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John Maynard Smith
John Maynard Smith
1920 - 2004

John Maynard Smith

reviews by Gert Korthof
24 Jan 1999 (updated 5 Dec 2011)

book The Problems of Biology (1986)
book The Theory of Evolution (1997)
book Did Darwin Get It Right? Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution (1992)
book Shaping Life. Genes, Embryos and Evolution (1998)
book The Origins of Life (1999) (The Major Transitions in Evolution, 1995)
youtube video interview with John Maynard Smith

"The leading modern evolutionary theorist is John Maynard Smith"
Colin Patterson (1999) Evolution, p. 154

book The Problems of Biology
by John Maynard Smith
Oxford University Press, 1986
paperback, 134 pages
 1The definition of life1
 3Sex, recombination, and the levels of life26
 4The pattern of nature39
 5Problems of evolutionary biology48
 6Stability and control59
 8The brain and perception86
10The origin of life110
 Further Reading130
THE PROBLEMS OF BIOLOGY     The Problems of Biology is one of John Maynard Smith's first books for the general reader. Concise and well written. A beautiful opening chapter about the definition of life. An indispensable topic if one wants to introduce readers to biology. The concise one-page-discussion of William Paley is one of the rare discussions in his work of what today is called creationism or Intelligent Design. The difference between artefacts and living beings, or the definition of life, is revived today by astrobiologists looking for extraterrestrial life. Scientists like Tibor Gánti brought the subject to a superior level of sophistication, but what JMS has to tell us, is still of great value. His definition is "entities with the properties of multiplication, variation, and heredity are alive, and entities lacking one or more of those properties are not". Fire consumes external energy, continuously changes its internal substance (metabolism), can multiplicate itself and it varies, but since it lacks heredity, it is not alive. Therefore it can not evolve by natural selection and cannot acquire organs to keep it going. Adaptation is all about organs that help an organism to survive. Any adequate theory of evolution must explain adaptation. A definition of life does not need to explain life. It is sufficient that it reliably identifies life, and rejects non-living objects. Fire has no parts that help it survive, so it can be rejected whether or not is has heredity.
I recommend chapter 5 Problems of evolutionary biology in which JMS concisely answers the 'big questions' of evolutionary biology: 1) has there been time? 2) Is all change adaptive? 3) Does evolution always proceed uphill? 4) Are there group adaptations? .

The Theory of Evolution    "Few people in the world are better qualified than John Maynard Smith to explain evolution to us, and no subject more than evolution deserves such a talented teacher.
Like Darwin himself, Maynard Smith knows that his story is intrinsically interesting enough and important enough to need no more than clear, patient, honest exposition.
The new Introduction itself is an elegant essay which can be recommended in its own right as a summary of important recent developments in evolutionary theory."

   Richard Dawkins in the Foreword to the Canto Edition.

This book is a classic with a history of more than 40 years: it was first published in 1958. The new foreword (1993) to the third edition of 1975, is a 25 page summary of all important new findings since 1975. For critics and students of evolution alike this summary is a must. JMS intended the book as a popular account of the modern synthesis. (it is a pity that it never was published with colour illustrations). It starts with:
"The central idea that underlies this book is that the origin of new heritable variation is not adaptive."
in a paragraph Molecular Weismannism and contains a discussion of the experiments of Cairns and Hall, the experiments upon which Lee Spetner (1) based his Non Random Evolutionary Hypothesis. Together with Chapter 4 Weismann, Lamarck, and the Central Dogma this is essential background knowledge for evaluating claims of the critics of the Central Dogma.
   JMS is an ultra-Darwinist according to Niles Eldredge. He is not an atheist in his books, nor is he concerned with creationism. We do not find the connection of a defence of evolution with an attack on creation or design, which is so characteristic of the writings of Richard Dawkins. It is difficult to find another authoriative book of this size and prize about the theory of evolution (but see 6). However JMS is rather technical, unlike Richard Dawkins. So some effort is needed, but the reward is the best insight in the theory of evolution one will ever find.
New chapters were added in the 1975 edition: the origin of life (6), chromosomes (7), protein polymorphism (11). Even after many years I found very valuable insights which one won't find expressed with such lucidity in modern books (10). The only complaint I have is that there is no chapter about common descent (tree of life). .
book "The Theory of Evolution"
by John Maynard Smith
Cambridge University Press, third edition.
reprinted 1995,1997
354 pages
ISBN 0 521 45128 0

