[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Trivers) The kindness of strangers
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Tue Oct 4 22:00:55 UTC 2005
The kindness of strangers
Despite switching disciplines - from maths to law to history then the
sciences - Robert Trivers profoundly influenced evolutionary biology
with his theory that our sense of justice has Darwinian explanations.
But he suffered severe mental breakdowns and his career at Harvard was
dogged by controversy. After 15 years in genetics he has now turned to
Saturday August 27, 2005
Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of
20th-century science if he'd died in the 70s, as some people supposed
he would. But here he is, loping down the quiet, pale corridors of
Harvard's Programme in Evolutionary Development, a powerfully built
man about six foot tall, bespectacled, dressed in trainers, narrow
blue cord trousers, a black leather jacket and a knitted watchman's
cap. His language matches the macho clothes: for an Ivy League
professor, he says "fuck" a lot.
In the early 70s, as a graduate student at Harvard with no formal
training in biology, he wrote five papers that changed forever the way
that evolution would be understood. He came up with the first
Darwinian explanations for human cooperation, jealousy and our sense
of justice that made genetic sense, and he showed how these arose from
the same forces as act on all animals, from the pigeons outside his
window to the fish of coral reefs. Then he analysed the reasons why,
in almost all species, one sex is pickier about who it mates with than
the other; then the ways in which children can be genetically
programmed to demand more attention than their parents can provide.
Even the way in which patterns of infanticide vary by sex and class in
the Punjab is predicted by one of Trivers's papers.
EO Wilson, who coined the term sociobiology, described him as one of
the most influential - and consistently correct - theoretical
evolutionary biologists of our time. But he was reckless, aggressive
and suffered from bipolar disorder which led him into agonising,
debilitating breakdowns. His work was politically controversial.
Harvard would not give him a professorship and towards the end of the
70s he seemed to vanish. In fact, he went in 1979 to the University of
California in Santa Cruz, then a university with a reputation for drug
abuse and slackness. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime mistake," he says,
"in the sense that I can't afford to make another one like that. I
survived, and I helped raise my children for a while; but that was
He also switched his attention from theoretical biology to the
detailed and difficult study of stretches of DNA and their conflicts
within particular bodies. He says: "Call it arrogance, overconfidence,
or ignorance; it was mostly ignorance, I think. I naively thought -
this was my phrase - I'll whip genetics into shape in three to five
years. Fifteen years later, genetics has whipped me into shape. You do
not whip genetics into shape within three to five years. It took me
eight to 10 to understand what I was reading."
He is bringing out a book, Genes in Conflict, written with a younger
colleague, Austin Burt, which summarises everything that is known
about conflicts within the genome; but at just the point when the two
of them know as much as anyone can about this discipline he has
switched back to anthropology. His next project is to show that we
have evolved the capacity to deceive ourselves because it makes us
better at lying to other people.
This kind of wild leap between disciplines has characterised his life.
He was born in 1943, the second of seven children born to Howard and
Mildred Trivers, who had met at graduate school in Harvard in the 30s.
His father, whom he characterises as clever but ineffectual, had
pursued postgraduate studies in German philosophy in Germany, until
1938 when even he noticed it was time for a Jewish student to leave.
He was able to do this because his own father, an immigrant from
Lithuania, had made a fortune in the rag trade: his gimmick was the
two-pants suit, which consisted of a jacket with two pairs of
trousers, since they would wear out first.
During the second world war, Howard Trivers worked for the army, and
produced the regulations for denazification: he was rewarded with a
post in the state department, so Robert Trivers grew up in a
diplomatic household, a handicap he has triumphantly overcome: his
opponents at Harvard are described as fools, and he says Richard
Lewontin, the intellectual leader of the campaigns against
sociobiology, grossly underestimated the role that selection plays in
the makeup of the genome, while sanctioning all sorts of slanders
against his opponents. Trivers says of his old enemy Stephen Jay
Gould's theory that the female orgasm was merely a by- product of the
fact that the opposite sex has them, "It makes you wonder just how
close Steve had ever been to that blessed event if he thought it was a
He was sent to grand schools - at Phillips Academy Andover,
Massachusetts, where the Bushes went, he was regarded as a promising
mathematician after he taught himself calculus, in three months, aged
14; and he took two advanced maths courses before he arrived at
Harvard. Typically enough, he then lost interest in maths, and decided
to be a lawyer instead, fighting injustice, defending people who were
minimally criminal. He had grown up in Washington as well as Berlin
and Copenhagen, and was keenly aware of injustice and racial
In order to become a lawyer, he had to have a humanities degree, so
his first studies at Harvard were in American history. They were
interrupted by the first, and worst, of his breakdowns, which took the
form of spiralling mania - staying up all night, night after night,
reading Wittgenstein and then collapsing. He was hospitalised, and
treated with the first generation of effective anti-psychotic drugs.
