Monday, April 23, 2012

Robert Trivers

I posted this to Gauchospace for Kathy's new seminar class but I just realized we don't have much (any?) overlap between the two classes and it is relevant here too.

The paper this week for that class was a classic by Robert Trivers on parental choice of sex ratio in offspring. This is a topic that I mentioned very briefly last quarter, at least for halpodiploidy, and we will retrun to briefly in our animal behavior lecture.

In doing some background reading on Robert Trivers I came across an interesting quote about him from an article in the Guardian newspaper:

"Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of 20th-century science if he'd died in the '70s, as some people supposed he would."

It made me realize just what an extraordinary flourishing of creative, and often very novel, thinking he had over a period of a few years with seminal papers virtually every year of the first half of the seventies (1971 - Reciprocal Altruism, 1972 - Parental Investment and sexual selection, 1973 - sex ratio of offspring, 1974 - Parent offspring conflict, 1976 - Haplodipoidy and social insects). In many ways this is the sort of creativity associated with mathematicians who often do all their important and novel work early in their career.

Here's a section from a Boston globe article on Trivers in 2005:

Rebuffed in his demand for early tenure, he left Harvard in 1978 to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He befriended Huey Newton and joined the Black Panthers. He all but stopped publishing. As the literary agent John Brockman put it when introducing Trivers at a recent talk, ''Over the years there were rumors about a series of breakdowns; he was in Jamaica; in jail. He fell off the map.''
His ideas, however, seemed to do just fine without him. In the 1970s, Trivers published five immensely influential papers that braided genetics into behavioral biology, using a gene's-eye view of evolution to explain behaviors from bird warning calls to cuckoldry to sibling rivalry to revenge. According to David Haig, a Harvard professor of biology and a leading genetic theorist, each paper virtually founded a research field. ''Most of my career has been based on exploring the implications of one of them,'' says Haig. ''I don't know of any comparable set of papers.''

In 1976 Trivers wrote the introduction to Richard Dawkins "Selfish Gene' and tossed out this gem:

'(I)f, (as Dawkins argues) deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practised. Thus, the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution.'

Here he is at a TEDx conference in Jamaica expounding on the self-deception idea 35 years later.

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