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JMS in 15 images

Here’s the plan: every Friday for 15 weeks, starting 19 April 19, I will reveal one image about, or related to, John Maynard Smith in the gallery below. That image will link to a specific section in a biography of JMS, as he was known, which will grow with each image revealed.

Why? Because this date, 19 April 19, marks the 15th anniversary of John Maynard Smith’s death: a good occasion to look back on his life and work. (In case you’d like to know, Charles Darwin died on the same day as JMS. Just 122 years earlier, on 19 April 1882.)

So by the end of these 15 weeks – which should take us right to the end of July (un/happily?!!? coinciding with the submission period for my PhD) – there should be 15 images and quite a bit of text on JMS on this website.

And I am afraid that it may just have to be an unimaginative run-on text, at least for the time being, as I’m still trying to figure out a way to circumvent WordPress’s apparent dislike for HTML onclick events (or to work around my lack of coding/website building skills…). Any tips extremely welcome! Just drop me a line through the contact form. Useful for feedback and criticism too, if you fancy sharing any of that.

Exmoor: Porlock Common Eton coat of arms Trinity College, Cambridge Dear Comrade letter JBS Haldane
Drosophila genetics The Theory of Evolution JMS building WD Hamilton George Price
payoff matrix JMS working creationism debate The Major Transitions in Evolution Maynard Smith receiving the Balzan Prize

John Maynard Smith was born in London on 6 January 1920, the second child of Sidney Maynard Smith and Isobel Mary Smith (née Pitman). His parents had met in Ypres, Belgium, during the First World War. John’s father was a military surgeon from a modestly middle-class London family who had served in the Boer War; his mother came from a well-to-do Scottish family.

After having moved south from Edinburgh, John’s maternal grandfather, Frederick Pitman, had established a successful stockbroking firm in London, Rowe & Pitman; he hoped that his grandson would join the firm eventually. (As we will see, John had other ideas!)

The Maynard Smith family lived at 49 Wimpole Street in London until John was eight years old. He never much saw his father who died young in 1928 – possibly from tuberculosis, which he had caught during the Boer War. After Sidney’s death, the family left London and moved to the village of Hurst in Berkshire.

The holidays were mostly spent in Exmoor, however, where John’s grandfather owned a house. Exploring the countryside, John would spend his time bird watching and beetle collecting. He was developing his love for nature, something that had been growing since his early childhood: at John’s insistence, there had always been regular visits to the London Zoo and the Natural History Museum.

The move to the countryside also coincided with John being sent to boarding school. Between 1928 and 1933, he was at the preparatory school of St Peter’s Court, Broadstairs. As Marek Kohn wrote, John’s ‘mathematical abilities became apparent early on and were cultivated by a discerning teacher, [but] John was not regarded as a prodigy nor even as especially bright. He did not begin to get high marks for essays until the later stages of his school career, when marks were awarded for reasoning rather than imagination.’

image: Exmoor by Eugene Birchall [CC BY-SA 2.0]. BACK TO TOP

After St Peter’s Court, John was sent to ‘a ridiculous place called Eton’, where he stayed until 1938. He is known for not having liked his years at the famous boarding school; he has referred to them as ‘extremely unpleasant’ and found the atmosphere ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’. But the lack of science classes was, at least in part, compensated for by excellent mathematical training.

Much of the science John did learn during his school years was self-taught, from popular science and other works found at Eton’s library: he read books across the natural sciences, from physics (Albert Einstein, James Jeans, Arthur Eddington) to biology (Charles Darwin, Julian Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane).

The summer that John left Eton, he, his mother, and his sister Val travelled to the European continent. After visiting Ypres, Belgium, and Cologne, they came to Berlin, where his uncle – Noel Mason-MacFarlane – was Britain’s military attaché.

Mason-MacFarlane took his nephew along on a business trip through the Reich to Czechoslovakia and Austria: ‘he received an education in politics and the affairs of the world as they drove […]. And his uncle also arranged that he saw Hitler in action, taking him to see the Führer address an open-air rally outside Berlin’. John later recalled that,

I was a pacifist until I went to Germany in 1938, where it became perfectly clear that there was going to be a war, and that pacifism was not going to stop Hitler. I came back to England in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong, and the one group in Britain at that time who were saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism, were the Communists.

image: Eton College coat of arms by Joshua Wood, Esquire [CC BY-SA 4.0]. BACK TO TOP

John returned to the UK and went to university in Cambridge. When still at school, he had one day announced that he was not going to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. What John hadn’t been quite prepared for was the natural question, So what was he going to do? Remembering a lecture on the Sydney Harbour Bridge that he had attended, John decided there and then to become an engineer.

