Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Bookpress, December 2000

Source URL: http://www.bookpress.com/

Human Science, Pseudo-Science, and Anthropological Ethics in the Yanomami Controversy, Part II

Terence Turner

Continued from Part I

It’s true that at points in our memo we used hyperbolic language to refer to Tierney’s more sensational findings and allegations. While we used strong language in our memo to describe Tierney’s allegations, however,I repeat that we did not "endorse" them, as Nicastro asserts. We only described them in order to warn the leaders of the AAA about their imminent publication. Of course we based our warning on "a single secondary source," as Nicastro accuses us of doing. That was the only book we were warning about! Nor was our language inappropriate to what we were describing. The metaphorical connection between Tierney’s suggestion that Neel had deliberately started the fatal measles epidemic as an experiment and Joseph Mengele was hardly inappropriate for what Tierney was in fact suggesting. Our reference to "corruption and sheer criminality unparalleled in the history of anthropology" was literally correct as applied to the activities of the cabal formed by

Chagnon, Charles Brewer-Carias, and Cecilia Matos, Director of the National Fund for Social Assistance, FUNDAFACI, and mistress of the then President of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Perez. Matos ordered and funded numerous illegal and medically irresponsible forays by Chagnon and Brewer Carias into remote areas of Yanomami territory in military helicopters that were not legally supposed to be used for such purposes. These flights sometimes resulted in the destruction of Yanomami communal shelters as the helicopters hovered over them to allow close-up photographs and views by the passengers, meanwhile blowing thatch and roof poles down on top of the inhabitants. Numerous serious injuries were caused, and the villagers were put at risk of contagion from the medically unscreened passengers, mostly foreign journalists and influential Venezuelans whose support Chagnon and Brewer were seeking for the creation of a demarcated tract of Yanomami territory that would be under their exclusive control for Chagnon’s research and Brewer’s mining interests. The Venezuelan air force pilots became so outraged by what they were being forced to do that they ran Chagnon out of the country and attempted a coup d’etat . This led in due course to a more successful coup involving many of the same officers and current President Chavez. Carlos Andres Perez was impeached and imprisoned, and Cecilia Matos was tried and convicted in absentia on many counts of corruption, including the misuse of public funds and military equipment and personnel for her junkets with Brewer and Chagnon.

On a related point, Nicastro refers to my "hyperbole" about Neel’s eugenic beliefs and their fascistic overtones (the reference to Neel’s "fascistic eugenics" in the memo). Although Neel’s defenders in the recent debates over Tierney’s book on the net have maintained that Neel was not only not a eugenicist but a crusader against eugenics, a quick read of his writings on primitive society, for example his article "On Being Headman" immediately reveals that Neel believed that there was a genetic complex that he called "the index of innate ability" (I.I.A.) which is possessed in different quantitative degrees by different people. In isolated, endogamous societies, where the breeding population is small enough for differential rates of reproduction by individuals to have significant effects on the gene pool, and genetically superior individuals would according to Neel tend to rise to leadership of the group, he theorized that those men who possess more I.I.A. than others will tend to become headmen, or leaders. The main prerequisite of leadership, he further asserted, is the ability to marry more wives than average (not so innately able) men. The leader is thus able to reproduce his genes at a higher rate than other, genetically inferior men. This is good for society, as the disproportionately high rate of infusion of superior genes raises the tone of the gene pool of the group as a whole. It is, in a word, eugenic, and Neel explicitly uses the term for this effect of polygamous headmanship as the central social institution of primitive society (for which he took the Yanomami as the archetype). Neel’s theory provides an ideological justification for leadership by a biologically superior elite: the leader or headmen, holds his power by virtue of his innate superiority, with no nonsense about democratic participation by others or equal rights for women and non-dominant men. Given its eugenic foundation (itself a pure case of ideology, since no empirical basis or objective test for the "index of innate ability" has ever been identified)the whole set of ideas comes uncomfortably close to twentieth-century fascist notions of a "leadership (führer) principle" based in part on genetic—in this case racial—purity. So no, Mr. Nicastro, in Neel’s case, "fascistic eugenics" is not such a "hyperbole."

