What is evolutionary game theory?

Two men were the founding fathers of evolutionary game theory. Both their fathers died when they were young, neither studied biology as their first degree and both fought cancer in middle age.

George R Price (pictured) trained as a chemist and was working for IBM when he was struck down with thyroid cancer in 1966. He underwent surgery to remove a tumour in 1967 but, whilst curing the cancer, it left him in need of medication for the rest of his life. He decided to restart his life and moved to the UK, there he started to take an interest in evolution and natural selection.

John Maynard Smith was originally an engineer designing military aircraft. He changed direction in the early 1950s and retrained as a biologist.

Despite having been born in different countries and studied different subjects both men were now living in England and studying evolution. Their paths crossed and they collaborated on their 1973 paper, The Logic of Animal Conflict, which was the first to combine game theory and evolution, it introduced the idea of an evolutionary stable strategy.

The key difference between evolutionary game theory and standard game theory is that standard game theory assumes that the players in the game are rational and trying to play their best strategy. Evolutionary game theory does not assume that the players are rational, instead it assumes that they have a bias to choosing a particular strategy and if that strategy turns out to be a good one then the will be successful and pass on their preference for a particular strategy to the next generation. Over time a strategy may prove to be stable within a population of players.

Their paths separated again and on John Maynard Smith’s 55th birthday, George R Price took his own life. He made a great contribution to science but depression overtook him when he was unable to continue helping the homeless when he lost his own home in 1974.

John Maynard Smith continued to study evolution until his death in 2004.

Despite the coincidence of their fathers dying when they were young their lives were very different.  One was from a privileged background who went on to live a long life and the other from a poor background who lived a tragically short life. But we should be grateful that their paths crossed for long enough to create something genuinely new and useful within game theory.

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