ROBERT TRIVERS' scientific work has concentrated on two areas, social theory based on natural selection (of which a theory of self-deception is one part) and new work on selfish genetic elements (which leads to certain kinds of internal genetic conflicts). His early work—offering unifying theories on reciprocal altruism, parental investment, sexual selection, parent-offspring conflict, the sex ratio, and deceit and self-deception—has now been cited more than 7000 times in the scientific literature. His work on selfish genetic elements has appeared in several articles.
He is the author of Social Evolution, Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.
Trivers was cited in a special Time issue as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th Century.
A FULL-FORCE STORM WITH GALE WINDS BLOWING
[ROBERT TRIVERS:] For the last ten or fifteen years, I've been trying to understand situations in nature in which the genes within a single individual are in disagreement—or put differently, in which genes within an individual are selected in conflicting directions. It's an enormous topic, which 20 years ago looked like a shadow on the horizon, just as about a hundred years ago what later became relativity theory was just two little shadows on the horizon of physics, and blew up to become major developments. In genetics it's fair to say that about 20 years ago a cloud on the horizon was our knowledge that there were so-called selfish genetic elements in various species that propagated themselves at the expense of the larger organism. What was then just a cloud on the horizon is now a full-force storm with gale winds blowing.
An enormous amount of work is pouring out on this topic with an appreciation that, far from being an unusual, rare exception, this is a minority phenomenon in all organisms, including ourselves, and must by logic and by evidence have been an important problem throughout the evolution of the genetic system: namely, how to control and prevent the further spread of such selfish elements. There's a dynamic relationship between these elements and the rest of the organism—or, put in genetic terms, all the other non-linked genes in the organism, which will tend to be selected to suppress these elements, and will then select on the part of the elements for further tricks in a co-evolutionary struggle.
The more we have worked on this the more it has seemed analogous to social interactions at the level of individuals within groups. Some of the same terms we find useful in the latter context, like cooperative, selfish, spiteful, or altruistic behavior, can also be applied to genetic interactions within the individual that run into conflict with each other. There can be spiteful genes, there can be merely selfish genes, there is a whole bunch of cooperative ones, and there are narrowly altruistic ones that only help copies of themselves and not other non-linked genes. This is a deep and important subject and we are, at last, becoming able to see a unified whole and to relate the different parts to each other.
Genetics is extremely difficult, but it is also very rewarding. You get an exactness out of genetics, beginning with Mendel's famous, quantitative pea ratios. It's a quantitative, exact science that is very beautiful, but it's also difficult to master. We've had a long, wonderful tradition of learning an endless series of interesting and sometimes incredible facts about the genetic systems of different organisms without having a clear evolutionary logic for how natural selection works on the genetic system itself. This is a major avenue into that problem.
There is also a personal irony for me in that some of those who were most vitriolic against the social theory that I worked on in the 1970s were population geneticists. I expect them to be equally, or perhaps even more, displeased with this new development. Of course, that only gives me greater satisfaction.
Incidentally, the enormity of the subject required me to get a collaborator and I was very fortunate some twelve years ago to attract Austin Burt, a brilliant Canadian evolutionary geneticist, now working at Imperial College London.
I have completed the genetics work and I am now eager to do some work in psychology. The zeitgeist is such that we are now in the process of putting together an evolutionary psychology. As is often the case, the first hints of it are people running around saying, "Evolutionary psychology is coming! Evolutionary psychology is coming!" but they haven't actually done much work to bring it on. Now we're getting empirical work of increasingly high quality on aspects of human psychology interpreted in an evolutionary way.
The particular sub-area that I'm interested in developing myself has to do with the structure of the mind in terms of biased information flow between the conscious and the unconscious, and the very peculiar and counter-intuitive fact that humans in a variety of situations misrepresent reality to the conscious mind while keeping in the unconscious either a fully accurate, or in any case more accurate, view of that which they misrepresent to the conscious mind. That seems so counter-intuitive that it begs explanation. You would have thought that after natural selection ground away for four billion years and produced these eyeballs capable of such subtlety—color, motion-detection, the details of granularity that we see—you would have perfected the organs for interpretation of reality such that they wouldn't systematically distort the information once it reaches you. That seems like a strange way to design a railroad.