He read engineering at Trinity College but really, he spent most of his free time with political activity: he had joined the Communist Party soon after arriving. Around April 1939, John met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. (They married on 15 January 1941, making John one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, followed by Carol in 1946 and Julian in 1949.)

In the late 1940s, however, John lost faith in the Party and became disillusioned with Communist politics as well as – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. He finally left the Party in 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, even though he retained his leftist political outlook.

Already during his study days, John was having trouble with the Party rules. In line with his thoughts after visiting Germany in 1938, he applied to join the Army after the beginning of World War II in September 1939. This was breaking with the Party line, but as John was to say, ‘I don’t recall asking them.’

In a sense, it was a moot point anyhow: due to his bad eyesight, John was refused. His contribution to the war effort was to finish his studies – which he did with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering in 1941 – and then to work as an aircraft engineer.

image: Trinity College, Cambridge. BACK TO TOP

Having finished university, John worked as an aircraft stress man, first at Armstrong Whitworth in Coventry, and later at Miles Aircraft in Reading. This experience would prove invaluable in his later career as a theoretical biologist: it taught him to trust models. With pilots’ lives depending on his computations, he also learned not to make mistakes…

However, when the war was over, John began to re-examine his career choices. Prospects in aviation seemed dim, plus his bad eyesight meant he would never be able to fly himself. He wanted to go into science. Chemistry was out of the question, and theoretical physics he understood well enough to know he would be unable to innovate. (John didn’t even consider experimental physics because ‘any apparatus that I come within miles of fuses or blows up or sets light or something’.)

The decision fell onto biology. A friend suggested University College London, and John knew that J.B.S. Haldane was teaching there. He had read Haldane’s work while at Eton, having looked him up because all his teachers warned about him: ‘I remember thinking that anybody they hate that much can’t be all bad.’

In October 1947, John therefore wrote to Haldane. He knew that Haldane was a fellow member of the Communist Party, so the letter was addressed ‘Dear Comrade’. John asked for advice on suitable subjects to study, mentioning some of his interests. Soon after, he started his second degree, this time in zoology – the start to a career in evolutionary biology that was to span half a century.

image: ‘Dear Comrade’ letter, HALDANE/5/2/4/144 at UCL: Special Collections [CC-BY-NC]. BACK TO TOP

J.B.S. Haldane would become a mentor and friend. John recalled that they were close, that he ‘spent [his] life imitating Haldane’, but also that he ‘never quite understood him’.

Haldane, from a family of scientists and politicians, had read mathematics and classics at Oxford but not any of the natural sciences: he was, in fact, a self-taught biologist. He has been described as having been difficult to work with: Haldane liked the rush of adrenaline, admitting, for example, that he had genuinely enjoyed being in the trenches during World War I (and while running a bomb-making workshop, he made smoking compulsory to weed out ‘the wrong sort of chaps’).

But Haldane was also ‘staggeringly intelligent’. His work from the 1920s and 1930s was instrumental in establishing population genetics and in laying the foundations of neo-Darwinism: the integration of the Darwinian theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics. (The two other founding fathers of neo-Darwinism were R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright.)

UCL offered another inspiring figure for John: Peter Medawar. They both arrived at the university around the same time – when John became a graduate student, Medawar became Professor of Zoology. He would prove instrumental for John’s career, as we shall see.

An immunologist, Medawar worked on the transplantation of tissue and on ways to avoid rejection of these transplants. In 1949 he had teamed up with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, and their work transformed the nature of transplant surgery. Together, they won the 1960 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine ‘for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance’; Medawar was knighted five years later.

image: J.B.S. Haldane by Bassano and Vandyk Studios, published on Encyclopædia Britannica. BACK TO TOP

After graduation with a first-class honours degree in 1950, John stayed at UCL to work on a PhD under J.B.S. Haldane. But then, in 1951, Peter Medawar offered him a job as reader in zoology. John accepted without any regrets about not finishing his doctorate: he later commented that he was ‘one of that distinguished company […] who can afford to remain Mr.’

