Book review: Wild Life by Robert Trivers

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!

13 thoughts on “Book review: Wild Life by Robert Trivers

  1. I’ve met Trivers once, and I can only say this book sounds very much like chatting to him. I’ve ordered a copy immediately, as well as a copy of Lab Girl and A Reason for Everything.

    Please do not start reviewing cars or houses, as I may become destitute very quickly.

  2. A friend of mine recently recommended this to me, he said it totally blew his mind, and convinced him a lot of fundamental things about the role of self-deception in behavior that he hadn’t thought of before. I thought this book would be rather low on my list, but I’m definitely intrigued. At the very least, I now want to learn more about self-deception.

    • If you read it, I’d be very interested to hear what you think of it. I think it’s unusually difficult to predict how people will react to it, because it’s so unconventional. Even the most obvious comparison–Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman–isn’t really that close, I don’t think (though I can’t say for sure as I haven’t read SYJMF). For instance, the book seems to have split Trivers’ admirers–Tyler Cowen liked it, but the reviewer for the Prior Probability blog hated it. And in a moment in which it seems obligatory to evaluate everything we read, hear, and watch through the lens of politics, Trivers’ book is likely to inspire confused and contradictory reactions, I think. Trivers doesn’t fit neatly into our usual boxes, so he’s not easily used an example to illustrate any familiar political or scientific point. This is in contrast to someone like Feynman, who seems to have been a paradigmatic example of a certain recognizable and widely-discussed “type”, both scientifically and personally. That’s why the recent fight over whether Feynman was Good or Bad was so predictable. Trivers certainly has elements of that “type”–but he also has elements of other “types”, mixed so as to defy easy categorization.

      For my own part, Wild Life didn’t blow my mind or convince me of any larger point, not even about the role of self-deception in behavior. But your mileage may vary, obviously.

  3. @Jeremy

    Thanks for trying to bring the book out of obscurity. I’m just curious why you think we can separate Trivers the person from Trivers the scientist. Admittedly, I’m not familiar with his work but from some quick sources and he seems like an unconventional thinker and given that most of evolutionary thinking started from personal observation and experience, how can we objectively separate his personality and life experience from his perspectives on evolutionary psychology? Trivers claimed that he did not live a more self-reflective life but self-reflection is done after the fact. I’m not sure there is evidence that he is career trouble maker. But he seems extremely open minded and active about his open mindedness. Yes, trouble can find you easily if occupy that part of the continuum. At the same time, a novel situation requires a novel response otherwise one becomes a victim of the situation. That is just evolution 101. If we accept that organismal behaviours do evolve as a result of novel encounters, why can’t we accept the same for humans? That is, why shouldn’t we expect life encounters to influence the views of an evolutionary psychologist?

    • “I’m just curious why you think we can separate Trivers the person from Trivers the scientist. ”

      Oh, I don’t think we can *separate* them. I just question whether we can understand the connections, either for any particular scientist or for scientists in general. A single tangled ball of yarn isn’t the same thing as two separate, unconnected balls of yarn (the “scientist” ball and the “person” ball). And just as two different tangled balls of yarn can be tangled quite differently, two different scientists can have differently-tangled connections between their science and their personal lives. Think for instance of how leading 20th century arch-selectionist evolutionary biologists include people as different in their politics as Trivers, Maynard Smith, and Dawkins. And conversely think about how political Marxists/communists/socialists count among their number both arch-selectionists like Maynard-Smith, and those like Gould who downplayed the importance of selection in evolution.

      “I’m not sure there is evidence that he is career trouble maker. ”

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “career trouble maker”, but I encourage to read the book (and read up on the many incidents Trivers left out). Trivers certainly has gotten himself into lots of professional trouble over the years. He was denied tenure at Harvard in 1978 despite the massive influence of his early work. At Rutgers he’s been disciplined multiple times for confrontational behavior with faculty and administrators (including physical confrontation).

  4. Thanks for the clarification and the book is definitely on my “to read” list.
    By “career trouble maker”, I meant consistent violation of code of ethics. Physical confrontation is definitely not acceptable. However, standing for one’s convictions can attract disciplinary actions too and we can argue about what is a justifiable discipline. Academe does not always operate on a rational ground. So I wouldn’t expect someone with his mindset to have an unblemished record.

    Just curious, what’s your view on “fit”. It’s becoming a prevalent language in hiring processes these days. Candidly, I don’t know what it means. But I imagine someone like Trivers being considered a bad fit to a large degree and in the current academic climate, he might not be able to get a job. But if someone has a great potential as a scientist but fundamentally “flawed” (character-wise), should we deny that person of the opportunity because they are likely to be of bad fit (whatever that means to science)?

    • Re: “fit”, yes, academics who are difficult to get along with sometimes find it hard to get and keep jobs. Sometimes rightfully so. Though it depends on why exactly they’re “difficult”. I’m thinking for instance of Joe Craine, an ecologist who was recently fired from a tenured position at Kansas State after making a false and at least irresponsible accusation of scientific misconduct against a colleague. The news reports I read indicated there was a long history of personal friction between Craine and some of his colleagues. And I know of other examples of people whose difficult personalities contributed to them not getting tenure, or not getting hired in the first place, despite substantial scientific accomplishments.

      On the other hand, one can point to cases in which universities have protected serial sexual harassers for years despite repeated official and unofficial complaints (e.g., the recent John Searle case in philosophy at Berkeley).

      Anecdotally, mathematics as a field tends to be quite tolerant of people with personalities that might be widely seen as eccentric and difficult. Think for instance of Paul Erdos, who spent decades bumming around the world, living off the hospitality of his many mathematical friends. He’d just show up at their houses unannounced in the middle of the night and stay for weeks or months at a time, while making a mess and expecting to be cared for in weird ways. But everyone loved him, or at least tolerated him. That’s in part because he had many compensating virtues, mathematically and personally (brilliant, kind, etc.). But I think it’s also in part because there are many socially-awkward and eccentric people in mathematics, so mathematicians as a group are tolerant of social awkwardness and eccentricity.

      Obviously, what sorts of unconventional behavior will or should be tolerated depends very much on the details of the behavior. Tolerating Erdos-style eccentricity is totally different from tolerating sexual harassment or bullying or etc. And with some behaviors, it’s a matter of degree.

  5. Many thanks for this review and subsequent discussion. It might interest you that i now have an agent and she will try to find a publisher so i can get out of this ‘self published’ book quagmire where the book lacks any publicity except for the occasional review such as this. But she has encouraged me to put more of my science in there, which i am busy doing. An early chapter will be on Five Famous Papers and a late one will be on Genetic Conflict within Ourselves. i will scatter some more biology where appropriate. BTW was stunned to learn there is a conflict underway as to whether Richard Feynman was good or bad. Will have to check what they mean by these words but he was certainly brilliant.

    • Thanks Bob. Good luck with the publisher search, I’d look forward to reading a revised and expanded edition of Wild Life.

      The recent controversy over Feynman was started by an essay about him that was widely interpreted as using his unquestioned brilliance to downplay or excuse his behavior towards women.

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