As for the possible relevance of Neel’s ideas on the genetic basis of leadership to the differential social impact of epidemic disease, which we speculated might have been a motive for starting an experimental epidemic as Tierney had alleged that Neel might well have done, we reasoned from Neel’s published ideas on the social causes of the catastrophic die-offs of previously isolated populations in first-contact epidemics. Neel argued that these disasters were caused, not by genetic susceptibilities to the diseases in question, but by social causes (whole families, adults and children, falling ill together, so that no one was available to help the others). After the first exposure, Neel argued, the survivors would be immune, and thus constitute a cadre of resistant individuals who could help children and others who had not yet been exposed. This is why, he argued, the second and later onsets of such diseases tend to be much less fatal than the first. Reasoning from this social explanation of differential morbidity in successive onsets of epidemic diseases over time, we hypothesized that headmen, with their many wives and large

families, would be more likely to have someone in their households who might be relatively resistant to the disease or not fall ill at the same time, and thus remain able to give assistance, than common people with monogamous families. That might in turn mean that those with superior genetic indexes of innate ability would thus tend to have a higher rate of survivability in first onset epidemics than less highly endowed individuals. Higher genetic indexes of innate ability might thus turn out to confer more social immunity to such epidemics, in the form of better ability to survive the social breakdown and chaos that Neel emphasized played such a heavy role in first-contact epidemic disasters. This is in principle a testable hypothesis, and not such an implausible extrapolation from Neel’s ideas as we knew them. It was an educated guess which we made in the absence of any plausible reason for such an experiment offered by Tierney in the galleys of the book that we had read. It is nevertheless irrelevant and doubtless wrong, as we are now happy to recognize, since it has become evident that Neel never had any idea of starting a real epidemic. As is clear from this explanation, however, the ideas that Nicastro attributes to us on this topic—that resistance to any particular disease could be genetically linked to traits of leadership or that there might be a genetic correlation between immunity and hostility—played no part in our thinking.

In the course of his rebuttal of his misimpression of our misimpression of Neel’s ideas about the possible relationship of headmanship to epidemic survivability, Nicastro actually says something that I fully agree with, to wit that "we have very little evidence for direct genetic influence on complex human behaviors like leadership." Right! But where does that leave the selectionist project of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, who seem to depend on arguing for just such direct influences? A page after making the resoundingly correct assertion for which I have just given him credit, for example, Nicastro recounts how

One of Neel and Chagnon’s real crimes, it appears, is to dare to root an explanation for one aspect of Yanomami social life at some order of integration other than sociocultural [in other words, reduce it to an effect of genetics—T.T.]. Chagnon, in particular, rankled the sensibilities of many culturologists by publishing a study in Science that purported to demonstrate (with statistics, no less) that Yanomami who killed male enemies had more wives and children than those who hadn’t. This would presumably give behaviorally dominant males a fitness [i.e., selective—T.T.] advantage over others, promoting the frequency of certain behaviorally-relevant alleles in the population. (Italics mine—T.T.)

Well, there it is again, by another name: Neel’s index of innate ability, conceived as a set of "behaviorally relevant alleles" that promote "behavioral dominance," which in turn translates into social leadership, which in turn bestows a selective (reproductive) advantage. Chagnon’s contention that "genetic relatedness" is "a better predictor of overall observed patterns of violence than political or cultural factors," that Nicastro touts as an "attempt to explain social behavior, not just describe it" rests on data, and selective manipulations of that data, that have been repeatedly challenged by critics, while supplementary data which Chagnon has promised would confirm his analysis and answer the criticisms has never appeared. This case, which sociobiologists and other selectionists have proclaimed as the prime example of a genetic reductionist account of social behavior, has for long been regarded outside their ranks as an egregiously flawed exercise in manipulated statistics and incomplete data.

