RE: Retrospective on John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) by Richard Lewontin

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Sat May 15 2004 - 19:21:35 PDT

Thanks, Steve, for sharing this article with us. I did not know about John
Maynard Smith and his interesting work before.


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Steve Gabosch []
> Sent: Friday, May 14, 2004 7:25 AM
> To:
> Subject: Retrospective on John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) by Richard
> Lewontin
> Retrospective: In Memory of John Maynard Smith (1920-2004)
> Richard Lewontin*
> When John Maynard Smith died on 19 April at the age of 84, one of the last
> grand evolutionary theorists of the 20th century passed. The example of
> Charles Darwin has induced intellectually ambitious biologists, many of
> them in Britain, to search for general formulations by which evolution as
> a
> whole, or large domains of evolutionary phenomena, can be understood and
> explained. One thinks of R. A. Fisher's self-consciously named
> "Fundamental
> Theorem of Natural Selection" (which turned out not to be quite so
> fundamental or general as Fisher thought), or W. D. Hamilton's theory of
> kin selection, the chief theoretical tool used to explain the origin of
> cooperative, social, and apparently altruistic behavior in a world
> supposedly dominated by the struggle for existence.
> Maynard Smith saw that a major remaining problem in evolutionary theory
> was
> to explain the evolution of characteristics whose reproductive advantage
> or
> disadvantage to an individual depended on the response of other
> individuals. So, for example, is it reproductively advantageous for an
> animal to engage in threatening aggressive behavior toward another animal
> when they are competing for a bit of food or space? If the response of the
> second animal is to back down, then the aggressive behavior has paid off,
> but if the opponent meets aggression with aggression, then an escalating
> conflict may leave both of them dead. Maynard Smith realized that this
> class of evolutionary problem could be approached through game theory. His
> invention of the concept of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy created a new
> and lively branch of theoretical studies of evolution.
> Although the concept of the evolutionary game has considerably enriched
> the
> way in which evolutionists think about the history of life, what remains
> unclear is the extent to which it will be possible to measure in nature
> the
> quantities that are required to turn the theory into a predictive device.
> It is very difficult to measure fitnesses in nature and especially the
> kinds of contingent fitnesses of genotypes that depend on what other
> interacting individuals are doing. Moreover, Evolutionary Stable
> Strategies
> only tell us whether, if a particular strategy is adopted by the entire
> population, an alternative strategy can invade at low frequency. They tell
> us nothing about the stability of the strategy after massive invasion by
> alternatives, as might occur from mixtures of populations with different
> strategies. It may turn out that game theory will serve only as a rough
> heuristic rather than as a precise mode of evolutionary prediction.
> The impact of evolutionary game theory has been such that Maynard Smith's
> earlier, largely experimental work has been unduly neglected. His
> demonstration that there is a trade-off between female fertility and
> longevity in Drosophila is of general importance to our understanding of
> the evolution of life histories. His marvelous experiments with K. C.
> Sondhi on changing invariant characteristics by selection is one of the
> best demonstrations of Waddington's claim that there is considerable
> hidden
> genetic variation underlying such constant features, variation that can be
> made manifest when development is disrupted. Most extraordinary was their
> ability to produce heritable asymmetry in a normally bilaterally
> symmetrical organism such as Drosophila. Such experiments are as important
> to our understanding of evolutionary processes as Maynard Smith's more
> seductive work on game theory.
> John Maynard Smith was the child of a Harley Street surgeon, spent much of
> his youth on Dartmoor, attended Eton College, and went on to Trinity
> College, Cambridge. Like so many of his upper-middle class contemporaries
> at Cambridge in the 1930s, he became enamored of Marxism and joined the
> Communist Party. He told me he was recruited into the party by Harry
> Harris
> (who later achieved fame as a human biochemical geneticist), and that
> Harry
> was the first urban Jew he, a boy from Dartmoor, had ever laid eyes on.
> Like so many others he became disillusioned by Stalinism and left the
> Communist Party after the Hungarian uprising. This was a common pattern. I
> once sat in the Staff Club at the University of Sussex with Maynard Smith
> and a number of other faculty members trying to recall whether a
> particular
> person had been a member of the Communist Party. John said he couldn't
> remember and asked the man on his right, who couldn't remember either but
> asked the man on his right, and so on around the whole circle. Unlike so
> many Americans of a similar history, neither Maynard Smith nor his
> colleagues became hardened rightists, but held on to their socialist
> sympathies, so much so that when I told a British immigration officer that
> I was to spend a year at Sussex he remarked, "Ah, that Bolshie
> University!"
> John Maynard Smith was a humane, humorous, and sensible person who did not
> take himself or other people more seriously than they deserved. He had a
> sensibly skeptical view of science and its claims, which is best
> encapsulated in the famous dictum of his teacher, J. B. S. Haldane, who
> said that a scientific idea ought to be interesting even if it is not
> true.
> *The author is at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University,
> Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. 10.1126/science.1099576
> Volume 304, Number 5673, Issue of 14 May 2004, p. 979.
> <end>

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