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Haldane and the motor car


JBS Haldane's major work
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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The major thing that Haldane did scientifically, I suppose, has to be the work that he did, as well as, rather independently, RA Fisher and Sewell Wright, which was to show that genetics is compatible with Darwinism. It's very odd that in the period between 1900 and the 1920s, it really was felt that you either had to be a Mendelian geneticist or a Darwinian and you couldn't be both, which is absurd. But I think it required the work of people like Haldane to show that that wasn't true. And it involved elegant and simple mathematical modelling, essentially. But he went on making mathematical models through his life. And... I find it awfully difficult, you see talking about Haldane, to know which of the things I think - I thought of myself and which of the things I think and do, I am just imitating Haldane. Because when you live with somebody of that degree of intellect, it really is hard to know what is your own ideas and what is his. But he was also a very difficult person to work with. He was one of those people who liked the feeling of adrenaline circulating, I think. He enjoyed being either angry or afraid. He admits, for example, that he genuinely enjoyed being in the trenches in the First World War, because he was frightened the whole time, and somehow or other, that made him feel more alive. There are people who actually enjoy adrenaline, and Haldane was one of them, but it did make him awkward to live with. It was like living with an unexploded bomb, you never knew when it was going to go off.

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: WWI, JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher, Sewell Wright

Duration: 1 minute, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008