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John Maynard Smith

Professor John Maynard Smith,[1] F.R.S. (6 January 1920 – 19 April 2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and geneticist. Originally an aeronautical engineer during the Second World War, he then 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 and theorised on other problems such as the evolution of sex and signaling theory.

John Maynard Smith

John Maynard Smith
Born6 January 1920(1920-01-06)
London, England
Died19 April 2004 (aged 84)
Lewes, East Sussex, England
Nationality English
FieldEvolutionary biologist and geneticist
InstitutionsUniversity of Sussex
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge and UCL
Academic advisor  J.B.S. Haldane
Notable students  Andrew Pomiankowski
Sean Nee
Known forGame theory
Evolution of sex
Signalling theory
Notable prizesCopley Medal (1999)
Kyoto Prize (2001)



Early years

John Maynard Smith was born in London, the son of a surgeon, 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.

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". In 1941 he married Sheila Matthew, and they were later to have two sons and one daughter (Tony, Carol and Julian). Between 1942 and 1947 he applied his degree to military aircraft design.

A second degree

Maynard Smith 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 more disillusioned with communism and became a less active member, finally leaving the Party in 1956 like many other intellectuals, after the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution (Haldane had left the party in 1950 after becoming similarly disillusioned).

At the 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 game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), 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 its Darwin Medal. He also developed and recovered from colon cancer.

The 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 biochemist Eörs Szathmáry. Together they wrote an influential 1995 book The Major Transitions in Evolution. 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 of Italy. 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 was published in 2003 on signalling theory.

He died — sitting in a high-backed chair and surrounded by books — at his home in Lewes, East Sussex on April 19, 2004, 122 years to the day after the death of Darwin. At his funeral, one of his grandchildren said, " he was very smart... and a jolly nice person". He was survived by his wife Sheila and their children.


  • Darwin Medal (1986)
  • Frink Medal (1990)
  • Balzan Prize (1991)
  • Linnean Medal (1995)
  • Royal Medal (1997)
  • Crafoord Prize (1999)
  • Copley Medal (1999)
  • Kyoto Prize (2001)
  • Fellow, Royal Society (1977)

Maynard Smith has an Erdős number of four.



  • Maynard Smith, J. (1958). The Theory of Evolution. London, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-020433-4 [much reprinted and updated, this is perhaps the standard neo-darwinian text of its day]
    • 1993 edn ISBN 0-521-45128-0
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1968) Mathematical Ideas in Biology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1972) On Evolution. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-85224-223-9
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1974b) Models in Ecology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1978d) The Evolution of Sex. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29302-2
  • Maynard Smith, J. (ed.) (1981d) Evolution Now. London, Macmillan. ISBN 0-7167-1426-4
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1982d) Evolution and the Theory of Games. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-28884-3
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1986b) The Problems of Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289198-7
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1988a) Did Darwin Get it Right?: Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution. London, Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0-412-03821-8
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1989a) Evolutionary Genetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-850231-1
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E. (1997) The Major Transitions in Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-850294-X [ambitious and interesting attempt to identify the main stages of evolution, and see what we know about them]
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E. (1999) The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286209-X
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Harper, D. (2003) Animal Signals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852685-7

Other academia

  • Freeview video 'The Origin of Life' A Royal Institution Discourse by the Vega Science Trust
  • Freeview video 'Flight in Birds and Aeroplanes' A Masterclass by the Vega Science Trust
  • Memories of John Maynard Smith
  • ... and more memories
  • In conversation with John Maynard Smith FRS
  • 2003 New Scientist interview
  • Five short videos
  • Video conversation with Robert Wright
  • John Maynard Smith video at the Peoples Archive (interview by Richard Dawkins)


  • Guardian
  • The Independent
  • Telegraph
  • The Times
  • Corante
  • Current Biology (pdf)
  • Los Angeles Times
  • New York Times
  • DRAFT for Biology and Philosophy by Daniel Dennett
  • Resonance [1]

NAME Smith, John Maynard
SHORT DESCRIPTION Evolutionary biologist and geneticist
DATE OF BIRTH 6 January 1920(1920-01-06)
PLACE OF BIRTH London, England
DATE OF DEATH 19 April 2004
PLACE OF DEATH Lewes, East Sussex, England
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Maynard_Smith". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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