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Politics at Cambridge


Difficulty publishing papers in the 1950s
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I had great difficulty in publishing papers about animal locomotion in the '50s. I... I would never have been able to publish this story about the stability of flight if Haldane hadn't bullied the editor of Evolution into publishing it. It was rejected when I submitted it, on the grounds that the author clearly didn't know anything about aerodynamics, which did slightly annoy me, I have to say. If they'd written and said the author clearly doesn't know anything about birds, I would have thought, well, fair enough, but damn it. Then I tried to publish a paper about... about Animal Gaits. It was one of the first optimisation papers every written, I think, in which I showed that the gaits of animals optimised their expenditure of energy at a given speed. And to prove this, I actually differentiated something, and I had an equation, d2w by dj2 = 0, or something. And the referee actually said, 'Why doesn't the author cancel the ds?' I mean, in those days, it was just impossible. And there was a deep anti-theoretic... anti-theoretical sort of culture in... in biology. You were not allowed to have theoretical ideas, except, perhaps in population and genetics, because Haldane and Fisher had made it respectable in population genetics. But in morphology, which I was tampering with, you know, why are animals the shapes they are, you just couldn't do it. It'd be different now.

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: 1950s, Evolution, JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher

Duration: 1 minute, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008