Scorned Genius: Robert Trivers – “Altruism” Is Really Selfish, Of Course


The genetic basis for behavior is the basis for all kinds of professional problem-solving going forward.  If we don’t understand how and why behaviors make sense and may have evolved – we have no evidence-basis or intellectual grounding for understanding behavior – or any kind of remediation.

No one has had more to say about the ironclad biological logic of behaviors than Robert Trivers.  So too, what he has said can be measured and tested – across species.  If there are going to be equations describing behaviors – they will be based on Triver’s work.  Heck, it only took 100 years for some of Einstein’s equations to be tested!

Like all brilliant new ideas that challenge pop(ular) cultural and academic beliefs, his work has been largely shuffled into the shadows.  His main finding – “altruism” is a myth and biologically impossible.  Predictably, the main line of attack against the scary new ideas has been to attack Trivers personally.  Ad hominem writing about Trivets has effectively diffused attention to his ideas.  “Attacking the messenger” is the default response of our brains to the best new ideas, of course.

Most problems now are behavioral problems.  With brain science and genetics advancing, understanding the evolutionary basis of behavior, and being able to test new theories, is critical.  Anything that involves behavior, genes and evolution is going to be founded on Triver’s work.

There is much more but here is a good testament by Steven Pinker.  Ironically, Trivers was dishonestly excluded from Harvard.


I’m very pleased to hear that Edge is having an event highlighting the work of Robert Trivers on deceit and self-deception. 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.

In an astonishing burst of creative brilliance, Trivers wrote a series of papers in the early 1970s that explained each of the five major kinds of human relationships:

  • male with female – Trivers pointed out that the partial overlap of genetic interests between individuals should, according to evolutionary biology, put them in a conflict of psychological interest as well
  • parent with child – The love of parents, siblings, and spouses should be deep and powerful but not unmeasured, and there should be circumstances in which their interests diverge and the result is psychological conflict
  • sibling with sibling
  • acquaintance with acquaintance –  In the fourth case Trivers pointed out that cooperation between nonrelatives can arise only if they are outfitted with certain cognitive abilities (an ability to recognize individuals and remember what they have done) and certain emotions (guilt, shame, gratitude, sympathy, trust)—the core of the moral sense
  • a person with himself or herself – Trivers pointed out that all of us have a motive to portray ourselves as more honorable than we really are, and that since the best liar is the one who believes his own lies, the mind should be “designed” by natural selection to deceive itself.

These theories have 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 Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene were published in  1976, just a few years after Trivers’ seminal papers. Dawkins 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 Origin 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).

But Trivers’ ideas are, if such a thing is possible, 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.

The point that partial genetic overlap among individuals leads to partial conflicts of interests in their motives explains why human life is so endlessly fascinating – why we love, and why we bicker with those we love; why we depend on one another, and why a part of us mistrusts the people we depend on; why we know so much about ourselves, but can’t see ourselves as others see us; why brilliant people do stupid things and evil men are convinced of their rectitude.  Trivers has explained why our social and mental lives are more interesting than those of bugs and frogs and why novelists, psychotherapists, and philosophers (in the old sense of wise commentators on the human condition) will always have something to write about.

Trivers is an under-appreciated genius. [Much worse than underappreciated – his work has been actively combatted with dishonest ad hominem attacks and political correctness distractions.  Dishonest tactics, but effective.]  Social psychology should be based on his theory, but the textbooks barely acknowledge him. Even in his own field he has been overshadowed in the public eye by those who have popularized his ideas. An Edge event with other leading third culture thinkers focusing on his work will be a major contribution, and begin to give this great mind the acknowledgement it deserves.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s