The evolutionary revolutionary

Drake Bennett writes in The Boston Globe about Robert Trivers:

Trivers Trivers’s ideas have rippled out into anthropology, psychology, sociology, medicine, even economics. His work provided the intellectual basis for the then-emergent field of sociobiology (now better known as evolutionary psychology), which sought to challenge our conceptions of family, sex, friendship, and ethics by arguing (controversially) that everything from rape to religion is bred in the bone through the process of evolution. The linguist and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker calls Trivers ”one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought.”

Now his decades-long absence-what Trivers’s friends and colleagues refer to as his ”fallow period”-finally seems to be ending. In 1994 he left Santa Cruz (”the worst place in the country,” he now calls it) for Rutgers, and this spring he’s back at Harvard as a visiting professor of psychology. A major new book on genetic conflicts within individual organisms, coauthored with Austin Burt, a geneticist at Imperial College London, is due out next spring from Harvard University Press. And thanks to Brockman-agent to some of the biggest names in science-he’s under contract with Viking Penguin to write a popular book on the evolutionary origins of deceit and self-deception, one that will argue that humans have evolved, in essence, to misunderstand the world around them. Trivers thinks it could be the most important topic he has yet studied.

Trivers’s work grew out of an insight made by the Oxford biologist William D. Hamilton, who died in 2000. In a 1964 paper, Hamilton proposed an elegant solution to a problem that had rankled evolutionary theorists for some time. In a battle of the fittest, why did organisms occasionally do things that benefited others at a cost to themselves? The answer, Hamilton wrote, emerged when one took evolution down to the level of the gene. Individuals were merely vessels for genes, which survived from generation to generation, and it made no difference to the gene which organism it survived in. According to this logic, the degree to which an organism was likely to sacrifice for another should vary in direct proportion to the degree of relatedness: Humans, for example, would be more likely to share food with a son than a second cousin, and more likely to share with a second cousin than someone wholly unrelated. Hamilton called the concept ”inclusive fitness.”

In 1976, the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins would popularize Hamilton’s ideas in his book ”The Selfish Gene.” But more than anyone else, it was Trivers, then a graduate student, who grasped the profound implications of Hamilton’s work. In a way, Trivers’s legendary papers of the early 1970s were simply a series of startling applications of its logic.

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