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 I

Terence Turner

The Editor of The Bookpress has asked me to respond to Nicholas Nicastro’s polemic. I have reluctantly agreed, primarily because I think that it is important to confront the reductionist attacks of Neo-Darwinist ideologues like Nicastro on both humanistic and social-scientific modes of understanding. I shall also take the opportunity to reply to Nicastro’s consistently erroneous and intermittently scurrilous comments on my interventions in the controversy over abuses of the Yanomami Indians by anthropologists and others that was set off by Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado , which I reviewed in these pages in October 2000.

I. "Science," science and anti-science

Nicastro constructs his tirade around the master trope of a Manichaean struggle between what he calls "science" and the forces of irrationalism, which he identifies with "cultural anthropology." The latter he describes as a discipline that has abandoned its former commitment to empirical research (ethnography), systematic theory, classification, explanation, generalization and comparison, and has settled for mere "stamp collecting" or the aimless cataloguing of cultural differences.

Nicastro frames his outburst in terms of a supposed parallelism between two recent events which he interprets (wrongly, in both cases) as manifestations of anti-scientific biases on the part of cultural anthropologists. The first is the insistence of the Cornell Department of Anthropology that it should not be classified exclusively as a "social science" or as a "humanity," but as a combination of both. Anthropology’s stand against the university’s proposed classification of departments into either humanities or social sciences—it was the only department to take such a position—was of course an explicit affirmation of its identity as a social science as well as its humanistic commitment to interpreting the intentions, values and meanings of actors and their cultural representations. That science and interpretation should be complementary, not contradictory, aspects of the project of a "human science" is the most fundamental and distinctive proposition of modern anthropology. It is indicative of the limitations of Nicastro’s grasp of anthropology (not to mention plain English) that he twists the Cornell department’s affirmation of its commitment to this principle into "a revelation to the Cornell Administration that anthropology had long since ceased to be a science." Here as elsewhere Nicastro’s ability to comprehend what contemporary anthropology is about is limited by his

own axiomatic assumption that "science" and "culture" are mutually incompatible, from which it follows (for him) that any assertion to the contrary is prima facie proof of anti-scientificity. As a result of this and other basic misunderstandings, Nicastro’s account of anthropology as practiced and taught at Cornell and elsewhere bears little resemblance to reality. It is hard to believe that he actually spent a year as a graduate student in the archaeology program of the Cornell Department of Anthropology not long ago.

If he had kept his eyes and ears open and paid more attention at those Friday seminars, he would have learned that contemporary anthropologists at Cornell and elsewhere (archaeologists and biological anthropologists excepted) refer to and think of themselves not as "cultural anthropologists" but as "socio-cultural anthropologists." Over the past thirty years, American anthropology has been heavily influenced by social anthropology as developed in the U.K. and France, as well as by political economy, Weberian sociology, Marxism, and linguistic pragmatics. Increasing concerns with practical ("applied") work and advocacy for human rights, indigenous peoples’ struggles, ecological dimensions, and post-colonial situations have all contributed to the relative importance of sociological and materialist perspectives. Various forms of "practice theory," concerned with how the subjectivity, agency, cultural orientations and personal identity of social actors are produced in interaction with the social and natural environment currently occupy many theorists. Practice theory has become one of the most important areas where social anthropology has engaged with, and attempted to integrate elements from, idealist culturological approaches derived from the Herderian and hermeneutic traditions as well as some post-modernist ideas. Some of the latter are avowedly anti-sociological, anti-empiricist, anti-systematic and anti-scientific, but they are far from dominant in contemporary socio-cultural anthropology, and even farther from constituting the whole theoretical capital of the discipline, as Nicastro asserts.

How did Nicastro manage to miss all this? Tim Ingold, Professor of Anthropology at Manchester (U.K.), recently wrote a succinct comment on the fallacies and limitations of contemporary Neo-Darwinist positions such as sociobiology and "evolutionary psychology," to which Nicastro appears to subscribe. He notes that these "selectionists," as he collectively calls them,

are unaware of these significant developments in social and cultural theory [i.e., essentially those I have listed in the preceding paragraph—T.T.].They have not read the relevant literature, nor do they feel the need to do so, especially because they think they’re ahead of everybody else.1

Selectionists, Ingold says, treat individual and social behavior as "the mechanical output of interaction between pre-replicated instructions (whether genetic or cultural) and prespecified environmental conditions,"2 rather than the lifelong process through which people adapt and appropriate their endowments of biological and psychological capacities in interaction with their social and natural surroundings, as anthropologists understand it. Selectionism, he says, is

bad science...full of shoddy thinking, [such as the characteristic proclivity] for using natural selection as a logical device to turn description into explanation. In effect, what selectionists habitually do is to redescribe the phenomena under investigation in their terms, and then use the metaphor of selection as a trick which appears to convert a description of what is going on into an explanation for it. The fact that most advocates of selectionist models have allowed themselves to be mystified by their own procedures does not make them any more defensible.3

