One of evolutionary biology's leading theorists, John Maynard Smith, died peacefully yesterday at his home. He was 84. Among his numerous contributions, Maynard Smith pioneered the application of game theory to biology and made significant contributions towards understanding the evolution of sex.
Originally trained as an engineer, Maynard Smith studied biology under the great British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane at University College London. In 1965 he moved to the University of Sussex at Brighton, where he became founding dean of the School of Biological Sciences, and where he remained for the rest of his career. Although retired for 20 years, Maynard Smith visited his lab almost daily and was talking science and writing up research on the day he died, his colleagues told ScienceNOW.
Maynard Smith helped illuminate many areas in biology over the course of a half-century of research. By introducing mathematical models from game theory into the study of animal behavior, he showed that the success of an individual's behavior often depends on what other individuals do. Maynard Smith introduced the idea of an "evolutionarily stable strategy," one that cannot be outcompeted by alternative strategies and thus persists stably within a species over time. This work has revolutionized the way biologists think about behavioral evolution.
Maynard Smith also tackled one of the central conundrums of evolutionary biology: why sex has evolved. He framed the issues in this thorny question more clearly than his predecessors and conducted extensive work on the recombination of DNA in bacteria and in the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells. He also made important contributions in many other areas, from mechanisms of speciation to behavioral signaling to antibiotic-resistant disease.
As the author of 12 books, Maynard Smith introduced both scientific and lay audiences to some of evolution's most central questions. He also won numerous awards, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize (awarded to scientists in fields not eligible for Nobel Prizes) and the Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievement. His university's vice chancellor, Alasdair Smith, today called Maynard Smith "one of the great scientists of the twentieth century."
Colleagues say Maynard Smith inspired them most, however, through his teaching and desire to share his love of nature and mathematics with others. "Whether you were an emeritus professor or a first-year undergraduate, you'd be treated exactly the same," says David Harper, his colleague at Sussex's Centre for the Study of Evolution. "If you had an idea that was interesting, he worked hard to give you what help he could."