The function of this area of self-deception is intimately connected to deception of others. If you are trying to see through me right now, and if I'm lying about something you actually care about, what you see first, to speak loosely, is my conscious mind and its behavioral effects. You can get some sense of my mood or my affect. The quality of voice might give you stress while trying to deceive you. It is much harder for you to figure out what my unconscious is up to. You have to make a study of my behavior, such as a spouse will do, much to your dismay at times.
One simple logic is that we hide things in our unconscious precisely to hide them better from other people, so the key interaction driving this is deception. I often talk about deceit and self-deception in the same voice because you can't see self-deception properly if you don't appreciate its deceptive possibilities. Likewise, if you talk about deception without any reference to self-deception then you tend unconsciously to limit yourself to consciously promoted deception, and you tend to overlook unconsciously promulgated deception. Each failure to link the two topics limits one's understanding of the topic under consideration.
There is also a new area within individual deception that is related to this concept of self-deception directed towards others, but that has not been worked out in a detailed way. That's the extraordinary finding that our maternal genes and our paternal genes—that is, those we inherited from our mother and those we inherited from our father—are capable of being in conflict with each other, each acting to advance the interest of the relevant parent and his or her relatives. You can have a form of internal deception where the maternal side is over-representing maternal interests which the paternal side is discounting, and vice versa.
For some reason I have had a deep interest in both deception and self-deception way back from childhood. This, of course, preceded my knowledge of evolutionary logic. In one episode I remember my mother wagging her finger in my face, saying, "Remember now, 'Judge not that ye be not judged.’” I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and, of course, this is from Matthew, who recorded Jesus saying, "Judge not that ye be not judged, for with the judgment ye pronounce shall ye be judged. And why are you worried about the mote in your neighbor's eye? First take the beam out of your own, the better to see the mote." It's an allegory for self-deception. You're so busy saying what's wrong with another person, you hypocrite. Get rid of what's wrong with you first, and don't project it onto the other person. That was a life-long meditation my mother gave me, so there must have been something in my behavior.
The great evolutionist, Ernst Mayr, would say to me: "It's very appropriate you're interested in self-deception, since you sure practice a lot of it." At first I didn't know what to say, and then we (Huey Newton and myself) came up with the notion that it's exactly the people who are struggling with their self-deception that you'd expect to find the problem interesting, and maybe make some progress on it. Those unafflicted by it might have low insight and low motivation.
I also remember from my childhood that there was a prized item in a store that had a lot of toys for children. I think it was a knife, but I know it cost six dollars. I saved up six dollars plus the two cents for tax back then, which took me a while under my father's regime of reimbursement for yard work. I went into the store and gave them the $6.02, and the man behind the counter said it cost seven dollars.
I said, "What are you talking about?" and he said, "It's seven dollars. It says so on the sign right out in the window." I said, "Nonsense, the sign says six dollars!"
We went around, he showed me the sign, and it says, $6.98, with the .98 written in small letters. I remember arguing with him, asking what sense it made to misrepresent the cost of this by two pennies, so that you have to do this extra addition. He said it's very common. I remember walking around in a daze for weeks, looking at signs and thinking about the amount of arithmetic that this was generating. A lot of times you have to add the two pennies, because it actually matters, as in my own sad case. I don't know if it changed my life, but I know I had an early intense consciousness about the costs of deception, and also about the importance of self-deception.
When I came to Harvard I ended up in U.S. history, after beginning as a mathematics major. I left in despair and disgrace and was going to be a lawyer, so you studied U.S. history. This was the early 1960s, while the Vietnam disaster was just starting to take shape, and was produced by Harvard people in JFK's cabinet. We were reading books like America, Genius for Democracy or something like that. You didn't even have to read the book since the title had the content. All of this U.S. history was really self-glorification. I couldn't imagine devoting your life to this kind of enterprise.
