John Maynard Smith (1 January 1920 – 19 April 2004)

John Maynard Smith 1
image credit: Anita Corbin & John O’Grady

John Maynard Smith (wiki), one of the most influential evolutionary biologists (geneticist) died on this day in 2004. He’s regarded by many as one of the greatest and original evolutionary thinkers. And mostly known for his introduction and application of game theory (along with George Price) to the field of evolutionary biology. Also known for his theoretical contribution to the evolution of sex and signaling theory. Was awarded Crafoord Prize (the highest honor in the field of evolutionary biology, awarded by Royal Swedish Academy) in 1999 for his lifelong contribution to the field and especially for introduction of ESS or evolutionary stable strategies (game theory). 

J. M. Smith was born in London in 1920 and attended Eton College, where he was miserable most of the time and was influenced and inspired  by J. B. S. Haldane‘s Possible Worlds. He came across Haldane’s work at Eton because Haldane (former Etonian) was despised for his political views (marxism/communism) and being an atheist. 

J.M. Smith about Haldane:

Feeling that anyone they hated could not be all bad, I went to seek his books in the school library.

Possible Worlds

Studied engineering at Cambridge and during WWII worked as an aircraft engineer. After war he went on to study under J. B. S. Haldane himself at University College London and worked on fruit fly genetics. In 1962 he was one of the founders of the Sussex University where he stayed for the rest of his career. He has written a string of highly recommended books on evolution. 

He died of mesothelioma (lung cancer) on 19 April 2004 in Sussex, at his home.

David Harper:

He was certainly working until the day he died. He fell asleep in his chair surrounded by his books. He showed us you could do that. We’re all hurting like mad, but the one thing we can do is a bit more work.

He is remembered for his crucial insights in the field of evolution on broad range of subjects and being extraordinary and generous teacher for many young students and fellow scientists. 

Richard Dawkins: 

He is generous and tolerant of the young and aspiring, but a merciless adversary when he detects a dominating, powerful academic figure in pomposity or imposture. I have seen him turn red with anger when confronted with a piece of rhetorical duplicity from a senior scientist before a young audience. If you ask him to name his own greatest virtue I suspect that, though he would be modest about nearly all his many skills and accomplishments, he would make one claim for himself: that he cares passionately about the truth.

I got together some of his works (books, articles, papers, video lectures, interviews) below. Hope you enjoy it.  

Crafoord Prize
From left to right: Ernst Mayr, George C. Williams and John Maynard Smith. Crafoord Prize in 1999

Books: Click on the cover pictures to go to Amazon page.

Evolution and the Theory of Games      The Evolution of Sex      The Major Transitions of Evolution

The Origins of Life      The Theory of Evolution     Animal Signals

Mathematical Ideas in Biology       Evolutionary Genetics


‘Publications of John Maynard Smith’ – Sussex University

‘Disruptive Selection, Polymorphism and Sympatric Speciation’ – John Maynard Smith (Nature: 1962)

‘Natural Selection and the Concept of Protein Space’ – John Maynard Smith (Nature: 1970)

‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’ – John Maynard Smith and George R. Price (Nature: 1973)

‘The Theory of Games and The Evolution of Animal Conflicts’ – John Maynard Smith (Journal of Theoretical Biology: 1974)

‘Group Selection’ – John Maynard Smith (Quarterly Review of Biology: 1976)

‘Localized Sex in Bacteria’ – John Maynard Smith, et al. (Nature: 1991)

‘The Major Evolutionary Transitions’ – Eors Szathmary and John Maynard Smith (Nature: 1995)

Other Publications (book reviews, popular articles, etc.)

‘All John Maynard Smith Articles’ – John Maynard Smith (The New York Review of Books)

Media Content:

‘The Origin of Life’ – John Maynard Smith (Vega: 1995) 

‘Flight in Birds and Aeroplanes’ – John Maynard Smith (Vega)

‘John Maynard Smith’s Video Profile’ – John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins (Web of Stories)

‘Huxley Memorial Debate’ – John Maynard Smith (The Oxford Union)

Biography, Background and Interviews:

‘In conversation with John Maynard Smith FRS’ – The Evolutionist (LSE: 1999)

‘John Maynard Smith interview’ – Robert Wright (

‘John Maynard Smith’NCBI


‘Greatest Evolutionary Biologist since Darwin’ – Daniel Dennett (Biology and Philosophy: 2004)

‘John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) an Obituary’ – Richard Dawkins (Edge: 5.5.2004)

‘John Maynard Smith, 84; Applied Game Theory to Evolution, Asked Why Animals Developed Sex’ – Rosie Mestel (Los Angeles Times: 4.24.2004)

‘J. Maynard Smith, 84, Dies; Saw Darwinism as Game Theory’ – Carol Kaesuk Yoon (The New York Times: 4.29.2004)

* If you’re a literate person I won’t take responsibility for hurting your brain with my writing. 

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