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No talking about animal sex in academia!

A while ago a paper was published that discussed oral sex in bats. Now, if you’ve ever hung around biologists or evolutionary psychologists for more than five minutes, you know that we tend to be a little obsessed with sex. Seeing papers like this greatly amuses and interests us – I know I was sent this paper by at least 10 different biologists I know.

So what happened to Prof. Dylan Evans of University College Cork surprises me. I’ll just repost his letter so you get the whole story:

Dear Colleagues,

The President of University College Cork, Professor Michael Murphy, has imposed harsh sanctions on me for doing nothing more than showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a colleague.

The article was about fellatio in fruit bats. You can read it online at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007595

It was covered extensively in the media, including the Guardian – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/10/oral-sex-bats-improbable-research

The colleague to whom I showed the article complained to HR that the article was upsetting. I had been engaged in an ongoing debate with the colleague in question about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behaviour, and in particular about the dubiousness of many claims for human uniqueness. I showed it the colleague in the context of this discussion, and in the presence of a third person. I also showed the article to over a dozen other colleagues on the same day, none of whom objected.

HR launched a formal investigation. Despite the fact that external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment, Professor Murphy has imposed a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counselling on me, and as a result my application for tenure is likely to be denied.

I am now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. I would be grateful for your support on this matter. I have created an online petition at:
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/freedebate/

I’d be grateful if you sign the petition and ask your colleagues to do so. If you also felt like writing directly to the President of UCC, his address is:

Professor Michael Murphy
The President’s Office
University College Cork
Cork
Republic of Ireland.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

Dylan Evans

If someone gets upset for you bringing up something sexual (that’s relevant) during a biology discussion, something is wrong. Just because us humans like to be puritanical about things doesn’t mean nature follows suit. I’ve blogged before at the diversity of sexual behavior in living organisms – we shouldn’t be ignoring that because “oral sex” sounds gross or sinful. It’s still part of the discussion, whether you like it or not.

I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Evans showed this colleague papers about homosexuality, polygamy, rape, necrophilia, traumatic insemination… I’m betting on fainting and pearl clutching.

(Via Pharyngula)

Comments

  1. confuseddave says

    Firstly, this wasn’t academia, this was a personal exchange between colleagues. Their workplace is irrelevant, except that they both presumably have access to scientific literature.Second, we have no information on the nature of the exchange, so it’s difficult to gauge how the argument was running; it’s possible to interpret this as someone hiding behind prudishness to stifle an argument, but it’s also entirely possible that the complainant genuinely felt that leading the debate towards sexuality was inappropriate. Just because it’s a peer reviewed paper doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to bring it into any discussion, and it’s intention could certainly have been misconstrued. Sending someone articles about sex – peer reviewed or not – can definitely qualify as sexual harassment in some cases.Of course, not in all cases – as he mentioned, he was cleared of harassment. It’s not clear why his head of school has imposed such sanctions, but there are certainly innocent reasons for it – the school may have a zero-tolerance, “better safe than sorry” approach to sexual harassment.

  2. libraboy says

    He was cleared of harassment and sanctioned. What?!Maybe this colleague was just upset that this professor was using facts to back up a debate on evolution, and thus called it harassment (much as the X-ians in this country claim persecution when they’re harassed for being bigots).

  3. mark spangler says

    i like the vague references to “colleague.” this was obviously a male prof showing an article to a female “colleague” and she was “disturbed.” if you are annoyed or uncomfortable you claim “harrassment.” how man careers are going to be ruined by this crap.

  4. says

    Really, the fact that it’s a ‘sexual’ issue with allegations of harassment is secondary to the idea that an *external* investigation can clear someone, but internal sanctions still be applied. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of this sort of thing in regard to sexual issues, but it’s usually been for far stronger cases of impropriety (lecturer-student, or involving minors, or similar). In this case it sounds ludicrous, going on the information in this letter. I’d love to hear the uni president’s side of the story.

  5. Pablo says

    Jen – as you begin your career in the semi-real world (I know what grad school and academia are like), there is one thing you need to remember: NEVER base an assessment only on the version provided by the accused. According to them, they didn’t do anything wrong and it is always the other person who is taking it way out of context. Every convicted sexual harraser says the same thing, so it doesn’t provide any insight.There are two sides to these stories. The one making the complaint sees it very differently. I suspect she would contend that an article about oral sex in bats has nothing to with the conversation they were having at work.

