Marek Kohn

John Maynard Smith


This article first appeared in the New Statesman's 'Great Thinkers of Our Time' feature, 14 July 2003.


John Maynard Smith brought games into evolutionary biology, and persuaded his colleagues that sex is a problem. He is a self-styled puzzle-solver; the puzzles he has tackled range in scale from courtship in fruit flies to the origins of life. Over the past forty years, he has been a leading player in the scientific project that overhauled and renewed evolutionary thinking, a project that made Darwinism the determined and expansive intellectual force it is today. After half a century in science, he is the senior statesman of British evolutionary biology, and, at 83, he remains a working biologist.

It was at Eton, in the 1930s, that the seeds of his scientific life were sown. Unhappy and alienated, he discovered Darwinism and consequently atheism. He also encountered the writings of the biologist J.B.S. Haldane, an intellectual celebrity and an apostate Etonian - the mixture of rationalism, mathematics and atheism made him feel that he wasn't alone in the world. He became a communist while at Cambridge, but ignored the party line when the war broke out by attempting to join the army. He was rejected because of his poor eyesight and told to finish his engineering degree, which he then applied doing stress calculations in aircraft design. After the war, his interest in evolution drew him to genetics, and his admiration for Haldane took him to University College London, where the latter was a professor. Haldane became Maynard Smith's mentor; Maynard Smith remains Haldane's vicar on earth.

Maynard Smith stayed at UCL until 1965, doing experiments on fruit flies, and then became Dean of the new school of biology at Sussex University. By then, he was part of a new movement among evolutionary thinkers, notably including George Williams in America and Bill Hamilton in Britain, who were challenging the prevalent and comfortable assumption that evolution acts for the good of the species. The truth is that the greater good was always at risk from individual self-interest. Genes were, as Richard Dawkins later put it, selfish. Maynard Smith readily adopted this view of life. It suited him to tackle biological problems by asking himself, "If I was a gene, what would I do?"

Put that way, it seems simple; and making things clearer by making them simpler is his great gift. Critics of the gene's eye view argue that it is misleading, even dangerous. As an aircraft engineer, however, Maynard Smith had learned that one could simplify calculations by making assumptions that were false, and yet the planes would fly safely. His thinking is influential because it applies practical methods within broad horizons. Where it doesn't solve puzzles, it illuminates them. There is still no settled answer to the question he posed, with typical directness, in 1971: 'what use is sex?' but he succeeded in framing the problem of why sex is so prevalent, even though sexually reproducing individuals should rapidly be outbred by competitors which dispensed with males. Addressing questions such as these, Maynard Smith has set out the basics of modern evolutionary biology.

In 1970, his eye for a potentially useful idea prompted him to borrow game theory from economics, where it had been developed as a means of exploring situations in which what is best for an individual to do depends on what others do. Economists had presumed that 'players' were conscious and rational; Maynard Smith recognised that the theory could also be applied to processes in which actions are governed by unconscious Darwinian selection. This became his signature contribution to evolutionary theory; the field has since burgeoned as the theory has become more complex and widely applied, and as biologists have found examples of real animals that play games. There are butterflies that follow what Maynard Smith called the "bourgeois" strategy, by respecting "ownership" in contests over territory; and there is even a species of lizard whose males each follow one of three strategies in their contests for mates, resulting in a endless reptilian version of the rock-paper-scissors game.

Maynard Smith himself is diffident about drawing lessons for humans from his games, not least because his sympathies have remained on the left, and he was embarrassed about the neoliberal origins of his theoretical tool. He is, however, comfortable with the social context of science, and this has enabled him to play a significant role as a public intellectual. The debates about whether it is wise to talk of "a gene for" this or that, or the tempo of evolutionary change, or sociobiology, are all part of a larger contest over how we are to understand ourselves. John Maynard Smith's contributions stand out as a model of how to reconcile nature's engineering, and the simplifications necessary to understand it, with the humbling truth that the better it is understood, the more complex life turns out to be. He speaks with the authority of a senior scientist whose thought has borne upon a formidable range of the major questions in his field, and also with a sense of humour whose effect isn't merely decorative. A sense of irony is a valuable asset for a scientist who finds it useful to imagine what he would do if he were a gene. It puts things in perspective, which is something that Maynard Smith does far better than most of the participants in the debates over modern Darwinism.

The way he puts his observations is at once compelling and profoundly reassuring. His hinterland, his geniality and his sense of fairness combine in his public reflections to produce an effect not unlike that of a Darwinian Nelson Mandela. He makes it clear that one may do reductionist science, or apply sociobiology to humans, or talk of genes for this or that, without endangering one's values or diminishing life's richness. In this respect, his thinking is still ahead of its time.


John Maynard Smith, 1920-2004

John Maynard Smith: a tribute from the Centre for the Study of Evolution at Sussex University, and links.