Saturday, November 12, 2011

Robert L. Trivers

Robert L. Trivers is a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University. He won the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences in 2007 for his fundamental analysis of social evolution, conflict, and cooperation.

His new book is The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.

Late last month I asked Trivers what he was reading. His reply.
I have not been reading much lately because I have undergone a total hip replacement surgery. I naively imagined that I would get a lot of reading done during the rehab period of some seven weeks. Quite the contrary was true; I would often read only a paragraph and a half of a newspaper article and promptly sleep for two hours. The rehab was incredibly draining at the mental level.

I did however manage to read James Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns (2011), a marvelous book by a great, and sometimes under-appreciated, social psychologist. He invented computer programs to analyze texts, everything from private journals to the complete works of Shakespeare (in about 20 minutes time) according to more than 80 categories of words. He showed that the smallest were the most important, especially pronouns. After he is done with a text, he can tell you whether on linguistic grounds the text is deceitful or honest, will lead to recovery from trauma or not, and much, much more. If you are like me you will also grow to enjoy the organism behind the book, including his sense of humor and utter lack of pretense.

The second book I made some headway on, however modest, was Paul Schmid-Hempel's Evolutionary Parasitology (2011), a monumental attempt to synthesize the complex effects in nature of disease on mortality and reproduction (total effect at least 30% per generation) with the very complex immune system arrayed against disease, all with special attention to the underlying genetics. This is not bed-time reading for anyone but I became convinced of the importance of the field for my interests when I learned of the multiple interactions between immunology and self-deception. Hence better to gain a deeper view of the entire subject—exactly what Schmid-Hempel provides.

Lately I have only been reading commentary on or reviews of my Self-deception book, so I am learning less but I often can't resist.
Learn more about The Folly of Fools at the Basic Books website, and visit Robert L. Trivers's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue