JOHN MAYNARD SMITH (1920-2004) an obituary

Richard Dawkins [5.5.04]
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JOHN MAYNARD SMITH (1920-2004)

"It rapidly became clear to me that the most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it, was to say that it's all about the genes. It's the genes that, for their own good, are manipulating the bodies they ride about in. The individual organism is a survival machine for its genes."

RICHARD DAWKINS, elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in May, 2001, is a gifted writer, who is known for his popularization of Darwinian ideas as well as for original thinking on evolutionary theory. He has invented telling metaphors that illuminate the Darwinian debate: His book The Selfish Gene argues that genes-molecules of DNA-are the fundamental units of natural selection, the "replicators." Organisms, including ourselves, are "vehicles," the packaging for "replicators." The success or failure of replicators is based on their ability to build successful vehicles. There is a complementarity in the relationship: vehicles propagate their replicators, not themselves; replicators make vehicles. In The Extended Phenotype, he goes beyond the body to the family, the social group, the architecture, the environment that animals create, and sees these as part of the phenotype-the embodiment of the genes. He also takes a Darwinian view of culture, exemplified in his invention of the "meme," the unit of cultural inheritance; memes are essentially ideas, and they, too, are operated on by natural selection.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the former Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden (ScienceMasters Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Devil's Chaplain, The Ancestor's Tale, and The God Delusion.

On November 12th, 1996, he delievered the Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 Television in England, entitled "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder." (See below).

Richard Dawkins: Readers of 'campus novels' know that a conference is where you can catch academics at their worst. The conference bar, in particular, is the academy in microcosm. Professors huddle together in exclusive, conspiratorial corners, talking not about science or scholarship but about 'tenure-track hiring' (their word for jobs) and 'funding' (their word for money). If they do talk shop, too often it will be to make an impression rather than to enlighten. John Maynard Smith is a splendid, triumphant, lovable exception. He values creative ideas above money, plain language above jargon. He is always the centre of a lively, laughing crowd of students and young research workers of both sexes.

Never mind the lectures or the 'workshops'; be blowed to the motor coach excursions to local beauty spots; forget your fancy visual aids and radio microphones; the only thing that really matters at a conference is that John Maynard Smith must be in residence and there must be a spacious, convivial bar. If he can't manage the dates you have in mind, you must just reschedule the conference. He doesn't have to give a formal talk (although he is a riveting speaker) and he doesn't have to chair a formal session (although he is a wise, sympathetic and witty chairman). He has only to turn up, and your conference will succeed. He will charm and amuse the young research workers, listen to their stories, inspire them, rekindle enthusiasms that might be flagging, and send them back to their laboratories or their muddy fields, enlivened and invigorated, eager to try out the new ideas he has generously shared with them.

Not just ideas but knowledge, too. He sometimes quaintly poses as a workaday engineer who doesn't know anything about animals and plants. He was originally trained as an engineer, and the mathematical outlook and skills of his old vocation invigorate his present one. But he has been a professional biologist for a good forty years and a naturalist since childhood. He is leagues away from that familiar menace: the brash physical scientist who thinks he can wade in and clean up biology because, no matter how poorly he shows up against his fellow physicists, he at least knows more mathematics than the average biologist. John does know more mathematics, more physics and more engineering than the average biologist. But he also knows more biology than the average biologist. And he is incomparably more gifted in the arts of clear thinking and communicating than most physicists or biologists or anybody else.

More, like a finely tuned antenna, he has the rare gift of biological intuition. Walk through wild country with him as I am privileged to have done, and you learn not just facts about natural history but the right way to ask questions about those facts. Better still, unlike some theorists, he has deep respect for good naturalists and experimentalists, even if they lack his own theoretical clout. He and I were once being shown around the Panama jungle by a young man, one of the staff of the Smithsonian tropical research station, and John whispered to me: "What a privilege to listen to a man who really loves his animals." I agreed, though the young man in this case was a forester and his 'animals' were various species of palm tree.

He is generous and tolerant of the young and aspiring, but a merciless adversary when he detects a dominating, powerful academic figure in pomposity or imposture. I have seen him turn red with anger when confronted with a piece of rhetorical duplicity from a senior scientist before a young audience. If you ask him to name his own greatest virtue I suspect that, though he would be modest about nearly all his many skills and accomplishments, he would make one claim for himself: that he cares passionately about the truth.

He is one of the few opponents who is seriously feared by creationist debaters. The slickest of these, like glib lawyers paid to advocate a poor case, are accustomed to bamboozling innocent audiences. They are eager to take on respectable scientists in debate, partly because they gain kudos and credibility from sharing a platform, on apparently equal terms, with a legitimate scholar. But they fear John Maynard Smith because, though he doesn't enjoy it, he always trounces them. Only a few weeks ago an anti-evolutionist author, basking in the short-term publicity that grows out of publishers' buying journalists lunch, was booked to have a debate in Oxford. Press and television interest had been easily whipped up, and the author's publishers must have been rubbing their hands with glee. Then the unfortunate fellow discovered who his opponent was to be: John Maynard Smith! He instantly backed out, and his supporters could do nothing to change his mind. If the debate had taken place John would indeed have routed him. But he'd have done it without rancour, and afterwards he'd have bought the wretched man a drink and even got him laughing.

Some successful scientists make their careers by hammering away at one experimental technique that they are good at, and by gathering a gang of co-workers to do the donkey work. Their continued success rests primarily on their ability to coax a steady supply of money out of the government. John Maynard Smith, by contrast, makes his way almost entirely by original thought, needing to spend very little money, and there is scarcely a branch of evolutionary or population genetic theory that has not been illuminated by his vivid and versatile inventiveness. He is one of that rare company of scientists that changes the way people think.