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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Human evolution: Quest for primitive human backfires

Best news I've heard all year, actually. Also the worst. Bear with me.

A friend writes to tell me that
Jared Diamond, geography prof at UCLA, ornithologist and popular science writer, is in hot water for writing a story in the New Yorker last year that described "vengeance wars" among tribes in Papua New Guinea that apparently has angered the tribes. The convoluted episode has resulted in his being vilified by anthropologists and by Stephen Jay Gould's widow, who runs Art Science Research Laboratory.
He is being sued for defamation by his New Guinea subjects.

The story is told in Science by Michael Balter, who also has a summary on his blog.

An anthropologist can no longer just visit a native tribe, take notes, and come home to write pretend science articles about their "primitive" habits. Today, many members of traditional peoples have computers, jobs, and political clout. Anthropologists are answerable to the people they write about, who are now paying attention.

In truth, this whole area has been marked by huge scandals over the years. I strongly recommend Patrick Tierney's Darkness in Eldorado, as a remedial text for anyone who took anthropology under a materialist system, where the profs were looking for evidence of "primitive" humans, and caused huge disruptions in aboriginal communities as a result.

Want to see a "primitive" human? Go to the bathroom and look in the mirror.

But ... I am concerned that this may be an instance of libel tourism. That just means looking for a favourable jurisdiction in which to launch a suit that would be considered frivolous in most jurisdictions, and would not gain standing in a court.

The only solution, in my view, is the one we are embarking on in Canada - reform of the defamation laws to clarify what we do and do not consider defamation. For example, if my - very traditional - view is adopted, we don't consider dead people, abstract ideas, religions, or groups to be plaintiffs for defamation. Defamation means that a live person suffered specific, identifiable harm as a result of demonstrably false or unprovable statements made about him/her.

If the person is a public figure, that bar should obviously be lowered. He who seeks greater power than his fellows must deal with greater detraction.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:


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