 Foreword to the Canto Edition by Richard Dawkins
 Preface to the First, Second, Third Edition
2The Theory of Natural Selection38
4Weismann, Lamarck, and the Central Dogma76
5Molecular Evolution87
6The Origin and Early Evolution of Life109
7The Structure of Chromosomes and the Control of Gene Action122
9Artificial Selection: Some Experiments with Fruitflies150
10Natural Selection in Wild Populations165
11Protein Polymorphism184
12Altruism, Social Behaviour, and Sex193
13What are Species?216
14The Origin of Species231
15What Keeps Species Distinct?245
16The Genetics of Species Differences257
17The Fossil Evidence276
18Evolution and Development310
19Evolution and History327
 Further Reading346
Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution".
by John Maynard Smith
Chapman & Hall, 1989
paperback 1992
264 pages
ISBN 0-412-03821-8
 Part 1 : Science, Ideology and Myth1
1How to win the Nobel Prize3
2Storming the Fortress8
3Symbolism and Chance15
4Science and the Media22
5Molecules are not Enough51
6Science, Ideology and Myth53
 Part 2 : On Human Nature51
7The Birth of Sociobiology61
8Models of Cultural and Genetic Change81
9Constraints on Human Behaviour86
10Biology and the Behaviour of Man93
12Boy or Girl105
13Genes and Memes114
14Natural Selection of Culture?123
 Part 3: Did Darwin get it Right?123
15Palaeontology at the High Table125
16Current Controversies in Evolutionary Biology131
17Did Darwin get it Right?148
18Do we need a new Evolutionary Paradigm?157
 Part 4: Games, Sex and Evolution163
19Why sex?165
20The Limitations of Evolution Theory180
21The Evolution of Animal Intelligence192
22Evolution and the Theory of Games202
 Part 5: The Laws of the Game217
23The Counting Problem219
24Understanding Science225
25Matchsticks, Brains and Curtain Rings231
26Hypercycles and the Origin of Life237
27Popper's World244
28Rottenness is All250

"Of course we need to see further than Darwin, but we shall do so by standing on his shoulders, not by turning our backs on him." JMS
DID DARWIN GET IT RIGHT ? Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution.
   The essays in this volume were published between 1968 to 1986, except Why Sex?, which was specially written for this volume and is an attempt to summarise JMS ideas for a general readership. This volume is a useful addition to his Theory of evolution.
The four chapters in Part 3: Did Darwin Get It Right? and chapter 20 (Part 4) are the most interesting for the critics of evolution.
Chapter 15 Palaeontology at the High Table, Chapter 16 Current Controversies in Evolutionary Biology and Chapter 17 Did Darwin get it Right? describe what the critics of orthodox neo-Darwinism, S.J. Gould and N. Eldredge, actually claim ('punctuated equilibria', 'stasis', 'species selection', 'developmental constraints').
Chapter 18 Do we need a new Evolutionary Paradigm? is a review of Ho & Saunders' Beyond Neo-Darwinism. Ho & Saunders are often cited by the critics of evolution. Their book is a collection of essays of authors who do not see themselves as orthodox Darwinists. JMS shortly discusses most of them. The fascinating work of Sidney Fox is discussed with approval (polymerisation of amino acids in the absence of living organisms). This work is relevant to non-Darwinian processes because there is no need for hereditary replication and natural selection.
Elizabeth Vrba's contribution 'differs from most in this volume by being at the same time rational and about evolution' (!).
The contribution of Nelson and Platnick has no relevance to Darwinism according to JMS. They argue about what we should call things (cladistic taxonomy) and not what the world is. The essay of Saunders is a useful one, but the things that are said, have also been said by neo-Darwinists. J.W. Pollard argues for the 'inheritance of acquired characters' based on the work of E.J. Steele (2). JMS has sympathy for those views, but remarks that the inheritance of acquired characters would imply that we would all be born with cancer.
   Well, do we need a new evolutionary paradigm? Is JMS fair in his judgement? If the authors of Beyond Neo-Darwinism claim a new evolutionary paradigm is needed, then JMS is justified to judge their contributions accordingly. He finds some authors to be right, some to be wrong and some irrelevant to the central claim of the book. But JMS conclusion is that the volume does not convince him that a new evolutionary paradigm is needed. I find that Nelson and Platnick are too easily dismissed. Ho and Saunders claim that Kimura's neutral theory has undermined Darwinism, is too easily rejected by calling Kimura a neo-Darwinist.
   The Limitations of Evolution Theory (Ch 20) is an interesting essay. It does not happen very often that a leader in the field talks about limitations of the central paradigm of the field. If I understand JMS correctly he admits that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inadequate in some respects and that it is a hypothesis, not a fact. At the same time, JMS claims to be an unrepentant neo-Darwinist. In evolution theory it is rarely possible to think of a single decisive experiment or observation which will settle a controversy. .

    "Evolutionary theory is largely concerned with changes in the frequencies of genes in populations, brought about by mutation, natural selection and other processes. What we observe in evolution are changes in the forms of animals and plants. To link theory and observation, we need to know how changes in genes cause changes in morphology. And that requires an understanding of development" (p3).

The theme of the book SHAPING LIFE is the interaction of development, genetics and evolution or: what drives development: information or self-organization? And what is the relative importance of both? Fascinating stuff. Very condensed and abstract writing. After having read some other books in this field, going back to this booklet is rewarding. An important participant of the discussion complexity - evolution, although alluded to several times, is absent: Stuart Kauffman (3). .
book "SHAPING LIFE. Genes, Embryos and Evolution"
by John Maynard Smith
Weidenfeld & Nicholson

 Foreword by Helena Cronin & Oliver Curry
1Development: The Recent Revolution1
2The Conservation of Signals7
3Genetic Instructions18
4Information or Self-Organization ?21
5Reductionists to the Right, Holists to the Left  41
 Suggestions for further Reading49

From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language"

by John Maynard Smith & Eörs Szathmáry
Oxford University Press
Hardback, 180 pages
1Life and information1
2The major transitions15
3From chemistry to heredity31
4From the RNA world to the modern world37
5From heredity to simple cells47
6The origin of eukaryotic cells59
7The origin of sex79
8Genetic conflict95
9Living together101
10The evolution of many-celled organisms109
11Animal societies125
12From animal societies to human societies137
13The origin of language149
 Further reading171

The Major Transitions in Evolution

The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited
'Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited',
Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny (editors),
THE ORIGINS OF LIFE    THE ORIGINS OF LIFE is aimed at a general readership. It is a completely rewritten and abridged version of The Major Transitions in Evolution (1995) (11) which was aimed at professional biologists. Together with Eörs Szathmáry they cover the whole of evolutionary theory from first forms of life to the origin of language. This book is a goldmine. Every page contains superb insights into crucial aspects of life and Darwinian evolution. Every concept is illustrated with relevant data without going in too much detail. There is no place for wild speculations. Very condensed but clear writing, not too much technical terms, so it is perfectly readable. The introductory chapter is splendid. The authors attack the hardest and most profound questions in evolutionary biology. They do not solve every problem, but what they have written is of long lasting importance. It is hard to see if there ever will be a rival book that explains the origins and evolution of life so clearly and so profoundly.
      The central idea of the book is that the path of evolution on Earth is characterised by major transitions. These major transitions are in fact the most important innovations of life.
  1. The very first step was from individual replicating molecules to a population of replicators in compartments (a 'cell' with a membrane). All life is based upon cells.
  2. The second was integration of independent replicators into chromosomes (could we live with 40,000 free floating genes in our cells?).
  3. The third was the transition from the 'RNA world' to a DNA and protein world, which includes the evolution of the current universal genetic code. All bacteria are in this phase of evolution. With hindsight they are called prokaryotes, because they lack a nucleus.
  4. The fourth invention was the nucleus (eukaryotes). Single-celled organisms are included (Amoeba).
  5. Although the fifth transition is one of the most puzzling transitions: from a-sexual to sexual reproduction, including mysterious aspects of meiosis (12)
  6. The sixth transition was from single-celled organisms to multicellular animals, plants and fungi.
  7. The seventh transition was from solitary individuals to colonies with non-reproductive castes (ants, bees, termites).
  8. The eighth transition was from primate societies to human societies (language).
The remarkable fact is that none of the critics of evolution I know has any problems with the 8 transitions mentioned in this book. JMS and Szathmáry are not only masters in pointing out the problems the transitions pose for Darwinism, but also in giving Darwinian solutions to those problems. This book contains the best problems and the best answers in biology. One can read pages of this book again after years and still discover enjoyable new insights. For example why Lamarckian inheritance would be disadvantageous, why cancer exist, why individuals cooperate, why multicellular organisms like us develop from a single cell, why there is an error threshold for replicators, what is so special about meiosis, etc, etc. There is a paragraph about Autocatalysis without mentioning Stuart Kauffman's work (3). There are a few remarks about how to distinguish between a living being and an artefact: it can only be distinguished by knowing its history! (4). The authors decided to omit introns, exons and splicing which is present in the The Major Transitions. This book has been reviewed by Nature: (5). I recommend reading also Tibor Gánti (7) and compare his definition of life with the one used by the authors of the current book. The authors discuss Tibor Gánti's chemoton theory favorably (page 12). When new reserach about the origin of life appears (9), and going back to this book, it shows that JMS and Szathmáry have very clearly defined the problem, so are after nearly 10 years still a good guide to the problems involved. .