While recovering, he took courses in art, and was hired to illustrate,
and then to write, a series of textbooks for high schools. Despite his
history degree, it was obvious to his supervisors that he knew little
about human biology, so he was given the animals to write about, and
started to learn modern Darwinian biology. He fell in love with the
logic of evolution. In the flow of genes through generations, and the
steady, inexorable shaping of behaviour by natural selection, he saw a
geometry of time, as beautiful as the geometry of space that Newton
and Galileo had discovered. His mentor was an ornithologist called
Bill Drury, whose memory he venerates. Drury was an expert on herring
gulls. Trivers says: "He knew enough that if God had made him a
herring gull, he would have known 90% of what he needed to survive."
Drury became very close to his pupil and his trust was reciprocated:
"Bill and I were walking in the woods one day, and I told him that my
first breakdown had been so painful that I had resolved that if I ever
felt another one coming on, I would kill myself. Lately, however, I
had changed my mind, and drawn up a list of 10 people I would kill
first in that event. I wanted to know if this was going forwards or
backwards. He thought for a while, then he said 'Can I add three names
to that list?'. That was his only comment."
The textbook series was meant to be as influential as the new
mathematics, and to transform the teaching of biology, which meant
that Trivers himself had to get a thorough understanding of animal
behaviour. In the event, it was killed by Christian conservatives. It
taught evolution as fact, and examined human behaviour as an
anthropologist might, so the states where it might have sold in
millions would have nothing to do with it. It sold 50,000 or 60,000
copies where it might have sold five or six million.
Trivers determined to take a doctorate in biology; but university
protocol meant that Drury could not be his adviser. Instead, he chose
the curator of herpetology, Ernest Williams, who derailed his original
plan to study monkeys in favour of going to Jamaica to study lizards.
Trivers admits: "I was also quite frankly, interested in the women.
When we flew to Jamaica I took one look at the women and one look at
the island and decided to become a lizard man if that's what it took
to go back there." Since that first epiphany, he has lived for about
13 years in Jamaica, off and on; he has married two Jamaican women.
Though he no longer studies lizards, he still has a long-term project
going on the island, which studies symmetry in growing children.
Symmetry is important in Trivers' theories because it is a measure of
fidelity to the genetic masterplan, and so of health and desirability.
More symmetrical children should appear more attractive to their
peers, even if the differences are not consciously discernible.
Some of the experiments that have arisen from this are extraordinary.
They have measured which way round children cuddle dolls; it appears
that the more closely your ears resemble each other, the more likely
you are to hold a doll (or a baby) with its head to the left. The
theoretical justification for this is that the left ear feeds into the
right side of the brain, which is normally where most information
about feelings is processed. But a child with asymmetrical ears is
more likely to have an unusual distribution of tasks between the two
sides of the brain - both traits being expressions of a disturbance in
the normal growth of the head and brain.
The asymmetries Trivers is measuring in a very detailed fashion are
very small, quite undetectable in normal life, yet we seem to be
unconsciously very sensitive to them. Symmetrical children are
consistently judged to be the best dancers, which is also a
measurement of sexual attractiveness. Theory would predict that women
measure attractiveness more closely than men do. Sure enough, the gap
between those judged best and worst dancers was greatest among the
Unlike the other founders of sociobiology, Trivers was more interested
in human than in animal behaviour. The founding genius of
sociobiology, Bill Hamilton, was a naturalist and romantic who felt
himself ill at ease in the modern world, and had a passion for
insects, especially wasps. EO Wilson loves ants and arranged his
office at Harvard so that there were ant colonies in perspex all
around the walls, and the visitor might think he was inside a gigantic
ants' nest. Wilson added one final chapter on humans to his book
Sociobiology almost as an afterthought, though this caused a bitter
feud that has divided the Harvard biology faculty to this day.
Trivers, however, started his theories from what he could observe of
human behaviour, and then went looking for genetic causes whose logic
would apply across the whole living world.
It seemed to some biologists in the 60s that the central problem of
their discipline was why animals are nice to each other. Previous
generations had explained this as an adaptation for the good of the
species but there seemed to be no mechanism that could make this true.
If I sacrifice myself for you, this may very well benefit the tribe to
which we both belong, It may even benefit humanity as a whole. But
this is an act, other things being equal, which will increase the
number of your descendants, not of mine. So your genes, less eager for
sacrifice, will spread through the population and eventually the
species will consist entirely of members who do not cooperate with
each other. How, then, do we account for the obvious and widespread
fact that the world is full of cooperative species, whose members will
sacrifice their own immediate interests for others?
