Maynard Smith, John, 1920-2004

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1920-01-06
Death 2004-04-19
Britons
English

Biographical notes:

Born London, England, 6 January 1920; died Lewes, East Sussex, England, 19 April 2004. Educated Trinity College, Cambridge (Mechanical Sciences Tripos, 1938-1941) and University College London (Zoology, c 1947-1950). Engineer, Miles Aircraft (1942-1947). Lecturer, then Reader in Zoology, University College London (1951-1964). Professor of Biology and founding Dean of the School of Biological Sciences (1965-1972, 1982-1984), University of Sussex. Emeritus Professor (1985-2004). Fellow of the Royal Society (1977) Balzan Prize (1991), Linnean Medal (1995), Crafoord Prize (1999), Kyoto Prize (2001). Darwin (1986), Royal (1997) and Copley (1999) medals of the Royal Society.

John Maynard Smith was born in London, England on 6 January 1920, second son of a surgeon, Sidney Mason Smith and Isobel Mary (née Pitman). When Sidney died in 1928, the family moved to Hurst in Berkshire, and Maynard Smith spent holidays from boarding school at his maternal grandfather’s house in Exford, Devon, where he developed an interest in natural history. He was educated first at a preparatory school (St Peter’s Broadstairs) then Eton, where he reported being unhappy until the age of 16. In his later years there, Maynard Smith read the work of old Etonian and population geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane and became interested in Darwinism, mathematics and communism.

Maynard Smith studied engineering at Trinity College Cambridge. He enlisted for service in 1939 but was rejected due to poor eyesight. In 1942 he started work as an engineer calculating the stress in aircraft wings for Myles Aircraft, at factories in Coventry and Reading. After the war, he changed scientific disciplines and graduated with a first class honours degree in zoology from University College London , where he became a lecturer in the same department in 1951. Continuity with his time as an aeronautical engineer can be observed in some of his early publications on flight in birds and insects. Although he did not complete a PhD started in 1951, Maynard Smith’s early work in Haldane’s Laboratory on the genetics of the European fruitfly (Drosophila subobscura) studied mating behaviour and ageing, pointing to the importance of female choice in sexual selection. In 1965, Mayard Smith became Professor of Biology and Dean (1965-1972, 1982-1984) at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex, where the building was renamed in his memory following his death in 2004.

Maynard Smith was one of the major figures in post-War evolutionary science. He worked on key topics including reproductive strategies and the evolution of sex; game theory; signalling and human language; molecular evolution and variation; and speciation without geographic isolation (sympatric speciation). In retirement, his main research was on the population structure and evolution of bacteria and antibiotic resistance.

He is best known for his application of game theory to evolution. By introducing mathematical models from game theory into the study of behaviour, he showed that the success of an individual's behaviour often depends on what other individuals do. He introduced the idea of an "evolutionarily stable strategy": a strategy that, once common, cannot be bettered by alternatives. This work has strongly influenced the way biologists think about behavioural evolution, and game theory is now one of the most commonly used tools in evolutionary thinking.

Maynard Smith joined the Communist Party of Great Britain on leaving school in 1938. However, he left the Party in 1956. A neo-Darwinist by conviction, Maynard Smith navigated the sociobiology debates by arguing that human choices and behaviour need not be determined by biological imperatives. He wrote for a wide audience on science and the history of evolution, and engaged publicly on controversial matters such as creationism through public lectures and the media, and with specialists in the philosophy of biology.

Epithet: FRS, evolutionary biologist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000472.0x000265

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