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Robert Trivers

Replicating Genes

“…will we do away with whole areas of the earth, then face what it’s like to have ten to twelve billion people on this planet?”

with Robert Trivers

Are social behaviors genetically inheritable? Do they evolve through time like physical characteristics? The science of sociobiology has developed in order to study these questions. In the controversial field of sociobiology, there is no one as controversial as Robert Trivers, for he has certainly been the most daring in applying the “selfish gene” theory of sociobiology to human behavior and psychology. Recognized as one of the world’s most eminent sociobiologists, Robert Trivers was born in 1943 in Washington D.C. to a Foreign Service Officer and a poet, as the second of seven children. His early academic interests (“after the Bible, ” he clarifies) included astronomy and mathematics. He earned his B.A. from Harvard in U.S. History in 1965. Then he wrote and illustrated children ‘s books for two years before returning to Harvard, where he studied biology, and received his Ph.D. in 1972. He taught at Harvard until 1978, and after that at the UC Santa Cruz, where he continues to teach to this day. In May 1979 he joined the Black Panther Party, and has been referred to by his colleague Burney Le Boeufas “the blackest white man I know. “

Dr. Trivers is perhaps most famous for his theory of reciprocal altruism, which is a model for explaining and predicting altruism in animals precisely based on return-effect or chances of reciprocity. He has also written papers on parental investment and sexual selection, sex ratio theory, parent-offspring conflict and the social behavior of lizards and insects. He is the author of Social Evolution, a fascinating sociobiological textbook which was published in 1985 by Benjamin-Cummings of Menlo Park. He spends a good deal of time in Jamaica with his children, and has described himself as “Jamaican in my soul or spirit. ” He is currently working on the evolution of “selfish genes ” and resulting intra-genomic conflict, the effects of blood parasites on sexual selection in Anolis lizards, and deceit and self-deception. We met Bob on the evening of January 18th, 1 989 at the Woodshed, a country bar in Felton, California. Bob spoke to us about his theory reciprocal altruism, selfish genes, the evolution of sex, and muses with us on how and why consciousness evolved. There is a wild unpredictable quality to Bob’s personality. He seems untamed and street-wise in a rather charming sort of way.


DJB: Bob, what was it that originally spawned your interest in biology and the evolution of social behavior?

ROBERT: When I graduated from college I was offered a job writing, and later illustrating children’s books for part of a curriculum. The curriculum was called “Man: A Course of Study,” and was meant to be the new social science, analogous to the new math, and the new physics. Since I didn’t know anything about humans, they asked me to work on some animal material that they wanted to include in the course. I also didn’t know anything about animals but they cared less about getting that stuff accurate.

So my first exposure to animal behavior came through this job, and I was impressed with two things. One, by watching movies of baboons, I was impressed by how psychologically similar they seemed to ourselves, and that any explanation therefore of our own psyche would have to include arguments that could apply to baboons as well. And the second thing was I learned about the concept of evolution through natural selection. So within about six months of graduating from college, I had had my life turned around. I had never had biology before, never had chemistry, and I became convinced that the basis for a scientific theory of psychology lay in animal behavior and evolutionary theory. So I threw myself into it.

DJB: Can you briefly describe your theory of reciprocal altruism?

ROBERT: Reciprocal altruism is very, very simple and encompassed in the folk saying, “You scratch my back, I’11 scratch yours.” It simply posits that organisms, besides humans, or in addition to humans, are capable of trading altruistic acts over a period of time, in which each individual is sensitive to the tendency of the other individual to be reciprocal, or perhaps not to be reciprocal, or as I put it, to cheat on the relationship. So the theory of reciprocal altruism applied to humans says that traits like friendship

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