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Weismann's position on inheritance of acquired characteristics


Recognising the importance of Watson and Crick
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I don't think I knew, when I first read Watson and Crick, what an important idea I was reading. I know why I read it, why I did everything in those days, Prof told me to. I mean, Haldane was in the corridor... outside the corridor, and said 'Smith, you'd better look at that.' When he said that, I did it. And I think... I mean, first of all, I had no difficulty in understanding it. You know, there's a lot of rubbish in the history of science about paradigm debates, about how major revolutions in science are brought about by a lot of young Turks who come up with a completely new idea and the older generation can't understand it, and there's a paradigm debate goes on, and it's all settled by rhetoric and so on. Nothing could be further from the truth about the molecular biology revolution.

People like me, who didn't have the technical skills to do the molecular biology, who were not raised in that technique, had no difficult at all in understanding the ideas. And in my case, no difficulty at all in accepting them. Clearly Haldane had no difficulty in understanding and accepting them. We found it much harder to acquire the techniques... the experimental techniques involved, but I don't think Francis Crick ever acquired them, so it probably didn't matter too much. But intellectually, there was nothing even remotely approaching a paradigm debate. On the other hand, although I understood what they were saying, and realised that this was important, I don't think I realised how important it was going to be to me as an evolutionary biologist. You must appreciate that Watson and Crick's paper explained replication, how a molecule could replicate, how a gene could replicate, and that was fundamental. It wasn't, at that time, clear how a gene could influence anything. One had to wait for the discoveries of Messenger RNA, of ribosomes, of translation of the genetic code, and so on, before one understood how genes not only replicated but could do something. And it all came very fast. That development of molecular biology was an absolute explosion of ideas. And again, I don't remember having any difficulty in understanding it. You know, I didn't contribute to it, but I could follow it perfectly well. But I don't think I understood how important it was for an evolutionary biologist, until... well really it was until the notion of the central dogma of molecular biology. I mean, Crick's claim that the central feature of molecular biology was that information could go from nucleic acids to proteins and it couldn't go from proteins to nucleic acids. And I did think... I think I did see at once, once he'd said that, that this was the whole... the root of the Weismannian position of the non-inheritable acquired characters and so on. But I certainly didn't see that when the Watson and Crick paper came out. It took time for the significance of it all to filter through.

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: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, James Watson, Francis Crick, JBS Haldane

Duration: 3 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008