Robert Trivers:
SOCIAL EVOLUTION (Benjamin/Cummings, 1985)

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(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Robert Trivers must be credited with a key role in the birth of evolutionary psychology, and this book does not do enough.

To start with, in 1971 Trivers introduced the theory of "reciprocal altruism", where he explained altruism as founded on the idea of exchange: I help you and you will help me. He proved that individuals can benefit in the long term by trusting each other. In other words, altruism is actually selfish.

Thus Trivers contributed to the revival of altruism as a Darwinian concept (albeit apparently conflicting with Darwin's most popular concept of competition).

He also contributed to Hamilton's "kin selection" theory. Trivers noted a counter-argument, though. according to Hamilton's genetic metrics, a child should see hersef twice more valuable than her siblings. The parents, on the other hand, should see all siblings as equally valuable. Thus it is not surprising that siblings compete and fight for parental resources, while parents teach them to share equally. Parents have to literally brainwash their children into thinking that it is in their (each child's) interest to care for their siblings when in fact their genes tell them (the children) the exact opposite.

Beyond family, there is in general a whole repertory of attitudes that serves the purpose of regulating altruism (gratitude, compassion, trust, guilt, even hypocrisy). Eventually, it all boils down to game theory: how to maximize the chances of success and minimize the chances of failing.

Trivers adds that we are genetically equipped with a repertory of skills to lie, cheat and deceive, and we use that repertory to complement the equation that maximizes our chances of success, depending on social conditions. Our conscience is malleable, which is another way to say that our altruistic strategies are flexible. In a sense the reason why children lie is that they are just practicing the art of cheating. In fact the tendency in children to lie is so strong that they will stop lying only if punished consistently and severely. Otherwise the tendency to lie will amplify. Conscience is an adaptation of one's altruistic and anti-altruistic instincts to a specific social environment.

In 1972 Trivers focused on the concept of parental "investment". The investment required for reproduction (to increase the chances of survival of the offspring) is different between a male and a female, and that accounts for different attitudes towards the other sex and the offspring itself.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi