Robert Trivers was the inspiration for E. O. Wilson to write “Sociobiology”, and whether because of Wilson drawing away the flak or Trivers’ own radical leftist politics (he worked with Huey Newton, to whom this book is dedicated) he was never as much a figure of controversy. Reading his Folly of Fools, it quickly became apparent that Robin Hanson “America’s Creepiest Economist” owes much of his thinking on signalling, status & hypocrisy to the research program Trivers pioneered. I haven’t yet read “The Elephant in the Brain”, so I can’t say whether he should be paying royalties, but anyone who is interested in that topic should definitely read this.

The first thing I have to say about this specific book is not about the main text, but instead the endnotes. Normally citations are indicated with superscripts, and then you compare that number to the corresponding one in the relevant note section. Not here. Instead you have to first go to the endnotes, and see which snippet of texts with page numbers are references back to that chapter. I actually like the idea of having such text in the endnotes, but only if they were combined with superscripts to make the checking of citations easier. And in case you are wondering if there were times where I stopped in the middle of a chapter, went to end to see any citations existed for a claim and found out there was nothing, the answer is yes.

One reason why one might be more suspicious of some claims in the book compared to others is that it was published in 2011, prior to the replication crisis coming to light. Thus, Trivers repeatedly & uncritically cites a lot of priming literature which would now be in doubt. To be fair and not just to hold hindsight against him, I took that really seriously as well years ago when I first started learning about heuristics & biases (thanks to people like Robin Hanson). I don’t think I took the Implicit Association Test as seriously as Trivers does, in part because Brian Nosek mocking it was one of my primary associations for it. There is a chapter on “False Historical Narratives” where Trivers himself says he’s especially likely to be biased (and indeed this is one where I found some surprising claims without citations and he misspelled “Somoza” as “Samosa”) and expects he will be labelled a “left-wing nutcase” by the American political mainstream, but also says he would feel like a coward if he held himself back. Trivers is not a coward. He has no problem talking about his compulsive kleptomania of small objects (including unconsciously stealing things from his own office which just deprives himself of them when he needs them), doing cocaine with Huey while telling each other they unlike others would just get productivity benefits without downsides, trying to impress women and embarrassing himself, getting conned by someone who claimed to have inside info on a rigged race and just generally exhibiting all the self-deception he’s writing about even while part of his brain tries to vainly to warn him against it (“I believe I have learned a lot about my self-deceptions but not in ways that prevent me from repeating them”). I had heard stories of people seeing him smoking weed behind a building with grad students, but I wasn’t expecting quite that level of candor & lack of shame.

While reading I took a long list of notes & quotes from elsewhere in the book, some I found interesting enough I just wanted to share, and others I wanted to subject to skepticism, but the wordpress editor seems to have gotten worse and wouldn’t let me retain the latest revision as the current edit, forcing me to manually copy-paste from the revision page into the editing window. It’s still not enough to make me want to move to Substack like the in-demand (and more productive), because I like maintaining continuity here and the comment system is still way better. But I’ve been procrastinating on publishing this review (which now isn’t really much of a review) long enough, and should stop talking about other stuff now. Perhaps in the future I’ll go back to an older draft to extract something so those notes don’t go entirely to waste.