Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: John Maynard Smith who died in 2004 at the age of 84 was one of the major figures in 20th Century evolutionary biology. He pioneered the application of game theory to Darwinian thought and shed light on how natural selection had produced cooperative behavior. His books include "Evolution and the Theory of Games," "The Origins of Life" and "The Theory of Evolution." I interviewed him in 2001 at his home near the University of Sussex where he taught. First of all thanks for letting me come here and talk to you at your home here in England. I I was wondering one thing a lot of a lot of evolutionary biologists can recall in their lives is is is a moment when they first really understood the theory of natural selection or at least the time in their life when they first came to know it and came to appreciate it's explanatory power. You remember such a time?
John Maynard Smith: Well I remember reading Darwin in fact when I was at school and I had been raised in the Church of England not passionately or fundamentally or anything but it was an accepted part of my life and I could remember reading Darwin and saying now wait a minute this is an alternative explanation and it was at least in part the kind of philosophical religious implications that first got me excited...
Wright: Really? Excited in the sense that you were happy that you preferred the new philosophy to your religious world view?
John Maynard Smith: I think it was an enormous relief to escape from religion, yes. Yes.
Wright: And and what what had been burdensome about religion?
John Maynard Smith: Well I think what had been burdensome was that I didn't feel it allowed me to follow my thought to the end. I would be thinking about something then I'd think no but that's sort of dangerous if I think like that maybe I'll have doubts and then reading Darwin the doubts just overwhelmed and I thought right I don't have to bother anymore I don't believe it. And I do remember that moment, yes.
Wright: Did you did you miss the sense that I mean I'm inferring from this you moved more or less directly into something either agnosticism or atheism...
John Maynard Smith: Yes yes. That's right.
Wright: Is there one of those labels that you particularly apply?
John Maynard Smith: Well I think I'm sort of torn I'm I'm I'm an atheist but I don't like being sure about anything so I think an agnostic is a better better word.
Wright: Ok so you didn't miss the sense that there's some larger purpose in in the universe or anything?
John Maynard Smith: Once I accepted it I felt very happy about it yes. But I think it was just it was sort of like getting into a (()) bath you're nervous of doing it but once you're in it's great.
John Maynard Smith: And I think it was difficult to give up my faith but once I gave it up it was marvelous.
Wright: And you don't miss it?
John Maynard Smith: No. No.
Wright: Ok. Well maybe I'll get back to that a little later but I wanted to ask you you're very well known for being perhaps the premiere person in bringing game theory into evolutionary biology. Now game theory, people think of game theory as something that is meant to apply to thinking consciously rational beings and it was certainly designed to apply to human beings.
John Maynard Smith: Certainly, certainly.
Wright: Now you apply it not just to animals that probably don't do much in the way of conscious rational thought such as birds and beetles but also in a sense to genes which it seems very safe to say don't have a very rich conscious rational life. Can you explain how it is that you can you can apply the tool in this way?
John Maynard Smith: Yes. I mean I've applied it to the growth of plants, I've applied it to viruses, so you're absolutely right it has nothing whatever to do with reasoning. What I borrowed from the classical game theorists, von Neuman and people who really develop game theory as a way of thinking about economic behavior about gambling and things of that kind. What I borrowed really the mathematical notation and not a great deal else. The idea of a payoff matrix, I do this you do that, what I pay off but in human affairs pay off is some kind of economic benefit. In evolutionary biology payoff is change of fitness change of number of offspring but as I say it's really the mathematical formulas that I've borrowed not the content.
Wright: But the fact that it is fruitful to ask what a rational actor would do in this situation even when you're talking about a gene or a plant says something about natural selection, right? It says something about what natural selection does and the type of entities it creates, right?
John Maynard Smith: Surely. Surely. I mean what natural selection does is to produce structures objects behaviors of which you can ask "What's it for?" You can ask exactly the same questions of a bird's wing as you can of a piece of engineering. But in the engineering case, you'd ask "Why did the designer make it like that?" In the bird's wing you ask, "Why did natural selection make it like that?" But the kind of thinking you do is exactly the same I mean natural selection and design produce the same results essential.
Wright: Natural selection is a process of design even if it doesn't design consciously.
John Maynard Smith: Sure. Sure.
Wright: Now one of the and I guess this is an extension of game theory but one thing you're very well-known for is the notion of frequency dependent selection. How do you describe that to people?
John Maynard Smith: Well well frequently dependant selection is simply the idea that the the selection in favor of some character some phenotype depends on how frequent it is in the population. In particular it is often the case that something is very common in the population, it doesn't do very well, or if it's rather rare it does do well.
Wright: What's an example of that?
John Maynard Smith: Well the classic example is a rather puzzling one. Would you like to have like meaning here natural selection would it pale from a natural selection point of view to have a son or a daughter? What you want to do is have as many grandchildren as you can. Or hope to have... now if the number of women and men out there are the same it really don't make any difference whether you have a son or a daughter because on average males and females can expect to have the same number of children in their lives. Not exactly but their expected number, average number, has to be the same.