I had a breakdown as a junior, so I finally took a psychology course as a senior. I couldn't believe that these people were pretending to have a science when all they had was a series of competing guesses for how human beings developed. There were learning psychologists, depth or Freudian psychologists, and social psychologists. It wasn't a unified discipline, it had no unifying paradigm, and it was not hooked up to an underlying science—i.e., biology—just as biology sits on chemistry, which sits on physics. I thought it was hopeless and went away. When I learned evolutionary logic and then animal behavior, which I was assigned to learn and then render for children, I realized that the basis for psychology is evolutionary logic. The value of animal behavior is that you cast your net more widely.
My mental breakdown prevented me from getting into Yale for law school, and created problems with my fallback position at the University of Virginia. I decided not to go to there because I didn't like how they were handling the medical records that they insisted they had to have. I happened, instead, to get a job writing and illustrating children's books for the new social sciences, which followed the new math and the new physics, which followed Sputnik in 1957. That was our attempt to catch up with the Soviets in science, and then in social science. The reason you probably never heard of it was because the whole course was killed by a set of southern congressmen back then, because it was alleged that we taught (1) sex education (we had pictures of animals copulating), (2) evolution by natural selection as fact (which was true) and cultural relativity (i.e. respect for other cultures). The whole thing was killed, but it introduced to me to evolutionary logic.
It was a marvelous company and a beautiful setup in retrospect. The company allowed you to do a lot of reading right there in the office to learn what you needed to know. In my case they assigned a biologist named Bill Drury from the Massachusetts Audubon Society who both assigned papers in the library on a given topic—like my first book on the caribou and its predators—and then critiqued them for me. He was paid $75 an hour in 1966, which is at least two or three hundred dollars an hour now. For an academic or the head of the Massachusetts Audubon Society that's some sweet money, so I had the ideal situation where you could consume two more hours of your teacher's time with no guilt at all. This meant that I had a private tutor in biology, paid for by my employer for two years.
He took me to see Ernst Mayr to try to talk me into being a graduate student. I came out of mathematics where if you haven't done any math by the time you're 23, it's very unlikely that you are going to be a mathematician. I thought that to be a biologist I should have been studying insects from the time I was four, but Drury would just say that whenever you ask a biologist an interesting question, he won't know the answer.
When Drury took me to see Mayr, I liked right away that Ernst had a small office off of the bigger office of his secretary. He had his own private office elsewhere, but as head of the Museum of Comparative Zoology he occupied a little space and she occupied the bigger space. He told me about Dick Estes, who at 38 had gone back to school in biology, and had just finished a good thesis on the wildebeest. He was very encouraging. Then there was a funny moment when he said, "Who do you want to work with?"
I didn't know anything, so I said Konrad Lorenz. He read my personality right and said, "He's too authoritarian for you. That isn't gonna work. Who else?"
I said, "What about Niko Tinbergen?"
And he said, "He's only repeating now in the '60s what he already showed in the '50s."
I'm a relatively quick learner, so I said, "Well what do you suggest, Professor Mayr?"
I'll never forget his hands, going in a wide circle, as he said, "What about Harvard?"
And what about Harvard, indeed? They had a marvelous museum with all these fossils and pinned insects. They didn't have any animal behaviorists, but my teacher, Drury, who was a behaviorist, convinced me that that was even an advantage. He said, "Why would you want to take a course on field methodology and learn how to put a band on a bird, which you can learn better in the field from a teacher. What you want to learn is evolutionary biology." Irv DeVore would have allowed me to come straight in as a graduate student in anthropology. If I had done that I wouldn't have had to borrow a bunch of money and take a year of courses in biology, but I knew that would have been a very short-sighted decision. I knew all the ideas and the power were coming out of biology, so that's what I should learn.
