Review of Trivers (2015)
Monday, January 18, 2016
We’ve just finished reading Robert Trivers’s strange memoir “Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.” But before proceeding with our short review, we must disclose up front that Dr Trivers is one of our intellectual heroes–along with Thomas Schelling, Gordon Tullock, and Ronald Coase. By way of example, Trivers’s collection of path-breaking papers in “Natural Selection and Social Theory” as well as our used copy of his beautiful textbook on “Social Evolution” are two of our most prized possessions on our bookshelf. (As an aside, we admire Trivers in large part for his elegant classification of human (and non-human animal) behavior–altruism, spite, cooperation, etc.–based on the distribution of the costs and benefits of an actor’s behavior.) His ramshackle memoir, however, will not form a trifecta. Alas, although we loved the early chapters of his memoir, especially his fond memories of his mentors Bill Drury and Ernst Mayr, his memoir–or “mixture of recollections” (p. xi) is an incomplete and inconsequential one. Incomplete, for example, because Trivers alludes to yet offers no explanation of his fateful decision to leave Harvard in 1978 (we understand that he was forced out when he was denied tenure in spite of his enormous academic accomplishments in his field), and inconsequential because so much of the book recounts Trivers’ various encounters with the criminal justice system, “just so” legal war stories that, in the scheme of things, are insignificant in comparison to Trivers’s great intellectual achievements. In short, we were expecting more of an intellectual autobiography and less of a rap sheet.