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John Maynard Smith

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Title: John Maynard Smith  
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Subject: Game theory, The Theory of Evolution, Evolution and the Theory of Games, Kin selection, Sir Philip Sidney game
Collection: 1920 Births, 2004 Deaths, 20Th-Century English Mathematicians, 21St-Century English Mathematicians, Academics of the University of Sussex, Academics of University College London, Alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge, Alumni of University College London, British Communists, British Science Writers, Cancer Deaths in England, Deaths from Lung Cancer, English Atheists, English Biologists, English Geneticists, English Humanists, Evolutionary Biologists, Fellows of the Royal Society, Game Theorists, Linnean Medallists, People Educated at Eton College, Population Geneticists, Recipients of the Copley Medal, Royal Medal Winners, Theoretical Biologists, Writers from London
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John Maynard Smith

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

John Maynard Smith[note 1] FRS (6 January 1920 – 19 April 2004) was a British theoretical 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 and theorised on other problems such as the evolution of sex and signalling theory.


  • Biography 1
    • Early years 1.1
    • Second degree 1.2
    • University of Sussex 1.3
    • Evolution and the Theory of Games 1.4
    • Evolution of sex and other major transitions in evolution 1.5
    • Animal Signals 1.6
    • Death 1.7
  • Awards and Fellowships 2
  • Publications 3
  • Footnotes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6
    • University of Sussex 6.1
    • Other academia 6.2
    • Obituaries 6.3


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.

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 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[2] 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 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 biochemist 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.[4][5] 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 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 of mesothelioma, sitting in a high-backed chair, surrounded by books—at his home in Lewes, East Sussex, on 19 April 2004. He was survived by his wife Sheila and their children.

Awards and Fellowships


  • Maynard Smith, J. (1958). The Theory of Evolution. London, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-020433-4
    • 1993 edn ISBN 0-521-45128-0
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1968) Mathematical Ideas in Biology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-07335-9
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1972) On Evolution. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-85224-223-9
  • Maynard Smith, J.;  
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1974b) Models in Ecology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20262-0
  • 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
  • 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


  1. ^ His surname was Maynard Smith, not Smith, nor was it hyphenated.


  1. ^  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Nanjundiah, V. (2005). "John Maynard Smith (1920–2004)" (PDF). Resonance 10 (11): 70–78.  
  4. ^   Also ISBN 978-1-84046-780-2
  5. ^  

External links

University of Sussex

  • Press release announcing his death
  • Tribute from his colleagues
  • List of publications

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
  • In conversation with John Maynard Smith FRS
  • Five short videos
  • John Maynard Smith telling his life story at Web of Stories (video)


  • Guardian
  • The Times
  • Corante
  • John Maynard Smith 1920–2004 by Marek Kohn
  • Los Angeles Times
  • New York Times
  • DRAFT for Biology and Philosophy by Daniel Dennett
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