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John Maynard Smith

John Maynard Smith

Professor John Maynard Smith1, F.R.S. (6 January 192019 April 2004) was a classical geneticist and leading theorist in evolutionary biology, particularly population genetics. His contributions also included work as an aeronautical engineer, and as a game theory mathematician. He took a second degree after the Second World War, reading genetics under J.B.S. Haldane, and published several important papers and books. He died peacefully of lung cancer in his chair at his home in Lewes, Censored page on April 19th 2004. He was survived by his wife Sheila and their children.



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. He went to Eton College but was purportedly unhappy there, but developed an interest in Darwinism and mathematics, having read the work of J.B.S. Haldane.

On leaving school, he 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

Deciding that he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under the great J.B.S. Haldane. After graduating he became a lecturer at UCL between 1952 and 1965. He left the Communist Party, like many other intellectuals after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. He published a popular Penguin book The Theory Of Evolution in 1958, (with subsequent editions in 1966, 1975, 1993).

At the University of Sussex

In 1962 he was one of the founding members of the Censored page and was a Dean between 1965-85, when he became a professor emeritus.

Evolution and the Theory of Games

Sheila (left) and John (right) Maynard Smith. Photo by Sean Nee.
Sheila (left) and John (right) Maynard Smith. Photo by Sean Nee.

In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in evolutionary game theory (which has applications both within and outside of biology) 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. 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 "Censored page". 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.



  • Maynard Smith, J. (1958). The Theory of Evolution. London, Penguin Books. ISBN 0140204334
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1972) On Evolution. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0852242239
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1974b) Models in Ecology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1978d) The Evolution of Sex. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521293022
  • Maynard Smith, J. (ed.) (1981d) Evolution Now. London, Macmillan. ISBN 0716714264
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1982d) Evolution and the Theory of Games. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521288843
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1986b) The Problems of Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192891987
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1988a) Did Darwin Get it Right?: Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution. London, Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0412038218
  • Maynard Smith, J. (1989a) Evolutionary Genetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198502311
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E. (1997) The Major Transitions in Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019850294X
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E. The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019286209X
  • Maynard Smith, J. and Harper, D. (2003) Animal Signals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198526857

External links

University of Sussex

  • Press release anouncing his death
  • Tribute from his colleagues
  • More tributes from colleagues
  • List of publications

Other academia

  • Memories of John Maynard Smith
  • In conversation with John Maynard Smith FRS
  • 2003 New Scientist interview
  • Five short videos


  • Guardian,3604,1200211,00.html
  • The Independent
  • Telegraph
  • The Times,,60-1082979,00.html
  • Corante
  • Current Biology (pdf)
  • Los Angeles Times,0,6745983.story
  • New York Times
  • DRAFT for Biology and Philosophy by Daniel Dennett


  1. Note that his surname was Maynard Smith, not Smith, and nor was it hyphenated.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 13:06:17
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12