Jared Diamond and Anthropological Ethics

Brian McKenna sent around to the EANTH Listserv a couple of blog posts today detailing the trouble that Jared Diamond has gotten in about a New Yorker story he wrote a year ago on the power of vengeance.  This seems like a rather sordid affair but I think that Alex Golub should be commended for his very fair treatment of it in his most recent post on the Savage Minds blog.  It certainly sounds like there were some major ethical lapses in the production of Diamond’s New Yorker piece, though I wonder about the motivations of Shearer, the muck-raker who has brought these issues to light.

Jeanine Pfeiffer, the director for social science at the Earthwatch Institute, posted a list of ethical guidelines from the International Society for Ethnobiology which I think are very relevant for understanding the apparent ethical lapses in Diamond’s work. Honestly, I can’t imagine publishing an article like Diamond’s and using the informants’ real names!  Then there’s the issue of informed consent.  People need to know that they are “on the record” — whatever that means in this (kind of) grey area of anthropology-meets-journalism. Seems to me that minimal twin standards that should guide anyone’s writing about the lives of people “in the field” include: (1) would you write this way about people in your own immediate community? and (2) would your article’s evidentiary and rhetorical standards pass muster if it was a paper submitted by an undergraduate for a class you were teaching?

As Golub notes, Jared Diamond is an easy target for academic anthropologists (or historians or geographers) because he writes well and clearly about complex topics and reaches a large audience.  There are always people grumbling about Diamond’s originality, authenticity, and willingness to attribute ideas to others (in that vein, a highly recommended book). Diamond’s ecological work on community assembly of pigeons in New Guinea is top-notch and I still assign his chapter from the Ecology and Evolution of Communities volume he edited with Martin Cody in 1975. Regarding books like Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, I take them for what they are: synthetic popularizations that maybe could have stood a little more attribution.  It would certainly be nice if the popular spokesperson for Anthropology were actually an anthropologist. Alas, anthropologists, for the most part, have given up on the goal of writing prose that can be broadly read, appreciated, and understood.

This is a story I will be keeping my eye on.

6 thoughts on “Jared Diamond and Anthropological Ethics”

  1. Pingback: More on Diamond
  2. You don't have to wonder about possible "vendetta motivations of Shearer" --you could pick up the phone and ask me questions before airing such a serious suggestion.

    We are not picking nits here. Diamond says Isum is paralyzed and in a wheelchair from an arrow in the spine because as the opponent, warrior Ombal leader, he is targeted by Wemp's hired assassins.

    We find the man. Henep Isum Mandingo who is a Henep (not an Ombal) and former village peace officer, walking around carrying heavy loads of dirt and has no clue about Jared Diamond or any New Yorker article. He is angry to be called a Nipa tribesman who raped Huli women or that he was a owner of a fight resulting in 30 dead.

    With such dramatic errors (confirmed with dozens of informants) Is it necessary or fair to suggest or idly wonder (with no evidence offered) if I am conducting a vendetta (an extreme term and accusation) when the evidence is hardly subtle that something is seriously wrong .

    Putting this idea of my possibly having a "vendetta" against Diamond out there in the public's mind leaves a dark shadow over me and our teams work that is unwarranted and unfair.

    I may have meet Diamond once in my life. (Frankly Steve, [my late husband, Stephen Jay Gould never spoke about him that I can remember]--I mention this because I read somewhere a speculation of a feud between them).

    The facts are the facts. No matter if I like, love or care not a pea for Diamond makes no difference. It won't put Isum in that wheelchair!

    That is why I do what I do. Certain facts are beautiful, stable things. Since 9/11 I have given up making objects as an artist. Truth is far more beautiful than any art object I can make. Everyone is, or can be, an artist is this sense.

    (I am a Marcel Duchamp scholar after all. I ask you, does life get more Dada than this case? )

    In conclusion: I am committed in coin, sweat and time to make the world a better, more positive place.

    Diamond debacle is a cautionary tale to all--even me. Hopefully, we all learn to be more humble and careful due to Diamond's present circumstance and all the baggage with it . It is very scary and upsetting indeed.

  3. This is a fair enough criticism. It was a poor choice of wording, particularly given the focus of the target article! I edited to remove the offending word. I really just meant to comment on something that the SavageMinds blog and several commentators on your blog noted. The allegations are serious. The lessons for anthropology in a globalized world are many. However, there is a slightly over-the-top tone to this and I think it works against you in a PR sense. I post a entry that is largely sympathetic to your position and I catch an earful. I think it's likely that I will catch another.

    As an ethologist by training, I pay as much attention to tone as to content of communications and as an anthropologist, I am all too accustomed to the kind of rancorous and uncivil discourse that characterizes our discipline. If the facts of a case are strong, I say let them speak for themselves. I'm not asking for a disingenuous attempt at being balanced when one has a specific position but when the tone is extreme, it starts to sound like a take-down job and I think it's Human Nature to wonder about motives when that is the case.

  4. I appreciate your response and action. Thank you. But now you suggest the expression my position has extreme elements. Would you kindly present the evidence that you are using to support this position?

    As far as I know, I have not committed any "rancorous and uncivil discourse" that you seem to directly suggest to readers that I have done.

    When you refer to when the "tone is extreme" in our case" in light of Diamond's behavior--publicly charging innocent men of crimes, and endangering the life of one who is in hiding for the past 9 months (a valid action based on several experts)--I don't think our treatment of the topic is over-stated at all.

    Of course, that is your opinion and your are entitled. However, to present that opinion without any evidence to support this charge is unfair to me and my team. And I am calling you on it which is my right.

    I have not publicly speculated or questioned your motives--or Diamond's -- but perhaps I should? The reason I have not is I have no idea what is motivating you or Diamond and I don't feel it right to guess.

  5. Um, my evidence is your response. And this response was to someone who largely supports your position, bear in mind.

    This is a blog. In it, I write about human ecology, human behavior, infectious disease, and the R statistical programming language. I write opinions. That's what differentiates it from the peer-reviewed scientific literature or from journalism. Sometimes I say dumb things. Occasionally I say insightful things. Or, at least, so I hope. I think I've already said more than I really care to on this topic...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>