During his early career, John mostly worked experimentally. He had two reasons. Firstly, several of his earlier theoretical papers had been rejected (his use of maths stumped the biologist reviewers). Secondly, ‘Haldane could solve theoretical problems in a fraction of the time I could’, so what’s the point?

Thus he spent most of his time in the laboratory of Haldane’s wife, Helen Spurway, working on the fruit fly Drosophila subobscura. John was largely interested in issues of inbreeding and ageing, on which he published about twenty papers (many in collaboration with colleagues).

Rather by accident, the work on inbreeding led John to investigate animal behaviour. He was puzzled why so many eggs in his inbred lines didn’t hatch. One explanation was that they had never been fertilised. So he put pairs of male and female flies together, watching to see whether mating was taking place. It turned out that during courtship, inbred males were less successful than out-bred males.

The standard explanation in ethology at the time was that the inbred males weren’t motivated enough, but John thought, ‘there’s something funny going on here, because it clearly wasn’t the case that the inbred males were not trying, if one’s allowed to use words like trying in animal behaviour.’ They went through the whole courtship ritual but were still rejected by the females.

John surmised that this was because

when the out-bred female does her sideways dance, the inbred males can’t keep up, and if they can’t keep up, if they can’t dance properly, the female rejects them. The out-bred males keep up fine and all’s well. And the reason they don’t keep up is that they can’t, their eyesight’s not good enough or their legs are not any good, or whatever, you know.

But when he discussed this with young colleagues at Oxford, John couldn’t convince them that his interpretation was right.

image: Maynard Smith in the lab, ca. 1963. Screengrab from Seven Wonders of the World. BACK TO TOP

In 1956, John started a side-project: he signed a contract with Penguin to write a book on “THEORIES OF EVOLUTION”. Two years later, just before publication, he decided that it should rather be called “THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION” because ‘I did not in fact discuss any theory of evolution other than Darwin’s’.

John’s “little Penguin”, as he liked to call it, was a success. (Although, technically speaking, it was a Pelican…) Darwin’s granddaughter, Nora Barlow, praised it as a ‘feat of learned compression’, and many reviewers pointed to its clarity in thought and style.

The Theory of Evolution surveys the field evolutionary biology and interprets it through neo-Darwinian eyes, all on the eve of the Origin of Species centenary of 1959.

Both the author and the publisher are to be praised for a book which helps to bring the scriptures of Wallace and Darwin from the realm of tropical visions supported by the dry bones of contention into the realm of science.

Students for many generations (the book went through three editions: 1958, 1966, 1975 – and a re-issue: 1993) and throughout the world (or at least, Europe and the US!) would be introduced to Darwin’s theory of evolution with John’s little Penguin.

image: first edition of The Theory of Evolution. BACK TO TOP

May I suggest that at the earliest opportunity you should forthrightly offer the Deanship to Mr. John Maynard Smith, Reader in Zoology at University College London (my old department)? …

In research he has been an all-rounder, and has reached real distinction in certain aspects of physiological genetics. His Penguin on “The Theory of Evolution” is absolutely first-rate, and I read it from cover to cover. He is also a most devoted teacher…

I am most enthusiastic about this idea and have not a shadow of doubt that Maynard Smith is the best man going for the job.

As I said above, Peter Medawar proved instrumental in John’s career development – twice. After offering him a job at UCL, he suggested him as founding dean at the newly-established University of Sussex.

John Fulton, the university’s first vice-chancellor to whom Medawar had written the above, followed up on the recommendation. So in 1965, after moving to Brighton, John became the first Dean of Biological Sciences. He would retain this post until 1972 and be briefly re-elected in the early 1980s.

At Sussex, exchange between disciplines was encouraged. John ‘is likely to have ideas of his own’, Medawar knew, and indeed he accepted in part for the freedom to build his department from the ground up. ‘I wanted to break down the divisions between the different branches of biology. I thought that biologists ought to be trained across the board, from whole organisms to biochemistry.’

