Brilliant but troubled, Robert Trivers made his mark dissecting the evolution of human relationships. In a new book, he tackles deceit and self-deception

Mention the name Robert Trivers to those in the know, and the reaction you get is awe. Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker calls him “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought.” Stuart West, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, recently described him as “one of the most influential evolutionary biologists since Charles Darwin.” And in 1999, Time named him one of the 20th century’s 100 greatest thinkers and scientists. Yet most biology students do not even know the name.

In the 1970s, Trivers penned a series of landmark papers that have been cited thou- sands of times and opened up the study of human relationships to biology. Looking in turn at interactions between friends, then lovers, then parent and child, he helped to lay the foundations for sociobiology, or a “Darwinian social theory,” as he called it. Then he disappeared from view, only to reemerge in the 1990s with a remarkable second career that has also led to his latest effort: a book called The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life that might well introduce him to a larger audience.

The person who has led this remarkable life is a man of 68 years, with a deep voice and an infectious laugh. He has recently had his hip replaced and does some leg exercises while being interviewed. Trivers likes to make fun of the fact that he has grown old. “Did you know that the enjoyment of sex is actually correlated with sperm count in the ejaculate?” he asks. “So it is true that in old age you appreciate the smaller things more. There are no big things to enjoy anymore.” But he also brags about his beautiful new black leather coat and has the air of a young man more interested in wine and women than lectures.

Trivers followed a winding road to biology. He was interested in pure mathematics first, having taught himself differential and integral calculus when he was 14. But by 18 he had lost interest and wanted to become a lawyer. “I wanted to fight for justice, for the poor, and against racial discrimination,” he says without a trace of irony. Indeed, one of his most vivid memories of childhood is his mother coming to the dinner table in tears, because a white police officer in Washington, D.C., had shot to death a 14-year-old black child for jaywalking. “Growing up in Maryland, it was very obvious to me that black people were living a very oppressed life,” he says.

But at age 21, studying history as an undergraduate at Harvard, Trivers suffered a mental break- down. He would stay up all night, reading the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was convinced that he had insights into Wittgenstein’s ideas that no one else had. Trivers wound up spending 3 months in a hospital. Such breakdowns would recur throughout his life and cause him immense suffering, but Trivers calls that first one the most painful: “In the beginning, I did not know who or what I was.” When he got back on his feet, he applied to law school but decided against

it when the schools wanted a copy of his medical records.

After Trivers started to work for a company illustrating and then writing school- books for fifth-graders, he discovered the beauty of evolution. “Three billion years of the history of life, it is such a magnificent view,” he says. So at age 24, Trivers went back to Harvard to study biology not knowing anything at all about animals. He even claims that fellow students showed him pictures of a rhinoceros and a hippopotamus and asked him which is which. “I had a 50-50 chance, and I still chose wrong.”

Seeing life as conflict

Nonetheless, Trivers turned out to be an immensely original thinker in biology. His strength has been to see conflict where other people see only harmony. In the baby growing in a womb, he saw a struggle for resources between mother and child. In the romantic love between a man and a woman, he saw a pair eternally at odds because of their differential investment in their off- spring. Whereas others see optimism and self-deception as a defensive strategy to stay sane and happy in a harsh world, he sees it as a psychological attack mechanism, “fooling yourself to better fool others,” he says.

Conflict has been a recurring theme not only in Trivers’s work but also in his life. Stories of his reckless and aggressive side abound. He loves to use the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” calling them quite useful, and he has gotten into public spats with many people over the years. Trivers can be brutally honest and plain rude, as many letters he has written to colleagues over the years testify. True to form, in
his new book, Trivers is scathing of NASA and U.S. foreign policy, derides Turkey’s denial of an Armenian genocide, and argues that the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany on European Jews was far from unique. “The notion of the holocaust has spurred the growth of an industry designed to extract long-ago costs of this event, which flow not to the camp survivors but to their distant cousins, usually nowhere near the camps, while serving to justify Israel’s frequent attacks on its Arab neighbors,” he writes. Asked whether his discussion of Middle East politics might not turn off some people whom he might otherwise convince of his ideas, he just says, “Well, fuck ’em.”