  6. Pablo says

    I should note, I am not saying this person is necessarily guilty of anything, but that his side of the story is not sufficient to determine the real situation.

  7. says

    What happened to this biologist sounds terrible but I’d feel more comfortable hearing the other side make a fool of themselves to be sure. Shouldn’t someone filing bogus reports be made an example of?

  8. Echoecho says

    I’m with Pablo on this one. People who sexually harass ALWAYS have some kind of pretty story so they don’t have to acknowledge what they’re doing. He may be completely innocent, and his colleague may be a pearl-clutcher, or he could be telling a story that “sounds about right” to gin up support. We can’t assess without hearing the other side of the things. We also don’t know his tenure situation. If he’s a problematic individual who also isn’t publishing, he may think this is a great way to try to play for sympathy.

  9. Pablo says

    The only question in my mind is in regards to this “biology” discussion they have been having, which concerns the appropriateness of the topic. Because it’s very clear that, lacking a proper context, bringing up an article just because it is about bat sex would be inappropriate. That in itself would not constitute harrassment, because it would not be part of a pattern of behavior, but it would be grounds for sanction, and a warning to knock it off. Interestingly, that is the action that was taken.It comes down to the context in which it was introduced. There is a big difference between, “Hey, there is this article about bats having oral sex. What do you think it means in terms of biology?” and “Heh, heh, heh, look at this article is about bats giving blowjobs. That’s funny.”No, it’s not funny in the workplace.

  10. Pablo says

    “He was cleared of harassment and sanctioned. What?!”Harrassment requires a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Apparently this did not constitute that.However, it could still be considered an inappropriate act, in which case the person is told to knock it off.This is all pretty straightforward stuff that any HR person can tell you about.

  11. Echoecho says

    It’s true, I’m definitely speculating re: tenure.As you said, it depends entirely on context. There’s, “Last time we spoke you said you didn’t think animals engaged in things like foreplay, etc – I found this article on bats engaging in oral sex. Now in their case it’s not really foreplay, since coitus has already been achieved but, etc etc.”Or… “Last time we spoke you said you didn’t think animals engaged in things like foreplay, etc – I found this article on bats engaging in oral sex. You do yoga, you’re flexible enough to try this stuff yourself!”Things can get as dirty as whatever between friends, but in a professional relationship, not okay.

  12. skepticalmedia says

    I sometimes have to look at a calendar to reassure myself we are in the 21st century. Why is this a contentious issue at all in this day and age?

  13. says

    Good one, Pablo.You got it. MALE Dylan was probably sending his FEMALE colleague a double message with his little talk. I’m sure he left her with some beautiful images in her mind. And, some transference. Mind rape.

  14. kendermouse says

    It seems to me some of the commenters are either completely ignoring the fact that he was exonerated by the HR dept’s external investigators, or acting like that fact doesn’t matter. Yes, we’re seeing it from his pov, but if he was indeed found to have done nothing wrong, then the sanctions placed on him are unfair, and, in my opinion, rather harsh. Seriously, two whole years, simply for showing an article? That’s a bit much.Also, I have to say that article is really interesting.

  15. Jo says

    Whatever the fuck happened to the offended person saying “Hey, I don’t like that crap, knock it off” and THEN going to human resources?Seems like there’s an HR complaint at the drop of a hat without involving yourself in correcting your own problems.

  16. Jo says

    Excuse me, in my little scenario there, I meant asking the offender to stop, and if the behaviour persists, then go to HR.Just thought I’d clear that up. :)

  17. haleyk says

    I completely disagree. Sometimes you simply do not feel comfortable confronting your harasser, and sometimes this is for good reason.

  18. noxumbra says

    I think you are all missing the point with all this “harassment ” talk. Bats blow each other ? that’s awesome!

  19. says

    If the situation is as Dr. Evans describes, then it is certainly an abuse of sexual harassment policies. But the situation is not so clear, even when one has reviewed the evidence provided by Dr. Evans in support of the petition.I would like to sign the petition, but can not do so in good conscience. I certainly support academic freedom, which includes free and frank discussion. Nor do I necessarily accept that Dr. Evans behaved in the alleged manner; on that issue, based on the presented evidence, I can not come to a conclusion. I just have too many unanswered questions with regard to the complaint and Dr. Evans replies. The sanctions against Dr. Evans are unjust and ought to be reviewed. However, it is not clear that the complaint was to stifle academic debate. As the two issues are conflated into the one petition, I can not sign it.

