Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Los Angeles Times, Book Review; Page 1; Book Review Desk, November 12, 2000
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The Left Hand Of Darkness

Darkness In El Dorado How Scientists And Journalists Devastated The Amazon By Patrick Tierney; W.W. Norton: 416 Pp., 27.95; Yanomamo The Fierce People By Napoleon Chagnon; Holt, Rhinehart, And Winston 142 Pp., Out Of Print; Yanomamo Last Days Of Eden By Napoleon Chagnon; Harcourt Brace: 310 Pp., $18 Paper; Margaret Mead And Samoa The Making And Unmaking Of An Anthropological Myth By Derek Freeman; Harvard University Press: 380 Pp., Out Of Print; Yanoama The Story Of Helena Valero, A Girl Kidnapped By Amazonian Indians By Helena Valero As Told To Ettore Biocca; Kodansha: Tk Pp., $16



Anthropology is a problematic science. The systematic study of human beings, often from different cultures than the investigator's, raises troubling questions about the relationship of science and humanity. "Why do they want to study us so much?" asks an acculturated Yanomami Indian named Pablo Mejilla in Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado." "Nabah foreigners have a brain; Yanomami have a brain; Nabah have two eyes; Yanomami have two eyes. . . . Why are they so interested in studying us?"

Anthropologists traditionally have replied that they want to study people like the Yanomami, a remote South American tribe, to learn basic truths about humanity and to preserve their subjects' cultural heritage and help them survive. Most anthropologists doubtless subscribe to these straightforward agendas. Yet because they are also scientists, they have theoretical or ideological biases that may color their observations. They construct and test hypotheses, a process which--in science generally--includes experimentation. They need money and institutional support for activities whose prestige increases in proportion to their cost. These more equivocal agendas may push anthropologists past altruistic observation and advocacy toward self-interested manipulation, exploitation and fabrication. At the least, they make them vulnerable to accusations of such conduct.

Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman's 1983 book, "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth," contained the most publicized accusations until this year. Freeman accused the venerated Mead not only of being wrong in her observations of Polynesian folkways, published in "Coming of Age in Samoa," but also of using them to promote her own "cultural determinist" ideology against the "genetic determinism" that had prevailed. (Mead thought Samoan adolescents were sexually "liberated" compared to America's neurotic teenagers, which seemed to show that sexual behavior is culturally, not genetically, determined.) Because Mead's work was fundamental to the "cultural anthropology" prevalent since the 1930s, Freeman's accusations gratified a new breed of sociobiological genetic determinists. The two factions started fighting about his book two months before it was published and are still fighting about it.

Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado," a tale of self-interested agendas carried to such extremes as to seem an anthropological "Heart of Darkness," has given anthropologists something else to fight about, and they've been doing so since September, when two cultural anthropologists, Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, informed the American Anthropological Assn. of the book's unpublished contents by e-mail. Tierney accuses some of the most eminent scientists who have worked with the Yanomami in the last four decades of having effects on them similar to the "Spanish conquistadors." The term "anthro," he writes, has entered their vocabulary as an "attack word" referring to "a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities--an Olympian in a funk." He further quotes Mejilla: "These anthros come, they take pictures . . . sell them, and make money. . . . And we get nothing. We have to stop this study of the Yanomami. They are like miners, and we are like their gold."

Tierney's assault on the scientists in question makes Freeman's critique of Mead seem almost a love tap, and its comparative virulence brings to mind other significant differences between them. Freeman has worked as a professional anthropologist in Polynesia since the 1940s, and he documents in clear and deliberate detail his charge that the ideas about Samoan culture Mead drew from her nine-month field study were mistaken. He shows at length that Samoans and Samoa experts failed to recognize Mead's account, although it had been "received with something akin to rapture by the behavioristically oriented generation of the late 1920s." Although it hasn't shifted American anthropology's deep-seated cultural determinism, Freeman's book is acknowledged to have sparked one of anthropology's most important controversies. Tierney, on the other hand, is a journalist and human-rights activist who has published one previous book, on ritual murder in the Andes, and who writes less clearly and authoritatively than Freeman. He has an infectious passion for his subject, and "Darkness" often is exciting and convincing, but it sometimes descends to sarcasm and smear tactics. Given its pre-publication notoriety, it may become a bestseller, and it was nominated last month as a finalist in nonfiction for a National Book Award, but it remains to be seen if it will have the lasting intellectual significance Freeman's book has.

