Earlier this year, one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of our time, John Maynard Smith, died. Lamentably, his name remains largely unknown outside his field. His prodigious oevre includes contributions to aeronautical engineering and game theory, in addition to biology. He was trained in biology by the legendary J.B.S. Haldane.
“He had the trained eye of a field biologist and an inspiring knowledge of natural history to draw on, and also made major contributions to our understanding of bacteria, genetics, and the evolution of animal signaling. The complete biologist, with expertise and bold hypotheses to offer on every topic from the origins of life to the evolution of human language and culture, he was also one of biology’s best explainers. He was, in fact, what every philosopher should try to be and few succeed in becoming: a connoisseur of beautiful ideas. To him, a puzzle about the twofold cost of sex, or hypercycles, or the evolution of honest signalling, or any other problem of evolutionary theory, was like a new species of butterfly to a lepidopterist–something to be examined with rigorous attention to detail, so it can be understood from the ground up, its life cycle and prospects and kin all framed and mapped with loving care and brilliant insight. Even his most technical articles can be grasped in their essentials (with effort!) by non-experts thanks to his lucid style and abhorrence of jargon, but he also lavished attention on more accessible versions of the best specimens for a wider reading public. I suspect that almost as many professors as students have gratefully clung to these beacons of authority and clarity in the storm-tossed seas of theoretical controversy.”