The lecture by biological anthropologist Peter Rodman and my response to it that Nicastro cites as an instance of my bad "judgement in matters biological" offers a perfect example of Ingold’s critique, as well as of Nicastro’s bad judgement in matters scientific. Rodman, as Nicastro recounts, lectured on the evolution of human-like features of mating systems, notably the avoidance of mating with close kin, among the great apes. The development of incest avoidance among chimpanzees and other apes, he asserted, was driven by the selective advantages of avoiding inbreeding. In the question period following the lecture, I pointed out that this explanation rested on the logical fallacy of making effects into their own causes: in other words, post hoc ergo propter hoc . The evolutionary advantages of avoiding inbreeding could not be the motives of apes in choosing their sexual partners, so Rodman’s explanation begged the question. As Nicastro recounts, "the audience [of] faculty and students interested in issues of primate behavior and evolution, was stunned," and Rodman himself was "momentarily thrown by the question." He never did answer it properly. What Nicastro calls his "recovery" by an "appeal to the Westermarck effect" (itself another instance of the description of an effect—the sexual indifference of close kin who have grown up together to one another—representing itself as a cause), merely avoided the essential question, which was the logical unviability of appealing to an evolutionary effect as a cause of the behavior that produces it.

The relevance of this event in the present context is not only the consternation my simple logical point caused in the ranks of the selectionist speaker and audience, but more specifically Nicastro’s continuing failure to understand the point at issue. He attempts to dismiss my question as depending on the proposition that "organisms need to know the consequences of their behaviors in order for the laws of natural selection to apply." Not at all: that is exactly the implication of Rodman’s explanation to which I objected. In a grudgingly magnanimous mode, he continues,

In Turner’s defense, perhaps he had in mind some Tinbergen-esque partitioning of behavioral explanation into proximate and ultimate causations. It didn’t really sound that way, but perhaps. Still, he is not the first first-rate cultural anthropologist [sic! socio-cultural anthropologist, please—T.T.] to puzzle over how natural selection works.

Nicastro still doesn’t get it. His "defense" of me is inappropriate and unnecessary. The essential point at issue is not the partitioning between proximal and ultimate causations, but that natural selection cannot be considered an "ultimate causation" of the behaviors upon which it operates. This is precisely the fallacy identified by Ingold as central to selectionist pseudo-science in the passage just quoted ("using the metaphor of selection to convert a description of what is going on into an explanation for it"). Nicastro, then, is not the first selectionist to puzzle over how natural selection works...and get it wrong.

The underlying issue is oddly congruent with the principle behind the Cornell Anthropology Department’s insistence that not only objective description and analysis ("social science") but interpretation of subjective intentionality ("humanistic" understanding) is essential to a scientific account of human (or even sub-human primate) social interaction, which Nicastro deplores as a typical specimen of culturological anti-science. The need to coordinate the contradictory behavioral patterns of long-continued dependency with the development of autonomy and assertive dominance, is a fundamental determinant of the affective patterns that condition sexual avoidance and attraction common, in varying degrees, to humans and the higher primates. The resulting patterns of subjective motivations and intentional dispositions enter as "proximal causes" into the conditioning of behavior that has cumulative selective implications for Darwinian evolutionary science. The two are not antithetical but complementary——precisely the point that Neo-Darwinian enthusiasts like Nicastro seem unable to grasp.

"Science" is an effort to understand and explain the total system of determinants of reality, and where the reality in question is the activity of organisms, especially complex ones like human beings and other primates, this includes subjective factors such as affective dispositions, intentionality, and (in humans) value orientations. Any approach to human behavior that rules out such factors as irrelevant to "science" violates the first principle of science, which is to be open, and faithful to, the empirical data in question. Good science cannot be grounded in bad logic, or in the exclusion of whole classes of relevant empirical data, or still less in the dismissal or misrepresentation of pertinent theoretical perspectives. Selectionist ideologues seem impervious to these fundamental points, and thus fail to understand that the opposition of most anthropologists, including many biological anthropologists, to their simplistic views is not opposition to "science" per se but scientifically principled critical opposition to bad science. As Ingold remarks,

Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the sheer hubris with which selectionists advance their claims. Not for them the ramblings of wooly-minded humanists when Darwin and hard science point the way! Why bother to read or engage with the work of generations of social and cultural theorists when it is perfectly obvious that human beings are hard-wired meme-replicating machines? All this stuff about agency and structure, about how persons come into being within fields of social relationships, about culture as process rather than transferable content, is as much froth. Humanists can only deal with proximate realities; neo-Darwinian human science reveals the ultimate causes of things.4