I had had no chemistry either, so Ernst suggested that I take chemistry at night school at Boston University, since it's too hard at Harvard. I did everything Ernst told me, so although I was working this job, at 5 o'clock I'd bicycle to Boston University and took one semester of chemistry. In the second semester I had an opportunity to finish the course or to watch caribou in the Arctic for a month. I thought that such a trip was more valuable to my long-term development than second semester chemistry. Incidentally, I avoided chemistry entirely. I'm one of the few Ph.D.'s in this country who's never had a course in organic chemistry because you cannot get a bachelor's in this country without an organic degree. I don't have a bachelor's.
When I came to Harvard you had to take a whole series of mini-tests. There were 16 of them – physics, math, botany, chemistry, etc. Naturally I failed. When the prescription committee met, it was stacked with evolutionists and Ernst was the head. He insisted that the committee not only prescribe me organic chemistry—that is, that I couldn't get my Ph.D. unless I passed that with a B or better—but also prescribed me a knowledge of biochemistry because that's the payoff for organic chemistry. The argument got hot, and I tried to intercede at one moment until I realized, "This has nothing to do with you. Shut up and sit back." Finally Mayr says, "By God, I agree with you! We should not prescribe organic unless we prescribe biochem, and since we will not prescribe biochem we will also not prescribe organic." He put it up to a vote and it came back 5 to 2. It was as if the heavens had opened and the Lord himself smiled at me and said, "You are my chosen one." Then he leaned across the table and said to me, "But Bob, we strongly urge you to take organic chemistry." And I said, "Professor Mayr, I'm already signed up for the course," which I was. I sold the book that afternoon and burned the little Tinker toys you had to buy.
I came to Harvard originally as a special student who had never had biology. That fall I was taking a course in cell biology, a course in invertebrate biology, and a botany course. I used to sit in my bed at night with these biology books and a dictionary trying to figure it out—and I used to have “word salad” dreams for a couple of months: “the cnidoblast of the intestinal cells of the apple’s pollen” and so on After two or three months the subjects all separated cleanly into their separate sub areas, and it wasn't so bad.
The guy who really got me focused properly was Richard Lewontin, a geneticist who hated my work, helped make sure that Harvard didn't give me tenure right away when I wanted it, and will undoubtedly hate my genetics work. Dick Lewontin came to Harvard when I was a first-year graduate student in 1969 to give a talk on the new methodology of isozyme work that John Hubby had worked out. That was the first DNA technology that would allow you to do paternity analysis. It was not so much nailing down who your real father was that was exciting to us biologists, but the fact that you could quantify the degree of genetic variation in nature. I was introduced to the guy ahead of time by Ed Wilson, and he dumped all over me because of a nasty paper I'd written about some mathematical ecologists. I took an instant dislike to him—he had a rather arrogant style—and I was packed in this room hoping he would fall flat on his face. He was introduced by Mayr and gave a superb talk. My joke is that at the end he flipped his chalk 30 feet in the air and caught it in his breast pocket; he didn't really do that, but he might as well have. Everything else was in place, including intellectual content and showmanship.
Halfway through the talk I was feeling an intense, internal pain, because although I disliked him he was doing a great job. I did some quick thinking and realized that there was no future in this negative paper I'd written on mathematic ecology. I had no positive thoughts on the subject, nor did I have the talents that would make that area pay off in my life, so I decided to do no more work on it. I was tempted to write it up because the Harvard professors wanted me to nail some people they disliked, but I decided not to waste any more time on it.
It was clear to me during Lewontin's talk that if the work was as bad as I said it was, then my critique, if it was published, would disappear from sight along with their work, like a barnacle on a whale. The only value comes if you have something positive to do, and it is important to match both your own interests and abilities to what you decide to work on. I often wonder how many scientists end up spending five or ten years in mathematical ecology because of some accident of a paper they wrote. They never quite see that they've been running around in the woods for 30 years, and have no intuitions of any use about the way nature is set up. I was also too lazy to learn any new mathematics, but I was blessed with a certain degree of psychological and social insight, and had been very interested in these issues from an early age. That is analogous to running around in the woods for 30 years, if you're going to sit down and write social theory.
