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Tinkering

John MaynardSmith, 17 September 1981

The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History 
by Stephen Jay Gould.
Norton, 343 pp., £6.95, April 1981, 0 393 01380 4
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... 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 ...

Boy or Girl

John MaynardSmith, 3 February 1983

The Theory of Sex Allocation 
by Eric Charnov.
Princeton, 355 pp., £29.80, December 1982, 0 691 08311 8
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... 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 ...

Popper’s World

John MaynardSmith, 18 August 1983

The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism 
by Karl Popper, edited by W.W. Bartley.
Hutchinson, 185 pp., £15, July 1982, 0 09 146180 4
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... 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 ...

Understanding Science

John MaynardSmith, 3 June 1982

The Laws of the Game: How the principles of nature govern science 
by Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler, translated by Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber.
Allen Lane, 347 pp., £14.95, March 1982, 9780713914849
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... 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 ...

Rottenness is all

John MaynardSmith, 3 May 1984

Order out of Chaos: The Evolutionary Paradigm and the Physical Sciences 
by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers.
Bantam, 290 pp., $8.95, April 1984, 0 553 34082 4
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... 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 ...

Descending Sloth

John MaynardSmith, 1 April 1982

The Mammalian Radiations: An Analysis of Trends in Evolution, Adaptation and Behaviour 
by John Eisenberg.
Athlone, 610 pp., £32, December 1981, 0 485 30008 7
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... book which would summarise the recent work on mammals and help us to think realistically about it. John Eisenberg has now written that book; it is hard to imagine anyone else who could have done so. He has studied a range of mammalian species in the wild. As assistant director of the Washington zoo, he has a wide familiarity with mammals in captivity. He has ...

Did Darwin get it right?

John MaynardSmith, 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. A new and general evolutionary theory will embody this notion of hierarchy and stress a variety of themes either ignored or explicitly rejected by the modern synthesis ...

Molecules are not enough

John MaynardSmith, 6 February 1986

The Dialectical Biologist 
by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin.
Harvard, 303 pp., £18.50, August 1985, 0 674 20281 3
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... 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 ...

Genes and Memes

John MaynardSmith, 4 February 1982

The Extended Phenotype 
by Richard Dawkins.
Freeman, 307 pp., £9.95, December 1981, 0 7167 1358 6
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... 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 ...

Mares and Stallions

Tom Wilkie, 18 May 1989

Games, Sex and Evolution 
by John MaynardSmith.
Harvester, 264 pp., £14.95, August 1988, 0 7108 1216 7
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... think of asking the question. And it turns out that sex is a very big problem for biologists, as John MaynardSmith explains in one of the most readable essays of this book, an essay that he has simply entitled, ‘Why sex?’. Maynard Smith is an emeritus professor of biology ...

Hawks and Doves

Mark Ridley, 21 July 1983

Evolution and Theory of Games 
by John MaynardSmith.
Cambridge, 224 pp., £18, October 1982, 0 521 24673 3
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... and the health of their opponents. Apparently, however, they do not. Which brings us, at last, to John MaynardSmith. It was in an attempt, ten years ago, to show how the theory of individual selfishness could explain the restrained nature of animal contests that he introduced game theory to evolutionary biology. The ...

Carnivals of Progress

John Ziman, 17 February 1983

Sir William Rowan Hamilton 
by Thomas Hankins.
Johns Hopkins, 474 pp., £19.50, July 1981, 0 8018 2203 3
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Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 
by Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray.
Oxford, 592 pp., £30, August 1981, 0 19 858163 7
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The Parliament of Science: The British Association for the Advancement of Science 1831-1981 
edited by Roy MacLeod and Peter Collins.
Science Reviews, 308 pp., £12.25, September 1982, 0 905927 66 4
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... In the London Review of Books, John MaynardSmith said about scientists: ‘however interested they may be in politics or history or philosophy, their first love is science itself.’ If only I could follow this bent, and tell something of Hamilton as a mathematician. As it happens, he also wrote a good deal of poetry, but his poems lack the magic of his equations, which seem more beautiful and moving now than when they were imagined 150 years ago ...

Middle Positions

John Hedley Brooke, 21 July 1983

Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875 
by Adrian Desmond.
Blond and Briggs, 287 pp., £15.95, October 1982, 0 85634 121 5
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Evolution without Evidence: Charles Darwin and ‘The Origin Species’ 
by Barry Gale.
Harvester, 238 pp., £18.95, January 1983, 0 7108 0442 3
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The Secular Ark: Studies in the History of Biogeography 
by Janet Browne.
Yale, 273 pp., £21, May 1983, 0 300 02460 6
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The Descent of Darwin: A Handbook of Doubts about Darwinsm 
by Brain Leith.
Collins, 174 pp., £7.95, December 1982, 0 00 219548 8
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... The Darwin scholar, John Greene, once summarised the Darwinian revolution as the triumph of a dynamic and non-teleological structuring of nature over static, teological systems: the triumph of chance and change over design and permanence, the triumph of objectivity in the life sciences, of secularism and naturalism over clericalism and the supernatural ...

Turtles All the Way Down

Walter Gratzer, 4 September 1997

The End of Science 
by John Horgan.
Little, Brown, 324 pp., £18.99, May 1997, 0 316 64052 2
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... What John Horgan means by his teasing title, inspired evidently by Francis Fukuyama’s view of history, is not that scientists will run out of work worthy of all that trouble and expense, but that the great discoveries, on which the intellectual edifice rests, have carried us up to or beyond the point of diminishing returns ...

Why so cross?

Thomas Nagel: Natural selection, 1 April 1999

Unweaving the Rainbow 
by Richard Dawkins.
Penguin, 350 pp., £20, October 1998, 9780713992144
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The Pattern of Evolution 
by Niles Eldredge.
Freeman, 225 pp., £17.95, February 1999, 0 7167 3046 4
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... his most famous title, The Selfish Gene. But he has a more distinguished target in the person of John Keats, who memorably said that Newton’s optical analysis of the rainbow destroyed its poetry. In answer to Keats and other poets distrustful of science, Dawkins says: ‘It is my thesis that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian ...

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