Whilst on holiday I decided to read a book telling the life story of one of the world’s most influential evolutionary theorists. Despite it not being about the application of evolutionary psychology to the workplace, I thought this post would be of value regardless.
The scientist in question is Robert Trivers.
Robert Trivers is an American evolutionary biologist, who has managed to revolutionise both the natural and social sciences.
Steven Pinker described Trivers as “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought”, and Time magazine has named him one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. In 2007, Trivers was awarded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for “his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation”, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for evolutionary theory.
Robert Trivers’ key contributions to science are papers he published in the 1970s whilst at Harvard, formulating theories such as Reciprocal Altruism, Parental Investment Theory, and Parent-Offspring Conflict.
Reciprocal Altruism helped explain how cooperation can evolve outside of kinship through mutually beneficial exchanges, whilst Parental Investment Theory predicted that the sex which makes the largest investment in reproduction will be more discriminating in mating, with the sex investing less being forced to compete for mating opportunities. Parental-Offspring Conflict illustrated that families are not harmonious entities, and that offspring compete for greater investment from their parents.
One cannot overstate the influence Trivers’ theories have had on the direction of scientific inquiry. Popular science books such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene drew heavily on Robert Trivers’ papers. Arguably, Trivers’ theories are the pillars of evolutionary psychology.
Most recently, Trivers has created a theory self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Trivers argues that deceit and self-deception are two sides of the same coin- we fool ourselves the better to fool others. I will be reviewing his book The Folly of Fools, exploring its application to business in due course.
Of course, scientific accomplishments do not necessarily make for a riveting autobiography. Academia frequently entails a sedentary, solitary and intensely internal life, one that Trivers states “never appealed to me”. What is so remarkable about Robert Trivers is the rollercoaster life he’s lived instead.
A Wild life is a mixture of recollections of Trivers’ interactions and collaborations with great minds, near-death experiences, and the minds and behaviours of animals.
Welcome to Jamrock
A Wild Life is largely dedicated to Trivers’ time in Jamaica. As a Harvard graduate student Trivers moved to Jamaica to study lizards, becoming known locally as the ‘Lizard Man’. Trivers has spent over 18 years of his life living in the Caribbean.
Unbeknownst to me, lizards are detested by Jamaicans- the equivalent of rats in the West, but also surrounded with superstition. Trivers tells hilarious stories of how he used his lizard powers to scare locals to his advantage.
Trivers documents a cocktail of near-death experiences. As a taster, Trivers has fallen from great heights, has been held at gunpoint during a Kingston nightclub robbery, and has had to defend himself from machete and knife yielding burglars.
Running themes of A Wild Life are Trivers penchant for smoking marijuana, and his fondness of Jamaican women. Infused with Trivers’ use of Jamaican slang, one at times may think they’re not actually reading a scientist’s autobiography, but that of dancehall star.
Trivers is not foreign to fighting either.
For example, Trivers documents getting in a fight with a local Jamaican bully called Jasper, upon witnessing Jasper verbally abuse his (yet to be) mother in law. Unfortunately for Jasper, Trivers taught himself boxing at a young age, and ended up giving him quite a beating.
“As it turned out, though, the boxing match was only the beginning of my fight with Jasper.” Trivers ended up getting arrested for the incident, accompanied by a prolonged court case, where Trivers was found not guilty of the assailant’s counter-charges.
How many times has Trivers been arrested? For strictly criminal offenses, 5 times if I can count correctly.
One of the most comical accounts is Trivers being held in jail for 10 days over a trivial matter of refusing to pay an increased hotel fee for foreigners (with Trivers insisting that he was a Jamaican citizen). Trivers was subsequently charged with credit card fraud. “Jamaica is probably the only country in which you using debit cards permits you to be convicted of ‘credit card’ fraud.”
Civil Rights Activism
As a white American Harvard academic, you may be surprised to learn that Robert Trivers was a member of the Black Panther Party. Trivers worked closely with the controversial figure Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers. More recently, Trivers has become a gay rights activist. Appalled by the treatment of gays in Jamaica, Trivers joined the Homosexual Defense League, with the initiative being based on Black Panther credos.
I’m willing to put my life on the line when those calls come. We will roll in to protect life and if we are late we will gather evidence. We will not just “stand around and look.”
Trivers notes that despite common misconceptions, homosexuality is rife in the natural world and not confined to humans. For example, homosexual behaviour is prevalent in mammals spanning lions, dolphins and various primates. Arguments that homosexuality is unnatural are unfounded.
