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Geoffrey Parker's dung flies


The War of Attrition game in Papilio zelicaon
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I went down to give a seminar at Austin, Texas, and I thought, well, I'll tell them about this game theory stuff. So I described to them what I'd been doing, and right at the end, I described this ownership game, and said, 'Of course, I don't believe animals actually do this, but, you know, if they'd read my paper I'm going to write, they should do, you see.' And when I sat down, a man I've loved ever since, tall, lank Texan, called Larry...

[Q] Gilbert

Gilbert, that's right, my neurone for remembering names popped out about - several years ago now - got up and described how for his PhD, he'd worked on a butterfly called Papilio zelicaon, in California. And his story is that the males fly uphill, during the mating season, they fly uphill and they occupy hilltops. And a female who wants to mate flies uphill to get to the top of the hill, and she'll find a male at the top of every hill and she mates. The trouble is, there are more male butterflies than there are hilltops, so the guys who find the hilltops first are the... the 'owners', and any other butterfly that comes along, any other male who comes along, there's a brief spiral flight, and by marking them, he discovered that the intruder goes away and the owner of the hilltop stays there. And then he got two butterflies who believed they owned the same hilltop, by giving one of them the hilltop to occupy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the other one on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and then on Sunday, they were both loosed on the same hilltop. And they went in for a great long fight, they both thought it was theirs, you see. And he described this, and I thought, he's right. It was the first time, I think, I actually thought I was on to something, that such an abstract piece of reasoning that I'd gone through actually seemed to be telling us what animals do. And since that time, the game theory thing has turned out to be relevant to everything from viruses to, you know, to plants growing to all sorts of things, they don't have to be animals. And it's now being very much involved in the whole communication thing. But it is odd that I - it wasn't one of those things where I thought I'd solved an important problem, it was some old thing where I thought I'd solved a really very trivial problem, and then gradually began to realise that the method could be used for solving a whole slew of problems, and as you know, probably is nowadays.

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: Ustin, Texas, Game Theory, Papilio zelicaon, California, LE Gilbert, Larry Gilbert

Duration: 2 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008