I asked myself, "What ideas do you have that are worth developing?" I started thinking about the obvious concept, "If you scratch my back I'll scratch yours," and began to wonder about how to make reciprocal altruism work in an evolutionary way, stating the argument in a form that didn't limit it to humans. That was worth throwing some time into.
Bill Drury was an ornithologist and had told me to watch pigeons. From watching them every night I knew they had a double standard. During the day males obsessed about the chance that another male might get in there with his female. But at the same time that male is hustling other females whenever he gets a chance. Out of this came a general theory for the evolution of sex differences, parental investment in sexual selection. The paper that developed out of this has been cited more than 4,000 times, because much work on sex differences, on role, style, and all the behavioral stuff, refers back to that original paper, especially if they cite the concept of parental investment. It actually appears to be cited more often per month now than earlier in its life.
People have asked me about the connection between deceit and self-deception in evolutionary biology. Certainly I was conscious of deception right away, and my teacher Bill Drury was very helpful. I might easily have had an inferior teacher who was unconscious of the degree of deception in other animals. Then I might have made the mistake some biologists did of talking as if we're the only deceiving creatures and therefore this trait has to do with language. I knew from early on that it was much more general, and probably I learned that from Bill.
People have pointed out to me that in my very first paper on reciprocal altruism, there's argumentation that refers to keeping the feeling unconscious so as not to have it detected. My first consciousness of this occurred when I went on a field trip to India and Africa with Irv DeVore, Harvard's celebrated baboon man. I had a brainstorm for a couple of weeks, and ended up in a hospital for ten days afterwards. I thought about hardly anything other than parent-offspring conflict and deceit and self-deception. Some of it, in retrospect, was fruitless efforts to map Freud onto parent-offspring conflict and deceit and self-deception, whose deeper ramifications I was just appreciating. In later years I came to think it was worthless, that it was better to start without Freud and certainly not go through the genuflections that Freudians seem addicted to.
The joke on me is that I never developed it. I was supposed to give a paper on the logic of self-deception in 1978 at a conference put on by the Royal Society in London. I wrote an abstract, which was published. I came across it several years ago and said, "I would like to read that paper." Back then I was young and strong and could write an abstract eight months before I was due to give a talk and just plan to fill in the blanks, but I haven't worked out the details of some of those assertions in that abstract yet. It's just floating around there. I never gave the paper partly because my wife was about to give birth to twins, but more particularly because the Royal Society would only fly you as far as England. I guess the assumption is that once you get there, why would you want to leave? I was very sensitive to financial exploitation of academics, which is rife. It certainly was at Harvard, where we were grossly underpaid as junior faculty, so I tended never to do something whose financial arrangements I didn't like.
I never went there, never gave the talk, never developed the paper, and that's a great shame, because one of the virtues of thinking a topic through to some degree of development is that you will generate a literature which will come back and illuminate the topic for yourself. Even if you're thinking in purely self-interested terms and write a paper on reciprocal altruism, there's a huge literature now on the subject. Only part of it is generated from that paper, but still a good part was generated from that paper, and I learned back from it. I often think of the paper not written and the literature that did not develop, especially as I sat down at the end of the '90s and wrote a quickie paper on self-deception to try to bring the field up to date. I was staggered at how little progress had been made since the last time I looked at the subject 20 years before. That was the cost of never writing a paper. It didn't need to be as elemental or as important as some of the other ones, but just writing it to put it on other people's laps would have generated a response.
I was very fortunate. Lewontin once referred to me to a bunch of graduate students as an intellectual opportunist. He meant that to be negative, but I laughed. What else makes sense in this short life? I was an intellectual opportunist. All of these social topics remain undeveloped because of this species advantage "paradigm" that had lain over the field like a human blanket. Reciprocal altruism, parental investment, sexual selection, sex ratio of offspring, parent-offspring conflict were all topics that were sitting there waiting to be developed. I just grabbed the chance.
