Tag Archives: Hymenoptera

A Black Notebook of Personal Joy: Hamilton, Trivers & Evolutionary Biology

My 1980 Notebook with Morrison Fountain Pen
My 1980 Notebook with Morrison Fountain Pen

In these dire times it feels a little more than self-indulgent to canter on about the minor joys in life; a desire to expound upon the little things when the world is on fire seems a private and guilty pleasure. But, while pondering standing down and standing by, I remembered a quote posted last year by an old friend in India:

Have Your Joy - Cleo Wade, Heart Talk

I’ve no idea who Cleo Wade is but this paragraph was/is a powerful reminder to stop and breathe – with a deep breath, at that, and gather your joy. And so I will expand upon my joy in re-living the excitement I felt when first reading of the research being done by William Donald Hamilton, FRS (1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000) and Robert Ludlow Trivers (b. February 19, 1943); especially Bob Trivers, one of the bad boys of science, and his work on the troubling existence of altruism in a world where survival appears to solely depends upon self-interest.

Robert Trivers - Courtesy, Rutgers University image
Robert Trivers – Courtesy, Rutgers University image

Some weeks ago I was looking for something I had written in one of my old journals and, in doing a fast sweep through one, I saw notes I had written on the work in evolutionary biology by Hamilton and Trivers. To have someone like Steven Pinker write, as he has of Trivers, that he is “one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought” is not too shabby.

Page From My Early Notebooks on Hamilton & Trivers Altruism Studies
Page From My Early Notebooks on Hamilton & Trivers’ Altruism Studies

There is a profound beauty and deep pleasure in a life lived exploring the interests of the mind – or, rather, in the mysteries of the universe – of all things great and small. We imagine those who lead such lives rarely descend from the realm of theory and quick-firing neurons to spend time amongst the dross that daily surrounds those of us beetling away in the more mundane trenches of life. Or so it seems.

But there are exceptions. (I remember a great photograph of Stephen Hawking looking up from his motorized chair at the bottles of wine in a Pasadena supermarket. He could not reach the fruit of the vine on any but the lower third row of shelves. I’ve often wondered if the person who asked if he needed assistance ever knew who was being helped.)

The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has led a life that is anything but ordinary, both in the ivory tower and out. In a handful of ‘simple’ theoretical papers in the 1970s, seeking to lay a foundation of questions into the links between genetics and behavior, he spawned research into whole galaxies of new suppositions and questions. I remember these ideas were pervasive in university, and not just in biology departments. Two very influential books, in part spurred on by the kind of research he was doing, were published in the mid-1970s dealing with just the questions Trivers had grappled with: Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. Both stirred controversy that spilled out into general publications and the consciousness of lay people. At the time I would often think it must have been a little like this in Darwin & Wallace’s mid-19th century day with their theories on evolution.

Trivers studied evolutionary theory at Harvard from 1968 to 1972 with Ernst Mayr, a man of many talents. But it is Mayr’s genius with work on speciation that broadened Darwin and Wallace’s dissection of Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being that most fascinates those of us who studied anthropology. Trivers had first gotten the biology bug from his paying work (writing science books for children) with the ornithologist William Drury who was, Trivers says, “the man who taught me how to think.” Critical consciousness: it is the most important intellectual skill a human can possess as far as I am concerned.

After a mental breakdown (bi-polar disorder) in his Harvard junior year Trivers considered a major in psychology (not a real science but, rather,’ a joke’) or law (“I thought I would do poverty law work” but was turned down by both Yale and the Univ of Virginia). In any case, his childhood interests in astronomy (a look into both the infinitesimally small and the ginormous) and mathematics have stood him well in his work with animal behavior. And, yes, ‘animal’, here, includes homo sapiens sapiens.

Curiosity is THE great driver of human intellectual, cultural and physical advance and Trivers has it and has had, so far, a life of the utmost divergence and a knack for criticizing what we generally think of as both the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ political sphere. His resume includes being a white guy member of The Black Panthers and friend of Huey P. Newton (together they published a scholarly paper analyzing the role of self-deception by the flight crew of Air Florida Flight 90 that crashed into the 14th Street bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, DC in 1982); a proposer of questions and principals in evolutionary biology papers that, pretty much alone, spawned totally new sub-disciplines in behavioral psychology, sociobiology, evolutionary this & that and more; a subject of a gun-point encounter near his home in Jamaica; academic suspension at Rutgers and academics attacks on a few of my clients and friends.

If you are now intrigued you might start with reading his 2015 autobiography that I am reading now: Wild Life: Adventures of an Evolutionary Biologist.