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Robert Trivers

did not evolve before reciprocal altruism as a prerequisite, but evolved after reciprocal altruism as a way of motivating and shaping our reciprocal relationships.

RMN: According to the theory of natural selection, species evolve to adapt to the local environment to align with the forces of the external world. For example, the Spots on the heads of gull chicks will co-evolve with the parental ability to recognize them. Have you considered the possibility that this process may operate both ways; i.e., that the environment may also adapt to conform with the needs of the organism it is nurturing and does natural selection support the idea of evolution as a co-creative transaction between the organism and the environment?

ROBERT: I have considerable difficulty with that notion, except in the sense that you probably don’t mean it: that the environment consists of other living creatures, and so the environment and the species we’re considering both evolve. The species we’re thinking about imagining is selected by the environment it lives in, but the environment it lives in is itself made up of living organisms which are being selected by reference to their environments, which include the species we’re imagining. But, if you ask can I see how the environment would evolve to nurture the species, I’m dubious.

DJB: What percentage of human behavior do you think is genetically hard-wired and what percentage of human behavior do you think is due to environmental learning, and what evidence can you call upon to support your viewpoint?

ROBERT: I don’t think your question really permits any kind of precise answer. I think it’s inherently impossible to assign a percentage to environment and a percentage to genetic influences. The only way you could do that would be to specify the full range of environmental contingencies, and the full range of genetic contingencies, and that seems like a hopeless way to operate. For example, traits like two legs and five toes on each leg are “hard-wired” genetically, but we can always produce an intervention in early embryology which will interrupt the natural train of events, and result in someone with no limbs, or with an unusual number of digits. So, if we include that environmental range, then the percentage of genetic determination drops below a hundred percent. I don’t see any way to state how much of human behavior is genetically hard-wired, whatever that precisely means, or how much is environmentally determined.

DJB: Bob, you wrote the introduction to Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, the first place I ever heard of the concept of memes-that is, non-genetic clusters of information that replicate themselves from brain to brain much as genes do from body to body, and appear to evolve through a process akin to natural selection. In light of this theory, can you explain why some people forfeit opportunities for genetic reproduction in order to propagate memes-many artists and scientists, for example, never have children–and do you think it’s possible that the goal of evolution is not really genetic replication, but rather information replication?

ROBERT: Once again, I just have to express myself as being dubious. I was dubious of the attention that Dawkins gave to the concept of memes in his original book, and I don’t see ideas replicating themselves between people, and being selected in a process analogous to natural selection. I see each of us trying to influence others via our ideas, and each of us being selective regarding the ideas we accept and the ideas we reject, and the way in which we decide to modify ideas that we do accept.

A general term like information transfer, or information maximization, might work better. I just don’t know how to relate to it within the one system of thought that I’m comfortable with, which is evolutionary theory. Regarding the notion that many artists and scientists have few or no children, I don’t know what the evidence for that is. If it were true, I suppose I would fall back on some hunter-gatherer imaginary scene in which the shaman or the artist made a disproportionate contribution to the welfare of his or her local group, and this made up for any deficiency in personal reproduction.

RMN: You say that natural selection is described as disruptive when it favors extremes to create a polarity and you cite human sexual dimorphism as an example. What do you mean by this?

ROBERT: Well, you’d have to go a ways back in our own lineage, but if you go back in any species that has two sexes, you’d reach a species where there’s only one sex, an original hermaphroditic form, which gave rise to the species with two sexes. Now, once you have two separate sexes, if selection operates against

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