Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Grand Rapids Press, December 17, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://gr.mlive.com/news/index.ssf?/news/stories/20001217g17chagno022803.frm

Researcher defends reputation under shadow of 'Darkness'

Ted Roelofs

Parked on a couch in flannel shirt and blue jeans, feet stretched out on a table in front of him, Napolean Chagnon seems the picture of a man at peace.

Now 62, he and his wife, Carlene, retreated a year ago to 15 pristine acres south of Traverse City, atop a wooded hill with a sweeping view of the Boardman River valley.

This was a time for the famed anthropologist to reflect on a career that brought both celebrity and controversy for his findings about violence and primitive man.

With snow swirling through the pines and wild turkeys pecking at bird seed a few paces from his front door, this wintry December day seems especially suited to reverie.

"I expected to retire at my leisure, write a couple books, maybe go bird hunting with my dog, Cody," Chagnon is saying.

"But hell has followed me to Traverse City."

The Michigan native and author of "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" -- a best-selling study of a remote Venezuelan tribe -- has found not so much peace in retirement as all-out academic war.

With Chagnon's reputation and life's work on the line, it is a conflict marked by shocking charges and equally sharp denials lobbed like grenades by scientists, anthropologists and such respected institutions as the University of Michigan and the National Academy of Sciences.

The controversy has drawn the attention of mainstream media, including Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, as it raises questions about publishing standards, the ethics of anthropology, even the very nature of man.

Chagnon is a key figure in a just-published book called "Darkness in El Dorado," which accuses him of faking documentary film scenes, tampering with Yanomami customs and distorting data. He did so, says author Patrick Tierney, to suit his thesis that man is not so much a "noble savage" as a creature inclined toward violence.

Backed by years of research among the Yanomami, that finding vaulted Chagnon to a perch where he was considered perhaps the preeminent anthropologist of his era.

But Tierney concludes Chagnon got there by fraud. According to Tierney, Chagnon routinely exaggerated warfare and ritual fighting among the Yanomami, and actually corrupted their culture by giving them machetes as reward for their cooperation.

In his most explosive claim, Tierney linked Chagnon and University of Michigan physician and geneticist James Neel to the deaths of hundreds of Yanomami in 1968, when they gave a measles vaccine called Edmonston B that Tierney suggests caused the disease.

In recent weeks, the study in Chagnon's spacious, modern home about 10 miles south of Traverse City has been transformed to a de facto bunker as he defends himself in telephone interviews and consults with colleagues by e-mail. Not long ago, he hosted a film crew from CNN for a planned program focused on the controversy.

"I've got two obligations," he says. "One is to my community of academics who realize what Tierney has done. But I also have a family and all my family members whose name is Chagnon are embarrassed and disturbed by this. It's on their behalf that I am trying to win this battle."

E-mails and excerpts

The furor began in the academic community, sparked by an e-mail circulated in September by a pair of anthropologists familiar with Tierney's upcoming book, Cornell University's Terrence Turner and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii.

Among other statements, the e-mail said the alleged scandal "in its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption" is "unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

They compared the actions of Neel and Chagnon to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, the architect of gruesome medical experiments conducted on Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners.

The fact that advance excerpts from "Darkness in El Dorado" were printed on Oct. 9 in the New Yorker, a publication not known for tabloid journalism, added weight to the claims. The book itself is published by W.W. Norton, an established New York publishing house, and was released in mid-November.

But for all its sensational charges, "Darkness in El Dorado" has itself come under considerable doubt as academics take a closer look at Tierney and his scholarship.

The American Anthropological Association last month appointed a committee to probe issues raised by the book. Meanwhile, institutions including the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Chagnon taught for 15 years, weighed in with statements condemning the book.

On Nov. 13, University of Michigan provost Nancy Cantor issued a statement that said the university "has carefully and thoroughly investigated many of the major claims made . . . and the evidence we have uncovered supports the conclusion that these claims are false."

Numerous anthropologists also have stepped forward.

"The book is a fraud," said University of New Mexico anthropologist Kim Hill, an expert on South American primitive cultures who has read Tierney's book and said he has checked each of its 1,599 footnotes.

"The evidence that is used to build its case is also fraudulent."

Hill said Tierney consistently misstates the sources he cites, quoting out of context to shed the worst light on Chagnon or Neel.

As for the machete charge, Hill said the Yanomami had been furnished machetes long before Chagnon encountered them.

Tierney's most damning claim, that Neel and Chagnon may have caused a measles epidemic, appears to be crumbling in the face of science.

In making his case, Tierney quotes Dr. Mark Papania, chief of measles eradication for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Papania later said his remarks "were taken out of context."

The CDC released a letter Papania sent to Tierney, which read in part: "There is no evidence that any measles vaccine virus, including Edmonston B, was ever transmitted from person to person."

Other scientists note there is no documented case of a live-virus measles vaccine causing a contagious transmission from one person to another.

"Almost nobody who has looked into that book believes that charge anymore," said anthropologist Hill.

So how is it that Napolean Chagnon finds himself under such attack?

"A lot of people think Nap is pretty abrasive," Hill said. "He's certainly got plenty of enemies because of personality conflicts."

Hill said he considers himself "neutral" on the subject of Chagnon. He has in fact criticized Chagnon for associating with what Hills calls "corrupt" political figures in Venezuela to secure access in the early 1990s to his research area.

"That damaged his reputation a lot," Hill said.

