Outrage spread throughout the biology community at Queens College (QC) as people had come to learn that Robert Trivers was set to be a guest lecture at the weekly colloquium. For those who don’t know, Trivers is an evolutionary biologist with ties to Jeffrey Epstein, an American financier, and convicted sex offender, in addition to human trafficking.
Trivers was invited by David Lahti, professor, and evolutionary biologist at Queens College. Trivers’ talk was centered around the evolutionary logic of honor killings & other atrocities including powerful psychopaths. Trivers’ ties to Epstein are financial, as according to a report from Reuters, “ Trivers was a friend of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and received $40,000 from him to pursue research on knee symmetry and sprinting ability. Commenting on the accusation that Epstein had sexual relations with underage women, Trivers said: “By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous”
For those who don’t know, honor killing, which is Trivers’ focus, is defined as the killing of a relative (typically female relatives), belonging to a certain culture, who has brought dishonor to the family. Trivers’ lectures are centered around the benefit of inbreeding (i.e incest), as it makes it less likely for individuals to be killed. Trivers has proclaimed this in regards to middle eastern ethnic groups, which involve fathers imposing arranged marriages on their daughters. In the scenarios that Trivers describes, fathers are imposing arranged marriages between his daughter and a related cousin. Essentially, Trivers’ lectures are centered around archaic stereotypes of middle eastern cultures that are not as prevalent in our modern society (or world).
The talk left many offended, notably Daniel Weinstein, dean for Math and Natural Sciences, and Kaitlin Kosinski, a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York (CUNY), Queens College.
Kosinski put out a message to the biology community expressing her outrage. “I find it particularly hard to stomach that he would be invited given his association with Jeffrey Epstein and his statements regarding that case given to Reuters asserting that 14 and 15-year-old girls are the same as adult women, and therefore Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes were “not so heinous”.” Kosinski also expressed her feelings about Lahti’s choice of guest and criticized the lack of research done before inviting Trivers to speak. “I will be perfectly frank that I am very uncomfortable with David Lahti’s judgment and others in this matter with his selection to host this speaker. It took me about an hour of googling to discover these links after reading the title of the talk. No one decided to look up the research for this talk title? I cannot imagine the reasoning behind inviting him to speak. There was no possible way this talk was going to play out well.”
Lahti defended his choice of guest prior to Kosinski’s message to the biology community. Lahti explained that invited speakers are not part of the QC community, and are therefore not held accountable for failing to share the values QC holds.
Kosinski commented to The Knight News about Lahti’s belief that there’s no accountability. “We have a responsibility as scientists and as teachers to not expose students to racist pseudoscience– we would not entertain vaccine conspiracy theorists at colloquium either. The standards we have for our community should extend to all those we invite into our community, without question. I believe that our department and the undergraduate students would be best served by speakers who are working on current projects with the highest scientific value.”
Daniel Weinstein, dean for Math and Natural Sciences responded to Lahti in a later message to the biology community. “While we of course welcome the free exchange of ideas, I would assume that we are unlikely ever to host another seminar quite like this one — a talk which I found to be not only stunningly offensive but also almost entirely devoid of scientific content,” said Weinstein.
Weinstein spoke to The Knight News in regards to preventative measures being taken to repeat the instance of inviting such a controversial guest. “I have since asked Dr. Nathalia Holtzman, chair of the Biology Department, to propose additional mechanisms, consistent with our commitment to academic freedom, rights, and responsibilities, for review of upcoming departmental seminars and seminar speakers.”
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Elizabeth Hendrey, shared Weinsteins’ concerns for preventing a repeat of the situation at hand. “I join Dean Weinstein and the Biology Department in their desire to support academic freedom and the free expression of views, including those that may be considered controversial; however, we want to clearly state that we do not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, or bigotry in any form.”