John Maynard Smith: But if there were 10 women for every man then a son would pay. But if it were 10 men for every woman than a woman would pay, whichever is the rarer sex would have more children. And this goes way back before we thought of game theory, go back to R.A. Fischer at least and in practice of course we end up with equal numbers of the two sexes of course that's the stable state.
Wright: The the process is self stabilizing.
John Maynard Smith: Yes.
Wright: The rarer males are the more valuable it is to create them. And then there are other applications such as your hog dove game. Where you have you posit two behavior strategies one is more aggressive and assertive and one is more passive.
John Maynard Smith: That's right.
Wright: One is one is one type of bird say in a species is is likely to capitulate and and withdraw and avoid further harm when confronted and the other is aggressive and likely to pursuit confrontation and you've shown that that in theory can stabilize ...
John Maynard Smith: Sure. Sure. And the that was a sort of (()) in a way. I can remember being taught when I was a student I wasn't a kid when I was a student I had been an engineer and after the the war I can back and became a zoology student at the age of 28 or something. I can remember being taught that the reason why animals often settle fights without really getting into an escalated fight by display and so on was that if they didn't if they fought in an escalated way animals would get killed and that would be bad for the species. And even when I was a student I knew that that had to be rubbish. That the argument that things are bad for the species simply wouldn't work but I I was puzzled by it. And then oh 15 years later or something I had a break and I took a sabbatical term in Chicago and I thought well I go to think about this problem while I'm in Chicago you know I go back to it it's been hanging in the back of my mind for 15 years and what I'll do is to read some game theory. I'd never heard well I'd heard of it but not read any. I knew that game theory was something that the economists had invented for talking about conflict situations and I thought well maybe it'll help. And as I said earlier what I got out of it was a mathematical notion and I invented the whole dove game as a kind of way of thinking about the problem. It's much too simple to be like the real world but most models start out being too simple. But they give you a tool, a way of thinking.
Wright: But the idea is that if that if a species is full of aggressive individuals, nobodies capitulating, then being aggressive could be a more costly...
John Maynard Smith: Sure.
Wright: .. thing. And so you might get an equilibration. Now do you have you speculated at all about the extent to which this may have this dynamic may have applied to human evolution, whether I mean there clearly is some genetic variation within human populations do you think frequency dependant I mean in terms of talking about behavioral things behavioral strategies that people pursuit do you think it played much of a role in human evolution?
John Maynard Smith: I don't have a strong opinion about it. I have a kind of reluctance nervousness I'm not sure which is the right word to think about human evolution. Essentially because you very often can't answer the questions. The questions are interesting, you can guess at answers but you can't experiment on people you can't A to marry B and have 56 children. I mean it's not like a fruit fly, it's very very hard to investigate. But yes I have thought about frequency dependant selection in human behavior. There's a very odd thing about human behavior that I think most of us know about most of us try not to think about too much and that is that there are a number of traits a classic example is schizophrenia which when we see a a a actual diagnosable case it seems quite clear that that is lower the the the biological fitness of the person in question. He's not he or she is not going to have so many kids as the sane one or more normal. But it's much too common to be due to the occasional rare deleterious mutation, it's too much of it about.
John Maynard Smith: There are other traits like depression for example. Far too common. Now there is their not cause by a gene it's not true that there is a gene that causes you to be schizophrenic period and that's all there is to it...
John Maynard Smith: But it's equally true that there clearly is a genetic component to it. Some people are more likely or predisposed to getting it than others and I can't help wondering whether the explanation of these rather common human psychological disorders which in extreme form are crippling may never the less be something to do with frequency dependence that rare types of that may be at an advantage.
Wright: So that it so that in theory schizophrenia could have I mean for example it might have helped you become to the local shaman the local guru or something if you have visions...
John Maynard Smith: That's right.
Wright: ... and convince people that your visions are valid you mean it might it might elevate your status in in a hunter gather population or something?
John Maynard Smith: That sort of thing or perhaps if your sort of if you have a predisposition in that direction if you actually go over the top and become a a a a genuine schizophrenic then you're not going to be a great success...
Wright: I see.
John Maynard Smith: But if you just don't quite reach the threshold you know maybe you finish up very successfully indeed.
Wright: And what do you think would be the pay off right below the threshold? What type of person do you think we'd be talking about? Somebody somebody charismatic you mean or somebody but but not insane or?
John Maynard Smith: Well I don't know and this is because I'm nervous of talking about these things so I'm not a human biologist but people who are creative in almost any field may be sort of teetering on the brink...
Wright: And paranoia may be a more clear cut example because clearly being concerned about things could have a pay off. Being concerned about plotting because plots are part of life but but then going too far might push you over the edge. The now frequent there's another there's another concept that you're very well associated with and and and been very well known for which is the evolutionary stable strategy. Now the well why don't you go ahead and talk about what an ESS is.
