Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Quite useful"

New issue of Science has a fascinating profile of the (depressive, hand-waving, enormously influential) evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers [Science 334, 589 (2011)]:
Stories of his reckless and aggressive side abound. He loves to use the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” calling them quite useful, and he has gotten into public spats with many people over the years. Trivers can be brutally honest and plain rude, as many letters he has written to colleagues over the years testify.[...] Asked whether his discussion of Middle East politics might not turn off some people whom he might otherwise convince of his ideas, he just says, “Well, fuck 'em."

 Trivers has accused Brown, who he says was in charge of the statistics, of preselecting the dancers and changing the values on some of the dancers' measures of symmetry to get that result. Trivers has even written a short book about it that he sends to whoever cites the paper. Brown will only say that Rutgers is investigating the matter, and Nature has no comment.
A potentially useful aphorism:
“Did you know that the enjoyment of sex is actually correlated with sperm count in the ejaculate?” he asks. “So it is true that in old age you appreciate the smaller things more. There are no big things to enjoy anymore.”
According to the profile, "Most biologists spend their lives studying ants, geese, or other animals and then extend their conclusions to humans later in life. Trivers tended to start with humans." The profile in general reminds me of something I've always disliked about the human-and-mammal end of evolutionary biology, which is that people's scientific opinions are really worldviews -- and usually the worldviews that you would expect them to hold given their temperament and background. (Not surprising: as Lewontin remarked in an article -- NYRB? -- I cannot find, if your motives were scientific in the conventional sense you'd probably be studying plants.) Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you could even argue that the community picks out people whose worldviews happen to be good biology, but at a minimum it tends to blur the line between simplifying-one's-research and mouthing-off-in-general.

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