Selectionists, following Chagnon’s lead, have developed standardized rhetorical tactics to deflect such criticisms of their theoretical and empirical claims. Critics are "academic leftists" committed to Rousseauian sentimentalism about "noble savages," who are unable or unwilling to face the hard and unpleasant facts of the violent and aggressive behavior of primitive peoples revealed by objective scientific researchers like Chagnon. Nicastro repeats this ideological canard at several points, beginning with his epigraph from Gross and Leavitt’s conservative tract, The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science . Charging their critics with being politically correct leftists becomes a cover for alleging that it is they, the critics, who inject politics and ideology into what selectionists attempt to conduct as a politically neutral discussion of objective scientific issues. Tommyrot! It is the selectionists with their reductionist cult of science who habitually resort to ideological name-calling. They should not be allowed to avoid the clear implication their repeated charges that criticisms of their positions come from the academic left: namely, that they reciprocally identify themselves with the academic and political right.

Genetic reductionism, of the selectionist variety that identifies genes as innate properties of individuals, determining behavior independently of and prior to social, cultural , and environmental factors, is obviously congenial to the ideological framework of contemporary Neoliberalism and other ideological perspectives associated with the Right. The point is not new: it has been made by scientific critics of selectionist approaches like Gould and Lewontin, as well as anthropological critics like Sahlins. Nicastro mentions these critics only to associate them with opponents of selectionism from "the academic left." This done, he makes no attempt to deal with their specific criticisms. This is politically neutral, non-ideological scientific discourse?

The selectionist charge that anthropological critics proceed from a naively sentimental conception of the good savage is instantly recognizable as a travesty within anthropology itself, but effective as propaganda among non-anthropologists, journalists, and the selectionist faithful themselves. It serves as a rhetorical basis for the pet selectionist allegation that "cultural anthropologists" resist biological reductionist theories of social behavior because they are Idealists who hold a " tabula rasa " conception of human nature, whereby all cultural and social behavior is one hundred percent "culturally constructed." Nonsense. There are some anthropologists who fit this description, but many others who concern themselves with social processes of appropriation and transformation of the body, psychological capacities, and the natural environment, all recognized as in varying degrees independent (extra- or infra-cultural) realities.

This charge that social-cultural anthropology has degenerated into sentimental Idealism is directly connected to the allegation of Nicastro and other selectionist ideologues that the discipline has turned itself into a "well-meaning consensus" that suppresses any anthropological approach "that takes knowledge as its primary value" and demands the destruction of the reputations and careers of any who dare to speak up for scientifically correct but politically incorrect truth (in other words, "scientific" selectionists). This paranoid projection returns us to the master-trope of the Manichaean struggle between true science and the anthropological Other with which we began. Through this ideological filter, Nicastro views the controversy over Tierney’s book, including my review in The Bookpress , my memo with Sponsel, and the criticisms of Chagnon by many anthropological colleagues, and discovers that "the entire sad episode" is motivated by "a hostility to science more virulent than the Edmonston B vaccine." In support of this interpretation he cites a passage from Sponsel’s and my memo that he claims we wrote, but which is actually a quotation from a disgusted chemist warning about the danger of "uncontrolled ego [and] lack of respect for life" in science (not of science).

Nicastro, in sum, is fundamentally mistaken about the reasons for the controversy. It is not about "hostility to science" but the ethics of research, and the responsibility for the damage that has been done to the Yanomami by those who have studied, filmed, and reported about them. Nicastro’s misattribution and misreading of the quoted passage is emblematic of this larger misunderstanding.

He is not alone. A remarkable feature of the vast outpouring of e-mail messages and postings by selectionist defenders of Neel and Chagnon over the past two months is that virtually none have mentioned or attempted to deal directly with how the Yanomami have suffered from the actions and representations of those who have conducted research among them. Like Nicastro, the authors of these messages have been exclusively preoccupied with defending the scientists, and their version of "science," against critics seen as primarily motivated by anti-scientific views or misunderstandings. In this discourse, the vindication of science and scientists becomes implicitly assimilated with the dissipation of the issue of Yanomami suffering and the reasons for it. If the critical allegations against the researchers can be refuted, then the questions about the effects of their actions on the Yanomami can be made to go away, at least as matters of concern to us.

