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Who understood genetic theory?


How I would spend a day with Darwin
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I guess most evolutionary biologists have had the following fantasy; that we're given a day in Down House, with Darwin, and we're free to tell him what we like, and what would we tell him? It would be lovely, wouldn't it, you know? So that he didn't waste his time on all that pangenesis stuff and concentrated on the things that he did so marvellously. And clearly we want to tell him about genetics, I think, because that's the one thing he didn't have. But would he find it terribly hard to understand, for the reasons you describe? We are used to tape recorders, he wasn't. Maybe he'd find the concepts difficult, I don't know. We're not going to get a chance to do it, but it would be lovely to try.

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: Charles Darwin, Down House

Duration: 43 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008