John Maynard Smith: An ESS is a very simple minded idea if I can digress for a minute and say when I first thought of the idea of an ESS it was in Chicago when I was thinking of game theory I thought up the notion of an ESS and it seemed pretty trivial to me. And I was teaching a graduate class so I gave them as an exercise one week think up how would you define an evolutionary stable strategy formally, mathematically, what it's got to look like and a good half the class solved it in a week it's not hard. You know I'm not saying any idiot can do it but anybody who thinks about it and is reasonably bright can do it. But the basic idea is is that if various strategies or phenotypes are possible to the members of the population and we have these frequency dependent business that the payoffs the fitness associate with those phenotypes depend on how frequent they are then there maybe what I call an ESS or evolutionary stable strategy, namely some strategy which provided that everybody in the population does it there really is no way of beating it. And to go back to the example I gave the simplest evolutionary stable strategy is to produce boys and girls with a 50% probability. If everybody is doing that nothing you can do that's better.
Wright: Yes yes so a mutant gene that lead someone to produce all females would not flourish in that population...
John Maynard Smith: Would not flourish, no. No.
Wright: Ok. Now you earlier the the example you gave frequency dependant selection was one where there rarer a strategy is the more valuable it is but it can also work in the other direction where the more of a strategy is the more profitable the more prevalent a strategy is the more profitable it is for an individual to pursuit it and in particular in the in in thinking about the evolution of the human capacity for cooperation that that idea has come into play, is that right?
John Maynard Smith: Yes yes. The context in which well again I I think human behavior is enormously difficult but animals cooperate as well.
John Maynard Smith: And when we think about cooperation in animals and after all we are only animals with a few sort of gadgets attached we tend to think of one of two things or preferable both things. One is the thing that Bill Hamilton pioneered, the notion that we're related and that to some extent I have a stake in your survival if you're my brother or my sister and therefore I should do things to help you. And the other is this notion that cooperation even to unrelated individuals may be be be a benefit...
Wright: Which is often called reciprocal altruism.
John Maynard Smith: Well it could be... it's partly reciprocal altruism but it can take other forms. I mean to go back to the to the idea of two animals which actually have nothing in common really at first sight, they're fighting over some territory or some resource or some female or something they want and they don't have common interests at first sight. They both want some object which is indivisible. So at first sight it appears that they have nothing in common. But the do have something in common. What they have a common interest about is not to have an escalated fight. If they ... you and I if we got in that situation it's quite possible we'd toss for it. You know, tossing for something is simply a way of introducing an asymmetry which we'll agree will settle it. Well animals can't toss coins. There are a lot of animal behavior in conflict type situations can be understood as trying to create an asymmetry or to recognize an existing asymmetry that they can use to settle the issue without a fight. And a lot of this stuff, I was watching a couple of magpies arguing outside my window this morning and they didn't want to really sort of blood all over the place fight. They wanted to settle that territory somehow. But with a lot of display going on a lot of you know...
Wright: The reason and is a lot of people don't appreciate this I think conflict is actually a non-zero sum game usually it's it's a lose lose game.
John Maynard Smith: That's right. That's right. So these are what people call consensus games. We have a consensus interest of at least settling it somehow without having a major fight about it. And I think quite a bit of cooperation has that behind it. Better cooperate than both drive on the same side of the road.
Wright: And so either I mean if the animals have iterated interactions then even this could assume the form of reciprocal altruism where I back down this time you back down that time but ... excuse me... if it's a one time encounter you're suggesting there's some kind of semi-random mechanism for...
John Maynard Smith: Well it could I don't think I'm not aware of places where they use something that is genuinely random, I'd love to find one because it would be so interesting. But I think they have problems in in recognizing... but what they do tend to do in these situations is to try to exchange signals information which will tell them about an asymmetry that exists. My friend Susan Reichard works on funnel web spiders in the Southern part of the United States and they fight over websites which are very valuable in the desert. And they have a very simple agreement that if there is a difference in mass between them, five percent or so, they'll let that settle it and they measure mass by standing on the web and vibrating it. And if the other guy is a bit lighter he jumps up and down more than I do so he has to go. And you can make a small spider the winner by putting a little weight on his back.
Wright: So I guess this...
John Maynard Smith: ... the other one backs off at once.
Wright: .. I guess this adds value to genes for mass I guess but there must be some countervailing force that keeps them from getting infinitely large.
John Maynard Smith: Well I think most of the variation in mass is is is variation in age or in how much they've had to drink recently, things like that.
Wright: Well then genes for drinking...
John Maynard Smith: ...genes for drinking...
Wright: Ok but the but but the in the just in a theoretical way, you're familiar with Robert Axelrod's book "The Evolution of Cooperation"?
John Maynard Smith: Yes. Sure.
