On science, conscience, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences

Upon the recent appointment of anthropologist/sociobiologist Napoleon Chagnon to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, longstanding member, Marshall Sahlins of the University of Chicago, resigned in protest on February 23. An article in CounterPunch by cultural anthropologist David Price includes an interchange with Sahlins about his views on Chagnon’s research and the NAS. The article clarifies the distortion that has long surrounded the critique of Chagnon’s interactions with the Yanomamö and his publications, notably his assertions of a reproductive/ adaptive advantage to male violence and that male violence is innate and “natural.” The critique is not “anti-science” but instead is about bad science and harmful science that is a discredit to an ethical pursuit of knowledge.

As Price comments, “We are left to wonder what is to become of science, whether practiced with a capital (at times blind) “S” or a lower case inquisitive variety, when those questioning some its practices, misapplications and outcomes are increasingly marginalized, while those whose findings align with our broader cultural values of warfare are embraced. The NAS’s rallying around such a divisive figure as Chagnon, demonizing his critics, claiming they are attacking not his practices and theories, but science itself damages the credibility of these scientists. It is unfortunate that the National Academy of Sciences has backed itself into this corner.”

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