05 July 2021

Rare interview with evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith on youtube

Richard Dawkins interviews John Maynard Smith 

By accident I found an interview with evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) on youtube. I read his books, but I have never seen an interview with him. The short fragment I watched appeared to be part of a big interview split in 102 fragments of 1-4 minutes each. The interview was published on youtube in 2017. That is 13 years after his death. He must have been in his eighties. If you search for John Maynard Smith in youtube, you get fragments of the interview in random order. Very unsatisfactory. The only way to get all of them and in the right order is to start at the playlist of the 'Web of Stories - Life Stories of Remarkable People'. The interviewer is not visible and WoS forgot to tell us who he is. However, I recognized the voice of Richard Dawkins, famous popularizer of the idea of the selfish gene, Darwin and evolution. 

I did not notice it at first, but the video fragments have a transcript hidden behind SHOW MORE. The text tells us also that the 'listener' is Richard Dawkins and that the interview was recorded in 1997. John Maynard Smith was then 77. His memory is good!

Maynard Smith's whole life and work is covered. And that includes everything that happened in evolutionary biology after the war. Noticeable are his discussion of J.B.S. Haldane, Tinbergen and Lorenz, Bill Hamilton, E. O. Wilson, James Watson and Francis Crick, Kimura, Charles Darwin and Karl Popper. In short: every person with a significant contribution to the field of evolution. Indeed, all the famous names. If those names don't mean anything to you, have a quick look at the wikipedia pages.

I read many of his books. I was deeply impressed by The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language (written with evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry). It's a goldmine. I read it several times and consult it whenever I seek clarity on specific topics in evolutionary biology. It is a masterpiece. Concise writing. Using the fewest words possible to convey an idea clearly. I recommend the book to biologists and non-biologists as the best introduction to the theory of evolution. No time is wasted to refute creationists. No time is wasted on irrelevant facts. I have a page on my WDW website devoted to his books.

John Maynard Smith started as an aeroplane designer and switched to biology. He became an excellent theoretical biologist. He never did lab-work. He wasn't trained for that kind of work. He could be called an orthodox Darwinist. Not because he blindly followed Darwin, but because he developed the theory of evolution with the tools of mathematics (game theory). He had zero-tolerance for any form of nonsense. He was not afraid to attack the biggest problems in evolution. His teacher was the famous J.B.S. Haldane.

There is another interview with John Maynard Smith a year before his death: Robert Wright & John Maynard Smith (2003) 56 min 32 sec. It discusses philosophical and religious questions.


Contrary to what I wrote above, John Maynard Smith did experimental work on Drosophila on the topics of sexual selection and ageing (he tells us in part 29/102). Elsewhere in the interview he tells that he wasn't good at biochemistry, and that's why he collaborated with Eörs Szathmáry. [7 Jul 2021]


How to get rid of ads 

When watching videos on you youtube the video is always interrupted by ads. Here is how to skip those annoying ads. When you are watching videos of a Playlist, and an ad appears, click on the Back button (left bottom corner) shown in the picture, and then click immediately the forward (Next) button. The system is confused and forgets it should play an add. However, when a second ad starts, repeat it. So, by only two (or four) clicks you can skip the ads and watch your video. [added 11 Jul 2021]


  1. Gary Larson's cartoon from Facebook may be the shortest possible summary of the darwinian quandry over major evolutionary transitions.


  2. quandary? quandaries (plural)!
    see f.e.
    Trends Ecol Evol. 2016 Feb;31(2):147-157. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.11.009.


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