Unfortunately, however, he was ‘hopeless at academic politics and never attended committee meetings in London if he could avoid it.’ As a result, his department suffered when Margaret Thatcher’s government cut the funding for higher education: the group of researchers focusing on evolutionary biology and population genetics disintegrated in the late 1980s ‘thanks to Mrs T’.

image: JMS Building at the University of Sussex. BACK TO TOP

‘a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin’ – that was William Hamilton. In the early 1960s, Bill was a PhD student at the Galton Laboratory, UCL, and the London School of Economics. He was working on the genetics of altruism.

Bill and John had a strenuous relationship. In 1964, Bill’s major findings on why individuals behave altruistically were published in the paper ‘The genetical evolution of social behaviour’. Also in 1964, John published a paper on ‘Group selection and kin selection’.

John’s ‘kin selection’ was a term describing Bill’s ideas – John said, to distinguish them from group selection (the idea that individuals do something “for the good of the species”), something John didn’t believe in. Bill thought John was using his ideas without giving him credit. (John had reviewed Bill’s draft for the journal. John’s paper was then published first and didn’t mention Bill’s forthcoming paper. But it did cite a shorter paper by Bill on the same ideas from the previous year.)

Bill’s paper is one of the most cited in evolutionary biology and his ideas hugely influential. He said, in a nutshell (or rather, in maths…), that individuals behave altruistically towards other individuals they share genes with. You share 1/2 of your genes with siblings, 1/4 with grandparents, 1/8 with cousins…

So helping a sibling makes evolutionary sense because it increases the chances that those genes you share get passed on to the next generation via your sibling’s offspring. This is ‘inclusive fitness’, or indirect fitness, if you will. Direct fitness is you passing on your genes to your own offspring.

John thought that Bill was ‘the only bloody genius we’ve got’. But it took ten years for Bill to tell John about his feelings. (John had no idea Bill had interpreted his paper as he did until someone told him in the early ‘70s.) It took another five-ish for them to resolve the conflict.

image: William D. Hamilton teaching at a seminar. Harvard, 1978. Copyright © Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. BACK TO TOP

In the 1970s, John collaborated with the American polymath George R. Price (1922-1975). George grew up in New York before he moved to study at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. He gained his PhD in chemistry for work on the Manhattan Project but afterwards struggled to find a job that satisfied him and his big ideas, scientific and otherwise.

In the late 1960s, after an operation for thyroid cancer (after which he still needed medication for the rest of his life), George moved to England. He was interested in altruism and conflict and taught himself evolutionary biology, spending his time in the libraries around London. Around March, he came across Bill Hamilton’s work. George asked for reprints of Bill’s 1964 papers but instead got one of his latest article on sex ratios. Bill didn’t have any reprints of his earlier work left, and that article dealt with similar ideas.

George disliked one idea suggested by Bill – that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin (“inclusive fitness”), which seemed to deny true, selfless altruism. He tried to disprove it, but his Price Equation did the opposite, proving Bill right.

In the early 1970s, John recalled, ‘when we were halfway through writing the […] Nature paper,* he underwent this, he fell off a donkey on the way to Damascus or something. I don’t know what happened’. In fact, George, previously an atheist, had converted to Christianity and refocused his energies on Jesus and the Bible. He was putting himself and his faith to the test, among other things stopping to take his thyroid medication.

In October 1972 George wrote to John that he was ‘now down to exactly 15p and [his] visitors permit for staying in the UK expire[d] in less than a month’ – to which John replied, ‘I have less faith than you do that the Lord will provide. Please let me know at once if I can help.’

George’s faith eventually led him to spend his energy on the homeless in his area. After losing his flat, he briefly stayed in his office at the Galton Laboratory before moving into a squat near Euston in 1974. In 1975, he committed suicide. John and Bill both attended the funeral.

* John and George had been had been collaborating on what was to become their seminal paper, ‘The logic of animal conflict’, published in 1973 (see below).

image: George Price, London 1974. Copyright © Estate of George Price. BACK TO TOP

In 1973, John and George Price published ‘The logic of animal conflict’ in Nature. In this paper they applied game theory to evolutionary biology.

Game theory was originally developed in the context of economics by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. Their book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior described mathematical models to study strategic interaction between rational decision-makers. One of the best-known games is the prisoner’s dilemma, which was first discussed mathematically in 1950, six years after von Neumann and Morgenstern’s book was published.

John had ‘learned some game theory’ while at the University of Chicago for three months in 1970. He had been inspired by a manuscript of George’s that he had reviewed earlier.