Regrettably, some perceive evolutionary psychology as justifying racism, misogyny, homophobia and the status quo. As both the grandfather of evolutionary psychology and a civil rights activist, Robert Trivers eloquently demonstrates why this is nonsense.
Many scientists shy away from politics, believing that it compromises their objectivity or that it is not their duty to address social issues directly. Trivers is a glaring exception.
The Way Forward
An implied argument in A Wild Life is that Trivers would have been a more successful scientist had he not lived the way he has. However, I’m not so sure. He may have been a more prolific scientist in terms of output. But it seems that the richness of Trivers’ life experiences arguably increased the scope of his scientific endeavours and the depth of his theorising, rather than serving as a distraction. Not many scientists have been exposed to the various facets of the natural world and of human nature as Trivers has. For example, how many Western scientists have been able (and had the desire) to integrate and defend themselves in a society with one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world?
A major life lesson from A Wild Life is that one must not just study life but also live it. Scientists and academics can spend their whole adult lives studying and thinking, forgoing personal enjoyment and exciting experiences. One shouldn’t let the pursuit of knowledge and scientific advancement sacrifice their personal lives.
Conversely, an internal activity which Trivers promotes is self-reflection; a means of overcoming self-deception. Trivers lists a lack of self-reflection as his biggest regret.
“You self-deceptionist,” my first wife would sneer. “You talk a lot about parent-offspring conflict, yet you neglect your own son.” Guilty as charged. Too much ambition and too little thought about my family: wife, children, and myself.
Trivers concludes A Wild Life by discussing his efforts to reflect when making big life decisions. ‘Autopilot’ used to be viewed by Trivers as a successful strategy for major decisions. “Autopilot? As a means of choosing which of three universities and cities you should live in for the next fifteen years? By definition autopilot is the opposite of careful conscious introspection and evaluation- it is what you do when the path forward is obvious and no rational reflection is needed.”
Trivers discusses how his (lack of) decisions impacted him and his family, resulting in inadequate pay and productivity. “Served me right: if you don’t think through a problem, you shouldn’t be surprised when later it looks as if no one has thought it through.”
Openly revealed in A Wild Life is Trivers’ mental health issues, specifically his suffering from bipolar disorder. As one accused of being self-deceived, Trivers demonstrates moments of piercing introspection.
Act A Fool
There was one passage in A Wild Life with greater relevance to Darwinian Business.
It was on the topic of ‘dummying up’. In contrast to self-deception and the inflation of the self, Trivers mentions a second kind of deception- deceiving down- in which the organism is selected to appear less large and less threatening, thereby gaining an advantage.
Trivers recalls a conversation with the black panther Huey Newton of all people, discussing employees dummying up to avoid being required to do more difficult tasks.
I only wish that one of Richard Nixon’s aides had been on hand to silently activate a tape recorder so that none of this was lost to posterity. Unfortunately, I can only give a rough sketch of Huey’s answer.
If I remember correctly, he imagined a situation in which a waiter is always managing to position himself so as to avoid seeing his boss calling him and to otherwise appear to be working while not actually doing any work. His own monologue in response ran roughly as follows: “Oh, so you’re so dumb that you happen to be looking the other way when I’m trying to get your attention. And you’re so dumb that when you know I am watching you, you decide to polish silverware that needs no polishing. And you’re so dumb that you are always walking toward the pantry without ever reaching it. Well, you’re not that dumb!”- followed perhaps by slapping the organism to the ground, verbally or otherwise. In short, Huey revealed to the actor the hidden logic of his actions, and the final ironic punch line was that, “You’re not that damned dumb” since you’ve managed to arrange all this dumb-acting behavior in such a coherent pattern, designed to deceive your employer.
You can buy a copy of A Wild Life here
Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books
Trivers, R.L. (1974). “Parent-offspring conflict”. Am. Zool. 14: 249–264
Trivers, R.L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.),Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago, IL: Aldine
Trivers, R.L. (1971). “The evolution of reciprocal altruism”. Quarterly Review of Biology 46: 35–57
5 thoughts on “A Wild Life: An overview of Robert Trivers’ autobiography”
Great review. I just saw you on the Dissenter and I’ve been a fanboy of Trivers for a long time. Great review and good interview. D.A., J.D., NYC
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Thanks a lot for your kind words David. I’m pleased you enjoyed my interview for the Dissenter, and that you’ve unearthed this book review.
If you’re a fan of Trivers, you may also be interested in this article I wrote on his theory of self-deception (https://darwinianbusiness.com/2019/10/12/the-evolutionary-logic-of-overconfidence/).
Daniel Williams has also just published a paper on ‘socially adapted belief’, which is highly relevant (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mila.12294).