Alice Dreger has a remembrance of Napoleon Chagnon in The Chronicle Review. This part jumped out at me:
The reason he was willing to work with me for over a year was not because he had a big ego — which he did. It was because he knew the “closest approximation to the truth” would exonerate him. He knew that Tierney had misrepresented so much.
The chair of the AAA task force knew it too. That was Jane Hill, former president of the AAA. During my research, Sarah Hrdy shared with me a previously confidential message, dated April 15, 2002, in which Hill responded to Hrdy’s concerns about the task force’s work.
“Burn this message,” Hill told Hrdy. “The book [by Tierney] 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.”
It’s easy to understand the calculation Hill and others were making.
If you don’t know, the backstory is around the year 2000 the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon came under fire as having aided and abetted genocide in the course of his research in a fashion that would make Josef Mengele proud. On the whole, all the accusations were false. But until that was established Chagnon came under fire from colleagues, and members of the press. The New York Times Book Review gave the critique of Chagon a positive review, something which John Horgan does not seem to regret much.
Despite the storm and fury ultimately the whole episode came to a just conclusion: Chagnon and James Neel were exonerated. The AAA task force report was eventually rescinded.
Does anyone believe that if the same thing happened today in 2019 it would end in the same way? I don’t think it would at all. The accusation itself would have destroyed Chagnon’s career immediately. Associates and colleagues would have been called upon to denounce Chagnon. Silence would be seen as suspect.
Perhaps people would understand on some level that it was far far better that one individual’s reputation must die so that the field might live. But whereas in 2000 those who were making this calculation seemed embarrassed about what they were doing, today I doubt there would be such reluctance. Even if Chagnon and James Neel were not guilty of the specific crimes, they were born convicted in the eyes of critics as white males. The only way that it would work out for Chagnon today is if he turned on Neel and denounced him, sacrificing the dead for the living. A “struggle session” would be his only defense.
We all know this is true. I suspect this is why Horgan seems utterly unashamed about having given praise to a book in 2000 which aimed to destroy reputations but which we now know as false. By today’s standards what he did was not a big deal. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.