Ironically, Trivers’s first contribution to biology was on cooperation. Evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton had first proposed in the 1960s that helping a relative even at a cost to oneself could be advantageous in evolutionary terms because relatives share many of one’s genes. Survival in the long term boils down to being successful at passing on one’s genes. Thus, in Hamilton’s view, a gene that would make an animal sacrifice itself to save three of its siblings would outcompete other genes. Because each sib- ling has a 50% chance of carrying this gene for family love, it would in effect be sacrificing just one copy of itself to save 1.5 copies of itself, a smart choice. Similar logic applies to more distantly related relatives such as cousins, but more of them would have to be saved—the number dependent on their degrees of relatedness—to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

Based on his own life experiences, Trivers realized that this nepotistic altruism could not be the whole story. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Kinship is obviously important, but friends can actually be more important,’ ” he says. In 1971, he published a paper describing the idea of reciprocal altruism. Helping a nonrelative could also be beneficial, Trivers argued, if it did not cost too much and if there was a likelihood that the two would meet again and the other person would then reciprocate. “Like all great ideas in science, in retrospect it seems intuitive and obvious, but at the time it was immensely original,” says

Harvard biomathematician Martin Nowak. And the implications were stunning. “Reciprocal altruism led to cheating, that led to defense against cheating, and that led to the evolution of a sense of fairness, friendship, and trust,” Trivers says.


Friends, lovers, and children

Most biologists spend their lives studying ants, geese, or other animals and then extend their conclusions to humans later in life. Trivers tended to start with humans. “Some of his creativity is to look at himself to under- stand. So a lot of Robert’s papers say a lot about himself,” says Harvard biologist David Haig, one of Trivers’s closest friends. Indeed, Haig says, Trivers was predestined to write th paper on reciprocal altruism, because it is so close to how he himself behaves, being nice if someone is nice to him first. “Robert likes his reciprocal altruism up front,” he jokes.

Then, Trivers turned from friends to lovers. Observing male pigeons hustling females while their own partners were caring for the eggs in the nest, but getting agitated as soon as another male approached its mate, Trivers felt reminded of human double standards in regard to sexual relationships. He spent 9 months collecting 70 relevant papers, which he read over the course of three intense days holed up in his apartment. “Then I wrote the paper, working 24/7 for a month,” he says.

Trivers had figured out that the difference in parental investment is the most important difference between the sexes, one from which all else springs. While the human male con- tributes only a sperm that he can produce millions of, the female invests in a 9-month pregnancy producing a 3-kilo- gram baby. Naturally, Trivers argued, her strategy for choosing a partner had to be different from that of the male, leading to a difference in psychology. Females are pickier and focus on a male’s genetic quality, status, and his willingness to invest in the offspring. Males compete for women and focus on physical evidence of fertility, among other attributes.

For nights after this insight, Trivers remembers dreaming of a long corridor with two animals of each kind in it. Then in response to an unknown signal, each pair separated, males heading for a door on one side, females heading for another door on the other. “It felt symbolic of what I had achieved,” he says.

Having dissected friendship and love in quick succession, publishing key papers in 1971 and 1972, Trivers turned in 1974 to the relationship of parents and offspring. “There was all this nonsense at the time about parents teaching their children language and culture in a completely disinterested fashion and the child just being a vessel that they were filling,” he scoffs. In fact, there was a battle for resources that started with the fetus growing in the mother’s body. “Later, the mother wants to cut down on the milk so she can have her next offspring, but the child wants to keep suckling, so there is weaning conflict,” he explains. Trivers termed this parent-offspring conflict.

As with his other insights, he did not elaborate on the principle. “He is interested in the big picture rather than fussing around with the details,” says Haig, who adds that it is hard to find a similarly productive period in evolutionary theory. “Each of those papers founded a new field of research. It is incredible.”


Disappearing act

But fame and fortune didn’t follow Trivers the way they favored others. Oxford’s Richard Dawkins started his road to stardom with The Selfish Gene, a book greatly influenced by Trivers’s ideas. (Look up Trivers in the index, and you will find him referenced on 30 pages, roughly a tenth of the book.) Trivers, mean- while, felt underpaid at Harvard. The year was 1978. “I was earning only $14,000 a year then,” Trivers says. At the time, his wife was pregnant with twins. “I was teaching about reproductive success, and the university was not paying me enough to have any of my own,” he says. When Trivers applied for early tenure at Harvard, the university decided to delay the decision for 3 years. According to

him, it was because of his bipolar disorder. “I had by then had three breakdowns, one as a faculty member,” he says.

Many myths revolve around why Trivers did not get early tenure. Some think he got caught up in the war over sociobiology that had erupted on the campus after E. O. Wilson published his book with that title. Harvard scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin saw Trivers’s and Wilson’s work trying to explain human relationships in evolutionary terms as a theory with no scientific support. Sociobiology was aimed at defending the “status quo as an inevitable consequence of ‘human nature,’ ” they wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books. “I have heard stories according to which Robert got done in by pretty much every- one here. They cannot all be true,” Haig says. “Well, I guess they could.”