  20. says

    “…external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment” – Done.A biologist should not take offense from a discussion on biology. Suck it up, animals can be “yucky” sometimes.

  21. Pounce says

    Oh my supernaturalomnipotentselfaware individual.If i was to claim sexual harassment each time someone starts to talk creepy in my job i would be extremly busy.There is the good old fashioned way of making a few comments who make the perp look as what he is (an idiot with the gutter mind of an 13 year old) and problem is solved.(I am of no opinion here if the guy in question did or did not, just saying, harrassing that does not involve physical acts is well.. matter of taste and all that, i personally would hate to have the boss come down like a ton of bricks each time someone makes a “risque”joke because he fears to end up in court)

  22. N. Auyeung says

    While I’m all for academic freedom, I agree with previous posters that we are only seeing one side of the story. I’m not sure to what extent the specifics as presented on http://felidware.com/DylanEvan… are accurate, but it is possible that Dr. Evans is omitting some important facts from his letter. Based on the report that was filed, the paper was the last straw after a series of events where the colleague had listened to Dr. Evans go on about Casanova, where Dr. Evans had hugged her and kissed her when she didn’t feel comfortable, and Dr. Evans misrepresenting himself as a friend of the colleague’s husband. If this is true, I think that it is disingenuous of Dr. Evans to treat this as a restriction of academic freedom.

  23. says

    That’s a pretty good summation of my “God is an Asshole (if he even exists)” theory. If we’re all pawns in some kind of celestial game, then I say, “Fuck you.”

  24. says

    Oops, sorry. Meant to post this in the recent Boobquake post. But hey, since I’m totally off topic in this thread to begin with, congratulations on your graduation!

  25. Katy says

    I love how in the video of the bats having sex, there’s this loud music playing that sounds like what you’d expect to hear on a race car driving video game. Too funny!

  26. says

    Having read all the documents on that link, I would tend to agree. Without access to the “email evidence” mentioned in the report, it is difficult to judge. But the report made a big deal of how Dr. Evens didn’t intend to offend. Is sexual harassment really judged by intent to offend? I wouldn’t think that offending her would be his intention whether he was hitting on her or only joking.Also, his assertion that the original complaints were filed with malicious intent, in contradiction to the findings of the report, seem to belie his initial response to the complaint, which was very gracious and understanding – he only wanted to make nice, and was aghast that he had caused an esteemed colleague any distress. It’s a pretty major shift from that to “she is viciously trying to sully my good name” and “one of us must be lying,” and I can only conclude that he shifted to this more aggressive pose after the report gave him the confidence to do so. He seems to be trying to paint her as a malicious prude in order to bolster his defense.Of course, she just might be a malicious prude. It just seems less likely than this guy being inappropriate. But maybe that’s my own personal bias. As I said, too much hearsay and not enough actual evidence to come to a conclusion.

  27. Sven DiMilo says

    You, PZ Myers, Dennett, and Pinker have this all wrong. Evans’s letter and petition are self-serving and disingenuous. He was NOT “exonerated” by the official investigation report (which is available online for everyone to read). The University President, far from impeding free debate, imposed the least punitive “sanctions” available to him under written University policy. The incident in question seems not, in fact, to have been part of an academic debate about the evolutionary roots of human behavior, but rather occurred in the context of Evans taking the article around to show everybody in their department, though none of them, including Evans, is an evolutionary biologist, let alone a researcher in comparative sexual behavior.Academic freedom is a very important cornerstone in the entire scholarly enterprise, not just science, and it’s an issue that deserves serious consideration and vigilance. Here, though, I fear it’s being trotted out as a post-hoc rationalization for some fratboy douchebaggery. It’s disappointing to see so many people I otherwise respect being taken in by Evans’s bullshit.

  28. says

    Australian Climate Scientists Get Death Threats” post. No one, and I mean no one has made a stronger condemnation of child-rape on this blog. Indeed, I even invited the … Tell me, Wow, if one of your pals bragged about his sexual adventures with kiddie sex-slaves in a foreign land (or domestically for that matter) would you turn that scum-bag, pervert piece of shit into the authorities or not?

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