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Molecular clocks


Inspiring Kimura to write The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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When I published my sex book, The Evolution of Sex, I sent a copy to Motoo with a covering letter saying 'You'll find a lot of your ideas in this book,' which is true. And he wrote back a really typical Kimura letter, he wrote back saying 'Dear John, many thanks for sending me your book.' He then obviously can't think of anything polite to say about it, so he says, 'It is, however, very beautifully printed.' He then goes on to say, 'But, I feel you ought to know that equation 167 was, in fact, reached by Jim Crow and myself in a chapter of our text book which we finally didn't include in the final edition, but you ought to know that we did.' Because he's very obsessional about priorities, Motoo. But, still, the book is very beautifully printed - however, so deep is the hostility of all British geneticists to my work that there is no chance that I would ever have published a book with such a beautiful printer. I rang up my contact at Cambridge University Press and said, 'Look, I think if you play your cards right, you can get a book out of Motoo.' And so that's why they published The Neutral Theory [of Molecular Evolution]. The other thing about that book - I wrote a review of it in Nature, which in general was very complimentary, because it's a great book - come on. But I did point out that he does say, in the first chapter of the book, that - I can't remember the exact words, but it's roughly something like; 'Of course, morphological structure has evolved by natural selection acting on random mutation.' And then he goes on to say that it's all the molecular stuff he's going to talk about, which [he] hasn't. And I quoted this in my review because it seemed to me that people would take, certainly the sort of, British naive panselectionists, would take what he had to say about molecules more seriously if they realised that he accepted the Darwinian explanation of the evolution they were interested in. And after the review appeared, I was rung up by Jim Crow, who, you know, was the... I'm not sure, I think Motoo took a post-doctoral period with Jim, but obviously Jim was his teacher in an important way, and indeed, he's very proud of being his teacher, but I think, actually, he's rightly proud, I mean, I think he did a great job. Jim rang me up and said he was so pleased that I'd written such a nice review of Kimura's book in Nature, but he thought I might like to know how that sentence got into the book. And I said, 'Well, I'd assumed because Motoo wrote it.' He said, 'Well, not quite.' And he said, 'What actually happened was that when Motoo showed me the text of the book, I said, "Look, Motoo, if somewhere in the beginning you said, look, I accept natural selection as an explanation of morphological evolution, it'll make people more sympathetic to the rest of the book".' And Motoo said, 'Right, I will.' 'But,' he said, 'the pen wouldn't write down the words, and ultimately Jim wrote that sentence.' But still, Kimura put it into the book and signed it, so, you know, he clearly did believe it, it was just he couldn't write it.

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: The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, The Evolution of Sex, Cambridge University Press, Nature, Motoo Kimura, Jim Crow

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008