John Maynard Smith

John Maynard Smith author of The Theory of Evolution and of Evolution and the Theory of Games, is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex.

Molecules are not enough

John Maynard Smith, 6 February 1986

This book contains a collection of essays about biology, most of which have been published before, in varied and often inacessible places, together with a new concluding chapter on dialectics. The authors have at least four things in common: they are Harvard professors, they have made distinguished contributions to the theory of ecology and evolution, they are dialectical materialists, and they write with wit and insight. Their thesis is that their philosophy is a valuable aid in the practice and understanding of biology. It is not only that Marxism helps in analysing the history and sociology of science: if you are a working biologist, they are saying, Marxism will help you to plan and to interpret the results of research. Crudely, Marxism is good for you. They argue that their own work has been helped by their philosophy. The claim is not only brave but necessary: I would not take them seriously unless they were willing to make it.

Rottenness is all

John Maynard Smith, 3 May 1984

This is an ambitious book which suggests that a new picture of the nature of the universe is emerging from the study of thermodynamics, and that this picture will heal the breach between the scientific and the poetic view of man. Prigogine’s distinction as a scientist – the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977 – requires that we take his views seriously, at least on the first of these claims. The major part of the book is devoted to explaining, in non-mathematical language, the new science that the authors see emerging, and to which Prigogine helped to give birth. The ideas are hard, but I think they succeed. There are places, particularly in their treatment of quantum theory, where readers without some previous knowledge may lose the thread; certainly I did. But anyone prepared to make a serious effort will get some insight into what is happening.–

Popper’s World

John Maynard Smith, 18 August 1983

Karl Popper is perhaps the only living philosopher of science who has had a substantial influence on the way scientists do what they do. I say ‘perhaps’ because the same claim might be made for Thomas Kuhn. However, Kuhn seems to me a perceptive sociologist of science, but a poor philosopher. Also, in so far as he has had an effect on the way scientists behave, it has been pernicious: to be a great scientist, according to Kuhn, you must do revolutionary science, and the best evidence that you are doing it is that you are so obscure and inconsistent in your statements as to be wholly incomprehensible to others. This does not make for good science. In contrast, Popper has encouraged us to speculate boldly, but to be fiercely critical; it is true that we usually manage the latter only for other people’s ideas, and not for our own, but since science is a social activity, that suffices.

Boy or Girl

John Maynard Smith, 3 February 1983

Why, in the great majority of animals, are there equal numbers of males and females? For John Arbuthnot, writing in 1710, it was evidence of the beneficence of God: ‘for by this means it is provided, that the species may never fail, nor perish, since every male may have its female, and of a proportionable age.’ But while that might do for man, it will hardly do for those many species in which there is no monogamous pair bond and no parental care, and in which one male can fertilise many females, and yet which have an equal sex ratio.

Understanding Science

John Maynard Smith, 3 June 1982

This is a translation of a book first published under the title Das Spiel in 1975. It is an ambitious book whose aim is to convey to the reader what it is to have a well-furnished scientific mind. Some years back, C.P. Snow persuaded us that the diagnostic characteristic of such a mind is familiarity with the second law of thermodynamics. His particular choice of a scientific law was unfortunate, because it is easier to talk nonsense about the second law than almost anything else, but in principle he was on the right track. A knowledge of theories is more relevant than a knowledge of facts. Biologists have to know a lot of facts, while physicists seem to know almost nothing. But although it is true that a well-educated scientist will be familiar with a number of theories, from Newton’s laws to the central dogma of molecular biology, I do not think that this is the critical distinction between understanding science and not understanding it. I suggest, instead, that it is a familiarity with the ways in which systems with different structures and relationships are likely to behave. It is this familiarity that Eigen and Winkler try to convey.

Descending Sloth

John Maynard Smith, 1 April 1982

‘Natural history’ is seen by some professional biologists as hardly deserving to be regarded as a part of science. Compared to the experimental sophistication of molecular biology, and the apparent generality of its conclusions, natural history is no more than a collection of particular facts of little theoretical or practical import. There are two reasons why one should dissent from this judgment. The first is that the task of biology is to explain the living world, and that world is irreduciby complex. If I am interested in molecular biology – and I am – it is because it helps to explain how that complexity arose. A biologist who was not interested in the diversity of living things would be like a historian who did not care what had actually happened in history, and confined his attention to the study of experimental psychology.

Genes and Memes

John Maynard Smith, 4 February 1982

The Extended Phenotype is a sequel to The Selfish Gene. Although Dawkins has aimed his second book primarily at professional biologists, he writes so clearly that it could be understood by anyone prepared to make a serious effort. The Selfish Gene was unusual in that, although written as a popular account, it made an original contribution to biology. Further, the contribution itself was of an unusual kind. Unlike David Lack’s classic Life of the Robin – also an original contribution in popular form – The Selfish Gene reports no new facts. Nor does it contain any new mathematical models – indeed it contains no mathematics at all. What it does offer is a new world view.


John Maynard Smith, 17 September 1981

Pandas are peculiar bears, which spend most of their days munching bamboo. To do this, they strip off the bamboo leaves by passing the stalks between their flexible thumb and the remaining fingers. But how can a panda have an opposable thumb, when in bears the thumb lies parallel to the fingers, and inseparable from them? In fact, the panda does not have a proper thumb at all: it has five parallel digits just like other bears. The apparent ‘thumb’ is a modification and extension of a small bone in the wrist. For Stephen Gould, this is a particular and fascinating fact, but it is also an illustration of a general principle. The principle is that evolution proceeds by tinkering with what is already there, and not by following the canons of optimal design. Had the panda been designed by the Great Artificer, He would not have been constrained to make its hand by modifying the hand of a bear, and would doubtless have come up with a more elegant, if less entertaining solution to the problem of stripping bamboo.

Did Darwin get it right?

John Maynard Smith, 18 June 1981

I think I can see what is breaking down in evolutionary theory – the strict construction of the modern synthesis with its belief in pervasive adaptation, gradualism and extrapolation by smooth continuity from causes of change in local populations to major trends and transitions in the history of life.

SIR: Dr Hallam’s comments (Letters, 16 July) on my article are a helpful contribution to the debate. I note that the disagreements between us, although important, are certainly not of a kind to suggest that he is supporting a new paradigm, incommensurable with neo-Darwinism, as suggested by Stephen Gould. His main point is that we should pay more attention to palaeontology, and to the major features...

Mares and Stallions

Tom Wilkie, 18 May 1989

From the peacock’s tail to the quiet of an English rose garden, the dominant message of the natural world is that of sexual reproduction. We are so used to its omnipresence that we seldom...

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Hawks and Doves

Mark Ridley, 21 July 1983

One of the many curious discoveries made, earlier this century, by ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen was that fighting in animals is restrained and, as they called it,...

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