but also bore on the solutions at which they arrived. What is more, I saw nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars who were concerned with nature speak again and again to the problems that echoed in my own mind: Who are we? and What can we hope to achieve? While I may not always have liked the answers they gave, I found comfort in the fact that I was not alone in my existential ponderings.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to study scientific approaches to human nature more closely through the Master’s of Science program in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Oxford. By the time I had finished this degree and finally gained access to the materials in Hamilton’s archive, I was less interested in how Hamilton had triumphed than I was in why he had chosen to approach altruism from a biological perspective. It was an interesting choice to have made in the decades following World War II, and I was intrigued that he continued to pursue it after he was strongly discouraged from doing so by his professors time and time again. A graduate student myself, I had been wholly more timid upon entering a new field of research, and I was determined to unpack the young Hamilton’s frame of mind and understand why he held so steadfastly to his ideas. As hours in his archive turned to days, weeks, and months, as I read the news, letters, and diaries from a world I had never personally experienced, I began to feel as though I had the opportunity to live through more than one lifetime. In trying to see the world through the eyes of others, I traced commonalities in the human experience that transcend traditional limits of time or space, and in struggling to learn something through reassembling the recorded fragments of another individual’s life, I felt, in small ways, like I could peer beyond the perimeters of my own.

The most rewarding aspect of my doctoral work has been knowing that through an intimate understanding of the life and work of a single biologist I am able to tell at least two histories, one personal and the other social. In the end, Hamilton’s record provides scholars with a sounding chamber through which the obsessions and concerns of an era can be heard. In attending to these reverberations, I hope that my scholarship adds to a wide body of literature within the history of science inasmuch as it allows us to see that, far from isolated figures, scientists pursue their work in dialogue with the rest of society. Perhaps it also provides us with the opportunity to think more critically about the extent to which our own lives are molded and shaped by the particular context of our time, especially if we desire to think beyond it.