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Early childhood and a passion for natural history


Speculations on the origins of life and Haldane's 3 theorems
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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At the moment, we just don't know which features of life are like that because of the accidents of common origin and which of them are like that because they have to be. And I know you have speculations about what things have to be, and I do, but it would be nice to have another case of an independent origin of life and see whether our hunches about, for example, inheritance have to be Weismannian rather than Lamarckian, or like, inheritance has to be digital and not analogue, and so on. Are these speculations correct?

[Q] Double our sample size from one to two.

Well, three. Haldane had these three theorems which would enable you to do the whole of science. One was Pangloss's Theorem, which is 'All is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.' But the one that is relevant to the question you've just asked, was the Bellman's Theorem, which is 'What I've told you three times is true.' The third one, just for completion, was Aunt Jobisca's Theorem, which is a very powerful theorem if you get into an argument; 'It's a fact the whole world knows, that the Pobble is happier without its toes.' And indeed, these theorems do get... three cases would be enough, but actually two would be great. Two would be marvellous.

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: JBS Haldane

Duration: 1 minute, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008