Hill also believes the Yanomami may have "legitimate gripes" about Chagnon's sometimes-bullying ways in conducting research.

Chagnon puts it like this: "People began sniping at me early in my career, because I was saying things that were politically incorrect. I was saying that native peoples were capable of violence."

Michigan roots

Chagnon commenced this groundbreaking work in the 1960s, an unlikely destiny for the second of 12 children raised in the Thumb region without the slightest idea what anthropology was.

Chagnon's father was by turns a bartender, a policeman and a laborer. When Chagnon was a senior in high school, his family moved to Onaway, in the northeast tip of the Lower Peninsula. He graduated from Onaway High School in 1956.

"My father gave me a hundred dollars and wished me good luck," Chagnon says. "He needed the room."

Chagnon took a course in surveying, found work as a civil engineer aide and earned enough money to enroll at the University of Mining and Technology at Sault Ste. Marie. He transferred as a freshman to the University of Michigan and signed up by chance for an anthropology course.

"I had no idea what anthropology was," he says.

He plowed through two semesters of anthropology, then registered for more. "That's what I wanted to do," he realized.

He earned his undergraduate degree in 1961, his master's in 1963 and his doctorate in 1966.

Chagnon pursued cultural anthropology, the study of living cultures. He began his field work in 1964, in the rain forest of southern Venezuela. The jungle highlands between the Orinoco and Amazon basins would be the launching pad for a rocket ride through his profession.

His subject: a prehistoric people called the Yanomami, a tribe all but untouched by civilization until well into the 20th century. They live in hundreds of small villages scattered over thousands of square miles, eking out an existence through primitive agriculture and hunting and gathering.

By 1968, Chagnon had spent 18 months with the Yanomami. That year, he startled many in his field with a work called, "Yanomamo: The Fierce People." His conclusions upset the "noble savage" orthodoxy that Chagnon believes permeated the field at the time.

"I kind of shocked the profession by telling it the way it is," he says.

The book eventually would go through five editions, selling nearly a million copies in the United States. It is standard fare today in college courses across the country.

'The Fierce People'

Behind Chagnon on the living-room wall are several large color portraits he took of the Yanomami in the course of six years of field research.

Chagnon wrote in "The Fierce People" and later works, ritual violence and warfare are pivotal in the life of the Yanomami. The scale of violence, he observed, ranged from chest-thumping to club fighting to raids on rival villages.

He concluded the violence often was driven by a male quest for wives, contrary to the premise of anthropologists that warfare stemmed from competition for resources.

In later work, Chagnon reported that Yanomami men who killed were more likely to have more wives and more offspring, thus furnishing a potential genetic explanation for violence in man.

Anthropologist Hill believes "The Fierce People" deserves considerable credit for laying a biological foundation to the understanding of human behavior.

"I think it's a very important early contribution to the relation between biology and human nature," Hill said.

Over the years, however, Chagnon attracted more than his share of critics as anthropology settled into rival camps. The growing feud pitted field researchers like Chagnon against opponents who view work like his as cultural contamination. The academics also took opposite sides of the nature-nurture argument as they weighed the importance of biology against culture as factors in shaping who we are.

Among Chagnon's detractors were anthropologists Turner of Cornell University and Sponsel of the University of Hawaii.

In their now-famous September e-mail, they also singled out James Neel, a prominent physician at the University of Michigan considered by many to be the father of human genetics. Neel died in February at age 84 of prostate cancer.

That message accused Neel of holding theories of "fascistic eugenics" -- race-based explanations of human development -- and said Tierney's account "strongly supports the conclusion" that the measles outbreak was part of an experiment to support Neel's theory.

Turner has backed away from that assertion, calling it "speculation" in a subsequent newspaper interview.

Beyond the assertions in "Darkness in El Dorado," little evidence has surfaced to substantiate Tierney's characterization of Neel.

A longtime peer and friend to Neel called the book's depiction of him "totally false."

"I find it more than just malicious to take on someone who is no longer in a position to defend himself," said William Schull, emeritus professor of academic medicine at the University of Texas.

Standing by the book

Reached by telephone on Monday, Tierney said he "absolutely" stands by the accuracy of his book.

He contended anthropologist Hill is an ally of Chagnon, "simply repeating the party line."

As for the University of Michigan, Tierney maintained that officials there are trying to cover the school's complicity in Neel's alleged wrongdoing.

"Leading people at these institutions are involved in the scandal from my book," he said.

He noted that "Darkness in El Dorado" is one of five finalists for the National Book Award and has been reviewed prominently in publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Christian Science Monitor.

A lengthy review on Nov. 12 by The Los Angeles Times called the book "a stirring, if questionable, account of possible anthropological abuses."

It also states: "Though Tierney's evidence against the anthropologists is impressive, it stops short of damning."

Given the gauntlet he has run in recent weeks, it's no surprise Chagnon is holding fast to his views of human nature.

He calls attention to Crow Creek, a massacre site discovered in 1976 by ranchers along the Missouri River in South Dakota. Excavations uncovered the skeletal remains of 486 American Indians ranging in age from infant to elderly. Researchers found evidence of scalping and other atrocities. Curiously, researchers noted a pronounced absence of females between age 15 and 39, a suggestion they might have been stolen as prizes.

"The significant thing about that is that it dates to 1325," Chagnon says. That would be three centuries before contact with the Western world.

"In the absence of police and courts and laws, the only resort you have with hostile neighbors is to hold them at bay.

"People will fight over any number of things."