7 July 2020 – In 1992, Eörs Szathmáry returned home to find a letter waiting on his desk addressed in familiar handwriting. It was from his former mentor, John Maynard Smith, a renowned evolutionary biologist, who was inviting him to cowrite a book on the major transitions of evolution. “In the letter, John said that no one could write such a book alone and suggested we do it together: this letter is the biggest honour of my life,” says Szathmáry, whose broad ranging research at the Centre for Ecological Research, Tihany, Hungary, investigates the comparative aspects of such transitions.
In the book, they argue that evolution depends on changes in the information passed between generations – and that major transitions such as the first replicating molecules, cells, multicellular organisms, and human societies have involved major changes in the way information is stored and transmitted. Szathmáry’s research has sought to answer major related questions in relation to how higher levels of evolutionary units appear from lower level ones, and how new types of inheritance systems emerge. “Essentially, we want to understand how we came about,” Szathmáry says.
“Questions such as the origin of the genetic code or our language capacity are still very much open questions, but there has been progress – partly because of better experimental techniques and partly because we are now asking more focused questions,” he explains. “One question that I find particularly exciting is whether something like replication with variation is happening in the brain in real time on the millisecond scale when you are doing complex problem solving – for instance when a child acquires language. I have ideas, but that is very much in the making.”