"Science" has thus become, for the selectionist side of this controversy, a rhetorical trope for dissolving ethical issues, together with their political and ideological implications. This tropic use of "science" is epitomized by the attempt by selectionist defenders of Neel and Chagnon to use Tierney’s gaffe about the vaccine possibly causing the measles epidemic to discredit his entire book, ninety percent of which actually deals

with completely different issues, mostly related to Chagnon’s activities and their effects on the Yanomami. Far from being merely figments of Tierney’s journalistic scandal-mongering, or worse, out-and-out lies, as numerous selectionists have been charging on the net and at the recent Anthropology Meeting in San Francisco, most of these actions and events were already common knowledge among those who have worked among the Yanomami as anthropologists, missionaries, journalists, medical personnel or government functionaries——not to mention the

Yanomami themselves, who are rapidly becoming more vocal in their own behalf——long before the appearance of Tierney’s book. The American Anthropological Association at its recent meeting in San Francisco refused to be bulldogged into dropping its plans for an investigation of the ethical and human rights issues raised by these other episodes and actions; planning for the specific form of this investigation is under way as I write.

The harm that the Yanomami have suffered is real. Over a period of thirty years, Chagnon used methods to extract culturally taboo data and blood samples from Yanomami that caused dissension and conflict between communities and between factions of the same community. These conflicts, according to anthropologist Brian Ferguson and others who have studied the political and historical record, sometimes led to the breakup of communities and to inter-village raiding.7 Chagnon’s tactics included giving huge amounts of steel tools, the most esteemed presents, to one village or faction, thus stimulating jealousy and rivalry on the part of non-recipients; and deliberately lying to a village or

faction that he had obtained the taboo names of their dead relatives from another village or faction, thus arousing anger and resentment that he would exploit to get the village or faction in question to give up the names of the deceased ancestors of the other group, and so on ad infinitum . After Chagnon got his data and departed, the villagers were left with bitter resentments that could last for years and provoke open conflicts. Chagnon also used bullying and intimidation, brandishing weapons and shooting off firearms to make the Yanomami willing to give him

information. The effectiveness of these tactics owed much to Chagnon’s ability to exploit the great discrepancy between his resources and those of the Yanomami. In so many words, he exploited a colonial situation as leverage to extract information in ways that disrupted the cultural values and social relations of the people among whom he worked, in the process doing lasting damage to the stability and peace of their communities. The main authority for these allegations are the writings of Chagnon himself. One does not need to be a "left-wing academic" or an "anti-science culturologist" to agree that these tactics may raise questions of research ethics. Many of those who have expressed concern over the ethics of these field methods, as well as the ethical issues arising from Chagnon’s statements and silences concerning Yanomami leaders, NGOs, and territorial rights discussed earlier, are also committed to science as they understand it. Ethical issues should be a common ground on which scientists and humanists, conservatives and progressives, can agree. Nicastro to the contrary, there is no intrinsic opposition between anthropological humanism and anthropological science. Here, if anywhere, is the real parallelism between the issues raised by the Sponsel-Turner memo and the anthropology department’s insistence that it is both a science and a humanistic discipline.


Terence Turner is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and former head of the American Anthropological Association Special Commission to investigate the situation of the Brazilian Yanomami.


1. Ingold, Tim. "The Poverty of Selectionism." Anthropolgy Today, vol. 16, no. 3. 1-2.

2. Ibid. 2.

3. Ibid. 2.

4. Ibid. 2.

5. Turner, Terence and Leslie Sponsel. (2000) http://www.egroups.com/message/evolutionary_psychology/7180.

6. Turner, Terence. Letter to Dr. Samuel Katz. 09/29/2000. http://www.egroups.com/message/evolutionary_psychology/7180.

7. Ferguson, R. Brian. (1995) Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.