Wright: ... just in a theoretical way this notion of frequency dependant selection has really helped illuminate how cooperation in any species could emerge. It's a self-reinforcing process where when you have a non-zero sum dynamic kind of the more cooperation there is in the species the more cooperation can pay.
John Maynard Smith: Sure sure.
Wright: And it's a fair surmise that our species has something to thank that dynamic for in a certain sense don't you think?
John Maynard Smith: But there are things about cooperation that puzzle me... in human cooperation. I am very puzzled by the observation that experimental psychologists have made. What experimental psychologists do for a living, it's rather unfair for them, is that they get a small grant to pay their students to play games for money. It has to be just enough money so that the students play seriously, really try to win because otherwise of course you get nothing out of it. And it turns out that if you put two people in a situation where they they don't know the other person they're playing through some interface or other, they know they're never going to meet the person again so there's no possibility of reciprocation you know reciprocal altruism would suggest and either in pair or in groups if one of them cheats does something that is seen as unfair by the rest of the group or by their opponent, the other person feels quite indignant that they've been cheater...
John Maynard Smith: A person who feels indignant will punish their opponent at considerable cost to themselves, they're not doing it because it's going to pay them, because it isn't it's just they feel indignant and punished and I think this needs deeper thinking about by people working in adult behavior.
Wright: Well it seems to me one explanation could be that you know during evolution I mean you know we can say in this experiment you're never going to interact with this person you don't have to worry but possibly during human evolution basically everyone you encountered in a context of of non-antagonism was someone you stood a pretty good chance of seeing again... this was before people took business trips after all.
John Maynard Smith: Yes sure.
Wright: So it could be that we're designed to really not give much thought to the question of future interaction and at least in a tentative way you know make overtures to people and and and and hold them accountable for exploiting us I mean that's one possible answer right just that that the environment has changed to make something seem puzzling that that really isn't.
John Maynard Smith: Yes yes it's partly actually the thing that I find so difficult about thinking about human behavior that we are not living in the environment in which we evolved. And you know at least if I look at my fruit flies they are in an environment fairly similar to the one in which they evolved and I can think about it but humans ...
Wright: Yes no it's a it's a ...
John Maynard Smith: Very hard...
Wright: ... hugely complicates things I think you're right. Talk a little about your book "The Major Transitions in Evolution."
John Maynard Smith: It's essentially it's about can one explain the astonishing increasing complexity that has occurred in evolution because there isn't some law which says a lineage that is evolving has to get more complicated. I mean it very often does absolutely damn all for millions of years... and what we came up with was the idea that the increasing complexity has at least required a number of what we call major transitions. And a major transition as far as we're concerned is a change in the way in which information genetic information usually is is coded is transmitted is stored ... make it clear if I give one or two examples on the origin of the genetic code or the linking of genes to form chromosomes, or the origin of sex...
John Maynard Smith: ... or the origin of multi-cellular organisms when you have not one copy of the genetic message in an individual but many many millions and you read off different bits of it and different cells and so on. So all these are changes of the way that information is being stored and transmitted and we mentioned altogether I think eight major transitions and our thesis really is that each of these was really necessary to get us to where we are today. They were so to speak pre-conditioned for further increase in complexity and we discuss how they came about.
Wright: And they might seem to a casual observer to all have been extremely unlikely things to have happened and certainly they involved difficult kind of logistical problems for natural selection but basically you find that natural selection was up to the task not just in the sense that it had obviously happened but you think you kind of figured out in most cases what the dynamic was?
John Maynard Smith: Well I think we've come up with a plausible scenario in each case. But ... it's interesting about how likely they were. Most of them do look as if they were exceedingly unlikely. It's only because it happened just once. I mean, meiotic sex, sex involving meiosis and gamete production this happened just once in the history of life, the origin of the genetic code is unique, the origin of human language is unique and this is a change in the way information is transmitted clearly. Most of the transitions are unique not all of them..
Wright: Multicellular life (()) a number of times...
John Maynard Smith: Multicellular life has happened again and again...
John Maynard Smith: Clearly not difficult but important but not actually difficult. So these are difficult things to happen so and to try to explain an unlikely event which occurred hundred of millions of years ago if we're going to speculate a bit but we do come up with what I think is a plausible guess in each case as to what might have happened.
Wright: And and but you still could you still think of them as having been unlikely. In other words thinking about the dynamics... for example if you think about multi-cellular life a lot of people some of these complexity theorist find that's so puzzling they have to posit the existence of whole new dynamics and forces you know the kind of Santa Fe people. But when you start thinking about kin selection for example and the fact that you're talking about you know (()) reproducing cells that are related to each other by a factor of one and so it might naturally be altruistic toward another one another then multi-cellular life seems not so unlikely, just on theoretical grounds...
John Maynard Smith: Sure.
Wright: In general as you've thought of the different thresholds in in this light and thought about the theory a number of them still seem to you extremely unlikely even thought they did happen? Kind of on theoretical grounds I mean...
