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Work on ageing


The idea of sexual selection
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I still do not understand fully why it took so long. I mean, Darwin put forward the idea in his book in 1871, and I think it's fair to say that - I understand why it was rejected at the time, and it very largely was, people did not take sexual selection seriously, essentially, I believe, it wasn't that they didn't like sex or they didn't like the notion of choice. I mean, choice was unmechanistic, they were trying to reduce behaviour to a mechanism, and they couldn't fit choice into a machinery. But it is very odd that it was a hundred years from Darwin's publication before people did serious work on the subject. I've talked to Peter O'Donald about this. Peter, who was a student of RA Fisher's, did mathematical models of sexual selection, which were really the beginning of all theoretical modelling of sexual selection, I think, they were good models. You know, what led him to do it. Because, I think, in some ways, those models were the sort of beginning of something. But there's an interesting piece of history there that I don't fully understand, as to why the enormous delay. And then, nowadays, you can't open a journal of behaviour without reading about sexual selection. But it's all happened in the last twenty years.

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: sexual selection, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin, 1871, Ronald Fisher, Peter O'Donald

Duration: 1 minute, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008