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How I would spend a day with Darwin


20th century biology as a 'science of information'
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I think what's happened, in the 20th century, and a bit at the end of the 19th, is that we have been surrounded by machinery which transduces information; tape recorders, record players and telephone... what we're doing now, film and television and so on, all are machines which change information from one form to another, telephones and so on. And prior to about 1880, nobody had this notion of information being something which could be coded and transformed. And biology, during this century, has become increasingly concerned with... precisely with information. Genetics is the question of how the information is transmitted between generations, molecular biology is concerned with how it's translated from DNA into protein. Developmental biology is concerned with how it's translated from the sort of... a set of proteins into a morphological structure. And evolutionary theory essentially is about how the information got there in the first place. And I think you could almost characterise the 20th century in biology as the century in which it became the science of information in living systems. Lots of biologists wouldn't like that because it's not what they do. But I think that's what's really new about biology in this century.


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: information, biology, genetics, Developmental biology

Duration: 1 minute, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008