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My first encounters with game theory, courtesy of George Price


The effect of moving to Sussex on my theoretical work
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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One effect, partly moving to Sussex and partly Haldane going to India - which was earlier, of course - but these two events led me to become more and more of a theoretician and less and less of an experimentalist. I mean, if you have to spend your time sitting on planning committees, it doesn't fit terribly well with the day to day routine of looking after fruit flies, which I'd been doing up to then. And also, I didn't do a lot of theoretical work when Haldane was sitting in the office over the road. I mean, you don't keep a dog and bark yourself. He solved problems so much faster than I could, that I tended, if a theoretical problem came up, I'd tell him and he'd solve it. And if an experiment came up, he'd tell me, and I'd do it. I mean, that's the way he went. But when he was in India, I couldn't just ask him. And I pay more and more to develop my own theoretical work. And I guess that the thing which, if I'm remembered for anything, I hope I will be remembered for is, again, theory stuff, which developed soon after I came after to Sussex. Though - well, in that sense, it was five years, really, after I came to Sussex, that I really did that work, though the problem had been in my mind ever since I'd been an undergraduate. It goes really back to when I was an undergraduate, I think I mentioned earlier, that I read Konrad Lorenz, among others. And in Lorenz you get this account of so-called Ritualised Behaviour in animal fighting. Animals don't go for the jugular and fight flat out all the time, there's a lot of display and of signals, and quite often, a contest it actually settled without any physical fighting at all by the signals, decide one of them to back down and the other one not. And I didn't doubt Lorenz's accounts of this, who was I to doubt his observations, but I did doubt the explanation which was accepted at the time by both Lorenz and also, I remember, by Julian Huxley; that animals didn't fight in an escalated fashion because if they did it would be bad for the species. I mean, Julian Huxley actually uses the phrase, 'Would militate against the survival of the species.' Well, even as an undergraduate I'd been a student of Haldane's enough to know that that couldn't be right, animals don't do things for the good of the species, at the very most they do things for the good of themselves. So I knew there was a problem there, but somehow or other I'd never really got round to thinking about it.

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: Sussex University, India, Drosophila, JBS Haldane, Konrad Lorenz, Julian Huxley

Duration: 2 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008