One answer had been encapsulated in a pub joke by the British
biologist (and communist) JBS Haldane, who was asked, in the 50s,
whether a man should lay down his life for his brother. "For two
brothers," he said, "or four cousins." In other words, genes that
benefit your relatives are likely to spread through the population,
even if they damage the bearer sometimes, because the relatives will
be likely to carry their own copies. This insight was reached
independently by Bill Hamilton, as a student, who worked it out in
mathematical detail in 1963, and showed how it could explain the
behaviour of ants and bees, whose curious pattern of reproduction
means that females are more closely related to their sisters than to
But there is cooperation in many species which do not have these
patterns of relatedness; also between animals which are not closely
related, nor even members of the same species. Even among humans, as
Trivers observed, many people will more readily sacrifice themselves
for their friends than for their relatives - an observation easy to
make among the rebellious youth of the 60s. So a more general kind of
rule than Hamilton had supplied was needed. Trivers came up with the
notion of reciprocal altruism. In plain language, this said that
self-sacrifice could be understood as self-interest providing there
was a chance the beneficiary would repay the deed in the future.
The example he gave in the first paper was that of a man who sees
someone drowning and rescues him. Providing, says Trivers, that the
benefit of being saved is much greater than the cost of rescuing the
swimmer, then it makes sense to dive in and play the lifeguard because
the person you rescue from drowning may do the same for you some day.
This example became extremely famous, and has been held up to scorn on
the grounds that anyone likely to drown is not someone you would
choose as the lifeguard when you are yourself in danger. But in the
original paper, Trivers side-stepped this objection by suggesting
either that the swimmer was in difficulties because of a sudden cramp
or that they were being rescued with a branch extended from the bank.
It may seem absurd that people devoted so much effort to arguing about
what was only meant to be an illustration of a more general principle,
but the stakes were high. Before writing the paper, Trivers attempted,
and failed, to get a grasp of the state of moral arguments about
altruism. "What was missing from the papers was exactly what was
missing from the discipline itself: any functional understanding of
the behaviours that they were discussing. Why did it make sense for
the organism to [behave unselfishly]? This was, of course, what
evolutionary biology, and myself in particular, was set to provide."
Of course the idea that we have moral sentiments because they are
useful and profitable seems to many people to misunderstand or deny
the nature of morality. The whole point of altruistic behaviour is
that we do it without thought of reward - sometimes, without any
thought at all, as when rescuing people from drowning, or pulling them
back from an oncoming car. There are less dramatic examples, however,
which include sharing food, helping the sick, the very young, and the
old, even when we are not related to them, and sharing tools and
knowledge. All these are nearly universal human habits; in fact we
describe societies where they don't happen as inhuman.
This kindliness became part of human nature, Trivers argued, because
kind instincts were rewarded and this happened because our ancestors
lived sufficiently long lives in small stable groups to keep track of
who owed whom favours. The great originality of the theory is not that
it says that we are under certain circumstances naturally benevolent.
Plenty of people had made that observation before. What no one had
seen was that this benevolence requires a very strong sense of
fairness if it is to become an established instinct. Fairness, or
justice, has its roots for Trivers in the determination to see that
other people are not cheating us, and taking favours without giving
anything in return.
From abstract notions about the flow of genes he had come up with
concrete and testable ideas about the ways our minds work; and it
turned out to be demonstrably true that we find it much easier to
solve logical puzzles if they are framed as if they are about cheating
rather than an emotionally neutral subject, even though the two ways
of putting the problem are logically equivalent.
The paper on reciprocal altruism, written before he had even gained a
doctorate, has been enormously influential. Robin Dunbar, the
professor of behavioural ecology at Liverpool University, says Trivers
played a fundamentally important role in the development of modern
evolutionary studies of behaviour and ecology. His four key early
papers spawned (and continue to spawn) research in the study of both
animals and humans. The importance of his contribution is beyond
question. The modern field of behavioural ecology (the name under
which sociobiology now travels) would simply not have been the same
had he not written these papers.
Trivers' early work set the foundation for a biologically based system
of ethics, in which a preference for some sorts of justice was part of
our nature. Matt Ridley, whose book The Origins of Virtue is largely
an expansion and restatement of Trivers's argument, says that when he
was a student at Oxford, and got a postcard from Trivers asking for a
reprint of one of his papers, "It was like getting a postcard from
God"; and the whole line of popularising Darwinian books from Richard
Dawkins all the way down to Steven Pinker descends from Trivers's
There is a paradox here. Ridley, a former science editor of the
Economist, takes the moral of Trivers's work to be distinctly
Thatcherite, and in general the attacks on sociobiology, as well as
the defences of it, have taken it to be a Right-wing construction, and
a way to defend power and privilege by showing they are part of human
nature. Even fairly left-wing Darwinists like Daniel Dennett tend to
discover from their study of human nature that the perfect way for
humans to live is that favoured by professors at good universities on
the East Coast. But Trivers, one-time friend of the Black Panthers,
loathes the Bush regime more than most forms of authority.
