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Examples of major transitions in evolution


Major transitions in evolution
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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What really matters in evolution, is the... and indeed, in biology, almost, is the transmission of information, in a quite technical sense. And that what... that occasionally, in the course of evolution, there has been a change in the way in which genetic information is stored, is transmitted between generations. One of the transitions we've already talked about is sex. I mean, the change from simple division to sexual reproduction is essentially a change in the way in which information is passed on, so that instead of getting your information from one parent you get it from two, and so on. But there are a number of other major changes of this kind in the way that information is stored and transmitted. And... the book I wrote jointly with my young Hungarian colleague, Eörs Szathmáry - essentially because we tend to think very similarly about problems. I'm surprised to the extent to which when we think about a problem we seem to come up with the same kind of way of seeing it, and yet he knows a lot of chemistry and molecular biology - of which I'm rather ignorant - and I know a fair bit about behaviour and social organisation and structure of higher animals. And I wouldn't like to accuse Eörs of being ignorant, but he knows less about it than I do. So we were able to sort of cover everything from the origin of life to the origin of language by... I don't think either of us could have done it on our own. And we really just tried to understand how these... these major transitions took place. Of course, in a sense, they're something of an interruption of the sort of image of evolution being a series of gradual change. We really are looking at something which one might also call a revolution or a series of revolutions.

[Q] Could we go through what some of those revolutions are?

Yes, I won't go through the whole thing, but the ones that are perhaps most familiar, we now believe that there was a period in the early period of life in which the distinction between nucleic acids as the carriers of information and proteins as the... coded by the nucleic acids, doing all the work, I mean, being the enzymes and the structural proteins and so on, that no such division of labour between an information molecule and a doing molecule existed. And that, in fact, all there was, was RNA, nucleic acid, which was both the replicator and the enzyme.

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: Eörs Szathmáry

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008