In his manuscript, George had been outlining an explanation for why animals with weapons like antlers don’t usually injure each other seriously or fatally in fights. He suggested that it was not “for the good of the species” but to the benefit of the individual. Escalating a fight increased the risk for both parties and in the long term – as George tried to show using computer simulations – mating probabilities were better for male deer, his case study, when the used so-called limited combat strategies.

Despite John’s recommendation to publish his manuscript, George failed to do so. He got stuck with his computer simulations and abandoned the project. (‘Unfortunately, Dr Price is better at having ideas than at publishing them,’ John remarked in a note hinting at the history of his own first publication on game theory.) When John returned from Chicago he had a few games on his mind which deployed economic game theory’s ideas of mathematically modelling payoffs not in terms of money but in terms of fitness (offspring).

Not able to find George’s paper to cite in his own work, John struck up correspondence with George and they ended up collaborating on a joint paper. John wrote a computer program that successfully simulated fights between individuals employing strategies over several rounds. The strategy with the highest payoffs (evolutionarily speaking, i.e. the one resulting in the highest number of offspring) they called an “evolutionarily stable strategy”, or ESS.

This way of studying animal behavior mathematically and theoretically was extremely successful. Field studies showed it worked in practice too. Evolutionary game theory earned John, who kept working in the field throughout the 1970s and 1980s (publishing a textbook on evolutionary game theory in 1982), several prizes.

Maynard-Smith’s game theory attack on animal behaviour is starting to pay dividends. We now begin to understand the forces behind animal competition. Some sceptics were worried by the apparent simplicity of the models and found it difficult to believe that this simple approach could throw any light on the complicated business of real life. Maynard-Smith had the last laugh: ‘When I was an aircraft designer,’ he told us ‘we built our planes on the assumption that air was incompressible. We all knew that air was not incompressible, but the planes flew nevertheless.’

image: Payoff matrix for the Hawk-Dove game. BACK TO TOP

Meanwhile at Sussex, John had been building up his department in the spirit of the young university: biology was to be taught as an interdisciplinary, unified science rather than in terms of specialisations. One reason why he had taken the job in the first place was this opportunity ‘of starting a department in which biology was a unified science and in which it was, sort of, taught in a modern way.’

I was very impatient with the way that biology was being taught […] in most British universities. It was still dominated by departments of zoology and botany and genetics and biochemistry who never talked to one another.

After original struggles, particularly financially, BIOLS turned into a centre for much biological research in Britain during the 1970s. Claudio Stern, who took his degrees at the School, remembers it as ‘an extraordinary environment in the 1970s. Many people agree that most of this was due to the vision of John Maynard Smith’. Frequent seminars with outside speakers, full of provocation and discussion, were one part of the curriculum.

While he never took on many PhD students, John did draw international fellows and post-docs to his side. His archive holds folders of correspondence with visitors to his “population biology group”. Unfortunately, the Thatcher government’s financial cuts in higher education hit John’s department hard. By the end of the 1980s, the evolutionary biology group at Sussex had pretty much disintegrated.

John retired in 1985, after a second stint as dean, but stayed on as professor emeritus.

image: John Maynard Smith at work in his office, 1980s. © University of Sussex. BACK TO TOP

Evolutionary biology was John’s main concern and career, and that occasionally led him into the world of creationism. In 1967, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses published a little blue volume asking Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? and sent it to John.

But John had been an atheist ever since discovering the writings of J.B.S. Haldane and others as a teenager – and a ‘semi-conscious atheist before that’. Haldane’s essay collection Possible Worlds and its ‘mixture of extreme rational science, blasphemy and imagination, was a way of thinking that I had never encountered before’.

The book by the Jehovah’s Witnesses wasn’t John’s only encounter with religious and more specifically creationist views on the origin of life and humankind. The book claimed that the truly ‘honest seekers after truth must acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming that man got here, not as a result of evolution, but by means of creation by God.’

Although organised creationism, in the sense in which it is most commonly understood today, is very much shaped by American Evangelical Christians, it is by no means limited to the US. John publicly debated creationists twice: in 1979 and again in 1986. The first time round, he ‘pummeled’ his opponent, ‘wiped the floor with him intellectually’ – if you believe internet commentaries remembering the incident. If you believe creationist commentaries, John’s performance was weak and inconclusive: he ‘had to’ resort to humour and sarcasm rather than arguments.

