Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Goodall and de Waal books are surprisingly (dare I say it?) bad

You probably haven’t noticed that Jane Goodall is being accused of plagiarism, sloppy writing, and anti-science in her latest book, Seeds of Hope. You won’t read about it on Huffington Post, I’ll bet, or see it in your favorite sanctuary's Facebook newsfeed, because too many people seem willing to give her a pass... because she's a chimp advocate, or she's old, or her early work was so important that rules don’t apply to current work, or whatever. I won’t repeat all the allegations here, but I seriously recommend that you read them for yourself in the Daily Beast article Jane Goodall’s Troubling, Error-Filled New Book.

Goodall promotes herself as a scientist, and plagiarism is a serious problem if we are to take a scientist’s work seriously. Lifting paragraphs from new age websites undermines her scientific case. Even worse, as Daily Beast reporter Michael Moynihan points out, Goodall undermines her arguments against genetically modified food by misrepresenting the research. (Like Jane, I have serious concerns about GMOs, but I believe we need to balance decisions by using science and consumer preferences. Misrepresentation never ever ever has a legitimate role in food policy.)

Seeds of Hope is a nasty stain on Goodall’s long-earned and well-deserved reputation. And yet, even though she is listed as author and the book is written in the first person, as if Jane is speaking, Goodall supporters seem to blame her co-author, Gail Hudson. Goodall herself passively tried to step around the issue. According to a Washington Post article, Jane Goodall’s book, Seeds of Hope, contains passages without attribution, Goodall says she was “distressed to discover that some of the excellent and valuable sources were not properly cited,” as if she had no responsibility. No, Jane, the correct way to phrase that would have been “I did not properly cite…” She said she would correct future editions. (Of course, by that time, thousands of people would have read the plagiarized work.) Fortunately, her publisher had a different idea. Even though Goodall has an extensive book tour planned, the publisher decided to delay publication. (See Goodall book postponed because of lifted passages.) 
Jane's book tour for her pulled book is listed on the JGI website.
Unfortunately, Frans de Waal doesn’t have a chance at a re-write for his new book, Bonobos and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. I love bonobos and I’m an atheist, so I expected to submerge myself into a great read, but I’m struggling with this one. Reading his book is uncomfortable. I feel like I’ve walked into a private argument between people who evidently have spent years sniping at each other from afar -- but now de Waal has decided to take it to his opponents, personally.

I wanted de Waal’s insights to help explain why people think they need religion to be moral, but I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. He’ll write a bit about apes, and then take off into an argument with “theoreticians” or (gasp!) “scientists” who evidently have tried to make points with which he disagrees. Who are these people he is criticizing? And what did they say that has pissed him off so much?

I get it that he doesn’t agree with the strident “new” atheists. I understand that a segment of the atheist community finds Richards Dawkins a bit, well… a bit too much. And Christopher Hitchens is an acquired taste, especially when he’s at his angry best. (Disclosure: I enjoy reading Hitchens, and I value the time I saw him speak – a couple of days before he was told he had stage four cancer.) Are you with me, reader? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, de Waal’s book will make absolutely no sense to you. Even though I know some of the arguments of the popularized atheists Frans opposes, I still got lost when he started into people I don’t know.

De Waal has so much insight to add to the discussion of evolution, science, morals, and religion. It’s too bad he had to waste his book (and his readers’ time) engaging in personal attacks against fellow atheists.

Goodall and de Waal used their books to indulge their personal arguments, and it seems like they did it without paying due respect to their readers. If they fully respected their readers, they would have demanded the honest services of some good editors. At least, a good editor might have detected Goodall’s plagiarism and errors. A second set of eyes might have warned de Waal that he was taking too much liberty in indulging in esoteric arguments without preparing the reader.

I write this with a heavy heart, because Jane and Frans’ work with apes was groundbreaking, and we owe them tons of respect and appreciation. But I’m going to have to move on, to writers who demonstrate a bit more respect for average, every day readers.

Today Amazon delivered my copy of Monte Reel’s Between Man and Beast, a book about the first confrontations between Victorian adventurers and gorillas. It’s getting great reviews. Delivery came just in time… I need a good book.

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