Robert Trivers: the great scientist of the 20th century you’ve probably never heard of


Michał Czaplinski

Even in the academic environment, which is unusually accepting of mavericks and eccentrics, Robert Trivers stands out. Unsurprisingly, he would tick off most boxes on your “successful scientist” list: he taught himself calculus at 13, graduated from Harvard and was accepted for a PhD in Biology despite no formal training in the subject. However, he is more than just a really smart guy. His struggle with bipolar disorder, regular use of cannabis and complete disregard for authority set him apart from most of his peers. That, and the fact that just a handful of his pioneering articles helped found whole fields of research and established him as probably the most important evolutionary biologist since Darwin.

Trivers originally came to Harvard to study Mathematics, but switched to Psychology at the end of his first year. He quickly became very disappointed with the state of the field back in the late 60s, saying that he “couldn’t believe that these people were pretending to have a science when all they had was a series of competing guesses for how human beings developed”. Disillusioned, he majored in US History with intention of becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, his plans were thwarted by a severe mental breakdown and instead he landed a job as a writer and illustrator for a series of children’s science books. Fortunately, the books never got published – certain southern US congressmen did not approve of the content which included sex education (with demoralising pictures of copulating animals!), cultural relativism (our culture is not superior to others?!) and evolution by natural selection. I said fortunately, because instead of becoming an illustrator, Trivers became fascinated with evolutionary theory, went on to complete his PhD and within the next 10 years revolutionised the field.

One of his most important contributions was solving the dilemma that baffled biologists since Darwin. Namely, if natural selection is all about competition for survival and reproduction, why does any animal (or human) ever help anyone else? Why do we have altruism and altruists if helping someone puts you at a disadvantage in this game of life? Trivers showed that the solution is simply “If you scratch my back, I ll scratch yours”. Let’s say you are some organism (could be a human, could be a bat, could even be some alien species). It might be a good idea for you to help some other organism, if there is a reasonable expectation that they will repay the favor in the future. It seems like a trivial point, but the brilliance of Trivers’ insight was specifying the precise conditions under which it might happen. You, the organism, need to: a) be able to recognise others (because otherwise, you would not know who helped you and whom you have helped); b) interact with someone more than once (because if you only see each other once, there is no point in being nice); and c) punish the bastards who do not return favours. Trivers called his idea “reciprocal altruism”. It would be not be such a great idea, without real-life examples, though. The best one is provided by the behavior of vampire bats, who are really “nice” creatures as it turns out, if you forgive their diet (mammal blood) that is. They can only go on without food for about two days, but are not guaranteed to find it every night. If a bat experiences a couple of unlucky nights in a row it might starve. However, the bats live in a colony and they are capable of regurgitating some blood and sharing it with their less fortunate companions. Amazingly, they only share blood with other bats that have returned the favor in the past and will not share again with a bat that “freeloaded” even once.

The best testimony to the impact of Trivers’ ideas is the fact that “The Selfish Gene” (the book that made Richard Dawkins famous) is largely a restatement of Trivers’ theories for the lay public, which Dawkins happily admitted. In fact, Trivers even wrote the foreword to the original 1978 edition.

Trivers’ nonconformism and radical political views helped him make many enemies, especially among Harvard faculty, but also a few friends. Among the latter were Noam Chomsky and Huey P. Newton – the founder of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary, leftist African-American organization, famed for its militant advocacy of the black power movement in the 60s and 70s. The two met while Newton enrolled to take a reading course from Trivers, while in prison. Trivers even joined the Black Panthers in 1979, one of the very few whites to do so, and Newton became a godfather to one of his daughters.

Robert Trivers has not published much in the last two decades, due to his alleged mental problems, but he seems to have overcome them in recent years and came back to work in what disappointed him so much in college times – psychology. His current research focuses on evolution of self-deception – the idea he first wrote about in the famed foreword to “The Selfish Gene” in 1978. What is self-deception then? If deception is lying to others, self-deception is lying to oneself. Modern psychology shows that we do it all the time – 94% of US college professors think they are better than half their colleagues. Time and again, research demonstrates that people think they are smarter, faster, taller, prettier or stronger than they really are. Why do we do it? Trivers thinks that the purpose of deceiving ourselves is to deceive others more efficiently. How could that be? When we consciously lie, we give away a number of cues – we speak slower, the pitch of our voice is higher and we tend to blink more. But when we believe the lie ourselves, none of those are present and thus we are more likely to succeed at our deception. For example, you can imagine that when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, he did truly believe that he would find weapons of mass destruction there. I do not believe that anyone could have been cynical enough to start that war without truly (but self-deceptively) believing that the weapons were there.
Trivers’ theory of self-deception is still in its infancy, but I am eagerly following his work to see what direction it will take. Knowing Trivers’ history of being reliably correct I think he might just be up to something.

If you wish to read more about Robert Trivers and his ideas about self-deception run down to your nearest bookstore and get his brand new book Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others published by Penguin.