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James Watson and Francis Crick transformed biology


Adaptation at the organism level
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I want to... really to think about adaptation at the organism level, as I'm sure you do, reading your books. I mean you want to understand why an albatross flies the way it does. Let's face it, you talk about the albatross, you don't talk about the genes of the albatross. And the reason you can get away with this, is... I think it's your analogy, the men in the boat; I mean, if you really can't jump from boat to boat too easily, there's nothing for it but to keep time with the other seven guys and row as fast as you can. And I think that most of the time in eukaryotes, genes have to rub shoulders, they have to be good mixers and so on. And I guess the same is true, to some extent, in prokaryotes, but I am increasingly struck by the frequency with which genes jump across big distances in prokaryotes and find themselves in quite unfamiliar backgrounds. And I think if we come back and look at bacterial population genetics, in 10 years time, it's going to be a very gene-centred science.

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: adaption, genes, genetics, eukaryotes, prokaryotes, population genetics, evolution, gene-centered

Duration: 1 minute, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008