John Maynard Smith

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John Maynard Smith

John Maynard Smith.jpg
Born(1920-01-06)6 January 1920
London, England
Died19 April 2004(2004-04-19) (aged 84)
Lewes, East Sussex, England
Education Eton College
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
University College London
Known for Game theory
Evolution of sex
Signalling theory
Awards Frink Medal (1990)
Balzan Prize (1991)
Sewall Wright Award (1995)
Linnean Medal (1995)
Royal Medal (1997)
Weldon Memorial Prize (1998)
Copley Medal (1999)
Crafoord Prize (1999)
Kyoto Prize (2001)
Linnean Society of London's Darwin-Wallace Medal – NB: awarded posthumously (2008)
Fellow of the Royal Society (1977)
Scientific career
Fields Evolutionary biologist and geneticist
Institutions University of Sussex
Doctoral advisor J. B. S. Haldane
Doctoral students Sean Nee

John Maynard Smith [lower-alpha 1] FRS (6 January 1920 – 19 April 2004) was a British theoretical and mathematical evolutionary biologist and geneticist. [1] Originally an aeronautical engineer during the Second World War, he took a second degree in genetics under the well-known biologist J. B. S. Haldane. Maynard Smith was instrumental in the application of game theory to evolution with George R. Price, and theorised on other problems such as the evolution of sex and signalling theory.



Early years

John Maynard Smith was born in London, the son of the surgeon Sidney Maynard Smith, but following his father's death in 1928, the family moved to Exmoor, where he became interested in natural history. Quite unhappy with the lack of formal science education at Eton College, Maynard Smith took it upon himself to develop an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics, after having read the work of old Etonian J. B. S. Haldane, whose books were in the school's library despite the bad reputation Haldane had at Eton for his communism. He became an atheist at age 14. [2]

On leaving school, Maynard Smith joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and started studying engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, he defied his party's line and volunteered for service. He was rejected, however, because of poor eyesight and was told to finish his engineering degree, which he did in 1941. He later quipped that "under the circumstances, my poor eyesight was a selective advantage—it stopped me getting shot". The year of his graduation, he married Sheila Matthew, and they later had two sons and one daughter (Tony, Carol, and Julian). Between 1942 and 1947, he applied his degree to military aircraft design.

Second degree

Maynard Smith, having decided that aircraft were “noisy and old-fashioned”, [3] then took a change of career, entering University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. After graduating he became a lecturer in Zoology at UCL between 1952 and 1965, where he directed the Drosophila lab and conducted research on population genetics. He published a popular Penguin book, The Theory of Evolution , in 1958 (with subsequent editions in 1966, 1975, 1993).

He became gradually less attracted to communism and became a less active member, finally leaving the Party in 1956 [4] like many other intellectuals, after the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution (Haldane had left the party in 1950 after becoming similarly disillusioned).

University of Sussex

In 1962 he was one of the founding members of the University of Sussex and was a Dean between 1965–85. He subsequently became a professor emeritus. Prior to his death the building housing much of Life Sciences at Sussex was renamed the John Maynard Smith Building, in his honour.

Evolution and the Theory of Games

In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in evolutionary game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), [5] based on a verbal argument by George R. Price. This area of research culminated in his 1982 book Evolution and the Theory of Games . The Hawk-Dove game is arguably his single most influential game theoretical model.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977. In 1986 he was awarded the Darwin Medal.

Evolution of sex and other major transitions in evolution

Maynard Smith published a book entitled The Evolution of Sex which explored in mathematical terms, the notion of the "two-fold cost of sex". During the late 1980s he also became interested in the other major evolutionary transitions with the evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry. Together they wrote an influential 1995 book The Major Transitions in Evolution , a seminal work which continues to contribute to ongoing issues in evolutionary biology. [6] [7] A popular science version of the book, entitled The Origins of Life: From the birth of life to the origin of language was published in 1999.

In 1991 he was awarded the Balzan Prize for Genetics and Evolution "For his powerful analysis of evolutionary theory and of the role of sexual reproduction as a critical factor in evolution and in the survival of species; for his mathematical models applying the theory of games to evolutionary problems" (motivation of the Balzan General Prize Committee). In 1995 he was awarded the Linnean Medal by The Linnean Society and in 1999 he was awarded the Crafoord Prize jointly with Ernst Mayr and George C. Williams. In 2001 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize.

In his honour, the European Society for Evolutionary Biology has an award for extraordinary young evolutionary biology researchers named The John Maynard Smith Prize .

Animal Signals

His final book, Animal Signals, co-authored with David Harper, on signalling theory was published in 2003.


He died on 19 April 2004. He is survived by his wife Sheila and their children.


The John Maynard Smith Archive is housed at the British Library. The papers can be accessed through the British Library catalogue. [8]

Awards and fellowships



  1. His surname was Maynard Smith, not Smith, and it was not hyphenated.

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  1. Charlesworth, B.; Harvey, P. (2005). "John Maynard Smith. 6 January 1920 - 19 April 2004: Elected F.R.S. 1977". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society . 51 (3): 253–265. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2005.0016.
  2. "John Maynard Smith". British Humanist Association. Retrieved 24 March 2017.
  3. Charlesworth, Brian (1 November 2004). "John Maynard Smith". Genetics. 168 (3): 1105–1109. ISSN   0016-6731. PMC   1448785 . PMID   15579672.
  4. Charlesworth, B. (2004). "Anecdotal, historical and critical commentaries on genetics. John Maynard Smith: January 6, 1920–April 19, 2004". Genetics. 168 (3): 1105–1109. PMC   1448785 . PMID   15579672.
  5. Nanjundiah, V. (2005). "John Maynard Smith (1920–2004)" (PDF). Resonance. 10 (11): 70–78. doi:10.1007/BF02837646.
  6. Sterelny, Kim (2007). Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest. Cambridge, U.K.: Icon Books. ISBN   978-1-84046-780-2. Also ISBN   978-1-84046-780-2
  7. Benton, Michael (2009). "Paleontology and the History of Life" . In Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis (eds.). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp.  80–104. ISBN   978-0-674-03175-3.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  8. John Maynard Smith Archive, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 15 May 2020
  9. Sandahl, H. D. (9 May 1969). "Review of Mathematical Ideas in Biology by J. Maynard Smith". Science. 164 (3880): 682–683. doi:10.1126/science.164.3880.682.
  10. Breed, Michael (March 2005). "Review of Animal Signals by John Maynard Smith and David Harper". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 80 (1): 126. doi:10.1086/431089.

University of Sussex