Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Publishers Weekly, Book News; Pg. 24, November 27, 2000
Source URL: none

'Darkness in El Dorado' Debated; Backlash after NBA nominee blasts anthropologists for devastating native people

Calvin Reid

It's axiomatic in the book publishing industry that there's no such thing as bad publicity when it comes to selling books. W.W. Norton's polemical new nonfiction work,Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazonby Patrick Tierney, nominated this year for National Book Award, is likely to put that maxim to the test. However, Tierney's book has been generating both good publicity--the NBA nomination--as well as bad: it has been condemned by the National Academy of Scientists and provoked a firestorm of criticism over the book's many allegations of unethical behavior by anthropologists studying the Yanomami people of Brazil's Amazon rain forest. Indeed, the American Anthropological Association has placed a statement on its Web site (www.aaanet.org/ press/eldorado.htm) pledging to hold an open forum on Tierney's allegations.

While controversy and allegations about the conduct and impact of Western scientists working with indigenous peoples have been debated among anthropologists for many years, the publicity around this book has carried these issues beyond the scientific and academic community and into the mainstream media. The book's nomination for a National Book Award and an excerpt that ran in the October 9 issue of theNew Yorkerbrought the controversy to the boiling point weeks before the book's November 16 pub date.

A former anthropology student turned anthropology journalist, Tierney spent 10 years researchingDarkness in El Dorado. The book examines the impact of Western visitors--gold miners, scientists and journalists--on the Yanomami, 22,000 native people in 300 remote villages spread around the Amazon rain forest on the border of Brazil and Venezuela. Considered one of the most isolated tribal peoples in the world, the Yanomami have a long history of suffering as a result of contact with both outsiders and the local government. Western anthropologists have been studying the tribe intensely for decades. Tierney's book makes a number of serious charges regarding anthropologists' behavior, most specifically against Napoleon Chagnon, one of the first scientists to study the Yanomami extensively. Tierney also calls attention to Chagnon's associate on his later expeditions into the Amazon, the late geneticist James Neel, whom Tierney describes as Chagnon's "mentor."

Tierney's most inflammatory accusation is that the two men may have contributed to, or actually caused, a deadly measles epidemic that spread among Yanomami villages by recklessly administering a potentially dangerous vaccine to the immune-deficient Indians. Tierney has also claimed that Chagnon staged scenes in his award-winning film on the Yanomami; that he disrupted Yanomami life with chaotic and destructive visits by helicopter; and that his practice of offering the Yanomami unusual amounts of tools and weaponry (axes and machetes) as payment incited tribal discord and ultimately distorted his accounts of Yanomami culture.

The book's allegations have provoked a furious outcry from Chagnon and his many supporters, students and colleagues. The book has also drawn a pointed condemnation from the National Academy of Sciences ("factual errors and innuendoes in this book do a grave disservice to a great scientist"), which has joined a chorus of detractors who claim Tierney's book is error-ridden, biased and full of bad research.

An equally hostile review on Slate.com by John Tooby, a colleague of Chagnon on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dismissed Tierney's allegations about the measles epidemic. Tooby went on to call the book "fiction," "false on scores of points" and "thoroughly dishonest," and he suggested that "Tierney had perpetrated a hoax on the publishing world." Tooby's article drew a reply from theNew Yorkerin support of Tierney that pointed to the book's "balance, context and thoughtfulness" and called the attacks on it "outlandish." TheNew Yorkeralso noted that Tierney had taken care "to listen to what the Yanomami themselves had to say" about being studied by Chagnon."

But also circulating on the Web is a 68-page "preliminary" report prepared by a team of UCSB scholars offering a detailed and "ongoing" rebuttal of the book's claims. A host of web sites, among them www.umich.edu/ urel/ darkness.html, have been launched to refute the book's charges.

The book didn't win the nonfiction NBA award, but the controversy over its charges continues to simmer. The book was at the top of the agenda at the recent convention of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, where Tierney appeared before a decidedly hostile audience. During a telephone interview withPW, Tierney said he originally went to the Amazon planning a book on the impact of gold miners on the area, but later turned his attention to Chagnon's well-known relationship with the Yanomami. He called his marathon four-hour appearance on a panel at the convention "very stormy." He said, "It's amazing how many people have attacked the book before it was published. It suggests that there's something to hide. That they're out to kill the messenger."

Although Tierney acknowledged that the book contains errors, he also noted, "That's natural for a book this big," and accused the NAS of misquoting him in its statement. "It's all part of a coordinated attack on me," said Tierney. John Tooby, he continued, "is associated with Chagnon. They [the UCSB team] have a lot at stake in this debate, so it's no wonder." Tierney went on to accuse Tooby: "He takes liberties with the text of the book." And Tierney dismissed accusations that he has a personal vendetta against Chagnon: "I don't know him personally and I'm not involved with any groups that have attacked his work."

Unsurprisingly, the book has had "strong advance orders," according to a Norton spokesperson (Norton declined to reveal the exact number of copies distributed). Drake McFeeley, president of W.W. Norton, toldPW, "We've been under pressure, and keen to get the book out. Patrick's been itching to join the fray but we asked him to refrain until the book is available. He's convinced that he's got it right, and we support the book."

Whatever the outcome, even Tierney's detractors say the book could force the world to take a closer look at the ongoing plight of the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples. Tierney remarked, "It's a writers dream to have his every word so carefully examined."