The Strange Case of Dr. Robert Trivers

Anyone with a passing interest in evolutionary biology has heard of Dr. Robert Trivers.  He is a giant in the field, and the seminal papers he published in the 1970’s on reciprocal altruism, parental investment theory, and gene-level thinking inspired the work of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.  Well, I happened to look up a link for a reference to him in another post, and found to my surprise that he has been driven off the campus of Rutgers University!  He has been involved in a controversy lately over his accusation that one of his graduate students committed fraud in a scientific paper.  Apparently he was banned from campus because a colleague who supports the alleged fraudster claimed Trivers had “frightened him in his office.”

Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of any details of the case, but it does seem a bit rich that a university that tolerated a violent homophobe as basketball coach for three years would ban and humiliate an honored scientist with no history of violent or aggressive behavior because someone claimed he “frightened him.”  Amazingly, there’s almost nothing about this case on the Internet.  Here is Trivers’ side of the story:

I was involved in a case of academic fraud at Rutgers University concerning a very striking paper published in one of the top science journals of the world (Nature, 2005). I was a co-author on that paper and the head of the project in which the work took place. I was then a co-author of a short book proving that the prior paper was completely fraudulent. Indeed the chance that it was not fraudulent was less than one in ten billion.

 But a colleague who wished to preserve the results (Dr Cronk) took the opposite view. I was creating the illusion of fraud beyond one in a billion but there was actually no fraud at all. When the dust settled, I was ejected from campus, not permitted back to any of it except in the company of an armed police officer for almost five months, deprived of any contact with my two classes, then 90% complete, deprived of my research space for 20 months and found to be in violation of the University’s anti-violence policy (which can lead to suspension without pay) having done nothing more violent than call a man who had slandered and defamed me multiple times, a “punk”.

If this is true, it is certainly a high-handed abuse of authority by the Rutgers administration.  I would certainly like to hear Rutgers’ version of what happened, but can find nothing on the web.  All this didn’t happen yesterday.  Where are all the scientific heavyweights who have heaped praise on Trivers over the years?  Are their reputations too delicate for them to get involved?  They certainly don’t need to rush to judgment one way or the other, but at the very least they could insist that the public be given some rudimentary information about what’s going on.  I don’t doubt that Trivers rubs many people the wrong way.  He represents the exact opposite of the Blank Slater narrative according to which evolutionary biologists and psychologists are really all closet fascists and racists.  He was close friends with Huey Newton, former Chairman of the Black Panthers, who served as godfather for one of his children, and is a bitter enemy of Israel and supporter of the Palestinians.  However, his take on the reasons behind his punishment has the ring of truth.  In his words,

 As I later learned, my case showed many of the classic features of such cases in academia. Chiefly, there is no upside to fraud—at least not to admitting to it—the university in which the work takes place has no interest in revealing the fraud that occurs within its boundaries, nor does the journal that published the fraud.

The scientific journal claims to promote and publish the truth, but when presented with strong contrary evidence to work it has already published, it does not act at once to retract the results nor even call attention to their untrustworthiness—in fact, it often does nothing at all. Thus, a paper (Brown et al 2005 [PDF]) may easily survive un-rebutted in the literature for over seven years, accruing 127 citations, in spite of a small book (Trivers et al 2009 [PDF]) proving the fraud far beyond a reasonable doubt, yet to this day Nature refuses to publish even a reference to the book. For an account of Cronk’s early behavior regarding the fraud problem, see Chapter 12 of Trivers et al (The Anatomy of a Fraud [PDF]).

Since the work was supported by Federal funds (NSF), the rule is that when fraud is alleged concerning such work, the Institution that received the money must investigate and report back to the Federal government—otherwise the Federal government is happy to cut off ALL federally supported research until compliance is achieved. In short, Rutgers had no choice and its 27-month investigation duly confirmed that fraud was committed (RAB report 2012 [PDF]) exactly as alleged in our 2009 book.  Although Rutgers refuses to release the report publicly, I do so here because I am permitted to share copies of the report with whomever I choose. I was co-principal investigator and co-author on the fraud itself and I was co-author on a book proving the fraud. Rutgers’ official investigation merely bore out what our book showed.

Does Rutgers have a different version?  By all means let’s hear it.  Whether one agrees with his political opinions or not, Dr. Trivers has made mighty contributions to the advance of human knowledge.  If he has really deserved the punishment and humiliation meted out to him by the Rutgers officialdom, the public certainly has a right to know the reasons why.

UPDATE:  Richard Dawkins has apparently taken notice.  I also found a post by leftover Blank Slater John Horgan about a response from Trivers to one of his rants against evolutionary psychology.  According to Horgan, Trivers called it “shallow,” and accused him of “acting out the old Scientific American‘s long-standing inability to look at human sociobiology objectively.”  This at least demonstrates that Trivers hasn’t lost his originality, and ability to think outside of an ideological box.  Why?  Because in spite of the fact that he stands on the left of the political spectrum himself, it’s apparently clear to him that Scientific American is much better described as a political tract than a science journal.  He also isn’t afraid to offend the Horgan clones who still manage to maintain the ancient orthodoxy that there is no such thing as human nature in some of the more sequestered echo chambers of academia.  Perhaps this explains why it has been necessary for him, so far at least, to fight this battle alone.


Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

9 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Dr. Robert Trivers”

  1. Many thanks for this post; it is most welcome, as nonsense and nastiness survive best when done out of the public eye, precisely why i decided to go public with this matter (a little more than two weeks ago).

  2. The Germans have some good sayings. One of them is “Undank ist der Welt Lohn,” which, roughly translated, is “The wages of the world are ingratitude.”

  3. this is bizarre. that isn’t the rutgers i attended in the 70s in anthropology. it really kind of hurts when the far right kills civility and collegiality for everyone. these repeated reports of “liberal” bias in a liberal education. what in god’s name ever happened to academic freedom.

    i entirely don’t understand why and how the media aren’t all over this. there seem to be zero details anywhere on google.

  4. Prof. Trivers is one of those rarities among our species that turn up occasionally – an original thinker. On the one hand, he has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Black Panthers and an opponent of Israel, positions one usually associates with the left, but on the other he has supported what might be called innate human nature his entire career, thereby assaulting one of the main planks that make up the ideological box that many progressive leftists still live in, at least in academia. As I pointed out in my post, he is also well aware of the “party line” of Scientific American. In a word, he thinks for himself rather than according to the strictures of some ideological ingroup, and I would therefore be cautious about construing this affair in ideological terms unless I had some firm basis for doing so.

  5. Dr Trivers and Dr. Cronk couldnt have been more different. Picturing the two today after taking hours of lectures with the two of them pre-internet in 97-2001 while attending as an Anthro undergrad at Rutgers amazes me. Could this be REAL Anthropologists of New Jersey worthy? Im in!

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