Wild Life by Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers (http://roberttrivers.com/Welcome.html, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Trivers) is one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. In an extraordinary burst of creativity in the 1970s, Trivers established the basis for our current understanding of how evolution shapes an array of behaviours; his work from this decade alone comprises much of the backbone of today’s evolutionary psychology. Thus, even among non-biologists, it is well known that a process called kin selection, or maximization of inclusive fitness, provides an evolutionary rationale for individuals acting ‘altruistically’ toward others, in proportion as the cost to the actor is relatively low, the benefit to the recipient relatively high, and the interactants enjoy an adequate probability of sharing genes via common ancestry. This form of altruism is a direct consequence of natural selection acting on genes rather than on individuals, groups, or even species, with behaviour that seems altruistic at the level of bodies actually being selfish from the perspective of the genes themselves.

Trivers offered another breakthrough insight – to do with male-female differences. The females of any species are those individuals who make eggs, and the males are those who make sperm. (That’s why we can confidently distinguish male from female sparrows, for example, even though both sexes have a common excretory/reproductive opening known as a cloaca.) But it took Trivers — building on a then little-known research paper published in 1948 by A. J. Bateman — to dig deeper and explain why being an egg-maker or sperm-maker has such profound behavioural consequences. In short, sexual differences in behaviour are a function of what Trivers labelled ‘parental investment’. Given the large size and rarity of eggs (as compared to sperm) — compounded in mammals by the metabolically costly development of a placenta, and of nourishing offspring during pregnancy and especially lactation — females invest a huge amount more in the consequences of any given act of copulation. They have to be more ‘choosy’, and require males to compete for them. They seek a strong protector and good provider. This feeds through to the host of social behaviours with which we are familiar.

These are just two examples of the fertility of the scientific contribution Trivers has made. Isaac Newton famously wrote that if he had seen far, it is because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. To be sure, Trivers has stood on the shoulders of such giant intellects as R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and — of course — Charles Darwin. But he has also shown himself to be a giant, permitting the rest of us (comparative midgets) to see further ourselves.

This autobiography informs us about the science but also about the rather ‘wild life’ that Trivers has enjoyed along the way. A notable characteristic of Wild Life is the author’s fearless, painful honesty. We learn, for example, of his lifelong struggle with bipolar disease, including treatment while still a student at Harvard, at McLean Hospital, ‘a well-known private hospital outside Boston with a very heavy Freudian bias that specialized in keep­ing wealthy people in their care for long periods of time’. Trivers’s sardonic sense of humour is evident throughout this autobiography. He writes: ‘I once grew particularly close to a blue lizard (Anolis grahami) that I had trained to share an afternoon’s drink with me. This is easy to achieve. Blue lizards like sweet drinks, and if you simply set out one for him at the same time every day he will soon enough search it out. Once he tastes Stone’s ginger wine, he is gone — he wants it every afternoon. Now you both drink together each af­ternoon. He turns a bright blue-purple-yellow colour, which seems in general to be a sign of arousal and personal happiness. You are turning whatever colours you turn when you drink. The key is that you are in synchrony with the lizard. Show up at four p.m. and he will be waiting, please bring two glasses’. We are also made privy to painful aspects of Trivers’s wild loves, not least his long-standing fondness for ganja (Jamaican for marijuana), and for women:

‘One day I received in rural Jamaica my ‘Dear John’ letter from the wom­an I had loved non-stop since the day I met her as a twenty-year-old undergraduate at Harvard. She made it clear that the relationship was over — over — over! — it was OVER. After a while you got the full pressure of her point; she wanted to make sure that even someone as self-deceived as myself would realize things were over, and she succeeded at that. I thus travelled early to the ‘back-a-rock’ area near Barbary Hall where you could smoke your ganja in reasonable certainty that you would not spend eighteen months in prison at hard labour for doing so’.

Trivers has in fact spent time in a Jamaican prison, and has had several near-death experiences in that tropical paradise, occasioned at least partly by his fondness for ganja, and his hard-drinking. A great life to read, and indeed a life well lived.

Enquire at your local library or consult  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wild-Life-Adventures-Evolutionary-Biologist/dp/1938972120/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1456054134&sr=1-1&keywords=wild+life+robert+trivers  for full bibliographic detail.

238 pages in Plympton

First published 2015

ISBN  978-1938972126

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Professor Robert Trivers

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