Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: United Press International, General News, October 21, 2000
Source URL: none

Analysis: Darkness in anthropology

By Lou Marano

An interim report released Friday by the University of Michigan likens a recent attack on two distinguished American scientists to a Mafia "hit" and calls into question the motives of the accusers.

The university calls the report an "update" on its continuing investigation into charges made by Patrick Tierney in his forthcoming book "Darkness in El Dorado" against James V. Neel, known as the father of modern human genetics, and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps anthropology's premier field researcher of the 20th century. Neel, a physician (internal medicine) as well as a geneticist, was associated with the University of Michigan's School of Medicine for 39 years. He established the first U.S. academic department of human genetics there in 1956 and was its chairman for 25 years. He died of prostate cancer in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 1 at age 84.

Chagnon, very much alive, got his PhD from the university and taught there until 1972. In the late 1960s, he collaborated with Neel in fieldwork done among the Yanomomi Indians of the Amazon basin.

"The University of Michigan takes allegations of impropriety very seriously," the report said.

According to those who have seen it, Tierney's manuscript contains a jumble of sensationalistic and unsupportable accusations against the two scholars. These range from starting a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomomi in order to test some neo-Nazi eugenic theory imputed to Neel, to Chagnon's descriptions of Yanomomi life being used by invading Brazilian gold miners to justify their slaughter of the Indians. Of course, as University of New Mexico anthropologist Kim Hill has written: "Colonists, explorers, adventurers, miners, etc. have been slaughtering Native Americans in Brazil and Venezuela for hundreds of years. None of the killers are likely to have read Chagnon or care about his work."

An e-mail on Tierney's book that circulated widely last month put the field of anthropology in an uproar. The memo was sent by professors Terence Turner of Cornell and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii to senior officials of the American Anthropological Association, ostensibly to warn them of the media firestorm that would surely follow the publication of "Darkness in El Dorado." The University of Michigan interim report demolishes the claim by Turner and Sponsel that they learned of this "impending scandal" from reading the galley proofs of Tierney's book.

"While the now-famous e-mail letter to the AAA by Turner and Sponsel leaves the impression that they had just learned of the accusations against Neel and Chagnon, there is published evidence that they knew about them long before.Both (men) are thanked in the 'Acknowledgments' section of Tierney's book," the report said.

Neel's sinister "eugenics" motive in the book stems from Turner's interpretation of a conversation he had with Neel in 1963. But in a phone interview with Turner, this anthropologist concluded that Turner had only a vague understanding of evolutionary biology. Unless Turner was better-informed 37 years ago, he was ill-equipped to comprehend - much less interpret - anything Neel had to say on the subject. "These guys (Turner and Sponsel) think eugenics (the questionable desire to produce "improved" human strains) and genetics are synonyms," one anthropologist told United Press International Friday afternoon.

The report explained its findings: "Dr. Neel's published works show that he was a critic of eugenics from his graduate student days in the late 1930s," it said. "Far from holding 'eugenics' positions, Dr. Neel strongly supported maintaining the rich diversity of the entire human gene pool and urged 'egalitarian control of population growth' to protect the future of our species."

The report referred to a growing schism "between anthropologists who believe in a scientific paradigm and those who do not." Formerly, the two groups exchanged knowledge in relative harmony in academic departments, but during the past two decades relations have become acrimonious. "The first major casualty of that schism was Stanford University's Anthropology Department," the report said, "which recently split into two departments: one of 'Anthropological Sciences' and one of 'Cultural and Social Anthropology.' "

Neel was and Chagnon is a scientist. Turner, Sponsel and Tierney most definitely are not. (In one of his publications, Sponsel admits that much of the criticism of Chagnon results from what Sponsel calls 'biophobia,' ") The report unabashedly explores the motives of the accusers and puts them in the school of "anti-science," which is not concerned with fact-finding but with political and "moral" advocacy. The report cites Roy D'Andrade, of the University of California at San Diego, who wrote that in such an approach debate is not closed by the discovery of the truth, but by the most powerful faction's exclusion of its rivals from the community of scholars.

The report said "Sponsel is committed to what he calls 'the anthropology of peace,' and his agenda seems to be the promotion of a 'more nonviolent and peaceful world.'" In an astonishing inversion, Sponsel refers to any kind of quantification or statistics as "magic," the report noted.

"Sponsel was taken aback when Chagnon published a study showing that Yanomomi men who had killed enemies in raids tended to have more wives and children than men who had not," the report said. "He had to be especially troubled by Chagnon's neo-Darwinian suggestion that by becoming a warrior who had killed, a man may have increased his genetic fitness. Even more disturbing was Chagnon's conclusion that violence was so potent a factor in human society that it 'may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture.' "

In fact, events of recent weeks indicate that Sponsel is not so much non-aggressive as intensely passive-aggressive. First came the duplicitous e-mail to AAA officials. And on Wednesday, in an e-mail sent to journalists, he presented "leads to information on the 'Chagnon scandal' which I offer only in the interests of the Yanomomi Indians and human rights as well as anthropology and professional ethics." Among the citations, "for a psychological perspective" on Chagnon, Sponsel helpfully referred reporters to pages in the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," where they could find the chapter titled "Psychopathic Personality Disorder." At the beginning and the end of the letter, he pleaded with journalists not to reveal him as the source.

Under the heading "Terence Turner's Agenda," the report states: "Every expert witness we have consulted considersTurner to be Chagnon's most passionate adversary.Turner appears from his writings to believe virtually every bad thing he has heard about Chagnon."

According to Chagnon, Turner has sponsored the acculturated Davi Kopinawa as leader of all the Brazilian Yanomomi. Chagnon told UPI that when he pointed out at a professional meeting that, although they have village headmen, the Yanomomi do not have such tribal chiefs, Turner attacked him personally in the bitterest terms.

As for Patrick Tierney and his motives, the University of Michigan's interim report notes that on page XXIV of the galleys of "Darkness in El Dorado," Tierney states that while among the Yanomomi, "I gradually changed from being an observer to being an advocate.traditional, objective journalism was no longer an option for me."