The second debate took place at Oxford; John sided with Richard Dawkins against Arthur E. Wilder-Smith and Edgar Andrews and the motion that ‘That the doctrine of creation is more valid than the theory of evolution.’ Dawkins remembers that John ‘was, of course, easily able to destroy the creationist’s case, and in his good-natured way he soon had the audience roaring with appreciative laughter at its expense.’ The result was 198 to 115 (or 150, depending on who you ask) against the motion.

Interviewed by the British Humanist Association in 2001, John summarised his views on religion as follows:

I think there are two views you can have about religion. You can be tolerant of it and say, I don’t believe in this but I don’t mind if other people do, or you can say, I not only don’t believe in it but I think it is dangerous and damaging for other people to believe in it and they should be persuaded that they are mistaken. I fluctuate between the two. I am tolerant because religious institutions facilitate some very important work that would not get done otherwise, but then I look around and see what an incredible amount of damage religion is doing.

image: University of Sussex Bulletin reporting on the 1979 creationist debate between John Maynard Smith and Duane Gish. BACK TO TOP

In 1985, John formally retired from the University of Sussex. By no means did this stop him from working: his research continued, and he kept teaching and publishing for many years. His last book, Animal Signals, was published in 2003 (co-authored with David Harper), one year before his death.

After evolutionary game theory – which eventually became too mathematical for him – John worked, among other things, on bacteria: Brian Spratt was working on the same floor as John’s wife Sheila, and John and Brian got talking. Gene sequences entered his working life as part of this, and John was fascinated by them: he ‘was never happier than when he received a new set of interesting sequences to puzzle over.’

The work on bacteria, especially an interest in recombination and clonality, led John to work on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in the 1990s. Together with colleagues, he suggested human mtDNA might recombine. The idea was against scientific orthodoxy and caused quite a controversy. Today, textbooks keep to the orthodox view that human mtDNA is only transferred from mothers, with offspring receiving no paternal mtDNA. Yet every now and then, an article gets published in scientific journals suggesting that there still might be something in the idea.

In the 1990s John also collaborated with Eörs Szathmáry. Their book The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995) suggests that evolution depends on changes in the information that is passed from one generation to the next. The way this information has been stored and passed on has changed several times – there are eight transitions in total, the latest being the origin of language. A “birdwatchers’ version” exists for non-specialists: The Origins of Life (1999).

Next to allowing John to concentrate on research, this retirement that wasn’t a retirement did have two other definite advantages:

The best thing is that I don’t have to go to any more meetings.
I can be excused from refereeing grant applications, which is a job I always hated.

image: The Major Transitions in Evolution. BACK TO TOP

John passed away on 19 April 2004 – on the day 122 years after Charles Darwin had died. He had had an active career in science for just over half a century and left his mark on post-war evolutionary biology.

John’s successes did not go unnoticed, of course. In 1977, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He received numerous prizes and medals: the Darwin Medal (1986), the Frink Medal (1990), the Balzan Prize and Copley Medal (1991), the Linnean Medal (1995), the Royal Medal (1997), the Copley Medal and Crafoord Prize (1999 – the Crafoord Prize is biology’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize; John shared it with Ernst Mayr and George C. Williams), and the Kyoto Prize (2001 – this is Japan’s most eminent private award for lifetime achievement). On top of that came honorary doctorates from the universities of Kent, Oxford, Sussex, Chicago and Edinburgh.

Prizes, medals, and doctorates are one thing. Another is being remembered and honoured through people actively engaging with one’s work. ‘I don’t expect anything after I’m dead,’ John told Robert Wright a few years before his death. But ‘I’d love to see my grandchildren when they’re grown… I’d love to see how the people I love get on and I would like to know what happens to science.’

Wright then asked, ‘does it help you to be at peace with the prospect of not existing someday to know that you made important contributions to a field that will be ongoing?’ John replied: ‘I think if I’m honest, yes it does. Yes, yes, I think it does.’

Still in his lifetime, John arranged for his papers to be donated to the British Library. There they are available to view and to study, allowing researchers to place and contextualise John’s work scientifically, historically, and philosophically.

image: John Maynard Smith receiving the Balzan Prize, 1991. Copyright © Fondazione Balzan. BACK TO TOP

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