Robert Trivers

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Bob Trivers
Robert Ludlow Trivers

(1943-02-19) February 19, 1943 (age 78)
Alma materHarvard University
Known forTrivers–Willard hypothesis
  • Lorna Staple (1974-1988)
  • Debra Dixon (1997-2004)
AwardsCrafoord Prize (2007)
Scientific career
InstitutionsRutgers University
ThesisNatural Selection and Social Behavior (1972)
Doctoral advisorErnest Williams[1]
InfluencesW. D. Hamilton
InfluencedSteven Pinker
E. O. Wilson
Richard Dawkins
Bret Weinstein
Jon Seger[citation needed]

Robert Ludlow "Bob" Trivers (/ˈtrɪvərz/; born February 19, 1943) is an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist. Trivers proposed the theories of reciprocal altruism (1971), parental investment (1972), facultative sex ratio determination (1973), and parent–offspring conflict (1974). He has also contributed by explaining self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy (first described in 1976) and discussing intragenomic conflict.[2]


Trivers studied evolutionary theory with Ernst Mayr and William Drury at Harvard from 1968 to 1972, when he earned his PhD in biology.[3] At Harvard he published a series of some of the most influential and highly cited papers in evolutionary biology. His first major paper as a graduate student was, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism, published in 1971.[4] In this paper Trivers offers a solution to the longstanding problem of cooperation among unrelated individuals and by doing so overcame a crucial problem for how to police the system by proposing ways that the process of natural selection could evolve ways to detect cheaters. His next major paper, Parental Investment and Sexual Selection was published the following year. Here Trivers proposed a general framework for understanding sexual selection that had bedeviled evolutionary thinkers since Darwin. This is arguably his most important paper and arose from watching male and female pigeons out the window of his 3rd floor apartment in Cambridge Massachusetts and by his reading a paper by Angus Bateman 'Intra-sexual selection in Drosophila' which demonstrated that the cause of sex differences in the intensity of selection in fruit flies was based on their ability to obtain mates. Trivers primary insight was that the key variable underlying the evolution of sex differences across species was relative parental investment in offspring.

Career and research[edit]

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 Berlin Institute for Advanced Study.

Trivers was awarded the 2007 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for "his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation".[5][6]

Trivers met Huey P. Newton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, in 1978 when Newton applied while in prison to do a reading course with Trivers as part of a graduate degree in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz.[7] Trivers and Newton became close friends: Newton was godfather to one of Trivers's daughters.[8] Trivers joined the Black Panther Party in 1979.[9] Trivers and Newton published an analysis of the role of self-deception by the flight crew in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.[10] Trivers was "ex-communicated" from the Panthers by Newton in 1982 for "his own good."[11]

Trivers wrote the original foreword to Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, in which Trivers first proposed his adaptive theory of self-deception.[citation needed]

In 2015, Rutgers University suspended Trivers with pay as part of an ongoing dispute regarding a class the Anthropology department had assigned to him. Trivers said that he was told to teach the class even though he objected that he knew nothing about the specific subject. In his first lecture, Trivers told the class he would do his best to learn the subject along with them and with the help of guest lecturers. Rutgers suspended Trivers for involving the students in the controversy. Trivers told the Rutgers campus newsletter that Rutgers's officials refused to meet with him. Trivers also told the student paper: "You would think the university would show a little respect for my teaching abilities on subjects that I know about and not force me to teach a course on a subject that I do not at all master."[12]


Trivers is among the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.[13] Steven Pinker considers Trivers to be "one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought", who has:[14]

...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's 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's seminal papers. Both bestselling authors openly acknowledged that they were popularizing Trivers's 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's ideas and the explosion of research they inspired, involving dozens of animal species, mathematical and computer modeling, and human social and cognitive psychology.

Significant papers[edit]

  • Trivers, R. L. (1971). "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 46 (1): 35–57. doi:10.1086/406755. JSTOR 2822435.
  • Trivers, R. L. (1972) Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.) Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp 136–179). Chicago, Aldine.
  • Trivers, RL; Willard, DE (1973). "Natural selection of parental ability to vary the sex ratio of offspring". Science. 179 (4068): 90–2. Bibcode:1973Sci...179...90T. doi:10.1126/science.179.4068.90. JSTOR 1734960. PMID 4682135.
  • Trivers, R. L. (1974). "Parent-Offspring Conflict". American Zoologist. 14 (1): 249–264. doi:10.1093/icb/14.1.249.
  • Trivers, R. L.; Hare, H. (1976). "Haploidploidy and the evolution of the social insect". Science. 191 (4224): 249–63. Bibcode:1976Sci...191..249T. doi:10.1126/science.1108197. PMID 1108197.
  • 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.



  1. ^
  2. ^ Robert Trivers at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences
  3. ^ Trivers, 2015, ch 3
  4. ^ The Evolutionary Revolutionary
  5. ^ "The Crafoord Prize in Biosciences 2007". The Crafoord Prize (website). 2007-01-18. Archived from the original on 2007-01-27. Retrieved 2007-01-29.
  6. ^ "Jamaican-born (sic) scientist gets top award". Jamaica Gleaner. 2007-01-29. Retrieved 2016-05-23.
  7. ^ "Newton, Huey". African American Registry. Archived from the original on 2012-02-19.
  8. ^ The Evolutionary Revolutionary, The Boston Globe, 27 March 2005
  9. ^ Rosenberg, Scott (July 6, 1979). "Sociobiology Pioneer Joins Black Panthers". The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, Inc.
  10. ^ Trivers, R.L. & Newton, H.P. Science Digest 'The crash of flight 90: doomed by self-deception?' November 1982, pp 66,67,111.
  11. ^ Trivers, 2015, p.161
  12. ^ Heyboer, Kelly (February 11, 2014). "Rutgers suspends top anthropology professor for allegedly refusing to teach, report says". Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  13. ^ Kai Kupferschmidt (4 November 2011). "Sharp Insights and a Sharp Toungue". Science. 334 (6056): 589–591. Bibcode:2011Sci...334..589K. doi:10.1126/science.334.6056.589. PMID 22053025.
  14. ^ A Full-Force Storm with Gale Winds Blowing