Trivers studied evolutionary theory with Ernst Mayr at Harvard from 1968 to 1972, when he earned his Ph.D. in biology. The second half of his first major paper, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" was published in 1971.
Trivers was on the faculty at Harvard University from 1973 to 1978, and then moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz where he was a faculty member 1978 to 1994. He is currently a Rutgers University notable faculty member. In the 2008–09 academic year, he was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin).
Trivers was awarded the 2007 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for "his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation".
Trivers is arguably one of the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.Steven Pinker considers Trivers to be "one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought", who has:
inspired an astonishing amount of research and commentary in psychology and biology—the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian social science, and behavioral ecology are in large part attempt to test and flesh out Trivers' ideas. It is no coincidence that E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene were published in 1975 and 1976 respectively, just a few years after Trivers' seminal papers. Both bestselling authors openly acknowledged that they were popularizing Trivers' ideas and the research they spawned. Likewise for the much-talked-about books on evolutionary psychology in the 1990s—The Adapted Mind, The Red Queen, Born to Rebel, The Origins of Virtue, The Moral Animal, and my own How the Mind Works. Each of these books is based in large part on Trivers' ideas and the explosion of research they inspired (involving dozens of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and cognitive psychology).
Trivers, R. L. (1991) Deceit and self-deception: The relationship between communication and consciousness. In: M. Robinson and L. Tiger (eds.) Man and Beast Revisited, Smithsonian, Washington, DC, pp. 175–191.