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JBS Haldane's trouble with personal relationships


Haldane and the motor car
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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He and his wife, Helen, had the rather nice habit that on the night when we'd all finished our finals examination - and by all I mean there was a dozen or so students of zoology - he had the habit of taking the class after the last exam, to The Marlborough, which is the pub just down the other side of the road, and buying us all a drink until closing time. It was very pleasant. And I went there the night I took finals. And when the pub shut, he said to me and to Pamela Robinson, who was also going to become a graduate student in, in fact, in palaeontology, would we like to go back to his flat and continue drinking, because we clearly hadn't had enough, and rather foolishly we said we would. So we went back to Prof's flat and we continued to drink and talk about the world, until about two o'clock in the morning. Pamela said, 'Look, Prof, John and I really have to go home, but the tubes have stopped running and you're going to have to drive us home.' So Haldane said, 'All right, I'll drive you home.' So we piled into Prof's... Prof lived at the bottom of Parliament Hill. So we got into this car at the bottom of Parliament Hill. It was a typical Haldane possession, it was extremely old and ramshackled and decrepit. And we started driving up the hill. And about halfway up the hill, the car started filling with smoke. And I didn't like to say anything, I thought this was normal. But Pamela said, 'Prof, I think the car's on fire.' 'Oh, oh well.' So we drew up beside... piled out. And, as an engineer, I was told to find out what was wrong. And it was clear nothing very serious was wrong, what had happened was that the carpeting had fallen down on the transmission and was burning underneath the front seat. So, we looked at this for a bit. And Haldane said, 'The ladies will go and stand behind yonder lamp post.' And I thought: What next? And he then turned to me and said, 'Smith, the method of Pantagruel. You have had more beer than I have, put it out.' Now, part of this is, of course, you had to know the classical quotation, you had to know that Pantagruel had, in fact, put out Paris on fire by peeing on it. So I did. And I don't know, you know, if you've had a lot of beer and you start peeing, it's kind of hard of stop. He said, 'That's enough, boy, that's enough.' But my point is that if you were going to work and live with Haldane, you had to be prepared to live in this slightly unpredictable environment, and I... I was. And Helen was, his wife, I mean she... the other thing about Haldane was that if he said something you disagreed with, you could tell him to shut up and stop being such a silly old fart, he didn't mind, I mean. But you had to treat him like that, it was no good being polite, you had to fight back if he said things you didn't agree with.

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: Parliament Hill, Pantagruel, Paris, Helen Spurway, Pamela Robinson

Duration: 2 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008