Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Inside.com, October 2, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.inside.com/story/Premium_Story_Cached/0,2771,10376_7_12_1,00.html

New Yorker Fails in Effort to Get Response From Researcher Upbraided in Its Pages

By David Carr

Monday , October 02 06:54 p.m. Although the phrase ''famous anthropologist'' seems like a bit of an oxymoron, Napoleon Chagnon is the closest you'll get this side of Margaret Mead. His book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People is the core text for most anthropology undergrads. So before publishing a book excerpt by Patrick Tierney that all but turned Chagnon's corpus of work into a corpse, New Yorker editor David Remnick went to some lengths to get a response from the professor. Chagnon eventually declined to respond to Tierney's devastating deconstruction of a lifetime of fieldwork and the story hit the streets on Monday.

Among Tierney's assertions: Chagnon was a walking example of the Heisenberg Principle whose work on the Yanomami left them an altered, crippled people; he staged many of the critical events on which his data was based; and he collaborated in introducing a deadly measles vaccine that decimated the immuno-compromised natives. In Tierney's paradigm, Chagnon comes off as a highfalutin Kurtz who plunders and subjugates those whom he purports to study. And that's just one chapter of The Fierce Anthropologist, which is due in November from W.W. Norton.

Although book excerpts are rare in Remnick's New Yorker, he says that the staff attempts to subject them to the same fact-checking rigor that other stories must pass to be published. And he sought the co-operation of Chagnon, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, before publishing Tierney's indictment.

''I would have preferred to have an interview with him inscribed into the piece,'' says Remnick, sitting in the small conference room adjoining his office on Monday, the day Tierney's article hit the newsstand. ''That is not to say that that the piece would not continue to be tough, but it was what I would have preferred.''

Chagnon had declined to participate in Tierney's book back in 1995. In the past decade, Tierney -- brother of Timesman John Tierney -- has made six trips to the Yanomami homeland in the jungles of Venezuela, eventually becoming an advocate for the rights of indigenous South American people. He did his own investigations and eventually decided that Chagnon's work was a weave of corrupt data and practices. Tierney said he would not comment on the book until it is published.

Via phone and e-mail, Remnick asked Chagnon to be interviewed by Tierney. No dice. Remnick then asked him to deal with someone else at the New Yorker. Chagnon eventually agreed to respond to questions from Remnick. ''I had been dealing with him directly, so I didn't mind'' doing the interview, Remnick says.

They agreed to talk on a Monday a few weeks ago; Remnick briefed himself on the story and assembled fact-checkers and the editor on the excerpt. But when they called, Chagnon had changed his mind. ''He told us he wasn't going to deal with anybody here,'' says Remnick.

Chagnon did not return phone and e-mail requests for an interview. Allies have suggested that he is keeping his powder dry in order to maximize his options should he sue. On a UC-Santa Barbara Web site, Chagnon responded to an e-mail synopsis of Tierney's book making the rounds in anthropology circles, saying the book was ''full of accusations that have no factual foundation'' and ''just a more elaborate extension of (a) long vendetta against me.''

It's generally held there are no politics more vicious or less consequential than academic ones, but the stakes are manifest in the debate over Chagnon's work. His seminal textbook -- a fiery narrative that is as much Indiana Jones as Margaret Mead -- is a classic, a work covering years in the jungle that went a long way toward establishing a hierarchal legacy for human development, with a horny, violent alpha male at the top of the heap.

In a letter to the president of the American Anthropological Association, Terry Turner, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and Leslie Sponsel, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai -- both longtime critics of Chagnon -- wrote, ''This nightmarish story -- a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele) -- will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial.''