Thursday, April 22, 2004

John Maynard Smith, RIP By way of numerous other bloggers, I have been made aware of the sad fact that John Maynard Smith, one of the giants of twentieth-century evolutionary biology, has died at the age of 84.

Follow this link to learn more about Smith's many contributions to biology. Two of the books I read when I became interested in learning about evolutionary biology was his aptly titled The Theory of Evolution, and his textbook Evolutionary Genetics. His writing was so clear and easy to follow, I could only weep with envy. Here's an excerpt from Richard Dawkins' introduction to the reprint of The Theory of Evolution:

He sometimes quaintly poses as a workaday engineer who doesnt know anything about animals and plants. He was originally trained as an engineer, and the mathematical outlook and skills of his old vocation invigorate his present one. But he has been a professional biologist for a good forty years and a naturalist since childhood. He is leagues away from that familiar menace: the brash physical scientist who thinks he can wade in and clean up biology because, no matter how poorly he shows up against his fellow physicists, he at least knows more mathematics than the average biologist. John does know more mathematics, more physics and more engineering than the average biologist. But he also knows more biology than the average biologist. And he is incomparably more gifted in the arts of clear thinking and communicating than most physicists or biologists or anybody else.

Smith is particularly famous for his pioneering use of game theory in evolution. As a mathematician I particularly noticed and appreciated the fact that he tended to explain things the way mathematicians like them explained. As Dawkins says elsewhere in his introduction, Smith is someone who, upon reading a few paragraphs of anything he has written, immediately strikes you as someone whose opinions you should care about. He will be sorely missed.


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