Bioethics Forum Essay

Time for the American Anthropological Association to Apologize

Last week, the journal Human Nature published via open access an article I wrote following a year of historical research. That article, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale,” traces how, in 2000 to 2002, leaders in the American Anthropological Association (AAA) aided and abetted the false claims put forth by the self-styled anthropological journalist Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado and in a related New Yorker article.

Tierney’s claims of outrageously unethical behavior by the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the late geneticist-physician James V. Neel Sr. towards the Yanomamö people of South America did much to besmirch Chagnon’s and Neel’s reputations. But what made the whole matter much worse was the way that the AAA proceeded, namely by using Tierney’s book as a roadmap for a major – though massively flawed – ethics investigation of Chagnon and Neel. This went on even while the Chair of the investigating Task Force confessed in an e-mail to a colleague: “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).”

The free-for-all, conducted in violation of the AAA’s own ethics code (which, as Tom Gregor and Dan Gross noted in American Anthropologist in 2004, prohibited adjudication of claims of unethical behavior), ultimately included such amazing manifestations as postings at the AAA Web site of claims that Chagnon had paid his subjects to murder each other and had offered to pay murderers per killing. For his part, Neel was repeatedly likened to a Nazi experimenter, one who treated the Yanomamö essentially as lab rats for his supposedly “fascistic” “eugenic” theories.

Why did the AAA run amok, when all other involved scholarly institutions instead worked to document the phenomenal extent of Tierney’s falsehoods? I have been asked that by a number of readers. I think the explanation is historically complex, and must include an appreciation of some of the big and abrasive characters involved. There’s also some evidence (indicated in my paper) that some of the leaders may have believed this modern-day witch hunt was necessary to a kind of cultural cleansing of the stain caused by Tierney (and supposedly by Chagnon and Neel).

But it also looks to me like the AAA went overboard because of problematic bias of the sort where political liberalism is mistaken for intellectualism. Once the Yanomamö were positioned as an oppressed minority (which they are) while Chagnon and Neel were positioned as evil right-wing Nazis (which they were not), it seemed clear who would count as a hero and who as a villain.

So imagine how my head ached with irony a couple of weeks ago when I found myself reading a New York Times column about the problem of liberal bias in academic societies. The column, written by John Tierney (Patrick’s brother), was specifically reporting on the research of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who has been documenting the heavy liberal bias in his own field.

As the Times article rightly suggests, unchecked political bias within research systems represents a serious ethical problem. Researchers may be discriminated against for perfectly unsound reasons of politics. More importantly, the production of accurate new knowledge may be skewed, delayed, or even subverted, such that human subjects of such research may be misused, and the humans to whom such “bad” research is applied may be harmed.

Several people who have read my article and written to me have asked why, in my article, I do not specifically call upon the AAA to issue formal apology to the Chagnon and Neel families. I believe such an apology is long overdue, however I think it would make more sense for the motion within the AAA to come from anthropologists. It’s true I have belonged to the AAA, but only for the reason many do: to present at the conference, as I did with this work and related work, it made more economic sense to join than to resist. (I’ve let my membership lapse.)

It seems a particularly good time to have a call within the AAA for an apology, since the AAA is now in the midst of revising its ethics policy and long range plan. (The connection to the purging of the word “science” from the AAA’s long range plan is provided in the editorial accompanying my paper.) Discussion within the AAA of an apology would require attention to what went wrong in this case, a case that has permanently scarred Anthropology in general and embittered and tarnished many anthropologists individually.

The Chagnon and Neel families were reluctant to allow me to write about the harm caused to them by the AAA, as they felt it would violate their privacy. Obviously I respected their wishes. Nevertheless, I can relay here my sense that a formal apology would give these two families some solace and some sense of justice, as well as something I know they would value highly: a hope that the AAA would never behave in this fashion again.

Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that I came to the Darkness in El Dorado as part of a book I am now finishing writing on scientific controversies in the Internet age. Because so many fine scholars had already documented Tierney’s falsehoods before I came along, I initially thought I would have little to learn from a study of this particular controversy. On the contrary, it became the largest single research study of my book project and it crystallized for me the fundamental lesson I hope to convey in this work, the lesson I have in retrospect hoped to convey in all my work: Evidence is an ethical issue. Indeed, if we are to avoid slipping into a modern Dark Ages, evidence must be understood as constituting a moral imperative.

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

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