In the end, Trivers decided to take an offer from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He started teaching there in 1978, befriended Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, wrote a textbook on social evolution that he says was ahead of its time but never sold well, and largely disappeared from view. Harvard anthropologist Irven DeVore calls it Trivers’s “fallow” period.

In the 1990s, Trivers resurfaced on the East Coast. He joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, partly to be closer to his children. And he started to turn toward conflict again, professionally as well as privately. Together with Austin Burt, a geneticist at Imperial College London, he began working on a book on selfish genetic elements. By then, Trivers’s theories on parent-offspring conflict had been spectacularly confirmed by the discovery of imprinted genes, like Igf2, in which just one copy of a gene is active, not the usual two (Science, 25 September 1998, p. 1984). The Igf2 protein makes the fetus in the womb grow faster. The mother inactivates the gene in the egg to rein in growth, trying to sequester some of her resources for future pregnancies. But the father’s copy is still going strong, making the fetus grow as much as it can.

The book Genes in Conflict was published in 2006 to great academic acclaim. A year later, Trivers received the Crafoord Prize. One of biology’s most prestigious prizes, it was established by the Swedish

industrialist Holger Crafoord, who commercialized artificial kidneys, and presented to Trivers by the queen of Sweden. At the official banquet, Trivers gave a “shout-out” to everyone who had only one kidney “for making this award possible.”

But the honor didn’t mellow the man. Trivers is in the middle of a dispute with William Brown, now at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, with whom he published a paper on symmetry and dance in Nature in 2005. The paper appears to show that men and women with more symmetric bodies are also better dancers, with dancing thus being a possible indicator of genetic quality. But Trivers has accused Brown, who he says was in charge of the statistics, of preselecting the dancers and changing the values on some of the dancers’ measures of symmetry to get that result. Trivers has even written a short book about it that he sends to whoever cites the paper. Brown will only say that Rutgers is investigating the matter, and Nature has no comment.

Conflicts have not slowed Trivers down, however. At Rutgers, he resumed work on a long-gestating project, the book on self-deception that he had started writing with Huey Newton in the 1980s. (Its central hypothesis is that our ability to deceive ourselves evolved in order to deceive others.) Trivers calls Newton, who was shot and killed in 1989, a master in three out of four aspects of deception and self- deception: “He was a master at propagating deception. He was a master at seeing through your deception. He was a master at beating your self-deception out of you. And like all the rest of us, he fell down when it came to seeing through his own self-deception.” Trivers has dedicated the book to Newton.


A difficult mind

Much of Trivers’s life has been overshadowed by his struggle with bipolar disorder. (It was his mentor, the famous biologist Ernst Mayr, who realized that a first diagnosis of schizophrenia was wrong.) “I’ve spent almost a year of my life locked up, usually in mental institutions, sometimes in police stations, some- times both,” Trivers says. Only once, during his second breakdown, did he feel the disease actually spurred some creative thinking. That was in 1972 on a trip to East Africa. Trivers was losing sleep, thinking about parent- offspring conflict, when it suddenly occurred to him that the conflict extended far beyond fighting over milk. There was also a conflict over how the child should behave. “Because I share only half my genes with my brother, I am selected to transfer benefit to him only if that benefit is twice as big as the cost to me. But my mother is equally related to the two of us, so she wants to encourage me to help my brother whenever the benefit is greater than the cost. So there is real psychological conflict built into the parent-offspring relationship. That was a revelation to me.”

But that insight had its cost. After returning to the United States, Trivers was hospitalized for 10 days before he could return to work. “After that, the breakdowns were uniformly bad,” he says.

Trivers’s life has not been easy, and he has sometimes made life hard for those around him. “Over the years, I’ve seen the periods of psychotic mania and depression. In those periods, he can become more difficult to deal with, and I’ve learned to weather that,” says Haig, who says Trivers is the most unusual scientist he knows. Nowak agrees: “Meeting Robert is never an everyday encounter.”

Nor has Trivers ever been an everyday biologist. His latest theory on self-deception is sure to ruffle some feathers, and University of Chicago zoologist Jerry Coyne says the book suffers from a lack of tangible zoo- logical examples. “But Trivers’s forte has never been to show what has happened but what could happen,” he says. He calls Trivers “one of those thinkers whose importance rests on inspiring a generation of researchers.” There is a contradiction at the heart of his life and his work. Trivers might be a difficult character, and his life might have been rough at times, but his big ideas have always been simple and elegant.


published on 4 November 2011 in “Science” magazine