John Maynard Smith

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John Maynard Smith
John Maynard Smith

Professor John Maynard Smith1, F.R.S. (6 January 192019 April 2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and geneticist. Originally an aeronautical engineer during the Second World War, he then took a second degree in genetics under the great J.B.S. Haldane. Maynard Smith was instrumental in the application of game theory to evolution and theorised on other problems such as the evolution of sex and signalling theory.



Early years

John Maynard Smith was born in London, the son of a surgeon but following his father's death in 1928 the family moved to Exmoor, where he became interested in natural history. He went to Eton College but was purportedly unhappy there, but developed an interest in Darwinism and mathematics, having read the work of old Etonian J.B.S. Haldane, whose books were in the school's library despite the bad reputation Haldane had at Eton for his communism.

On leaving school, Maynard Smith joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and started studying engineering at Trinity College Cambridge. When the second world war broke out in 1939, he defied his party's line and volunteered for service. He was rejected, however, because of poor eyesight and was told to finish his engineering degree, which he did in 1941. He later quipped that "under the circumstances, my poor eyesight was a selective advantage — it stopped me getting shot". In 1941 he married Sheila Matthew, and they were later to have two sons and one daughter (Tony, Carol and Julian). Between 1942 and 1947 he applied his degree to military aircraft design.

A second degree

Maynard Smith then took a change of career, entering University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. After graduating he became a lecturer at UCL between 1952 and 1965. He became gradually more disillusioned with communism and became less active member, finally leaving the Party in 1956 like many other intellectuals, after the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution (Haldane had left the party in 1950 after becoming similarly disillusioned). He published a popular Penguin book The Theory Of Evolution in 1958, (with subsequent editions in 1966, 1975, 1993).

At the University of Sussex

In 1962 he was one of the founding members of the University of Sussex and was a Dean between 1965-85, when he became a professor emeritus. After his death the Biology department was renamed in his honour.

Evolution and the Theory of Games

Sheila (left) and John (right) Maynard Smith.  Photo by Sean Nee.
Sheila (left) and John (right) Maynard Smith. Photo by Sean Nee.

In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in evolutionary game theory (which has applications both within and outside of biology) called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), based on a verbal argument by George R. Price. This area of research culminated in his 1982 book Evolution and the Theory of Games. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977. In 1986 he was awarded its Darwin Medal. He also developed and recovered from colon cancer.

The evolution of sex and other major transitions in evolution

Maynard Smith published a book entitled The Evolution of Sex which explored in mathematical terms, the notion of the "two-fold cost of sex". During the late 1980s he also became interested in the other major evolutionary transitions with the biochemist Eörs Szathmáry. Together they wrote an influential 1995 book The Major Transitions in Evolution. A popular science version of the book, entitled The Origins of Life: From the birth of life to the origin of language was published in 1999.

In 1991 he was awarded the Balzan Prize of Italy. In 1995 he was awarded the Linnean Medal by The Linnean Society and in 1999 he was awarded the Crafoord Prize jointly with Ernst Mayr and George C. Williams. In 2001 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize. In his honour, the European Society for Evolutionary Biology has an award for extraordinary young evolutionary biology researchers named The John Maynard Smith Prize.

Animal Signals

His final book, Animal Signals, co-authored with David Harper was published in 2003 on signalling theory.

Maynard Smith died of lung cancer at his home in Lewes, East Sussex on April 19th 2004, 122 years to the day after the death of Darwin. He was survived by his wife Sheila and their children.



External links

University of Sussex

Other academia



Note 1: His surname was Maynard Smith, not Smith, and nor was it hyphenated.

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