SMITH (1920—2004) [5.6.04]
of 'campus novels' know that a conference is where you can catch
academics at their worst. The conference bar,
in particular, is the academy in microcosm. Professors huddle together
in exclusive, conspiratorial corners, talking not about science
or scholarship but about 'tenure-track hiring' (their word
for jobs) and 'funding' (their word for money). If they
do talk shop, too often it will be to make an impression rather
than to enlighten. John Maynard Smith is a splendid, triumphant,
exception. He values creative ideas above money, plain language
above jargon. He is always the centre of a lively, laughing crowd
and young research workers of both sexes.
Never mind the lectures or the 'workshops'; be blowed to
the motor coach excursions to local beauty spots; forget your fancy
visual aids and radio microphones; the only thing that really matters
at a conference is that John Maynard Smith must be in residence
and there must be a spacious, convivial bar. If he can't manage
dates you have in mind, you must just reschedule the conference.
He doesn't have to give a formal talk (although he is a riveting
speaker) and he doesn't have to chair a formal session (although
he is a wise, sympathetic and witty chairman). He has only to turn
up, and your conference will succeed. He will charm and amuse the
young research workers, listen to their stories, inspire them,
that might be flagging, and send them back to their laboratories
or their muddy fields, enlivened and invigorated, eager to try
new ideas he has generously shared with them.
Not just ideas but knowledge, too. He sometimes quaintly poses
as a workaday engineer who doesn't know anything about animals
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.
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.
More, like a finely tuned antenna, he has the rare gift of biological intuition.
Walk through wild country with him as I am privileged to have done, and you
learn not just facts about natural history but the right way to ask questions
those facts. Better still, unlike some theorists, he has deep respect for
good naturalists and experimentalists, even if they lack his own theoretical
He and I were once being shown around the Panama jungle by a young man, one
of the staff of the Smithsonian tropical research station, and John whispered
me: "What a privilege to listen to a man who really loves his animals." I
agreed, though the young man in this case was a forester and his 'animals'
were various species of palm tree.
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
nearly all his many skills and accomplishments, he would make one claim for
himself: that he cares passionately about the truth.
He is one of the few opponents who is seriously feared by creationist debaters.
The slickest of these, like glib lawyers paid to advocate a poor case, are
accustomed to bamboozling innocent audiences. They are eager to take on respectable
in debate, partly because they gain kudos and credibility from sharing a
platform, on apparently equal terms, with a legitimate scholar. But they
fear John Maynard
Smith because, though he doesn't enjoy it, he always trounces them. Only
a few weeks ago an anti-evolutionist author, basking in the short-term publicity
that grows out of publishers' buying journalists lunch, was booked to have
a debate in Oxford. Press and television interest had been easily whipped
up, and the author's publishers must have been rubbing their hands with glee.
Then the unfortunate fellow discovered who his opponent was to be: John Maynard
Smith! He instantly backed out, and his supporters could do nothing to change
his mind. If the debate had taken place John would indeed have routed him.
But he'd have done it without rancour, and afterwards he'd have bought
the wretched man a drink and even got him laughing.
Some successful scientists make their careers by hammering away at one experimental
technique that they are good at, and by gathering a gang of co-workers to
do the donkey work. Their continued success rests primarily on their ability
coax a steady supply of money out of the government. John Maynard Smith,
by contrast, makes his way almost entirely by original thought, needing to
money, and there is scarcely a branch of evolutionary or population genetic
theory that has not been illuminated by his vivid and versatile inventiveness.
one of that rare company of scientists that changes the way people think.
from the Foreword to The Theory of Evolution, by John Maynard
Smith (Cambridge University Press, 1993)