Robert Trivers and Rutgers: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Robert Trivers is a giant in the field of evolutionary biology.  The brilliance of his work has not faded over time, and has been in a field that is highly relevant to us all.  He has greatly enhanced our ability to understand ourselves.  It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of his work.  I just started reading a copy of novelist Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and was amazed to find artifacts of Trivers’ famous parental investment theory in the opening chapters!  If he were Japanese, the man would probably be declared one of the country’s living national treasures.  Not here, though.  Here it seems his reward is coming in the form of a constant stream of abuse from the Rutgers administration.

I posted a bit about Trivers last year.  He had accused one of his graduate students of fraud in a scientific paper.  One of his colleagues who supported the alleged fraudster claimed that Trivers “frightened him in his office.”  For that he was banned from campus.  Now we learn he has aroused the ire of the Rutgers bureaucrats yet again.  Apparently Trivers objected to teaching a course on “Human Aggression,” claiming that he lacked expertise in the subject.  According to Kelly Heyboer of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, when forced to teach it anyway, “Trivers told students he would do his best to learn the subject with the students and teach the class with the help of a guest lecturer.”  For this, he was suspended.  According to Trivers, top university officials refused to even meet with him to discuss the subject.

Can anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 50 years possibly fail to understand why someone like Trivers would object to teaching a class on “Human Aggression” in the context of evolutionary biology?  It has been the subject of furious ideological battles ever since Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz’ publication of On Aggression.  Forcing a scientist of Trivers’ stature to teach a course on the subject amounts to setting him up as a target for the zealots on both sides of the ideological barricades.  It is hard to explain such an act by Rutgers as other than either a malicious provocation or stupidity.

I admire Trivers for fighting back.  As a professor with tenure nearing the end of his career, at least he’s in a position where he can fight back.  If you’ve ever seen the curriculum vitae of a young, tenure track assistant professor at a major university, you know the competition they face is fierce.  Without a gazillion publications, citations, invited talks, outside activities, prestigious awards, etc., they don’t even stand a chance.  For them, resistance to these bullies would be suicidal.  Trivers isn’t such an easy mark.

Still, it’s stunning to me that Rutgers can get away with this kind of abuse, and that it passes almost unnoticed, not only in the popular media, but in the science journals and websites as well.  Where are the other greats in the field?  Apparently, they “just don’t want to get involved.”  Trivers may not be the easiest man to get along with, but he deserves better.