Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New York Times, November 12, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/12/reviews/001112.12horgant.html

Hearts of Darkness

Patrick Tierney writes about anthropology's attempts to discover the secrets of the Yanomami tribes of the Amazon.


Over the past half-century, anthropologists scrutinizing far-flung people have become increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of complete objectivity. They agonize over ''the observer effect,'' their version of the physicists' uncertainty principle: the mere presence of a tape-recording, note-scribbling stranger among an isolated people alters their behavior. The anthropologists usually have subtle psychological effects in mind. But consider the following encounter: a military helicopter bearing the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and a television crew suddenly looms above a remote Amazonian village, whipping roofs off huts and sending baskets and hammocks flying. As women and children run screaming into the jungle, tribesmen hurl rocks and sticks at the chopper, eventually driving it away. Now that is an observer effect.

Incredibly, this 1991 incident is one of the more benign observer effects uncovered by Patrick Tierney in ''Darkness in El Dorado.'' Tierney's exhaustively reported book exposes the horrendous scientific and journalistic exploitation of the Yanomami, the most studied and vilified tribe in the history of anthropology. For more than 30 years, these diminutive rain-forest dwellers -- who live in villages scattered across Venezuela and Brazil -- have served as the archetype of the ignoble savage. The Yanomami were hardly pacifists, but Tierney makes a powerful case that they were much less ignoble and savage than the scientists studying them.

The chief villain of Tierney's tale is Chagnon, who first trekked into Yanomami land in 1964. His 1968 book ''Yanomamo: The Fierce People'' became the best-selling ethnographic work of all time, surpassing Margaret Mead's ''Coming of Age in Samoa.'' And why not? Chagnon, who has recently retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, packed his narrative with the staples of best-sellerhood: sex, violence, even drugs. Chagnon's Yanomami warriors got stoned on hallucinogenic snuffs, raided one another's villages, killed rival warriors and kidnapped their women.

The Yanomami came to my notice in 1988, when the journal Science published a sensational report by Chagnon that Yanomami men who killed the most also had the most offspring. These findings were touted by sociobiologists (now called evolutionary psychologists) and others who plead the nature side of the nature-nurture debate. Chagnon's results suggested that male aggression, and war itself, may be less a cultural phenomenon than a product of natural selection. Like many other journalists, I found this work too juicy to ignore, and I wrote a positive story about it for Scientific American. The complaints of Chagnon's critics -- notably Brian Ferguson of Rutgers University, who blamed outsiders for exacerbating Yanomami conflicts -- seemed to reflect wishful thinking rather than hard-headed analysis. The suggestion of critics that Chagnon was projecting his own macho persona onto the Yanomami also struck me as implausible.

Tierney has convinced me that Chagnon's critics were right after all. First, the visits of Chagnon -- or any outsiders -- to the Yanomami exposed them to pathogens to which they were extremely vulnerable. Because the Yanomami attributed illness to the sorcery of enemies, they blamed one another for infections caused by foreigners.

Tierney claims that Chagnon's distinctive modus operandi also stirred up trouble. He enjoyed bursting into villages decorated in war paint and brandishing a shotgun. Yanomami men soon realized that the white man would reward their own displays of aggression with machetes and other highly prized tools. Tierney says Yanomami men competed for his attention and gifts. They fought over access not to women, as Chagnon claimed, but to him.

His method of obtaining genealogical data ignited still more ill will. The Yanomami have a taboo against naming dead ancestors. To get information on a headman's ancestry, Chagnon would interview a rival, exacerbating tension between the men. Given his methods, Tierney concludes, it was not surprising that Chagnon reported more Yanomami violence than other anthropologists did.

The most disturbing incident recounted by Tierney involves a measles vaccination program initiated in 1968 by James Neel, a prominent geneticist and mentor of Chagnon. Neel, who died earlier this year, chose a vaccine that some medical authorities had condemned as unsafe because it often triggered virulent reactions. Tierney suggests that Neel's covert intention was not to protect the Yanomami from measles but to test their response to a live-virus vaccine; Neel believed that the Yanomamis' survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle had given them immune systems more robust than those of us in pampered modern societies have. As Neel's team, which included Chagnon, began inoculating Indians, a measles epidemic erupted that eventually killed hundreds of them, according to Tierney. He unearths evidence that Neel and Chagnon suspected the vaccine was causing the epidemic but kept administering it anyway. Neel and Chagnon have claimed that, far from starting the outbreak, they contained it with their vaccination efforts.

Another lurid subplot centers on a French anthropologist, Jacques Lizot, who lived among the Yanomami from 1970 to 1994. He found not ''fierce people'' but connoisseurs of noncoital sexuality, including masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality. Again, this image was a projection of the anthropologist's predilections, Tierney says. He charges Lizot with giving machetes, jewelry, Western clothes and other gifts to young men who performed sex acts with him and with each other. Paradoxically, in his writings Lizot deplores the corruption of his subjects by the encroachment of civilization. Indeed, those whom Tierney accuses of exploiting the Yanomami invariably portray themselves as the Indians' champions. Chagnon describes himself as a protector of Yanomami rights, even though his portrayal of the Yanomami as bloodthirsty brutes has been used by miners and others to justify usurpation of Yanomami land.

Tierney implicates the news media too. As criticism mounted against Chagnon in the early 1990's, he arranged to fly reporters from ABC News, Newsweek, The New York Times and other organizations to Yanomami villages on military helicopters. The planes were procured by Chagnon's powerful ally Cecilia Matos, the mistress of Venezuela's president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. In 1992 Venezuelan officers outraged by these junkets mounted an unsuccessful coup against Andrés Pérez.

Tierney is particularly tough on the producers of a 1996 Nova/BBC documentary, ''Warriors of the Amazon.'' The program was filmed in Lizot's village and orchestrated by him, although at his insistence his involvement was unacknowledged. The film's highlight was the illness and death of a young mother and her baby. During filming, the crew had a new camera flown in from England. But the filmmakers did not fly the feverish mother and child out to a clinic or fly a doctor in. Brian Ferguson told Tierney the film crew seemed to treat the deaths ''as an act of God.''

''Darkness in El Dorado'' has already provoked extreme reactions. It was excerpted in The New Yorker; it has been nominated for a National Book Award; and a colleague of Chagnon has denounced it as a ''hoax'' in the online magazine Slate. Critics have challenged several of Tierney's assertions, particularly his claim that Neel and Chagnon caused the 1968 measles epidemic. The fact is he should have worked harder to prove this horrific charge. His book has other faults. It concludes with a strained attempt to depict the Yanomami as victims of cold war extremism (the Atomic Energy Commission paid Neel and Chagnon to gather Yanomami blood samples for studies of the effects of radioactive fallout on diverse populations). Tierney's moral tone also oscillates disconcertingly. He disparages documentaries about the Yanomami as ''snuff films,'' but confesses that he would have made similar ones if he had been in the filmmakers' shoes. Perhaps he feels a twinge of complicity. He admits that his admiration for Chagnon's work helped lure him into Latin American studies. He himself drew attention to Indian savagery in his book on human sacrifice in the Andes, ''The Highest Altar.''

But Tierney went on to become an advocate for Indian rights. And his book's faults are outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field studies. Tierney evokes Derek Freeman's ''Margaret Mead and Samoa,'' which argued that Mead's portrayal of Samoan life was just a projection of her utopian fantasies. But Mead, at worst, misrepresented her subjects; she did not incite, sicken and corrupt them. When anthropologists speak henceforth of the observer effect, the horrors documented by Tierney will be exhibit A.