'Vengeance' Bites Back at Jared Diamond

That's the title of my three-page News Focus in this week's issue of Science, about the lawsuit filed last month by two men from Papua New Guinea (PNG) against Jared Diamond and the New Yorker. They claim that they were defamed by an article Diamond published in the magazine in April 2008, called "Vengeance is Ours," about a revenge war that took place in the 1990s.

The lawsuit has received very little news coverage until now, possibly because both Diamond and the New Yorker had refused to comment. Our story features their first on the record comments, and is an attempt to be scrupulously fair to both sides of the issue while digging beneath the surface of the affair for its deeper meaning, both journalistically and anthropologically. The full article is available to subscribers only, although anyone with university or other online access can read it. Thus for copyright reasons I can only provide a few excerpts here, but here they are. It is also possible that other news media will now get more interested in covering this story.

The lead:

IN APRIL 2008, THE WELL-KNOWN biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp’s uncle, Soll. In Diamond’s telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone’s garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp’s story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance.

The lawsuit:

On 20 April, Diamond, 71, was sued in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for allegedly defaming both Daniel Wemp and Isum Mandingo, the alleged target of Wemp’s revenge war. The lawsuit, which also names as a defendant Advance Publications Inc., the owner of the New Yorker, demands at least $10 million in damages. It follows a year long investigation led by Rhonda Roland Shearer, an artist and the widow of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

The reaction of anthropologists:

The affair has raised concerns among anthropologists familiar with PNG, who worry that the New Yorker’s “Annals of Anthropology” banner has tarnished the field’s reputation. Anthropologist Pauline Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, a leading expert on tribal warfare in PNG, thinks Diamond was naïve if he accepted Wemp’s stories at face value, because young men in PNG often exaggerate their tribal warfare exploits or make them up entirely. “I could have told him immediately that it was a tall tale, an embellished story. I hear lots of them but don’t publish them because they are not true.”

The response from Diamond and the New Yorker:

Diamond stands by his story, arguing that it was based on detailed notes that he took during a 2006 interview with Wemp as well as earlier conversations the two men had in 2001 when Wemp served as his driver in PNG. “The complaint has no merit at all,” Diamond told Science in an interview in his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is a professor of geography. Diamond adds that he still considers Wemp’s original account to be the most reliable source for what happened. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, also defends the magazine’s story: “It appears that the New Yorker and Jared Diamond are the subject of an unfair and, frankly, mystifying barrage of accusations.”

That's about all the quoting I can do, but I do hope you get a chance to see the story and read it. If all else fails, try your local library!

Update: Those of you with online access to Science can now read the story at this link.

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