World renowned social evolution theorist Robert Trivers to be honored

05/10/05

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Rutgers' Robert L. Trivers, described as a social maverick and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, has been elected a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Trivers, a celebrated social theorist and evolutionary biologist, is a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. While on sabbatical this spring, he is serving as a visiting professor of psychology at Harvard University.

The academy is the nation's pre-eminent learned society and research institution, and the honor is considered second only to winning a Nobel Prize. The academy's 2005 class of 196 fellows and 17 foreign honorary members also includes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eric Cornell, actor and director Sidney Poitier, journalist Tom Brokaw and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Trivers and the other new members will be officially inducted in October.

Trivers re­defined the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology by applying the theory of natural selection to the evolution of social behavior – exploring the logic by which social traits are favored by natural selection and evolve through time like physical characteristics. He considered how natural selection acts on behavioral conflicts between parents and offspring, in the choice of mates and the way in which people interact to get what they want from others in their social groups. He has written extensively on the evolution of altruism, parental investment and sexual selection, the sex ratio, deceit and self-deception.

Trivers may be best known for his theory of reciprocal altruism, whereby an apparently altruistic behavior is performed with the understanding that the recipient will reciprocate at some future: the theory expressed in its simplest form as "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." As applied to humans, Trivers said, the theory posits that "traits like friendship evolved after reciprocal altruism as a way of motivating and shaping our reciprocal relationships."

More recently, Trivers shifted gears to the consideration of the biological evolution of "selfish genetic elements," genes within an individual which advance their own replication at the expense of the larger organism. The resulting conflict within our genomes may have had wide-ranging effects over time.

Lately, he has been engaged in longitudinal studies on Jamaican school children, exploring the relationship between bilateral asymmetry in the body and a variety of social behaviors. In tracking these children, Trivers has become specifically interested in the health of the children, their long-term growth and development, and the social behavior they display. Recently, with Rutgers anthropologist Lee Cronk, he showed that symmetrical Jamaicans are better dancers and that this is more true of men than of women.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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