The Major Transitions in Evolution

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The Major Transitions in Evolution is a book written by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (Oxford University Press, 1995).[1][2][3][4] At the time of its publication, Egbert Giles Leigh, Jr reviewing for Evolution commented that it "may be the most important book on evolution since R.A. Fisher's (1930) The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection".[5]

Maynard Smith and Szathmary authored a review article in Nature.[6]

Transitions described in the book
Transition from: Transition to: Notes
Replicating molecules "Populations" of molecules in compartments Can't observe
Independent replicators (probably RNA) Chromosomes RNA world hypothesis
RNA as both genes and enzymes DNA as genes; proteins as enzymes
Prokaryotes Eukaryotes Can observe
Asexual clones Sexual populations Evolution of sex
Protists Multicellular organismsanimals, plants, fungi Evolution of multicellularity
Solitary individuals Colonies with non-reproductive castes Evolution of eusociality
Primate societies Human societies with language, enabling memes Sociocultural evolution

Maynard Smith and Szathmáry identified several properties common to the transitions:

  1. Smaller entities have often come about together to form larger entities. e.g. Chromosomes, eukaryotes, sex multicellular colonies.
  2. Smaller entities often become differentiated as part of a larger entity. e.g. DNA & protein, organelles, anisogamy, tissues, castes
  3. The smaller entities are often unable to replicate in the absence of the larger entity. e.g. DNA, chromosomes, Organelles, tissues, castes
  4. The smaller entities can sometimes disrupt the development of the larger entity, e.g. Meiotic drive (selfish non-Mendelian genes), parthenogenesis, cancers, coup d’état
  5. New ways of transmitting information have arisen.e.g. DNA-protein, cell heredity, epigenesis, universal grammar.

As stated by the authors,[7] this book was aimed at professional biologists and assumes considerable prior knowledge. They have also published a presentation of their ideas for a general readership under the title The Origins of Life — From the Birth of Life to the Origins of Language.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maynard Smith, John; Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-850294-4.
  2. ^ Sterelny, Kim (2007). Dawkins Vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest. Cambridge, U.K.: Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84046-780-2. Also ISBN 978-1-84046-780-2
  3. ^ Benton, Michael (2009). "Paleontology and the History of Life". In Ruse, Michael; Travis, Joseph (eds.). Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 80–104. ISBN 978-0-674-03175-3.
  4. ^ Calcott, Brett; Sterelny, Kim, eds. (2011). The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-29453-9.
  5. ^ Leigh, Egbert Giles; Smith, John Maynard; Szathmary, Eors (1995). "The Major Transitions of Evolution". Evolution. 49 (6): 1302. doi:10.2307/2410462. JSTOR 2410462.
  6. ^ Szathmáry, Eörs; Smith, John Maynard (1995-03-16). "The major evolutionary transitions". Nature. 374 (6519): 227–232. Bibcode:1995Natur.374..227S. doi:10.1038/374227a0. PMID 7885442.
  7. ^ a b Maynard Smith, John; Szathmáry, Eörs (2000). The origins of life : from the birth of life to the origin of language (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-286209-9.