[Marxism] Lewontin on John Maynard Smith

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Thu May 13 14:57:17 MDT 2004

Retrospective: In Memory of John Maynard Smith (1920-2004)
Richard Lewontin*

When John Maynard Smith died on 19 April at the age of 84, one of the 
last grand evolutionary theorists of the 20th century passed. The 
example of Charles Darwin has induced intellectually ambitious 
biologists, many of them in Britain, to search for general formulations 
by which evolution as a whole, or large domains of evolutionary 
phenomena, can be understood and explained. One thinks of R. A. Fisher's 
self-consciously named "Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection" (which 
turned out not to be quite so fundamental or general as Fisher thought), 
or W. D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection, the chief theoretical tool 
used to explain the origin of cooperative, social, and apparently 
altruistic behavior in a world supposedly dominated by the struggle for 

Maynard Smith saw that a major remaining problem in evolutionary theory 
was to explain the evolution of characteristics whose reproductive 
advantage or disadvantage to an individual depended on the response of 
other individuals. So, for example, is it reproductively advantageous 
for an animal to engage in threatening aggressive behavior toward 
another animal when they are competing for a bit of food or space? If 
the response of the second animal is to back down, then the aggressive 
behavior has paid off, but if the opponent meets aggression with 
aggression, then an escalating conflict may leave both of them dead. 
Maynard Smith realized that this class of evolutionary problem could be 
approached through game theory. His invention of the concept of an 
Evolutionary Stable Strategy created a new and lively branch of 
theoretical studies of evolution.

Although the concept of the evolutionary game has considerably enriched 
the way in which evolutionists think about the history of life, what 
remains unclear is the extent to which it will be possible to measure in 
nature the quantities that are required to turn the theory into a 
predictive device. It is very difficult to measure fitnesses in nature 
and especially the kinds of contingent fitnesses of genotypes that 
depend on what other interacting individuals are doing. Moreover, 
Evolutionary Stable Strategies only tell us whether, if a particular 
strategy is adopted by the entire population, an alternative strategy 
can invade at low frequency. They tell us nothing about the stability of 
the strategy after massive invasion by alternatives, as might occur from 
mixtures of populations with different strategies. It may turn out that 
game theory will serve only as a rough heuristic rather than as a 
precise mode of evolutionary prediction.

The impact of evolutionary game theory has been such that Maynard 
Smith's earlier, largely experimental work has been unduly neglected. 
His demonstration that there is a trade-off between female fertility and 
longevity in Drosophila is of general importance to our understanding of 
the evolution of life histories. His marvelous experiments with K. C. 
Sondhi on changing invariant characteristics by selection is one of the 
best demonstrations of Waddington's claim that there is considerable 
hidden genetic variation underlying such constant features, variation 
that can be made manifest when development is disrupted. Most 
extraordinary was their ability to produce heritable asymmetry in a 
normally bilaterally symmetrical organism such as Drosophila. Such 
experiments are as important to our understanding of evolutionary 
processes as Maynard Smith's more seductive work on game theory.

John Maynard Smith was the child of a Harley Street surgeon, spent much 
of his youth on Dartmoor, attended Eton College, and went on to Trinity 
College, Cambridge. Like so many of his upper-middle class 
contemporaries at Cambridge in the 1930s, he became enamored of Marxism 
and joined the Communist Party. He told me he was recruited into the 
party by Harry Harris (who later achieved fame as a human biochemical 
geneticist), and that Harry was the first urban Jew he, a boy from 
Dartmoor, had ever laid eyes on. Like so many others he became 
disillusioned by Stalinism and left the Communist Party after the 
Hungarian uprising. This was a common pattern. I once sat in the Staff 
Club at the University of Sussex with Maynard Smith and a number of 
other faculty members trying to recall whether a particular person had 
been a member of the Communist Party. John said he couldn't remember and 
asked the man on his right, who couldn't remember either but asked the 
man on his right, and so on around the whole circle. Unlike so many 
Americans of a similar history, neither Maynard Smith nor his colleagues 
became hardened rightists, but held on to their socialist sympathies, so 
much so that when I told a British immigration officer that I was to 
spend a year at Sussex he remarked, "Ah, that Bolshie University!"

John Maynard Smith was a humane, humorous, and sensible person who did 
not take himself or other people more seriously than they deserved. He 
had a sensibly skeptical view of science and its claims, which is best 
encapsulated in the famous dictum of his teacher, J. B. S. Haldane, who 
said that a scientific idea ought to be interesting even if it is not true.

The author is at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. 10.1126/science.1099576

Volume 304, Number 5673, Issue of 14 May 2004, p. 979. 

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