Robert Trivers, the world’s foremost living evolutionary theorist, is retiring from Rutgers University. Last year, he published his memoir, Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist. Here’s my review.
It’s hard to overestimate how influential Robert Trivers has been. Within a 5-year span in the early 1970s he revolutionized the evolutionary study of behavior. His first paper, published when he was still a grad student, proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited over 10,000 times. His second paper was a book chapter proposing that differential investment of male and female parents in their offspring has far-reaching consequences for sexual selection. That chapter has been cited over 12,000 times.* Then, in a paper co-authored with Dan Willard, came the radical idea that parents might adaptively adjust the sex ratio of their offspring based on the expected fitness of those offspring. Then came the equally radical idea of parent-offspring conflict. Finally, Trivers and his collaborator Hope Hare published some of the best empirical evidence for W. D. Hamilton’s haplodiploidy hypothesis for the evolution of eusociality.
None of which receives more than a passing mention in Wild Life.
The book is not an intellectual autobiography. Trivers says in his introduction that he sees his professional and personal life as inseparable. But he doesn’t much explain those connections; indeed his professional career hardly gets a look-in. Not only doesn’t he talk much about his work, he doesn’t talk much about his intellectual development, except for a chapter on how he stumbled into evolutionary biology.
So the focus is on his personal life. But the choice of topics likely will surprise you. For instance, his youth as the son of a diplomat gets less than a page, and his two ex-wives and five children are mentioned only in passing. Rather, the book is a collection of personal anecdotes, loosely organized by theme rather than chronologically. Most of them are set in Jamaica, where Trivers has spent much of his adult life living and doing field work on lizards.
Well, doing field work on lizards, plus struggling with bipolar disorder, smoking marijuana, pursuing Jamaican women, and getting into some very dangerous situations. There’s no point being anything other than up-front about those aspects of Trivers’ life, because Trivers himself is totally up-front about them. Probably more than a few field ecologists have scary-at-the-time-but-funny-in-retrospect stories about almost driving off a cliff on a rural back road. But unlike Trivers, none of them also have stories about spending time in a Jamaican prison, joining the Black Panthers and befriending Panthers founder Huey Newton (Trivers is white, by the way), various Jamaican murder cases, and more. Some of these stories are funny, some are harrowing, and some are both; Trivers often turns his sardonic sense of humor on himself as he recalls bad decisions that landed him in trouble. And sometimes his own good intentions get him into trouble, as he stands up for what he believes to be right and suffers consequences.
Trivers also shares his unvarnished recollections of various famous evolutionary biologists. He recalls Ernst Mayr fondly and Stephen Jay Gould, um, rather less fondly.
The book does have two running intellectual themes, though they’re mostly under the surface. To appreciate them it helps to already be familiar with Trivers’ work. The most important running theme is that people and other organisms often attempt to deceive one another, and that successfully deceiving others often means first deceiving yourself. That is, self-deception often is adaptive, and so is very hard for any individual to avoid. This theme is the subject of Trivers’ previous book, The Folly of Fools. But of course, what’s adaptive in some contexts can be maladaptive in others. In a touching final chapter Trivers laments repeatedly deceiving himself and not living a more self-reflective life.
A second running theme is that natural selection is the key to understanding human as well as animal behavior. Readers who only know Trivers’ theoretical work might be surprised at how this theme develops. Trivers was a math prodigy as a child, and became a theoretician known for simple, elegant models that strip biology down to its essence. Just knowing that much, you could be forgiven for assuming that he’s ignorant of real-world natural history. Which would be wrong. The book is very natural historical. The book is dedicated to William Drury, a Massachusetts Audobon Society ornithologist whom Trivers credits with teaching him biology. Trivers is a close and keen observer of behavior, and not just of lizards. He notices lots of little things, like which of the pigeons outside his window try to roost next to which others. He then interprets all those observations through the lens of natural selection. Trivers is the founding father of evolutionary psychology, and it shows. Wild Life embodies the roots of that field’s strengths as well as its weaknesses: close attention to even seemingly-insignificant details, coupled with a methodological commitment to viewing those details through a Darwinian lens.
I suspect that Wild Life would make an interesting companion piece for another recent scientific memoir, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (I say “suspect” because I have yet to read Lab Girl myself; I’ve only read excerpts and reviews and spoken to people who’ve read it). Trivers and Jahren both have struggled with bipolar disorder,and both Trivers and Jahren describe getting into various unusual and in some cases near-fatal scrapes. Another interesting companion piece to Wild Life is A Reason For Everything, Marek Kohn’s collection of potted biographies of leading 20th century British evolutionary biologists (Fisher, Haldane, Ford, Maynard Smith, Dawkins, et al.). All of whom shared Trivers’ deep intellectual commitment to evolution by natural selection as “the reason for everything”, but all of whom were very different from Trivers, and one another, on a personal level. Kohn’s book illustrates that, although there may well be connections between scientists’ professional work and personal lives, those connections are quite varied.
I confess to mixed feelings about scientific biographies that try to make too much of those connections. Trying to weave a coherent tapestry out of tangled threads. The urge to come to a unified understanding of a complex, unique human being can be taken to what seem to me to be unhelpful extremes. For instance, using the fact that someone was a great scientist to excuse or minimize their serious personal failings, or conversely using someone’s serious personal failings to minimize the importance of their great scientific contributions (e.g., the recent controversy over how we should think about Richard Feynman). As Janet Stemwedel wrote, people aren’t resultant vectors arrived at by adding together lots of particular vectors (the “personal life” vector, the “scientific contributions” vector, etc.). Like Anthony Lane, I think we need to recover the lost art of being of (at least) two minds about people. In a funny way I’m glad that Trivers isn’t more explicit about the connections between his research and the rest of his life. The disjointedness of Wild Life and the uniqueness of its subject work together to frustrate any attempt to come to a unified evaluation of Trivers the scientist and Trivers the person. Indeed, Trivers himself seems to have mixed feelings about his own life.
The experience of reading Wild Life is a bit like spending an evening with Robert Trivers while he tells many of his best stories. I recommend Wild Life as long as that’s what you’re looking for.
p.s. Wild Life is self-published, which is why you haven’t seen many other reviews of it. Most US newspapers will not review self-published books. Nor will most major periodicals, including Science and Nature I believe. But here are reviews by Jon Losos in Current Biology, David Barash in the LA Review of Books, economist Tyler Cowen, and the Prior Probability blog. Note that my summary of Trivers’ career is a condensed version of Barash’s summary. See also this very good longread on Trivers from Psychology Today.
*The citation counts for Trivers’ first two publications are just hilariously high. David Tilman hasn’t written any papers or book chapters that have been cited anywhere near that often. The only ecologists I found who have even one paper or book chapter that’s been cited 10,000 times on Google Scholar are Anderson & May. I didn’t find anyone with two. Ok, I didn’t search exhaustively. But still!