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Scientists Respond to The New York Times

For the third time in three years, The New York Times has published an article by Nicholas Wade (12/20/10, 12/13/10, and again on February 18, 2013) that includes misrepresentations of the American Anthropological Association’s views on science, ethics, and the role of debate in the advancement of knowledge. Some have found their way into the recent article by Emily Eakin in The New York Times Magazine Section (2/17/13). In light of these misrepresentations, we present for the record the exact wording of core guiding documents of the Association.

The American Anthropological Association’s Statement of Purpose (Mission Statement) last amended in 1983 reads as follows: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

The AAA’s Long Range Plan, revised April 22, 2011, states: “The American Anthropological Association will support the growth, advancement and application of anthropological science and interpretation through research, publication, and dissemination within a broad range of educational and research institutions as well as to the society at large.”

Furthermore, while AAA does not take sides in intellectual disputes among individual members, the Association remains committed to ethical practice and to robust debate about disciplinary ethics. The Long Range Plan states: “The AAA will reinforce and promote the values associated with the acquisition of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. This includes a commitment to the AAA Code of Ethics.” The new version of that code, now entitled AAA Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility, was released in 2012. The Statement reflects the multiyear efforts of two different working groups and an Association-wide discussion of draft versions. The final version was adopted by vote of the membership in 2012.

Finally, the Association continues to view lively debate as key to knowledge production. Disagreements about what is good science and what is bad science do not translate into an attack on science.

Erroneous Notions of Race and Human Biology

The latest discussions of anthropology in the New York Times has spurred conversation amongst AAA members. Below is a letter to the editor by AAA member, Agustín Fuentes in response to Nicolas Wade’s recent article.

Dear Editor,

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.

Agustín Fuentes
Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of Notre Dame


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