Just because a colleague is engulfed in smoke

In Galileo’s Middle Finger, one of Alice Dreger’s subjects is the stitch-up of the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the geneticist James Neel by Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado and then by the American Anthropological Association which held a special session at its annual meeting with an open mic at which people were invited to trash Chagnon and they obliged. Dreger found overwhelming evidence that “the leaders of the AAA had to have known early on that Tierney’s book was riddled with errors” [p 175]. She quotes an email from one of the people in charge of the stitch-up, Jane Hill, to the primatologist Sarah Hrdy, who was invited to participate but declined:

Burn this message. The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America – with a high potential to do good – was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity. [p 177]

Wow. They knew the accusations were bullshit, but they backed and amplified them anyway, for the good of Anthropology.

Dreger gave a presentation on the whole mess to a group of evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary anthropologists. One of the things she told them sounded familiar to me:

I suggested they support one another when baseless charges were thrown about, and not assume that just because a colleague is engulfed in smoke, that he or she has actually set a fire. [p 181]

Good advice.

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