Times Magazine listed him as one of the 100 Greatest Thinkers of the 20th Century. Richard Dawkins calls him “A uniquely brilliant scientist.” Science named him “One of the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.”
Stephen Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and author of How the Mind Works, said, “I consider
Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.”
He is Professor Robert Trivers, the man who pulled back the curtain on key concepts of evolved preferences, and produced a major redirection in social and evolutionary psychology. He will speak at the Louisiana Psychological Association workshop on November 9, in New Orleans.
In a series of brilliant papers beginning in the 1970s, he laid out the evolutionary logic and foundational theory for major areas of human social interaction. His combining of psychology and evolutionary biology opened the door to a better understanding of the deep connections of love, cooperation, competition and the unconscious conflicts that accompany them.
In 1971, with, “The evolution of reciprocal altruism,” Dr. Trivers put the heart back into the psyche: Being moral, good, and fair, had in fact, evolved right alongside our purely selfish traits.
The model is where “friendship, dislike, moralistic aggression, gratitude, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt, and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy” could be explained as important adaptations to regulate the reciprocalaltruistic system, sensitive to developmental variables and selected to their specific social environment.
Trivers’ theories inspired a staggering amount of research and discussion with bestsellers like E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and later books like The Adapted Mind, The Red Queen, Born to Rebel, The Origin of Virtue, The Moral Animal, and Evolution of Desire.
As the explosion of research continued, Trivers wrote that some of the ideas had “…almost biblical proportions.” He said, “… you could see how a kind of social heaven and social hell could evolve right here on earth. The social hell was perpetual isolation, perpetual inability to link up with others in a positive way, never being cheated by others to be sure, but at the cost of eternal loneliness. The social heaven was not heavenly in some naïve way, dancing around the mulberry bush together without regard for selfish possibilities. Instead, cooperation required perpetual vigilance to enjoy its fruits, …’”
Together, Trivers’ work helped explain evolved tendencies in romantic relationships between females and males (“Parental Investment and Sexual Selection”) relationships between parents and children, and between siblings (“Parent-offspring conflict”), and how friends deal with friends, acquaintances and strangers (“The evolution of reciprocal altruism”).
In the 1990s, Trivers took another leap and explained an evolutionary logic of self-deception. (“The crash of Flight 90: Doomed by self-deception?” co-authored with Black Panther leader, Huey P. Newton; and “The elements of a scientific theory of self-deception”).
Dr. Trivers has stated that he “… was eager to contribute to building social theory based on natural selection, because a scientific system of social theory must, by logic be based on natural selection, and getting the foundations correct would have important implications for understanding our own psyches and social systems.”
Today, while psychology includes vast amounts of fascinating data and interesting partial theories, it still lacks a foundational, meta-theory, say evolutionary psychologists William Von Hipple and David Buss. In their survey, the two found that almost 90% of social psychologists accept Darwin’s ideas in general, but only about 50% believe that evolved characteristics apply to the human mind and social tendencies.
Trivers himself wrote that he expected his work would be welcomed––he viewed himself to be “on the side of the angels,” he said. Instead, it was labeled “regressive.”
In the past, evolutionary theory may have seemed harsh, and even to be a theory that gives permission for inequality, something psychologists work against. Von Hipple and Buss point to the mistaken idea of “genetic determinism”––the belief that genetic behavior is fixed, and also to the confusion between evolved preferences and actual behaviors in modern humans, as contributing to discomfort with embracing evolution as a metatheory.
Today, a stronger understanding that the expression of these predispositions is plastic, fluid, varying and context-dependent, has worked its way into psychologists’ thinking, along with the acknowledgement that the discipline cannot ignore important science only because it may at times be uncomfortable.
“But Trivers’ ideas are, if such a thing is possible,” said Pinker in an interview with the Edge, an intellectual think tank, “even more important than the countless experiments and field studies they kicked off. They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out,” Pinker said. This may be the case. Trivers Google Scholar citations, now over 44,500, are continuing to increase. Citations for his 10 major papers are much higher now than they were for the first 30 years after publication.
The Louisiana Psychological Association will host the evolutionary theorist at their winter workshop, to be held Friday, November 9, at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.
The one-day event, “Evolutionary Psychology & Ethics,” will address the scientific foundations of self-interest, reciprocal-altruism, cooperation and deception in human relationships, and the evolutionary logic that predicts this complex psychological terrain.
Dr. Trivers will speak on “Ethics and Social Theory: The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” and then on “The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception.
“I will define natural selection, the basis social traits, then concentrate on altruism and quickly move to reciprocal,” he said, and explain gross and subtle cheating, sense of justice and other traits.
In “The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception,” he will start with the co-evolutionary struggle between deceiver and deceived, the intrinsic bias in favor of the deceiver, and the invention of self-deception to facilitate deception.
Also presenting and participating as discussants will be Dr. Jack Palmer, from University of Louisiana Monroe, author of Evolutionary Psychology: The Ultimate Origins of Human Behavior.
Dr. Matthew Rossano, from Southeastern Louisiana University, author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, will also present.
Dr. Michael Chafetz, known for his extensive work in malingering research, and Dr. Denise Newman, chair of the Louisiana Psychological Association Psychotherapy Interest Area and a psychoanalytic psychologist, and others.
Brilliant and controversial, Robert Trivers has attracted attention for his immensely original thinking and also for his unconventional activities. He currently lives in Jamaica, which he loves, and where he studies body symmetry in elite runners, and where he recently completed an autobiographical memoir––Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.
Registration opens August 10 at louisianapsychologicalassociation.org