The stakes are high because Tierney's book attacks the new biological determinism as well as possible scientific misbehavior. As Freeman questioned Mead's assumption that human behavior is a tabula rasa that culture can shape with only the most basic biological constraints, Tierney questions a long-held view that the isolated Yanomami demonstrate an opposing model of human behavior, the view that behavior is genetically hard-wired to respond to many important biological influences, the legacies of humanity's evolutionary descent, first from other animals, then from earlier hominids. This opposition has been endemic to American anthropology since Mead's mentor Franz Boas rejected the evolutionism of scientific colleagues such as geneticist Thomas Morgan during World War I. The accelerating insights into genetics and evolution that began with DNA's discovery have if anything increased this opposition.


Inhabiting the highlands between the Orinoco and Amazon basins in Venezuela and Brazil (the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle's science fiction novel "The Lost World"), the Yanomami were among the last Indians contacted by modern civilization, largely in the 1940s and '50s. According to Tierney, this isolation attracted ambitious scientists who advanced their own careers not only by manipulating and exploiting the Yanomami but also by misrepresenting them to the media and public. The most eminent was the late James Neel, a pioneering geneticist who hoped to test his ideas about evolutionary fitness on an uncivilized population. With funding from the Atomic Energy Commission, which wanted a control population study for their research on radioactive contamination at Hiroshima, Neel embarked in the 1960s on an ambitious project to study Yanomami genetics by analyzing body fluid samples and genealogies.

Neel's right-hand man in the project was a young anthropologist named Napoleon Chagnon, who shared his genetic determinist outlook. As Chagnon moved among the Yanomami, collecting specimens and covertly tracing genealogies (their culture prohibits mentioning the dead), he perceived that their society centered on feuding over women among rival villages, with men maximizing their reproductive fitness by taking as many wives and killing as many rivals as possible. "The Yanomamo regard fights over women as the primary causes of their wars," he concluded. Presented in a 1968 textbook "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" and in award-winning documentary films such as "The Feast," his work became a classic field study rivaling Mead's in popularity.

"I describe the Yanomamo as the fierce people because that is the most accurate single phrase that describes them," Chagnon wrote. "That is how they conceive themselves to be, and that is how they would like others to think of them." His interpretation lent support to sociobiological theories that emerged in the 1970s suggesting that human aggressive behavior is a genetic inheritance from the animal world, particularly the great apes, rather than a product of cultural conditioning. It was an ideology that also entered popular culture and fostered a "bad Indian" media image of grimacing black-painted rain forest thugs. "The fierce people" became plot-driving antagonists for the obligatory good Indians in 1980s Hollywood films such as John Boorman's "The Emerald Forest." In South America, their badness served as a pretext for colonizing Indian lands.

According to Tierney, however, Chagnon's interpretation of the Yanomami was not only wrong (he thinks traditional feuds were infrequent and were more about cultural matters like sorcery and economics than about sex) but artificial. Tierney maintains that Chagnon himself largely was responsible for the violent milieu he described, bursting godlike into the traditional Yanomami world bearing boxes of coveted steel tools, spreading chaos as the tribesmen scrambled for this unprecedented wealth. "Within three months of Chagnon's sole arrival on the scene," he writes, "three different wars had broken out, all between groups who had been at peace for some time and all of whom wanted a claim on Chagnon's steel goods." He also accuses Chagnon of staging documentary films by bribing Yanomami men to behave fiercely and of manipulating influential journalists with ploys such as taking them to long-studied villages under the pretext of a "first contact."