Further Reading:

  • Eugene V Koonin (2007) The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution, Biology Direct 2007, 2:21 (Open Access).

  • The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, Edited by Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny (2011). Kim Sterelny is a philosopher. This is a multi-author volume, not a rewritten version of Major Transitions in Evolution. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry had planned a major revision of their work, but the death of Maynard Smith in 2004 prevented this. In this volume, prominent scholars (including Szathmáry himself) reconsider and extend the earlier book's themes in light of recent developments in evolutionary biology.

    The book was reviewed in Science 2 March 2012 (Contemplating Some Big Shifts): "Despite the considerable and well-justified influence of the book, this emphasis on the evolution of information transmission has always made the authors' discussion seem incomplete. The enumerated transitions were doubtless critical events in the history of life, but without the evolution of various systems of metabolism (particularly oxygenic photosynthesis), none of the rest would have occurred. (...) Maynard Smith and Szathmáry's book was very influential, shaping debates among biologists, philosophers, and others interested in the ongoing controversy over levels of selection and the nature of evolutionary individuals. Nonetheless, the debate has always seemed incomplete to those of us concerned about the ecological and environmental facets of these major evolutionary transitions: How did the changing redox of oceans and atmosphere during the Proterozoic influence the expansion of eukaryotes, for example, once they had evolved? What ecological and evolutionary factors account for the success of many social species? The origin of a new trait is one thing; its success in the evolutionary play is quite another. ".

Black Box In the background of the portrait published by Science magazine, Darwin's Black Box of Michael Behe appears to stand next to a biography of Charles Darwin. In his books Maynard Smith never argued against intelligent design creationsts. So what is this copy doing on his bookshelf?

John Maynard Smith passed away on Monday, 19 April 2004, aged 84.
He was one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time. Only Ernst Mayr (who hopes to celebrate his 100th birthday this year!) can be compared with him.

His last book was: Animal Signals (2003), Oxford University Press, with David Harper,
and was reviewed in Science 23 April 2004: "Why Animals Don't Lie".

Obituary by David Harper.

Obituary with a lot of additional information and links.

Retrospective: In Memory of John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) by Richard Lewontin, Science, 14 May 2004.

Obituary: John Maynard Smith (1920–2004) in Nature, 20 May 2004. by Eörs Szathmáry and Peter Hammerstein (free). This one is more interesting than the one in Science.

Research papers and bookreviews of JMS in in Nature. Please enter 'John Maynard Smith' in field: 'where the list of authors contains' (returns 125 results). (8).


