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Natural Selection and Social Theory by Robert Trivers

When I first heard that this collection of papers by Robert Trivers existed I immediately wanted a copy.  I had come across Trivers' name and his ideas at second-hand many times in my reading over the past couple of decades but I had never read anything of his first-hand.  I had enjoyed William Hamilton's 'Narrow Roads of Gene Land' so much that the prospect of a similar feast from another leading evolutionary theorist was too much for me to resist, so I went out and ordered a copy.

'Natural Selection and Social Theory' contains 10 papers, each with a fairly substantial introduction.  I started by reading through the introductions and skipping the papers.   Within a week I was disappointed to find myself at the end, so then I turned back and read the  Reciprocal Altruism and Haplodiploidy papers more carefully. 

On the whole this is a lighter read than 'Narrow Roads': firstly, it is only 328 pages as opposed to 528+852 for the two volumes of 'Narrow Roads' and, secondly, Trivers' writing is less dark, intense and obsessive than Hamilton's. 

The introductions offer interesting side views on Ernst Mayr and Edward Wilson, people who, until now, I had known only through reading their books.  Trivers tells a story of how Mayr came to him in a dream and showed him the way to understand the relationship between queen and worker ants, and how Trivers later asked Mayr whether 'Personal communication' would be the way to acknowledge this 'help' in the paper!  There are tales too of Hamilton's legendary incompetence as a lecturer. 

From reading the introductions I also came to understand the significance of Hamilton's four-fold classification of social interactions into co-operative, selfish, altruistic and spiteful, something that had completely escaped me before.

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