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John Maynard Smith and the Fact(s) of Evolution

My PhD project ran from 2016 to 2019. Based at the University of Leeds and the British Library in London, I researched the archive of evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004). Below you’ll find the abstract of my thesis as well as links to publications, events, and more that you can find here on the website.


Links to…

…events & bits on the website




John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was one of Britain’s foremost evolutionary biologists in the second half of the twentieth century. Drawing on his largely unexamined archive at the British Library and additional archival material, as well as on recent scholarship in science communication studies, this thesis offers a thematic study of Maynard Smith’s working life as an evolutionary biologist.

Three themes in particular are studied throughout.

First, and contrary to the route taken in many scientific careers, popular science played a very prominent part in Maynard Smith’s early career. He made use of both print and broadcast media to present his neo-Darwinian view of evolutionary science, to defend it against detractors and to advocate for science as both important for and responsible to society.

Second, Maynard Smith, a natural communicator, used non-specialist and professional modes of communicating in tandem, exploiting them to his own professional advantage and to further professionalise evolutionary biology as a science. These different layers, and different uses of popular and professional outlets, also become apparent in his involvement in scientific controversies.

Controversies – the third theme – become clearly conspicuous in Maynard Smith’s later career, notably controversies around scientific conduct and around scientific ideas. In the former, scientific priority was at the centre, with Maynard Smith taking an “attributional” approach. In the latter, he showed a Popperian mindset, with a focus on falsifiability (to distinguish science and from religion) and constant critical testing as the way to move science forward, arguing both for orthodox views (in the punctuated equilibria debate) and against them (suggesting human mitochondrial DNA might recombine).

…events & bits on the website


John Maynard Smith: evolutionary biology and the Logic of Animal Conflict. Untold Lives, The British Library, 13 March 2020.

“Dear John”: Collaborating with the British Library on a Research-Based Performance. WRoCAH blog, 2 April 2019.

The Flight of the Hoverfly. Science Blog, The British Library, 15 March 2019. (This was originally titled “The Flight of the Bumblebee Hoverfly”, which unfortunately didn’t make the editor’s cut.)

The Making of ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’. Part 2: From Idea to Event. Untold Lives, The British Library, 8 March 2019.

The Making of ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’. Part 1: What’s It All About? Untold Lives, The British Library, 7 March 2019.

Senior Statesman of British Biology: John Maynard Smith. Untold Lives, The British Library, 8 May 2018.

‘Most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin’: William D. Hamilton. Untold Lives, The British Library, 30 April 2018.

Calculating Kindness: George Price. Untold Lives, The British Library, 23 April 2018.

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Science Blog, The British Library, 13 March 2018.

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith (1920-2004): A good “puzzle-solver” with an “accidental career”. Science Blog, The British Library, 15 March 2017.


Piel, H. (2020). Scientific broadcasting as a social responsibility? John Maynard Smith on radio and television in the 1960s and 1970s. British Journal for the History of Science. DOI: 10.1017/S0007087419000918.

Piel, H. (2019). “The most bogus ideas…”: science, religion and creationism in the John Maynard Smith Archive. Electronic British Library Journal (article 7).

Piel, H. (2019). Complicating the story of popular science: John Maynard Smith’s “little Penguin” on The Theory of Evolution. Journal of the History of Biology 52(3), 371-390. DOI: 10.1007/s10739-019-9566-y.

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