Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Scripps Howard News Service, Commentary, November 3, 2000
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An anthropological scandal unfolding?


When the American Anthropological Association meets in San Francisco later this month, everybody's going to be talking about the Yanomami. This remote Amazon tribe, familiar to generations of anthropology students through the research of Napoleon Chagnon, is the subject of an explosive new book by Patrick Tierney.

In "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," Tierney charges that Chagnon and Dr. James Neel administered a measles vaccine to the Yanomami that caused an epidemic and many deaths and that Chagnon encouraged the endemic violence he reported.

But are the charges explosive, or are they squibs? The book's not even out yet - it's due later this month - but academic disputes now happen in Internet time, and people are already choosing up sides.

In late September, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that two researchers familiar with Tierney's book had sent an e-mail to association officers describing the "impending scandal" as "unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

The two, Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, have long been critics of Chagnon's work.

The New Yorker magazine published excerpts from the book in its Oct. 9 issue. It makes for startling reading, to be sure, but there are two sides to nearly every story, and Tierney is telling only one.

The defense weighed in with an Oct. 24 article in the online magazine Slate, by John Tooby of the University of California-Santa Barbara (slate.msn.com/heywait/00-10-24/heywait.asp, which also includes links to related documents). Chagnon retired recently from UCSB, so the two are former colleagues, but that in itself wouldn't assure Tooby's support.

After receiving a copy of Turner and Sponsel's e-mail, Tooby began checking the charges in Tierney's book. He interviewed the head of the U.S. measles eradication program at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Mark Papania.

Papania, Tooby said, "rapidly discredited every essential element of the Tierney disease scenarios."

The kind of attenuated live-virus vaccine Neel used has never been transmitted from a vaccine recipient to another person, Tooby was told. So it can't have caused an epidemic, nor could anyone have planned to start an epidemic that way.

Having systematically checked the galleys of Tierney's book, Tooby concludes that it is "demonstrably, sometimes hilariously, false on scores of points that are central to its most sensational allegations."

Neel, who died last year, was on the faculty of the University of Michigan, which has launched an investigation into Tierney's charges. The measles epidemic was already raging before Neel arrived, Provost Nancy Cantor said, so he could not have caused it. His field records document his efforts to halt the spread of the epidemic, Cantor says, and as evidence she cites the fact that the death rate during the Yanomami epidemic was much lower than would be expected in a previously unexposed population.

Why are Chagnon's critics so eager to discredit his work? One reason is that he recorded extremely high levels of violence among the Yanomami - up to 30 percent of adult males died of violence in some of the villages he studied.

He called his book about them "The Fierce People," not his judgment but their own proud description of themselves.

Even worse for those who long to believe in a vanished pre-Columbian paradise, his detailed genealogies demonstrated that the most aggressive warriors were the most successful at gaining wives and fathering children.

I heard Chagnon lecture at a Skeptics Society conference at Caltech in 1996. What came through most powerfully in his presentation was his enormous respect and affection for the people whose lives he had so meticulously documented in decades of work.

He was also passionate about the need to preserve their land, on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, from the depredations of loggers, miners and others who covet it. The subtitle of his book is "The Last Days of Eden."

Officials at the anthropology association are trying to arrange a panel discussion between Chagnon and Tierney. Chagnon told colleagues he wasn't interested in participating in a "feeding frenzy in which I am the bait."

Whether he's present or not, people will be talking about him.