John Maynard Smith: Well on two grounds I mean partly on theoretical grounds I mean it is genuinely difficult I think to come up with a plausible explanation why a group of primitive primitive cells primitive (()) cells nucleated cells dividing quite happily by binary fission and so on should have evolved is incredible complicated process of meiosis which is required for sexual reproduction. I mean any of us who learned about meiosis when at school will remember it's a jolly complicated process. How could that ever have come about so it's unlikely from that point of view but it's also ... they're pretty sure it happened just months ... and in only one lineage. It's not like things like the origin of flight or the origin of eyes which use to worry Darwin so much but these things have happened again and again...
John Maynard Smith: So there are grounds for thinking that just in terms of it they only happen once the thing is pretty unlikely. It might easily not have happened at all.
Wright: The ... and and your view that had had reproduction remained a totally clonal affair you wouldn't have gotten something as complex and kind of intelligence at our level would not have evolved...
John Maynard Smith: That would be my bet, yes.
Wright: Because the mutations aren't aren't happening fast enough for for for enough interesting opportunities to arise?
John Maynard Smith: Well mutations will occur but but evolution does happen very very much faster in a sexual population because ...
John Maynard Smith: ... if two favorable mutations occur in different individuals in a population they can come together in a single descendant.
Wright: Of course that's in a way an argument that maybe it's not so unlikely after all because I mean once you have sexual reproduction evolution starts moving very fast so that in not so long in evolutionary terms you have an intelligent species and the species looks back and says gosh what you know this this this would never of happened but in fact the species is looking back over a period of time that's not that long in real evolutionary terms do you know what I mean am I making any sense?
John Maynard Smith: I do and I don't. Look I mean it's true that in the case of language of course it's incredibly recent ....
John Maynard Smith: ... talking fifty-thousand years or something is a trivial amount of time....
Wright: Well that's that's that's maybe a clearer example to say look the evolution of higher intelligence is very unlikely because look it's only happened once in all of this time but of course once it happens you know the first species that reaches it you know starts takes command of the planet essentially and it probably won't have the opportunity to happen again ...
John Maynard Smith: That's right.
Wright: ... so I mean the fact that intelligence has only evolved once so far it seems to me not really determinate of one way or the other and you know we look back and say look it hasn't evolved again over the last 2 million years you know since humans really approached humanhood but of course 2 million years is nothing in evolutionary terms...
John Maynard Smith: And after all the dinosaurs never did it now why not? I mean the dinosaurs were large mobile animals. People talk about importance of us being bipedal so we could have our hands free for making tools. Well for goodness sake, most of the dinosaurs were bipedal...
John Maynard Smith: What stopped the dinosaurs from doing it?
Wright: On the on this issue of dinosaurs I mean one one answer as far as why various species didn't didn't evolve high intelligence is they weren't given long enough I mean the dinosaurs met this untimely end and it certainly seems to me in any event you do have to this gets at the issue of kind of chance and necessity and which facts of evolution are contingent and highly highly susceptible to random you know meteorites dropping to earth and things like that and which are not and of course any given lineages evolving to high intelligence depends on all kinds of lucky breaks. But that's a separate question from the question of how likely high intelligence was to arise in one lineage or another, right? Now you you you take a different view of both kind of I gather.
John Maynard Smith: No I wouldn't say I take a different view of I take the point that if one species evolves high intelligence and technology and so on it will almost certainly prevent any other species from doing so as well so it's not surprising there's only one such organism. And I don't think therefore we can make (()) empirical estimate of how likely it is. But the only empirical evidence we have is that organisms the right general kind vertebrates bipedal vertebrates living on land the right sort of size and so on existed for some over a hundred million years before it came off. So it's obviously not something that's trivially easy.
Wright: No although a hundred million years in the scheme of things is actually not all that long compared with the three billion of evolution. But the the you earlier off camera you eluded to I mean speaking of intelligent species we talked a little about this question of where technology is heading and whether it makes sense to think of of any evolving kind of super-organism either a technological super-organism or a kind of technological/human super organism where our species is enmeshed in technology in a way that adds up to a super-organism. You think that this is not entirely a crazy way to think?
John Maynard Smith: I don't think it's entirely crazy. I think we we just cannot predict. Look it ... the last quote major transition was not the origin of language but it was the development of electronic means of storing and transmitting information which is completely transforming the way we live you know in a brief you know 50 years it's made profound changes in what we can do. What it will do in 500 years I don't think anybody can predict. The possibility of our being replaced by electronic organisms depends upon their being able to replicate without our aid and our letting them which I hope we will be sensible enough not to. The possibility of a kind of electronic prosthesis a sort of a biological electronic engineering hybrid seems to me very possible. I'm not saying I'm in favor of it particularly or against it it just seems to me something that could very well happen in the next few hundred years.