Chagnon was no passive recipient of Yanomami awe, Tierney maintains, but encouraged it, assuming tribal costume, identifying himself with powerful spirits and brandishing firearms to frighten opponents. The only way, it seems, that he did not behave like the gone-native Kurtz of "Heart of Darkness" was in failing to take a full-time Yanomami consort, although other scientists filled in that side of Joseph Conrad's tale. A French anthropologist, Jacques Lizot, allegedly kept a retinue of teenage boys in an "Apocalypse Now" ambience complete with taped acid rock and Wagner blaring through the forest. "I found out that the most insane things were going on," a Venezuelan researcher told Tierney. "I mean, anthropologists were chasing each other around with shotguns. Each had his own fiefdom. Villages were named for Lizot and Chagnon, as though they were great Yanomami chiefs."

Such tales would make a Hollywood film in themselves, but Tierney's account of the effects these interactions had on the Yanomami is not entertaining. He asserts that many died in fights the scientists provoked and many more succumbed to diseases they brought. Even though the Yanomami, like most isolated people, had a low resistance to civilization's maladies, like colds and measles, Tierney maintains that the researchers took few precautions to prevent infecting them. "By 1966, Chagnon's base camp had become a deadly repository of imported illnesses," he writes; "it soon emerged as a hub for distributing those diseases to remote villages." He devotes a chapter to a confusing 1968 campaign to inoculate the Yanomami against a measles epidemic with a vaccine, Edmonston B, which some authorities considered dangerous to immune-deficient recipients. (Many Yanomami died in the epidemic, the origins of which remain unclear.) He implies that Neel and Chagnon might have tried to conduct an experiment to see if genetic fitness coincided with disease resistance.

By the early 1970s, many of the Yanomami had turned against Chagnon. "At first I thought Shaki Chagnon was good," a leader named Cesar Dimanawa told Tierney in 1996. "Then we realized he wasn't good." They and some South American authorities and cultural preservation activists have tried to exclude Chagnon from the region. Many or most anthropologists in the United States oppose Chagnon. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist at UC Berkeley, derided Chagnon's reputation by calling him "a proponent of a view of human behavior that is very much marginalized, and for good reason."

Chagnon's findings remain popular outside academia, and Tierney thinks they are still harming the Yanomami. He devotes a chapter to a widely screened 1996 PBS Nova documentary, "Warriors of the Amazon," which portrays the tribe as "overshadowed" by the "threat of warfare" and forced to "go off and fight two or three times a year" in "a world marked by aggression and revenge." Tierney maintains that, despite good intentions, the film crew ended up manipulating its subjects much as Chagnon and his associate, Timothy Asch, had in the 1960s, in effect bribing them with trade goods to build a village, hold a feast and behave in "bad Indian" style. While acknowledging that crew members took medical precautions, he notes that several Yanomami succumbed to disease during and soon after filming, including a young mother and infant whose deaths and subsequent cremation were shown in the film, although transport to a mission infirmary an hour's motorboat ride away might have saved them.

Tierney concentrates his attack on scientific and journalistic careerism, but he also castigates miners, missionaries and others for encroaching on the Yanomami. He accuses a Venezuelan naturalist, Charles Brewer Carias, of wreaking havoc in pursuit of mining and dealing in rare species and of conspiring with Chagnon to propose a bogus Yanomami indigenous reserve that would have allowed them to exploit the tribe freely. Brewer's activities also involved the president of Venezuela's mistress and so angered that nation's air force which was forced to helicopter anthropologists and politicos around the forest, that young officers attempted a coup in 1992.

It is a complicated story that Tierney has researched extensively, beginning in 1990, when, he says, he was an admirer of Chagnon. He has delved into dusty documentary outtakes to show documentary film manipulations. He has explored Yanomami land from both the Brazilian and Venezuelan sides. He has interviewed many of the people involved. He does not reduce the story to a romance of noble savages disappearing before polluting civilization. He records hostile personal encounters with Yanomami, including a time in 1990 when he was robbed by them. He notes that their population has grown six-fold since 1850, spreading into the lowlands as mendicants and servants to richer groups, both Indian and white. (The population may have declined because of disease in recent years, but most sources agree that more than 20,000 Yanomami are living in Brazil and Venezuela.)

