Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers
Born (1943-02-19) February 19, 1943
Washington, D.C.
Citizenship American
Alma mater Harvard University
  • Lorna Staple (1974-1988)
  • Debra Dixon (1997-2004)
Children 4
Awards Crafoord Prize (2007)
Scientific career
Fields Biology
Institutions Rutgers University
Thesis Natural Selection and Social Behavior (1972)
Doctoral advisor Ernest Williams
Influences W. D. Hamilton
Influenced Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Jon Seger

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.


Trivers studied evolutionary theory with Ernst Mayr and William Drury at Harvard from 1968 to 1972, when he earned his PhD in biology.[1] His first major paper, "Reciprocal Altruism", was published in 1971.[2]


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".[3][4]

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 was "ex-communicated" from the Panthers by Newton in 1982 for "his own good."[9]

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

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' 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."[10]


Trivers is among the most influential evolutionary theorists alive today.[11] Steven Pinker considers Trivers to be "one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought", who has:[12]

...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


  • 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
  • Trivers R (2015) Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist. Plympton. ISBN 978-1938972126

See also


  1. Trivers, 2015, ch 3
  2. The Evolutionary Revolutionary
  3. "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.
  4. "Jamaican-born (sic) scientist gets top award". Jamaica Gleaner. 2007-01-29. Retrieved 2016-05-23.
  5. "Newton, Huey". African American Registry. Archived from the original on 2012-02-19.
  6. The Evolutionary Revolutionary, The Boston Globe, 27 March 2005
  7. Rosenberg,, Scott (July 6, 1979). "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. Trivers, 2015, p.161
  10. Heyboer, Kelly (February 11, 2014). "Rutgers suspends top anthropology professor for allegedly refusing to teach, report says". Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  11. Kai Kupferschmidt (4 November 2011). "Sharp Insights and a Sharp Toungue". Science. 334: 589. Bibcode:2011Sci...334..589K. doi:10.1126/science.334.6056.589.
  12. A Full-Force Storm with Gale Winds Blowing
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