Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Globe and Mail- Toronto, December 23, 2000
Source URL: none

Napoleon conquers the Yanomami

Michael Lambek

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon By Patrick Tierney Norton, 417 pages

Patrick Tierney is angry about the recent history and fate of the Yanomami Indians of the remote Venezuelan/Brazilian frontier. Rather than interpret their troubles as the product of the turmoil inevitably produced by a gold rush, domination by the state or exploitation by greedy capitalists or ethnocentric missionaries, he has written an exposi of the researchers who began visiting the Yanomami when they were living more or less on their own.

Sensationalist and one-sided, Darkness in El Dorado is nevertheless a compelling tale of hubris and its downfall. Contrary to what I expected from the fuss prior to the book's publication (and possibly the result of some last-minute editing), Tierney's account is not primarily one of deliberate acts of misfeasance. With the exception of the description of anthropologist Jacques Lizot's pederast activities on the upper Orinoco -- which, one can only hope, will finally shame his mentors in Paris into forgoing their protection of him -- the book is largely about the unintended, if inexorable, consequences of a certain style of conducting research.

The real target is U.S. anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, stubbornly pursuing his Napoleonic ambition. Chagnon is not as central a figure to anthropological theory as Tierney supposes, but he is widely known to undergraduate students and to behavioural evolutionists.

While in most parts of the world, anthropologists have been witnesses to change rather than its instigators, Chagnon certainly had an impact on the upper Orinoco. The Yanomami were not visited by lone researchers, but overwhelmed by teams of scientists and film crews. The trouble started because Chagnon was not simply trying to understand Yanomami life, but collecting blood samples and extensive genealogies for his mentor, pioneeering human geneticist James Neel, in a project heavily subsidized by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Chagnon distributed massive amounts of goods in order to purchase compliance. Tierney argues that the goods set off a chain of conflicts that Chagnon mistakenly took to be intrinsic to the Yanomami way of life. Tierney documents how the researchers' presence and the further trading of the goods also inadvertently enhanced the spread of disease. And echoing the paranoia surrounding AIDS myths, Tierney asks whether Neel carelessly brought the wrong measles vaccine, possibly establishing the very epidemic he was supposedly trying to prevent.

More securely, Tierney undermines Chagnon's sociobiological arguments concerning the reproductive success of violent men and visits Chagnon's subsequent stupid dealings with a powerful Venezuelan entrepreneur and the then-president's mistress. A corrupt Canadian mining mogul also figures. Chagnon's portrayal of the Indians as violent fed into the hands of the mining lobby, but led Chagnon into increasing conflict with human-rights groups, missionaries and Yanomami themselves.

There is a saying among anthropologists that we "get the people we deserve." At first glance this seems right: Aggressive Chagnon studies the warlike Yanomami. But the saying is meant ironically. Tierney suggests the image of The Fierce People,as the title of Chagnon's 1968 bestseller has it, was itself a product of his personal and scientific predilections.

In documenting how the supposedly cinema veriti films of Yanomami violence were actually constructed, and in taking apart Chagnon's statistical data, Tierney is certainly on to something: Yanomami are not really so violent. Yet neither are they quite so malleable as Tierney implies; he conveniently glosses over the fact that Yanomami have liked to portray themselves as fierce, that women are subjected to a good deal of violence, and that they have interpreted and responded to their circumstances in their own emphatic way.

Unfortunately, Tierney's methods smack of the same tendencies he discovers in Chagnon -- self-importance, aggressive posturing, selective and out-of-context citation, exaggeration, careless mistakes, an eye more to public attention than even-handed historical analysis, absence of ambiguity, and an "in your face" stance. As Tierney admits, he once identified with Chagnon.

The extraordinary resources and self-assurance that Neel's team commanded enabled the production of a number of high-quality and highly innovative films. As a result, Chagnon's compelling version of Yanomami political organization became the most widely used illustration of "tribal" society in introductory anthropology courses in North America (Chagnon never caught on in the U.K.). Readers may remember images of naked Yanomami blowing hallucinogenic drugs up each other's nostrils. I stopped showing the films when I finally realized they were having the effect opposite to what I wanted: a confrontation with a different culture that reinforced, instead of challenged, students' preconceptions. Until reading Tierney I had never considered the films' source of funding. But then Tierney never reveals his own source of funds for the "11 years" he spent preparing this book.

Is this a major indictment of anthropology as the shrill press release claims? Simply: No. Tierney cites many anthropologists, especially South American ones, with approval. But the main point is that most anthropologists do not identify in any respect with Chagnon, neither with his swaggering persona, nor with his theories, methods and conclusions. Most sociobiologists are not anthropologists. Most anthropologists think sociobiology is dangerous nonsense and few either command the sort of research budget Chagnon had or see scientific enquiry as somehow above ethical constraint. Most anthropologists are riven with ethical and epistemological angst.

If there is a lesson in this book, it is the old one that power corrupts. Perhaps the people who need to hear the lesson most are those who push the agenda of grandiose high-budget multi-disciplinary research. If modestly funded, humanistically oriented and philosophically informed social-science projects, based on cultivated craft rather than hypostatized "method" and drawing on the critical sensibilities of researchers and their interlocutors, were given equal value to the scientistic blockbusters by the funding agencies, media, university administrators, and general public, perhaps we would all be a lot better off. Many subtle accounts of the life-worlds of Amazonian Indians are available. Neither Chagnon's nor Tierney's are among them. But how many books constructed from this low- profile research agenda get reviewed in The Globe and Mail? Michael Lambek is a cultural anthropologist whose books, including Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (edited with Paul Antze), have never been reviewed in this newspaper. He teaches at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and was recently elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

At play in the fields of ambition

Chagnon's influence has often been compared to that of Margaret Mead, whose own classic, Coming of Age in Samoa, was surpassed in sales and influence only by [his book] The Fierce People. In some ways, the current controversy started off like the one that brought discredit to Mead's writings. Mead conjured up an idyllic society in the South Pacific, whose sexual freedom coincided with the theories of her mentor, Franz Boas of Columbia University had appealed to Mead personally. Mead managed to ignore the fact that the Samoans had one of the highest indices of violent rape on the planet.

Whereas Mead continued Rousseau's tradition of pressing idealized natives into service for the left, Chagnon picked up where Social Darwinists left off. He emphasized the necessity of lethal competition in nature and the inevitable dominance of murderous men in a prehistoric society. Chagnon's ethnographic image of the ferocious Yanomami matched his own reputation for bar fighting and also echoed the views of his sponsor, the great geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan. Neel believed that modern society was going soft. From the Amazon's unspoiled inheritance, Neel hoped to find a genetic basis for male dominance -- "the Index of Innate Ability" -- a kind of elixir to the gene pool. It was Neel who selected the Yanomami as experimental subjects and sent Chagnon to find evidence for his quixotic theory. . . .

. . . The reality Chagnon described was in some ways stranger than the [European explorers'] tradition of projection and fantasy. He focused on the seemingly compulsive violence of the Yanomami, whose 25,000 members made up the world's largest intact aboriginal culture. As Chagnon went further into uncharted territory, he had a Conradian sense of going backward in evolutionary time to an awful, almost apelike existence. The foreward to The Fierce People characterized the Yanomami as a "brutal, cruel, treacherous" people whose morality was the antithesis of "the ideal postulates of the Judaic-Christian tradition."

From Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney.