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The influence of science fiction


Reading Haldane's Possible Worlds at Eton
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I read Haldane for a very special reason, that I had come to hate the place and knew I hated the place, and the one person that my teachers really hated was Haldane. It wasn't merely that he was an atheist and a republican and a socialist and all those things, but he was one of them, who'd gone over to the other side, he was an apostate. And I do remember thinking, you know, this guy they're being unpleasant about, anyone they hate this much can't be all bad; and going to the school library - I will say this for the school library, it had the books - and I can remember to this day reading Possible Worlds, and there's an essay in Possible World about these intelligent barnacles. It's a gorgeous essay. The barnacles can only reach what their arms, sweeping like this, can reach. They can't get right out. But they can... they're supposed to have eyes in this story. And they classify objects in the world as real and unreal. And real objects are things that they can reach with their sweepers and unreal are the things that they can't reach, but can see. And then some mathematical barnacle points out that if you... if two different barnacles look at an unreal object and compare notes and do some geometry, they can predict when an unreal object is going to turn real. And they build up a whole, sort of, structure of, you know... that really the unreal things are real after all, and they become good solid materialists. And then someone points out that, as a matter of fact, if you put the right parameters into the equations, some unreal objects are actually underneath the rock, and everybody knows that nothing could be underneath the rock, so they go back to being religious guys again. And I can remember, as a boy of 15, sitting there reading, I'd never come across stuff like this. And I thought: My God, there are people out there who think like that. And it was deeply moving, that it was a mixture of reason, of mathematics, of atheism, all sort of mixed up together. That... it was very moving to find out that I wasn't alone in the world, you know, there were other people out there, who were like me, but I was trying to be like them.

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: Eton College, Possible Worlds, JBS Haldane

Duration: 2 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008