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Robert Trivers

engineering and the possibility, which to some scientists is a very real one, that we will soon have the ability to control our evolution by programming our future genetic forms?

ROBERT: I have not been frightened by genetic engineering. I do not believe it will create monsters that will run rampant. I’ve always believed that natural selection would still be acting, and acting very strongly.

RMN: On the scientists that create the genetic mutations?

ROBERT: Well, I was thinking on the genetic mutants themselves. In other words, when the, say, anti-frost bacteria were first sprayed on plants here in California experimentally, people said, well Jesus what happens if you got a monster bacterium that’s going to cut loose and cause all sorts of havoc, and run amok. I just didn’t imagine that it would happen because monsters are being produced, probably daily, in this world, through mutation and recombination, and are being selected against, and I didn’t see, and don’t see any reason why artificial forms created in the lab wouldn’t be subject to strong selection too. As for genetic engineering in the human species, I imagine it’s inevitable, and Probably in a hundred or two hundred years we’ll scarcely be able to imagine the genetic manipulations that’ll be possible.

RMN: In your book Social Evolution you state that the primary function of sex is to generate genetic novelty in the offspring, which can better adapt to the changing environmental conditions. You also say that natural selection favors individuals who maximize the number of offspring. Two factors are being described here–that of quality and that of quantity. How do you see these factors operating in evolution?

ROBERT: The simple answer is that quality can always be converted into quantity for the purposes of evolutionary theory. So, one pair of parents can produce four offspring of low quality, where quality is measured as their ability to survive and reproduce, and another pair of parents can produce two offspring of high quality, were quality is again defined the same way. In that case, after awhile, the high quality offspring win out, are more numerous. That’s just a tautological system, in which quality refers to eventual ability to survive and reproduce, and therefore converts into quantity.

RMN: Do you see these influences as being equally potent– fifty-fifty?


DJB: Approximately 22,000 Americans commit suicide annually. Clearly suicidal behavior is non-adaptive, and it appears to he related to sexual development- that is, the behavior seems to emerge during adolescence, and is often triggered by the loss of a lover. How do you explain it evolutionarily?

ROBERT: I don’t necessarily explain it evolutionarily. Twenty-two thousand out of two hundred million is still a relatively low frequency. Evolutionary arguments have to start being evoked where you get up to one percent of the population, or something like that, as in schizophrenia. Your statement that suicide is clearly non-adaptive, I think, has to be viewed with a little bit of suspicion. I’m not saying that it is adaptive, but I’m saying one can imagine circumstances under which suicide is adaptive.

You can start with the old Eskimo story of the elders who walked out into the cold to die, to save their children energy and effort. A certain amount of suicide of the elderly has that form. It is also possible for suicide to be adaptive when the alternative is murder of close relatives, or some other behavior that’s going to bring genetic consequences. I think there might be a recent paper, that I’ve not read, on an adaptive approach to suicide, but I don’t see any obvious adaptive sense to it.

RMN: Neophobia, the fear of novel stimuli, can be viewed in some situations as enhancing reproductive success, and in other situations as inhibiting it. If one species evolves to be fearful of novelty, and one species evolves to embrace novelty, how do you think those two species will fare?

ROBERT: I think put in that extreme form one would tend to place one’s bet with the species that embraced novelty, just because novelty is intrinsic to the living world. Evolutionary novelty is occurring in all species, and other species are part of our environment. So even leaving aside geological and climatic changes, which are themselves occurring, there’s novelty always being generated. So it’s hard to imagine a long-term strategy successfully based on extreme neophobia. On the other hand, a lot of creatures, speaking strictly off the top of my head, seem to show some sort of balance between extreme neophobia and just rampant embrace of everything new. I could think of different species, different examples, where the young are, like I say, somewhere in between.

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