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Developing the Evolutionary Stable Strategy theory


My first encounters with game theory, courtesy of George Price
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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After my first five years as being Dean here, and really pretty well been devoted to setting up a new school of biology, of filling it with apparatus and people and students and getting the courses going and so on, it's a pretty heavy job. They gave me a sabbatical term. Well, they didn't actually give it me because I got myself paid elsewhere, but they allowed me to go away for a term, let's leave it like that. And I went to what was called the Committee on Mathematical Biology, in Chicago, for three months, I think. And before I went, I decided that I would revisit this problem of ritualised animal behaviour, and that I would do so by seeing whether - I knew there existed a mathematical subject called Game Theory, the Theory of Games. I didn't know what it was about but I just knew it existed and I thought, well, I'll teach myself some game theory and I'll see whether it will help with this animal behaviour problem. I ought to mention at this stage, though I'll come back to it, that the thing that had brought this problem back to my mind was a curious manuscript by George Price. At that stage, all I knew was that about a year before I went to Chicago, I think, I'd been sent by Nature a manuscript by this person, George Price - I'd never heard of, on precisely this issue - arguing, correctly, as I believe, that the reason animals do not escalate is that if they did, their opponent might retaliate and there'd be a nasty punch up and they might get hurt. So the argument against attacking somebody is he might hit back. And this was sent by me by Nature to referee, and the only problem was that it was 50 pages long. And I seem to have this fate of getting ideas from other people's manuscripts when I referee them, but I suppose it's unavoidable. Anyway, I wrote to Nature and said, 'Look, I think this paper's really jolly interesting. Clearly, you can't publish this, it's too long, but persuade the author to send you an abstract which you can publish, and tell him that if he submits this to The Journal of Theoretical Biology, I feel pretty sure they'll publish it.' And I thought no more about it, I thought, you know, I'd done the job. But although George had argued this in a verbal way, he'd not made any kind of formal proof that this is what would happen. And I thought, well, what I'll do is take this notion of George Price's and see whether I can develop, using game theory, a mathematical model which will show that what he's suggesting actually works. And I went to Chicago, I spent three months there. And the only thing you can say for Chicago is that it's so awful, there's nothing to do there except work. I mean, it really is a frightful place to be. So I worked very hard for three months. And as a matter of fact, the problem turns out, once you think about it in the right terms, to be almost trivial.

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, Chicago, Committee of Mathematical Biology, Game Theory, Nature, The Journal of Theoretical Biology, George Price

Duration: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008