Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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New York Times Book Review To the Editor

December 10, 2000

In ''Darkness in El Dorado,'' Patrick Tierney accuses scientists of inciting lethal violence among the Yanomami and deliberately or negligently spreading a devastating epidemic among them. These are extraordinary charges, and call for a serious evaluation. Your reviewer, John Horgan, writes only that Tierney ''should have worked harder'' to prove them (Nov. 12). He failed to mention that the charges have been examined in detail and shown to be false. The National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have consulted the historians, physicians, epidemiologists, filmmakers and anthropologists with firsthand knowledge of the events in Tierney's book, and they have systematically refuted its accusations.

Tierney writes: ''I gradually changed from being an observer to being an advocate. . . . Traditional, objective journalism was no longer an option for me.'' This rejection of objectivity came from the belief, endorsed by Horgan, that anthropologists' documentation of the warfare of the Yanomami has been used by others to exploit them, and should therefore be denounced. That is a fatal mistake. Indigenous peoples have a right to survive in their lands whether or not they (like all human societies) are prone to violence and warfare. Self-anointed ''advocates'' who link the survival of native peoples to the myth of the noble savage do nothing but harm, because when the facts show otherwise, either they have weakened the case for native rights, or they must use any means necessary to rewrite the facts.

Richard Dawkins, Oxford, England
Daniel C. Dennett, Medford, Mass.
Marc Hauser, Cambridge, Mass.
Steven Pinker, Cambridge, Mass.
E. O. Wilson, Cambridge, Mass.

John Horgan replies:

Richard Dawkins, et al., are understandably concerned about the impact of ''Darkness in El Dorado'' on the reputation of Darwinian social science. But as representatives of that enterprise, they risk further damaging its reputation--and exposing themselves as defenders not of truth but of sociobiological dogma--by declaring that Tierney's book has been ''systematically refuted.'' The evidence they cite comes not from impartial evaluations of ''Darkness'' but from partisan attacks. As my review stated, legitimate questions have been raised about some of Tierney's charges, particularly his contention that the geneticist James Neel and the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon caused or exacerbated a measles epidemic among the Yanomami in 1968. It should be noted, however, that The New Yorker published Tierney's account of that epidemic only after rigorous fact-checking. Other assertions by Tierney concerning scientific and journalistic misconduct have been examined and found credible by such publications as Newsweek, Time, Science, Nature and Salon. The American Anthropological Association and the Venezuelan government take ''Darkness'' so seriously that they have initiated formal investigations of its claims. Tierney's book raises painful, embarrassing questions about how scientists and journalists have treated isolated, indigenous people. I believe that in the long run, science and journalism--and the human objects of their observations--will benefit if these questions are faced rather than suppressed.