He thinks biology teaches us to be wary of the idea that any
particular individual could be perfectly designed by evolution:
"You're always facing a new world to which you're poorly adapted. So
if you look at any given individual, and ask how the hell did [they]
survive for 4.5bn years, then it is helpful to think of all these
error-prone processes: sexual reproduction ensures that there is lots
of variation in the population, and most of it will be less than
His second big idea was parental investment. Parents and children
would have differing genetic interests, he saw, because a parent would
wish to spread its investment of energy and time over all its
children, to guard against the possibility of any one of them dying,
whereas any individual child would want more than the parent should
optimally give. As a baby mammal, it is to your advantage to suckle
for as long as possible, but your mother may leave more grandchildren
if she weans you in favour of a younger sibling.
Three more classic papers followed before a second breakdown, in 1972.
After that, his interests shifted away from social theory in animals.
He got married, for the first time, to Lorna Staples, with whom he had
four children, including twins; and grew increasingly frustrated with
Harvard's refusal to give him a properly paid job. He attributed this
to Lewontin, so he took particular pleasure, earlier this year, in
being invited back to Harvard to lecture Lewontin's own students.
"It's like killing those fuckers and stealing the young away from
He has also quarrelled with his own side. He had written a foreword to
the first edition of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, a book which
popularised many of his ideas when it appeared in 1976; but it did not
appear in the translation and when the book was republished in 1989,
the foreword was dropped altogether, and replaced by a second author's
preface, a breach of academic etiquette which made Trivers angry.
Dawkins says that dropping the foreword was an accident and that he
hopes to reinstate it. Trivers was disinclined to allow it to be
published: "My first wife, a wonderful woman, used to refer to Dick as
the Selfish Gene, just because of the way he acts"; however, he has
now relented and Dawkins confirms it will appear in future editions.
In Santa Cruz in the 80s, Trivers formed a fast friendship with Huey
Newton, the Black Panther, whom he described as an untutored genius,
but one who was also in some respects unteachable. The two men planned
a book on deceit and self-deception. Newton, Trivers says, was an
expert on both. His youngest daughter was Newton's god-daughter. A
baby photograph of her, taken for her first passport, hangs in his
office at Harvard, and with it comes a story about Newton: "We said to
Huey, if she were going to be the judge at your trial, would you do
the crime? And he looked at the picture for a while, and said, no. So
we had it blown up and framed, and he hung the picture above his bed
to remind himself not to do the crime. Did it work? I'm not sure it
helped at all, because he was basically someone who did whatever he
felt like doing."
Trivers also wrote a textbook of animal behaviour, which failed in its
purpose of assuring him of a small income for life, but proved
influential in the way the subject was taught. In 1995, he moved back
to Rutgers University, in New Jersey, as a professor of anthropology
and biology, but continued to work on the conflicts that can arise
within the genome. Although this required him to master an entirely
new field of science he felt it was related to his earlier studies.
They had concentrated on conflicts that appear within species once you
realise that the unit of self-interest is the individual. Now he was
looking at conflicts within individuals, which arise when genes inside
an organism are in conflict.
He says: "There are people who say to me, you never would have done it
if you thought it would take you 15 years. And I say, no, of course I
wouldn't. So they say, well self-deception, namely blinding yourself
to the cost, is adaptive. Then I say, you cannot prove that, because
you never know what I would have accomplished with those 15 years not
devoted to genetics. Maybe I'd have made major insights into
psychology ... The general trajectory in academia is to do ever easier
things, so you start with social theory based on natural selection.
Then you do deceit and self-deception, if that's really easier - at
least it's vaguer; then you do religion, then you do your
"So in retrospect I did something unusual, which is very rewarding."
Genes in Conflict by Robert Trivers and Austin Burt will be published
by Harvard University Press in November.
Born: February 19 1943, Washington DC.
Education: Phillips Academy, Andover; Harvard (1965 BA history, '72
Married: 1974-1988 Lorna Staples (three daughters: Natasha and Natalia
(twins), Alelia, one son Jonathan); '97-2004 Debra Dixon (one
Occupation: Harvard 1971-72 instructor in anthropology; '73-75
assistant professor of biology; '75-78 associate professor of biology;
'78-94 professor of biology, University of California, Santa Cruz;
'94- professor of anthropology and biological sciences, Rutgers; 2005
(spring) visiting professor of psychology, Harvard.
Selected publications: 1985 Social Evolution; 2002 Natural Selection
and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.
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