Wright: It seems to me also it might be difficult to determine at what point it has happened. After all already computers have the properties necessary to get us to keep making copies of them you know what I mean...
John Maynard Smith: Sure. Exactly.
Wright: It doesn't mean that they announce it. It doesn't mean that they're conscious of it but by definition they do.
John Maynard Smith: You look at one of my grandchildren when they were young they're playing with a computer you wondered who was controlling whom...
John Maynard Smith: Yes now I think it's not obvious what might happen.
Wright: And it wouldn't necessarily be a bad life to be something whose function was among others to keep making other machines. In a sense we already are that and someways it's a comfortable existence.
John Maynard Smith: I mean I think that the and this is something that I know worried Bill Hamilton a lot it's that ok so as long as we retain a complex civilized technological situation of that kind then the fact that we're dependant upon machines doesn't too much matter. But if as a result of some kind of disaster like another meteorite strike or what have you we're suddenly exposed to having to live without all that technology we might be in real trouble.
Wright: Right. Right, so we should just keep a few people camping out somewhere who know how to handle that you know...
John Maynard Smith: Maybe.
Wright: ... on an island somewhere. The ... you ... Darwinism has a reputation, I think wrongly in some circles, as being a sort of right wing doctrine because of some of the past political misuses it was put to. You started life or at least you started your intellectual life as something I think quite far from being right wing...
John Maynard Smith: Sure sure.
Wright: ...you were a Marxist at least at one point I don't know if you...
John Maynard Smith: Sure. Yes I was.
Wright: Did this... how did your Darwinism interact with your Marxism?
John Maynard Smith: Well I could... it's a highly complex story because they have things in common, they are both theories of change, they are both strongly materialist in their outlook and non-mystical non you know... and for a time I find no contradiction between them I didn't I certainly didn't feel being a Darwinist meant I became anti-socialist or felt that the poor deserved everything that was happening to them or anything of that kind. I mean I never had the least temptations to be a social Darwinist or say it's right that the clever be rich and the stupid be poor or anything of that kind. The real conflict between the two of those worlds is -- which confronted me as a relatively young man -- was the whole business of Lysenko the whole business of ... and I think it is wrong to dismiss the whole Lysenko business the whole idea that that acquired characters where inherited and because of that one can transform an agricultural plant by environmental means. That's sometimes presented as a purely political opportunist policy by a crook, namely Lysenko. And I'm sure that's part of the truth but it's not by any means the whole truth. I think there is and you can still detect it in intellectual life today is strong conflict between the Marxist view of man which in one of his theses is that man's being determines his consciousness which means in affect that our beliefs our religions our political opinions and so on are a result to the society we find ourselves in, our position in that society, our role in the economy, and so on ... and that humans being could be anything depending on their social environment and a more Darwinist view which is of human being as a product of millions of years of evolution with genetic tendencies to do something rather than others and these two views are deeply opposed to one another and I don't think there's any way around it...
Wright: Although you could certainly imagine systematic flexibility having evolved genetically I mean genes that program the ways in which we are flexible to in response to our environment. I mean genes that genes that for example say if you are pushed around as a youngster and you're always getting kicked around and you're you're not very strong you acquire some of the personality of what we would call an insecure person whatever any kind of developmental program can in principle evolve genetically, right?
John Maynard Smith: Sure. But you see even though the idea evolved genetically I think there's a profound difficulty for Marxists about the whole notion of genetics as we now understand it. And Marxism called dialectical materialism...
John Maynard Smith: The notion of dialectics is that so called awful phrase inter-penetration of the opposites and so on... interactions of the essence, complexity of the essence... the idea of a gene which influences development but is not itself influenced by development is a profoundly undialectical view...
Wright: I see.
John Maynard Smith: ... and indeed I spent six months of my life performing experiments, seeing if I could product a Lamarckian effect in my more Marxist days. It was negative as you would expect but I did do it which suggested it wasn't a non- problem for me, it really wasn't. It was an important problem for me.
Wright: Although the truth is I mean a Marxist view about how for example religion indoctrinates people is implicitly a view about human nature, it's about people being indoctrinable in certain particular ways.
John Maynard Smith: Sure sure sure.
Wright: Well so you you did not now ... there have been other evolutionists who were or had been Marxists and said that this permanently and deeply influenced their views of evolution. Stephen J. Gould use to talk a lot about how Marxism had influenced his views. But your views of evolution wound up being somewhat different from his...
John Maynard Smith: Sure.
Wright: ... and well...
John Maynard Smith: I think that I've wound up I remain a socialist in the sense that I vote, it's very easy to vote in socialists in England right now but I vote as nearly socialist as it's possible to do in England right now. And I hope she'll continue to do so. But I have become very hostile to the sort of mainstream Marxist attitude toward genetics and evolution and I think it is causing immense confusion to some people whom I greatly admire. For example, Dick Lewontin who is a great biologist I think it's seriously confused on these issues essentially because of this dialectical problem... I've just been reviewing in fact for evolution a collection of essay presented to Dick Lewontin on his occasion I'm not sure what occasion just (()) anyway and he richly deserves honor don't get me wrong about that, I greatly admire and like him but this book is permeated with nonsense... essential provoked by Marxism.