But I had to get away from Harvard. I was a graduate student at Harvard from 1968 to 1972, then I started teaching at Harvard in 1973, until 1978. I was not denied tenure, I just needed more money for what I was doing which was lecturing to 530 students, with 12 graduate students as teaching assistants, and so on. Most of the junior faculty at Harvard taught 15 to 20 students in an undergraduate class and four in a graduate class. They weren't being eaten alive. Harvard wasn't paying me enough to replenish what was being taken out of me biologically. Never mind not being paid enough to have any reproductive success of my own.
There were two factors at work. First, no one knew about my work, which was really nice. It's good to be flying underneath everyone's radar, and then publish a paper that you know is important. But with Ed Wilson's sociobiology, which embraced some of my ideas, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, and there was a political stink. People were very upset then. The Vietnam War was still going on, for God's sake, in 1975, and people were very politically conscious and pseudo-conscious. So I became very well known. That was ego-distorting. And then I was at Harvard, which is a separate kind of ego-distorting environment, just because Harvard professors can't help being full of themselves.
I had been in Cambridge 17 years, 15 of them at Harvard with two years off for good behavior, that was between the undergraduate years and the going back as a special student. So I had to leave Harvard—if only to air out my psyche, but I did not have to pick UC Santa Cruz, perhaps the second worst school in its class in the country. Lord, what a place. It was a very, very bad fit for me, and a dreadful 16 years. Thank God I came back east.
I intend to throw myself full time into deceit and self-deception now. It's a topic that I've been conscious of in an evolutionary way for at least 30 years. I've published bits and pieces throughout the years. I used to get up and joke that I was embarrassed lecturing on it because I've been practicing it for the last 30 years instead of thinking about it. I don't like to get up and give that joke any more. I want to get completely on top of the subject, and I want to do a major piece on it. And I don't want it to be just for an academic crowd, because the topic is everywhere. It's in every human being's life, and anybody who's half conscious is aware of it in others and themselves. One cannot read the newspaper without being conscious of the importance of deceit and self-deception in national and international affairs.
I have the free time now to do whatever I am flying underneath the radar. I work much better in a much humbler posture, where people basically don't know who I am, or if they do it doesn't mean any particular thing to them. I'm not invited a lot of places. Otherwise I would have my time eaten up, but I'm not in that situation. I can throw myself with full energy into it, and I really plan to.
I'm particularly excited with the fact that almost every month neurophysiology is coming out with a result of direct relevance to the topic of self-deception. The psychologists have invented skillful new techniques at getting at pre-conscious or unconscious processes that are very exciting. There is an empirical scientific world that's building up now that did not exist 20 years ago, and that can constrain and guide our thinking.
I sometimes contrast this topic to genetics. Genetics, as I mentioned, is intrinsically difficult, but it is exact. If you take the energy and the time to master it you will get rewards for it. You will actually know real things and be able to point to it and know what you're talking about. Deceit and self-deception by their nature are topics that tend to be hidden from view. They are difficult to pinpoint, even as to how you define them. What is the evidence that it happened? It's a very different kind of intellectual problem than genetics. It's much easier to master what's known, because in scientific terms not an awful lot is known. But if you have to think carefully in terms of the logical distinctions you make, there is now an emerging body of empirical data that, as I say, can constrain your thinking and guide it. If you're not constrained, the topic is too big and the possibilities are too great. You have to be able to say, no, we're going to exclude this half, or this two-fifths of reality because of this result, and we think this is where things are important, because the data point in that direction.
The time is ripe, although it would be riper five to ten years from now. Academics are always saying this is the perfect study area for this, the perfect species to do that, or the perfect time for this book. Well, this isn't the perfect time, but at the very least it will point people towards relevant empirical work. It's a function of how much actual thinking you do. Like everything else, this is not a topic where seat-of-the-pants thinking, or a few polished anecdotes, no matter how amusing, are going to carry the day. The topic has got to be thought through, carefully and systematically and I am ripe to do it.