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The point of evolutionary game theory


Larry Gilbert and Nick Davis
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Larry Gilbert is a great non-publisher, and I'm not sure he's ever published his PhD work - has he? I've never seen it. I've always had to quote it as an anecdote. And indeed, for quite a time after I came back to Sussex and started talking about game theory, Larry Gilbert was known as John's imaginary biologist, they refused to believe that he existed until I actually produced him in the flesh and he said, 'No, no, it's all quite true.' I'll tell you one story about Nick, I think Nick Davis probably thought up his experiments on speckled wood butterflies without knowing about Larry Gilbert's work, but it was essentially a similar ownership game. But I do remember Nick once saying at a meeting that he'd like to tell the meeting, it was a small meeting, what John Maynard Smith had done for field workers, and it went as follows, he said: 'You know, that in the old days, what we had to do if we were a graduate student doing field work, we had to go and demonstrate that strategy A was fitter than strategy B, to show that selection was operating. And if you looked at a thousand cases and there was no significant difference, your supervisor told you to go out and measure another thousand until it was significant.' But what I'd done was to demonstrate that at an ESS the two strategies should be equally fit, and so frankly, the fewer you looked at, the more likely they were to fit the theory, so you didn't have to look at thousands, you just looked at a few. I don't think he meant this very seriously, because, as you know, he's a very meticulous experimenter. He was one of the first people in behaviour to really cotton on to game theory as being something he could use to explain what his beasts were doing.

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: Sussex University, Game Theory, Evolutionary Stable Strategy, Larry Gilbert, LE Gilbert, Nick Davis, John Maynard Smith

Duration: 1 minute, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008