Wright: Darwinism has a reputation for being kind of a depressing doctrine among some people. You know we are mere we are mere animals, there is no there is no higher purpose in the universe... first of all, do you do you... is it a fair inference to say that there is no higher purpose in the universe?
John Maynard Smith: Well I don't know what it would be. The universe doesn't seem to me to be like the kind of entity that could have a higher purpose. I literally don't know what it would mean to say that the universe has a higher purpose. But I also have to say just simply as far as my own personal experience is concerned I have not found it a depressing doctrine. I do not find myself in the least depressed by feeling that if there is a purpose it's a purpose in my friends in my people I love and myself and human beings. It's a product of human beings it's not something that's sort of you know comes out the physical universe because the universe was created.
Wright: So so people create their own meaning?
John Maynard Smith: Yes.
Wright: And does it is it inspiring in any way to you? Is it just is it more than non-depressing, a Darwinian world-view?
John Maynard Smith: Well it's inspiring for me for a reason that I haven't mentioned but I think it's true of not all of all evolutionary biologists but I think of most of us and that is that for reasons I cannot explain, I'm a passionate naturalist. You know, I've been watching birds and keeping every animal I could keep ever since I was a small child and I still I'm a keen gardener I like growing plants I like collecting plants not collecting them but identifying them in the wild... I mean much of my pleasure in life comes from the natural world and Darwinism gives me an understanding of that world instead of just staring at it with my mouth open saying (()) I can stare at it with intelligent interest. Doesn't make it less wonderful it makes it more wonderful.
Wright: Does the process itself ever fill you with awe of a kind I mean the the the creative process and power of of natural selection?
John Maynard Smith: I think my genes are feeling awe but probably left out. I'm not very good at feeling awe ...
Wright: Really? So you don't have epiphanies much? Intellectual epiphanies?
John Maynard Smith: No no.
Wright: You at no point really said "Wow" about the power of natural selection?
John Maynard Smith: No I don't think I did.
Wright: Ok. Well that's permissible. The ... I ... for some time now in a few in a few places I've made this argument about consciousness, consciousness in the sense of sentience, just the fact that it is like something to be alive. I've argued that it's actually a mystery not just in the sense that we don't know how a physical machinery would generate sentience but it's a mystery in the sense that it seems functionally redundant to be sentient and I was in other words you know you you put your hand in fire and withdraw it and we can explain that in terms of the physical information processing. We don't need to invoke the fact that you feel the paint to explain why you would withdraw your hand. I was very gratified years ago to find you making that point in I think a New York Review books essay. Is that is that do I remember correctly?
John Maynard Smith: Well I don't ... it's something I certainly think.
John Maynard Smith: I do find consciousness in a sense redundant as a as a as a ... if you can explain everything in physical terms why should the physical entity that's doing this have conscious feelings, be aware of pain of please of fear, etc. And I have no way of explaining it. Supposing to go back to our electronic counter world. Supposing machines come to the stage where they can do most of the things that we can do, will it be ... how will we ever know whether they are conscious?
John Maynard Smith: I simply do not know.
Wright: Exactly. People often speculate as if they will suddenly say I'm conscious but you don't have to do that. I mean dogs may well be sentient but...
John Maynard Smith: They don't say that...
Wright: ... they don't say it...
John Maynard Smith: And the computer could well say it but not ...
Wright: But not mean it ... I can make my computer say it that doesn't mean it is...
John Maynard Smith: Sure. That's right.
Wright: And that to me ... I think I'm much more inclined to you more inclined that you to to look for signs that there's something more out there kind of than the material world. I think I I I would like more than you to think there is some kind of higher purpose out there. But certainly when I'm in that mode looking for signs of that, this mystery of consciousness at least to me is a big kind of question mark. It suggests there's something more there and kind of the metaphysical laws of the universe or something... there's definitely something we haven't figured out, something fundamental.
John Maynard Smith: Yes I'm inclined to agree with you I think well let me... I'm I'm I'm quite clear in my mind that I do not understand consciousness, that I have nothing sensible or intelligent to say about it that I don't even have any good ideas or experiments or investigations that would shed light on it, what I don't know is whether it's possible to have intelligent ideas of how we might investigate it... I mean if I came back in 50 years time would somebody take me in to a corner and say say look John actually it's really quite simple and explain it and it would be very illuminating I wonder.
Wright: Well one difficulty is that it's not publicly observable. Subjective experience by definition is not publicly observable which all phenomenon you can investigate scientifically almost has to be right so ... I'm not sure I'm optimistic...