Tierney's research, however, has not quelled Chagnon and Lizot, who have denied the charges and see themselves as disinterested seekers of universal human nature and advocates of Yanomami culture. Both men point to evidence that supports their interaction with the Yanomami, including media reports that have portrayed them as active supporters of Yanomami territorial claims and culture against gold miners, colonists and missionaries. Among his defenders is MIT scientist Steven Pinker, who has called Chagnon "a great empiricist." "Sadly," said Pinker, "most anthropology is off the scale in postmodernist lunacy. There's this orthodoxy that says human nature is a blank slate. For telling it like it is, he has become public enemy No. 1." Tierney acknowledges that Chagnon and Lizot have tried to help the Yanomami, although he finds the missionaries' arguments against them most compelling. (Not coincidentally, Chagnon and Lizot have accused missionaries of many of the abuses Tierney accuses them of.)


Though Tierney's evidence against the anthropologists is impressive, it falls short of damning. He references his accusations copiously, but many of his endnotes refer to hearsay rather than documentation, and some of his charges are ambiguous and confusing. It could hardly be otherwise with a preliterate, pre-legal culture. If Neel, Chagnon and Lizot committed abuses in Yanomami land, there are of course no police reports, official complaints, litigation dockets or other sources that would support such accusations. (One of Freeman's strengths is that he often can cite such documentation for the long-acculturated Samoans.) Tierney writes that Lizot was denounced repeatedly and jailed briefly for child molestation in Venezuela, for example, but cites only the stories of two other anthropologists in his endnotes. The closest he comes to official documentation is with scientific matters such as the 1968 measles vaccination, and he is noncommittal about whether he thinks Chagnon and Neel were experimenting on the Yanomami or not. University of Pennsylvania science historian Susan Lindee recently reported finding no evidence of deliberate experimentation in the scientific documents on the 1968 vaccinations.

Another questionable aspect of Tierney's accusations is that he doesn't clearly set them into a historical context. Haven't most anthropologists who studied remote populations in the last century disrupted traditions and introduced diseases, including others who have worked with the Yanomami since the 1950s? If Neel, Chagnon and Lizot behaved so much worse as to justify comparison to Conrad's Kurtz (or even, according to Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele), what is the anthropological standard from which they deviated?

It seems anachronistic to judge the "Jungle Jim" style of Chagnon's early field work by current standards. "I soon learned that I had to become very much like the Yanomamo to be able to get along with them on their own terms: sly, aggressive, and intimidating," he wrote. "Had I failed to adjust in this fashion, I would have lost six months of supplies to them in a single day. . . ."

Tierney's attack on Chagnon's interpretation of Yanomami society also falls short in failing to present a coherent alternative version (again, one of Freeman's strengths vis a vis Mead). Whether true or not, "The Fierce People" is an elegantly concise scientific text which addresses environment, economics and cosmology as well as violence. If the Yanomami are not "the fierce people," then what kind of people are they? Tierney writes that other anthropologists found violence much less common in the Yanomami's ancestral highlands than in the Orinoco lowlands where Chagnon studied them, but he doesn't describe their interpretations of Yanomami life at any length. He writes that the Yanomami are often considered a friendly tribe, are physically tiny (with an average height of less than five feet), subsist mainly on plantains and have a low homicide rate relative to other South American Indians. But such details do more to qualify Chagnon's vivid picture than to replace it.

