Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers
Robert Trivers
Evolutionary Biologist; Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University; Author, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist

"I consider Robert Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.

"In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships: male with female, parent with child, sibling with sibling, acquaintance with acquaintance, and a person with himself or herself.   

"These theories have inspired an astonishing amount of research and commentary in psychology and biology—the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempt to test and flesh out Trivers' ideas. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, just a few years after Trivers' seminal papers. Dawkins acknowledged that many of the ideas he presented in the book came from Trivers and the research his ideas spawned. Likewise for the much-talked-about books on evolutionary psychology in the 1990s—The Adapted MindThe Red QueenBorn to RebelThe Origin of Virtue,The Moral Animal, and my own How the Mind Works. Each of these books is based in large part on Trivers' ideas and the explosion of research they inspired (involving dozens of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and cognitive psychology).

"But Trivers' ideas are, if such a thing is possible, even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out."

—Steven Pinker

ROBERT TRIVERS' scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory based on natural selection (of which a theory of self-deception is one part) and the biology of selfish genetic elements (which leads to certain kinds of internal genetic conflicts). His early work—offering unifying theories on reciprocal altruism, parental investment, sexual selection, parent-offspring conflict, the sex ratio, and deceit and self-deception—has now been cited more than 7000 times in the scientific literature.  

He received the $500,000 Crafoord Prize in 2007, given by Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences for exceptional achievements in areas not covered by the Nobel Prizes. According to the Academy, "[Trivers'] pioneering ideas on the evolution of the social behaviour of animals form the basis of much of sociobiology and its research on how cooperation and conflict arise in the animal world."

He is the author of Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary BiologistThe Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life and Social Evolution, Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers; and coauthor (with Austin Burt) of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements.

He was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.