John Maynard Smith: Well, it's possible that somebody will be able to ... in 50 years time to to to answer the questions which I find complete unanswerable.
Wright: It could be. The I mean the I guess one reason I find it such an interesting dimension of reality to be so far inexplicable is that it's the part of reality that gives life meaning in a certain sense I mean if it didn't feel like something to be you you wouldn't really care if you lived or died.
John Maynard Smith: No just so...
Wright: And you wouldn't really think that moral issues matter I mean if there were a planet full of robots and they had no sentience you wouldn't think there'd be anything wrong with killing them.
John Maynard Smith: That's right.
John Maynard Smith: It's really quite a problem.
Wright: And... and I and I just find it interesting and suggestive that the thing that infuses life with meaning is the thing that seems at this point at least entirely inexplicable and mysterious. At least to you and me.
John Maynard Smith: Yes. Sure. No I agree with all of that...
John Maynard Smith: I don't say it all that often.
Wright: And it hasn't lead you to hypothesize the existence of a God or anything?
John Maynard Smith: Well I don't how he'd help? I mean it's a rather useless hypothesis.
John Maynard Smith: She'd help sorry.
Wright: Yes well yes well we can edit that out I guess to maintain your social standing in right thinking circles. Well yes. You maybe right but on the other hand to say it is a mystery suggests that there's you know an explanation of some sort out there might wouldn't have to be a designer of life it might merely be a metaphysical law of universe that correlates information processing with sentience but well I guess the other question is could it be tied in to the question of free will. What's your...you probably have a standard line on free will, right?
John Maynard Smith: Well I don't know if I have a standard line. I don't have any difficultly in practice in distinguishing whether I have done something of my own free will or whether I have done something because somebody came in and forced me to do it. Or I don't have the same any difficultly deciding of you whether you did something out of free will or whether some two large men came in and carried you out of the room ... I can distinguish between acts and free will and or act of reflex if I you know that's not an act of free will so that I think that when we say that something is an act of free will we are talking something about the kind of approximate causation involved in the action as opposed to a purely reflex action which his a different approximate causation. I don't have any difficulty with with in practice of in distinguishing these two notions...
Wright: But doesn't being a thorough-going materialist make you think that however complicated the informating process that leads to an act was it was a deterministic process?
John Maynard Smith: Well I have to be a bit careful about determinism nowadays because all my friends are interested in chaotic dynamics and and so on and you know ever since Max Blank and quantum theory the word determinism has suffered somewhat doubtful...
John Maynard Smith: ...fundamental level of physics but I think it's determinist in the sense that I do not think there is something call "the will" over an independent and separate from the neurological processes going on in my brain that cause me to do something. I think it's meaningless to ask did I do something because of my will or because of some actions in my brain. I think that would be a meaningless question.
Wright: But you think that once information processing reaches the complexity that it has in the human brain something kind of tantamount to free will enters the picture?
John Maynard Smith: Seems to yes it does seem to and that raises hard questions about our computer friends.
John Maynard Smith: Or may do in the future not yet.
Wright: Because that information that kind of information processing may approach the complexity we possess?
John Maynard Smith: Sure. Sure.
Wright: Ok. More reason to fear the computer... or at least stay on good terms with them I guess.
John Maynard Smith: Yes, stay on good terms with them...
Wright: So it's ... Darwinism doesn't particularly inform your spiritual life if you even use the term spiritual life... or you're your your your world view... just as compatible with the wholesome one...
John Maynard Smith: Well I think if I if if it informs my world view in a sense that if I were not a Darwinist I would have no way of explaining the complexities of the living things around me in terms of physics they would appear to contradict the laws of physics and this would certainly alter my world view very profoundly. So Darwinism is part of my world view but simply as part of as persuading me that I'd be a natural explanation of what I see around me as possible. But I don't think I have a spiritual existence. I mean I haven't I suppose got very much longer to live I mean I'm now over eighty.
Wright: Are you really?
John Maynard Smith: Yes, I'm 81.
John Maynard Smith: So I mean obviously my expectation of life has to be limited I don't expect anything after I'm dead ...
Wright: You don't expect to show up in another realm after death. Does it bother you?
John Maynard Smith: No no...
John Maynard Smith: It doesn't bother me.
Wright: If you had your choice though?
John Maynard Smith: I don't know when I ask myself why would I really like to live longer I don't think I want to live in another realm, I'd love to know what's going to happen about X you know... But personal things, I'd love to see my grandchildren when they're grown up well one of them is but ... you know I'd love to see how my the people I love get on and I would like to know what happens to science.
Wright: And and does it help you to be at peace with the prospect of not existing someday to know that you made important contributions to a field that will be ongoing?
John Maynard Smith: I think if I'm honest yes it does. Yes yes I think it does. Butler's type of immortality is important to me.
Wright: Ok well congratulations on those contributions and thanks very much this has been a lot of fun.
John Maynard Smith: Ok well thank you.