JMS video
John Maynard Smith interviewed by Richard Dawkins.
The video is split up in 102 short fragments.
All are interesting. Parts 88-89 discusses the Major transitions in evolution.
See: blogpost about the youtube interview.


  1. Lee Spetner: Not By Chance! (see: review on this site).
  2. Edward Steele: Lamarck's Signature (see: review on this site).
  3. Stuart Kauffman: At Home in the Universe (see: review on this site).
  4. (p.5,6). This is opposed to Dembski's Intelligent Design. (see: review on this site).
  5. Gabby Dover (1999) "Looping the evolutionary loop", Nature 399, 217-218, 20 May 1999. This is a very dismissive and unfair review of "The origins of life". Dover is the author of Dear Mr Darwin (see: review on this site).
  6. John Maynard Smith (1986) The Problems of Biology, Oxford University Press. Still worth reading. Books of JMS get out of print but not out of date.
  7. Tibor Gánti's (2003) The Principles of Life. See review on this site.
  8. Missing is "Group Selection and Kin Selection", Nature, 201 (1964): 1,145-146. [see L.A. Dugatkin (2006) The Altruism Equation, p.99]
  9. Sheref S. Mansy et al (2008) 'Template-directed synthesis of a genetic polymer in a model protocell', Nature 3 Jul 2008. JMS and Szathmáry have clearly described the fundamental problems of membranes and cells on page 53,54.
  10. One such very deep insight: "The problem of the origin of life, then is to explain how entities with multiplication, heredity and variation could originate from non-living matter, without of course invoking natural selection." (p.110).
  11. New edition: The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited Edited by Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny (2011).
    See also: Andrew F. G. Bourke (2011) Principles of Social Evolution: "Bourke's book will no doubt be compared with John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry's The Major Transitions in Evolution. That earlier book did an excellent job of setting out the major-transitions view as an approach to understanding life's evolutionary history. However, Maynard Smith and Szathmáry did not offer a unified conceptual framework but instead provided a mixed bag of explanations for the different transitions. Building on Hamilton's theory and the more recent work in this area, especially that of David Queller and Koos Boomsma, Bourke has fixed that problem. In an important step forward, he has made the major-transitions approach both more approachable and more obviously fundamental." (Science)
  12. When I reviewed the book I wrote "the critics of evolution completely missed it." But now at least one critic discovered that the origin of sexual reproduction is hard to explain (LaGard Smith). 27 Nov 2018

Further Reading

  • Review of Fred Hoyle's Mathematics of Evolution by John Maynard Smith.
  • List of publications of JMS.
  • A Conversation With John Maynard Smith by Jonathan Weiner. Sept 2000. (3 pages)
  • "Games and theories", NewScientist (14 June 2003, pp.48-51) is an interview with John Maynard Smith at the age of 83 and still an active researcher.
  • John Maynard Smith (1968) Mathematical Ideas in Biology Paperback: 168 pages Cambridge University Press.
  • John Maynard Smith (1978) The Evolution of Sex (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK).
  • John Maynard Smith (1982) Evolution and the Theory of Games (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge). Not reviewed on this page. An up-to-date introduction (but not for beginners) to evolution and the theory of games is: Game-Theoretical Models in Biology by Mark Broom and Jan Rychtář (2013) reviewed in Science [23 August 2013]
  • John Maynard Smith (1986) The Problems of Biology, Oxford University Press.
  • John Maynard Smith (1998) Evolutionary Genetics Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition
  • John Maynard Smith (2003) Animal Signals, Oxford University Press, with David Harper. Review: Evolution: "This book is typical of several previous books by Maynard Smith, such as those on sex (1978) and game theory (1982): it is engaging, short, to the point, and emphasizes arguments from first principles rather than exhaustive documentation. Anything that Maynard Smith says is worthy of our undivided attention, and this volume co-authored with Harper is no exception".
  • Robert Wright interviews John Maynard Smith (56 minutes) at the age of 81 (three years before his death) in 2001 about game theory, evolutionary stable strategy, free will, consciousness, marxism, religion, atheism, has the universe a purpose?

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Copyright © 1999 G.Korthof . First published: 24 Jan 1999 Last update: 5 Jul 2021 F.R./Notes: 27 Nov 2018