The closest Tierney comes to a picture of the Yanomami as comprehensive as Chagnon's is when he recounts the narrative of Helena Valero, a white farmer's daughter abducted in the 1930s at age 11 or 12, who lived with the tribe for more than 20 years. "Compared to Helena Valero's courageous adventure, everybody else's jungle narrative looked mighty small," he writes. "Yanomami lore, repeated at countless campfires over the decades, left indelible imprints on Valero's memory--of everything from hundreds of family trees to the chants of the dead and to the infrequent wars that took her beloved husband's life." Tierney maintains that Chagnon drew heavily (and surreptitiously) on Valero's experience in constructing his picture of their life, distorting that information to fit his sociobiological interpretation. "The scientific prestige of 'The Fierce People,' as well as the famous thesis that Yanomami murderers have more offspring than nonmurderers, depends on the reliability of oral histories. . . . Yet Chagnon's reporting diverged remarkably from Valero's."

Tierney, however, doesn't go beyond citing discrepancies between Chagnon's and Valero's versions of two murders she witnessed. The reader will have trouble finding any definitive challenge to sociobiology or genetic determinism in her tape-recorded oral autobiography, published in 1970 by Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca as "Yanoama: The Narrative of a White Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians." (Biocca found Valero a highly reliable source who kept to her story through repeated tellings.) Indeed, Valero's initial experiences with the Yanomami are suggestive of lion behavior, a mainstay of sociobiological studies. Two groups that had captured her quarreled over which was to have the white girl, whom they naively expected to put to work making machetes and other trade goods for them. The deprived group then punished the other by abducting their women, including Valero, and killing their children. (Male lions kill cubs when they take over a pride, presumably so lactating females will come into estrus.)

"One of the women had a baby girl in her arms," Valero told Biocca. "The men seized the little child and asked 'Is it a boy or a girl?' and they wanted to kill it. The mother wept. 'It's a little girl. You mustn't kill her.' Then one of them said: 'Leave her; it's a girl; we won't kill the females. Let's take the women away with us and make them give us sons. Let's kill the males instead.' . . . Then the men began to kill the children; little ones, bigger ones, they killed many of them. . . ."

Valero stayed with the Yanomami because she found a husband, Fusiwe, strong enough to protect her and his other three wives from such a fate. She finally left them because Fusiwe was murdered and her second husband was more interested in getting new women, through killing if necessary, than in protecting the ones he had.

Yet readers won't find definitive support for genetic determinism in Valero's account either. As Tierney says, it is hard to perceive much ultimate fitness in the careers of Valero's two alpha-male husbands, whose aggressions eventually made them hunted outcasts. Fusiwe was so sure his children would be killed that he advised Valero to take them back to the whites after his anticipated murder. "Don't stay any more with these people," he said, "because what happened to me will happen to you." Her second husband was so beset by enemies that he tried to flee to the whites with her. (Emerging from the forest with high hopes in the 1950s, Valero found safety among the whites but little else. When Tierney encountered her at a mission in 1996, "looking like a desiccated, emaciated mummy," she told him "I'd like to die with my stomach full of food, not air.")

Although they squabble with arrows rather than with lawsuits, Valero's Yanomami seem too familiar to be a link with the prehistoric past, biological or cultural. As she describes them, their pursuit of prosperity, status and security differs from ours largely in that no legal system protects individual safety, so that aggression plays a larger part in daily life. Yet, for all its exoticism, that daily life is so recognizable in its frustrations and desires that it is hard to see it as a connection to earlier hominids. The Yanomami seem closer to the plains of Troy than to the African savanna. Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson said something similar in his preface to a 1992 popular edition of "Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden": " . . . T hey are intelligent human beings rather than Paleolithic people frozen in time for our delectation."

"Darkness in El Dorado" is a stirring, if questionable, account of possible anthropological abuses. It is hard to see how it will help to change the milieu from which abuses can grow, however, any more than Freeman's "Margaret Mead and Samoa" did. Neither book holds much prospect of moving beyond the nature versus nurture logjam into which "anthros" are locked. In this sense, both seem part of a postmodern retreat from the scientific project--so central to the last three centuries--of learning to control the world by understanding it. ("My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact," wrote arch-scientist T.H. Huxley, "not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations.") The project has entailed much hubris, and we are paying for that. Yet what can replace it in a global civilization that remains based on scientific understanding and the pursuit of knowledge, however messy and morally complicated?