Hamilton on smoking

Appendix B

W. D. Hamilton on smoking

The great evolutionary biologist W. D. ‘Bill’ Hamilton was one who, like Burch, saw a connection between the smoking issue and politically correct attitudes in general, particularly towards the heritability of intelligence. To Hamilton (a non-smoker), smoke from burning vegetable matter was a part of nature and a significant factor in evolution. He was not really a smoking sceptic, though he considered the dangers of passive smoking to be imaginary, but his views verged on the sceptical and deserve to be more widely known. He discussed the question in an autobiographical section of his collected papers, explaining how he decided to return from the USA to Britain, in 1984, partly because of the rising level of violence and partly because of an increasingly intolerant climate of opinion concerning both smoking and IQ.

The other main incentive for the move was also a ‘rising level’ and this had changed in the 2 years, and was about as depressing for me as the violence. I see it now as the beginning of what came to be called ‘political correctness’, but then it just seemed an increasing intolerance about how others lived and spoke, a rising pressure to conformity. Mountain men in remote valleys might escape the new social climate but one couldn’t in Ann Arbor. An early tentacle of the trouble for me was the growing witch hunt directed at tobacco smokers…

On passive smoking:

But as for so-called ‘passive smoking’ in enclosed spaces (as opposed to those whiffs of bonfire smoke out in the country and weed first in my mother’s garden), if evidence for the supposed ills of this passive smoking were examined with half the casuistic logic and statistical skill so often devoted to trying to show that human intelligence is not heritable, I believe it would be realised that there is virtually no evidence for these ills at all, or else that they are quite trivial. Where, for example, are the reports on identical twins reared apart – the one twin having gone to a non-smoking household and not smoked him/herself and the other to a smoking household and likewise not smoked him/herself? Leave alone where are the studies controlling for all the other ‘heritable IQ’ confounding factors that ‘IQ’ critics would have us believe in? Almost all the same factors can be adduced as misleading in the case of effects of passive smoking…

How many campfires burning wet sticks in windy hollows have I myself huddled over just in Britain alone – a lung full of smoke breached for every calorie my chilled limbs draw from the fire, while, to judge by fellow campers, my watery red eyes stare harpy-like back at them from my blackening face like theirs at me! How many home fires also have my ancestors huddled by, striving for warmth again and for the hot and harmless food that the fire brings them, watching, perhaps, from under some bleak overhang of rocks, grey clouds scudding on the heights of glaciers above; or else out, on the plains, sitting choking on the bitter acrolein of mammoth meat burning on the hot stones – or, yet again, just squatting over dry weed fires in teepees built from butchered mammoths’ very ribs! Those are the backgrounds that, without any shadow of doubt, I have come from and there I see the origin of my smoke indifference and my smoke laughter; others seem to have come to their humanhood by more delicate paths than those though I don’t know quite how or where. The point is that if any species besides the smoke-loving genus of the platypezids should have evolved resistance to the effects of passive and even active smoking, that species is without question Homo sapiens. Comparisons to rates of cancer in obligately smoke puffing rabbits (poor things) are certainly going to be quite unfair on the problem: rabbits never invented fire, and had burrows to hide in while the grass-fire skimmed overhead…

I still feel, as I felt in those last years in Ann Arbor, that America was seeing a rather unpleasant and interfering pressure in modern life – almost a witch hunt that bodes ill for our crowded future. Opposite to how it had been in the previous and rather similar hue and cry about witches and evil eyes, Britain is lagging the US in this mania – but, as usual nowadays, it seems she is trying to catch up.

On active smoking:

The same criticisms, that correlations don’t show cause, also apply to a lot of the evidence supposedly confirming how smokers harm themselves. While I accept that it is proven that smoking harms various aspects of health, including (in some) lung cancer, I see also much backsliding, following this demonstration, so that an incredibly sloppy acceptance of evidence has become normal (see R. Matthews, Smoke gets in your eyes, New Scientist 162, 18-19 (29 May 1999), although I would put the case for biased samples of studies getting to be published more strongly).

In particular, two issues seem to be neglected. First, the possibility of a huge variability in humans’ ability to withstand health damage due to smoke seems researched much less than it deserves even though there is already striking evidence (e.g. T. F. McNeil, T. Thelin and I. Sveger, Psychosocial effects of screening for somatic risk: the Swedish alpha-I-antitrypsin experience. Thorax 43, 505-7 (1992)). Second, there is gross neglect of the idea (first raised by R. A. Fisher in the 1950s) that due to unlucky inheritance or social background there may exist unhealthy people, who, due to their condition, experience above average craving for nicotine stimulation an who also, and quite independently of the tobacco, are destined by their middle to late ages to show up in ill-health and death statistics, whether or not they are allowed to smoke. Obviously such sloppiness I refer to would never be allowed if instead of the proposition ‘smoking causes lung cancer’, the claim was being made that ‘low IQ (or bad genes) cause low socioeconomic status’.

It is worth adding to this point mention of the two issues the possibility of a connection. Genes essentially for poor health, may, in my view underlie a lot of social/mental inadequacy and it may be this feeling of inadequacy that entrains search for alleviation through drugs; finally, in the case of some personalities and drug reactions, perhaps it is the restless search that settles on the stimulus of nicotine. The point here is not that any of this has much evidence but that there are many plausible possibilities besides direct smoke caused illness that could explain the correlations seen, and choice between them has important bearing on the justice of the present anti-smoking witch hunt; all such alternatives should be considered carefully.