Phi Beta Cons

The Fierce People

Nine years ago, I wrote an investigative story for NR about a book that leveled scandalous accusations against an eminent anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon. Much of the media was buying the allegations made by Patrick Tierney in Darkness in El Dorado, including the New Yorker, which ran a long excerpt of the book before its formal publication. Among other things, Chagnon was accused of spreading a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo, a South American rainforest tribe. I had my doubts, did some digging, and reported on the controversy.

The debate over Chagnon has continued to percolate in faculty lounges, if nowhere else. But now it has popped up again. A news report in Science (summary here–full text requires a subscription) describes recent happenings at the American Anthroplogical Association’s annual conference:

This year’s meeting had a different slant on the ongoing fight over Tierney’s book: Most of the criticism was leveled at Chagnon’s accusers and the AAA itself. In the 2 December session, historian Alice Domurat Dreger of Northwestern University reported on her research into AAA’s role in the affair, as part of a book on scientific controversies. So problematic were AAA’s actions, she charged, “I can’t imagine how any scholar feels safe” as a member.

Former AAA president Jane Hill of the University of Arizona is said to have called Tierney’s book “just a piece of sleaze.” It would have been good if she and other academics had spoken out in support of Chagnon in 2000, when his name was being dragged through the mud. It was apparently more convenient for them to let a witch hunt proceed.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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