In the fallout from Sahlins’ departure from the NAS and Rex’s coverage of it on Savage Minds, I noticed a conversation in a friend’s Facebook status about whether some biological anthropologist might write a letter to the editor contributing their voice and perspective. Letters had been written, it was alleged, but the papers had declined to publish them.
I emailed Agustin Fuentes and Jon Marks about the matter. Both were willing to have their comments reposted here. Though our own conversation surrounding the issues has evolved, I thought I would include them in a brief post nevertheless.
Jon wrote to the NYT,
Elizabeth Povinelli’s review certainly captured the judgment of most of the anthropological community, that Yanomamo violence is to be understood as the product of complex social and political history, rather than as the expression of their primordial nature. However, in the two other recent articles on the Yanomamo (Emily Eakin, “How Napoleon Chagnon became our Most Controversial Anthropologist” and Nicholas Wade, “Napoleon Chagnon’s War Stories”), we are exposed to several inaccuracies, among them: that Margaret Mead was hoaxed (a politicized claim that has been comprehensively falsified); that the American Anthropological Association voted to delete the word “science” from its long-range plan (it actually voted to reject the recommendation of the committee that suggested it); and that anthropologists have snubbed Napoleon Chagnon’s interpretations of the Yanomamo for irrational, political reasons. The scientific judgment, however, is that those interpretations were methodologically, epistemologically, and statistically flawed.
The suggestion that anthropology is under a delusional cloud is one that we are more accustomed to hearing from creationists and other anti-intellectuals. For example, in a letter published in the New York Times on October 24, 1962, two segregationists wrote that the “race-equality dogma” was part of a “socialistic ideology” promoted by a “cult” of anthropologists. Except that the “cult” was actually the mainstream science of anthropology, and that claim was a highly political and anti-intellectual dissimulation. It still is.
Agustin stated, “Mine was actually on a related post by Wade where he misrepresents and racializes a recent study in an essay a few days prior to the Chagnon one.” This reply was posted on the AAA site, but is shared again here.
Nicolas Wade’s article of Feb. 14th, 2013, presents erroneous notions of race and human biology. Wade distorts the findings of two studies on human genetic variation by couching the research in racialized terms not used by the scientists themselves. One of the studies proposes possible explanations for a genetic variant common in North-east Asian Han peoples (via human genes inserted into mice) and the other looks at patterns of genetic variation across 179 people from Nigeria, Utah, Beijing and Tokyo. Humans vary in complex and important ways, but Wade’s categories of “East Asian,” “African,” and “European” are not biologically valid groups. His assertions of what the two studies tell us ignore abundant genomic, morphological and physiological data and act to reinforce public misunderstandings of science. I urge the readership of the New York Times not to accept the myths offered by Wade, but rather to seek out what we actually know about human biology and evolution for themselves.
Thanks to both JM and AF. Perhaps someday a biological anthropologist will join the Savage Minds team!