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Revolution in Evolution
Can cooperation be explained by evolution? Can jealousy? Until Robert Trivers began to explore the evolutionary roots of animal behavior, scientists and thinkers had not delved deeply into the evolution of the social behavior of animals. Then, with a series of groundbreaking papers in the early 1970s, Trivers, a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick, pioneered ideas now at the heart of a field known as sociobiology.

For his contributions to evolutionary theory, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recently announced that it will award the 2007 Crafoord Prize in biosciences to Trivers. The prize is awarded in disciplines complementing those for which the Nobel Prizes are awarded. The Crafoord Prize award is $500,000 and one of the world's largest scientific prizes. Trivers will receive his prize from the Queen of Sweden during ceremonies on April 26.

“It’s a huge gift from the Swedish people,” Trivers said in a recent interview with RU-tv. “It’s a recognition of 40 years of scientific work.... It is very gratifying.”

Trivers’s theories have inspired innovative research in animal behavior, genetics, anthropology, psychology, and other fields. “I consider Trivers one of the great thinkers in the history of Western thought,” said Harvard professor Steven Pinker, the acclaimed language theorist, on the occasion of a special event dedicated to Trivers’s work. “It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that he has provided a scientific explanation for the human condition: the intricately complicated and endlessly fascinating relationships that bind us to one another.”

Trivers, who joined Rutgers in 1994, did not always plan to delve into the world of evolution. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 with a degree in history, intent on attending law school. Instead, he began writing and illustrating children's textbooks, which introduced him to animal behavior and evolutionary logic. Despite never having studied biology or chemistry, he was hooked. By 1972, he had earned a doctorate in biology from Harvard and was soon gaining an international reputation for applying Darwin's theories in dramatic new ways. His books include Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements (with Austin Burt), Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers, and Social Evolution.

In awarding the Crafoord Prize, the Swedish academy praised Trivers for being “one of the small group of pioneering scientists who began to ponder on the social behavior patterns of animals and how they might have arisen through evolution.” Between 1971 and 1976, the academy noted, Trivers proposed five ideas “that have been of the greatest importance for the development of sociobiology,” concerning issues such as cooperation between individuals who are not related and conflicts between children and their parents.

These ideas have influenced countless thinkers. Each of Trivers’s papers essentially founded a research field, David Haig, a leading genetic theorist, told the Boston Globe.“Most of my career has been based on exploring the implications of one of them,” he said. “I don’t know of any comparable set of papers.”

Of Trivers’s ideas, Pinker noted, “They belong in the category of ideas that are obvious once they are explained, yet eluded great minds for ages; simple enough to be stated in a few words, yet with implications we are only beginning to work out.”

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Last Updated: 07/16/2009

Robert Trivers
Robert Trivers, professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick

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