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Robert L. Trivers (File:Loudspeaker.svg /ˈtrɪvərz/; born February 19, 1943) is an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist, who is a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. 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 evolutionarily strategy (first described in 1976) and discussing intragenomic conflict.


Trivers graduated from Phillips Academy in 1961 and intended to study mathematics at Harvard University. However, he ended studying American history, preparing to become a lawyer. He graduated in 1965. He took a psychology class after suffering a breakdown, and was very unimpressed with the state of psychology.[How to reference and link to summary or text] He was prevented from getting into Yale law school by his breakdown, and so took a job writing social science textbooks for children that were never published.[How to reference and link to summary or text] According to The Guardian's Andrew Brown, the breakdown occurred because Trivers stayed up "all night, night after night" reading Ludwig Wittgenstein. This landed him in a hospital where he was "treated with the first generation of effective anti-psychotic drugs" and, as part of his therapy, he took art classes. He then got a job illustrating and later writing a "series of textbooks for high schools".[How to reference and link to summary or text]

While recovering, he took courses in art, and was hired to illustrate, and then to write, a series of textbooks for high schools. Despite his history degree, it was obvious to his supervisors that he knew little about human biology, so he was given the animals to write about, and started to learn modern Darwinian biology.[1]

This exposure to evolutionary theory led him to do graduate work with Ernst Mayr at Harvard from 1968 to 1972. He earned his Ph.D. in biology on June 15, 1972, also from Harvard. The second half of his first major paper, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism" was published in 1971.[2]


Trivers was on faculty at Harvard 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 recently awarded the 2007 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for "his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict and cooperation".[3][4]

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

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.[5] Trivers and Newton became close friends: Newton was godfather to one of Trivers' daughters.[6] Trivers joined the Black Panther Party in 1979. [7] Trivers and Newton published an analysis of the role of self-deception by the flight crew in the crash of Air Florida Flight 90.[8]


Trivers is arguably one of the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.[9] Steven Pinker considers Trivers to be "one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought".[10] Says Pinker, Robert Trivers 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).


Significant papers

  • (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1): 35–57.
  • 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.
  • (1973). Natural selection of parental ability to vary the sex ratio of offspring. Science 179 (4068): 90–2.
  • (1974). Parent-Offspring Conflict. American Zoologist 14 (1): 249–264.
  • (1976). Haploidploidy and the evolution of the social insect. Science 191 (4224): 249–63.
  • 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.


  • Trivers, R. L. (1985) Social Evolution. Benjamin/Cummings, Menlo Park, CA.
  • Trivers, R. L. (2002) Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert L. Trivers. (Evolution and Cognition Series) Oxford University Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-513062-6
  • Burt, A. & Trivers, R. L. (2006) Genes in Conflict : The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. Belknap Press, Harvard. ISBN 0-674-01713-7
  • Trivers R, Palestis BG, Zaatari D. (2009) The Anatomy of a Fraud: Symmetry and Dance TPZ Publishers ISBN 978-0-615-28756-0
  • Trivers R (2011) The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life Basic Books ISBN 978-0-465-02755-2

See also


  1. The Kindness of Strangers
  2. The Evolutionary Revolutionary
  3. The Crafoord Prize in Biosciences 2007. The Crafoord Prize (website). URL accessed on 2007-01-29.
  4. includeonly>"Jamaican-born (sic) scientist gets top award", Jamaica Gleaner, 2007-01-29. Retrieved on 2007-01-29.
  5. Newton, Huey. African American Registry.
  6. The Evolutionary Revolutionary, The Boston Globe, 27 March 2005
  7. Rosenberg,, Scott Sociobiology Pioneer Joins Black Panthers. The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, Inc..
  8. Trivers, R.L. & Newton, H.P. Science Digest 'The crash of flight 90: doomed by self-deception?' November 1982, pp 66,67,111.
  9. Kai Kupferschmidt (4 November 2011). Sharp Insights and a Sharp Toungue. Science 334: 589.
  10. A Full-Force Storm with Gale Winds Blowing

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