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Futile Latin lessons at Eton College


Not fitting in at prep school or Eton
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I went... I was sent to a boys' boarding school at the age of eight. From the age of eight to 18 I spent most of my time at... first at a prep school and then at Eton. And something I ought to say, I suppose, if I'm going to be honest, something that's always puzzled me, and still puzzles me, is why I did not fit in either at my prep school or at my... at Eton. Because ever since I left Eton I have never found the very least difficulty in fitting in to any society I've been part of, including working at the bench in a factory in Coventry, I mean, you know, I don't find it difficult to... to make relations with people happy. But there was something about my prep school and my... and Eton, Eton in particular, which I loathed, I couldn't make terms with it. But apart from that, they taught me - well, it's not true they taught me nothing, they did teach me something - they taught me mathematics. And Eton taught me mathematics incredibly well, and I have to be grateful to them for that. But there was no science teaching at either, absolutely none, I mean, I just learnt no science, formally, at school. I mean, I learnt some science, but I learnt it because there was a good school library, that is to their credit. And I read Jeans and Eddington and Sherrington and... and Haldane and... I read Darwin, and I read a whole mass of stuff.

[Q] You went into the school library and found these books yourself without any encouragement?

Yes, yes, essentially. Why, I don't know. I just wanted to... I found science fascinating. But nobody... I can't put my finger on anybody who stimulated that interest, any adult who stimulated that interest. They didn't inhibit it, they didn't prevent it, but they didn't encourage it. I mean, they didn't understand science, they didn't know about it. My school master thought that Latin and Greek were what mattered.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Eton College, Coventry, James Hopwood Jeans, Arthur Eddington, Charles Scott Sherrington, JBS Haldane, Charles Darwin

Duration: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008