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JBS Haldane's major work


JBS Haldane
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I knew him well, obviously, I worked with him, I loved him. I was, I think, close to him. But I never quite understood him, and why should one? Why should one expect to understand one's friends? I mean, he was staggeringly intelligent, I mean, there's no question about that. He... he had this cast of mind, it was not like Medawar's. Medawar's cast of mind ultimately was to reduce it to an experiment and then try and do the experiment. Haldane, confronted with anything from air raid precautions to how genes work, his instinct was to try make... to reduce it to a mathematical model, and the simpler the model the better. And he... he had a real genius for making simple, formal, mathematical models of the world, from which you could deduce what was going to happen. I don't think he was a particularly good mathematician.

[Q] Was he self-taught as a mathematician?

Oh no, no. He'd taken a double first at Oxford in mathematics and classics. He was self-taught as a biologist. He was... he was not a naturalist, I mean his skills were not from natural history, they were essentially from mathematics. And he knew a lot of chemistry, actually, which he'd learnt from his father. He told me once the chemical explanations were much more important than morphological ones, a view that I actually share.

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: Oxford University, JBS Haldane, Peter Medawar

Duration: 1 minute, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008