II. The Yanomami controversy

Nicastro’s second example of supposed anthropological "anti-science" is the confidential memo that I and my colleague Leslie Sponsel, of the Department of Anthropology of The University of Hawaii, sent to the President of the American Anthropological Association warning of the grave allegations made by Patrick Tierney in his book, Darkness in El Dorado , then not yet published, and the public scandal they would cause.5 This too Nicastro interprets as a manifestation of cultural-anthropological "anti-science." It is no such thing (for the record, both Sponsel—an ecologically-oriented anthropologist with a strong biological background—and myself consider ourselves to be social scientists, and exponents of systematic theory as well as defenders of ethnographic realism, as opposed to irrationalist cultural stamp collecting). Our memo was primarily concerned with matters of ethics and human rights—specifically, the harmful effects on the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil of a series of encounters with anthropologists, geneticists, film-crews, miners, corrupt Venezuelan and Brazilian politicians, and others—not with issues of science or anti-science.

The most harmful encounter described by Tierney in the galley proofs of his book, which Sponsel and I were sent for our comments by the publishers, was a vaccination campaign using a vaccine known to cause extreme reactions in immune-depressed people (which the Yanomami were known to be at that time), which Tierney suggests may have caused an epidemic of measles that killed hundreds of Yanomami. Tierney further suggests that this may have been done deliberately as an experiment. An epidemic of measles did in fact break out in synch with the vaccinations. Tierney implied that it had been started by the vaccine. Sponsel and I, in our memo, treated this and the many other abuses described in the book as violations of anthropological ethics and Yanomami human rights, not as instances of "science."

It is important to clarify at this point that in our memo we simply presented a description of Tierney’s allegations and tried to alert the leadership of the Anthropological Association to prepare to deal with them. We did not endorse them or certify their validity, contrary to what Nicastro repeatedly asserts and implies. Although many of the incidents described in the book were known to us (indeed, most had been common knowledge for years among Venezuelan and Brazilian anthropologists and missionaries who had lived and dealt with the Yanomami, quite independently of Tierney), the allegations about the measles vaccine and epidemic, the most sensational in the book, were new to both of us. As the rest of the book seemed solid enough based on our knowledge, and since W.W. Norton’s fact checkers and lawyers had reportedly checked its allegations, we judged that these were likely enough to prove true to merit warning the Association (so much for the "suspicious degree of credulity" of which Nicastro accuses us).

A second essential point about the memo is that we sent it as a confidential message to the top leadership of the Association, not as an open letter and not for general circulation, as some have assumed and as Nicastro obliquely attempts to insinuate. Its sole purpose was to give the leadership of the Association a maximum of time to prepare to deal with the allegations before the scandal Tierney’s allegations were certain to cause materialized upon the publication of the book. As it happened, someone leaked our memo on the net. The scandal which we correctly predicted followed, ironically, from the unauthorized circulation of our memo describing Tierney’s charges rather than from the publication of Tierney’s book itself. Nicastro’s says of this series of events that Sponsel and I "sent a supposedly confidential e-mail" to the President of the Association. Nasty, that "supposedly." Nicastro’s intent is clearly to suggest that Sponsel and I actually intended that our memo should be generally circulated, and may in some way have helped to do this. This is untrue. Nicastro can have no evidence for his devious insinuation and should be ashamed of making it.

Nicastro’s farrago of inaccurate charges and scurrilous insinuations descends to levels which I would have thought that the editors of The Bookpress would not have countenanced. He says

Turner himself subsequently performed an about face regarding Tierney’s genocide charge. Interestingly, that the book’s central accusation may well be spun out of whole Terrycloth has not appeared to diminish Turner’s enthusiasm for his ongoing ax fight with Chagnon.

There are at least five misstatements and counterfactual innuendos packed into this single sentence. Firstly, I never "performed an about face" on the allegation about the vaccine casing the epidemic because I had never endorsed it. What I did was to check up on it and find out that it was supposed by medical experts to be impossible for a vaccine to cause contagious cases of the disease and therefore to cause an epidemic. I immediately posted an open letter to this effect on the key web sites associated with the controversy and repeated the point in many media interviews.6 The New York Times of Sunday, October 8 recognized these efforts by reporting that I had "withdrawn the charge of genocide" (which I had never made, but some journalists had). Secondly, Tierney never charged Neel with "genocide" (a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole people) but with endangering or causing the deaths of up to a thousand people in a medical experiment: horrible enough, but not the same thing. Thirdly, the use of my name in the phrase, "spun out of whole Terrycloth" implies that I was somehow nevertheless the source of the spurious charge of genocide. How can The Bookpress lend its pages to sleazy writing like this?

Fourthly, "spun out of whole...cloth" implies that there is nothing at all to the allegation that an inappropriately powerful vaccine was used, for an experimental purpose, that contributed to a medical catastrophe through the measles-like reactions it caused and the social panic (including flight from villages and thus from medical help) these reactions aroused. On the contrary, there is evidence for these allegations, that will be examined by the committee now being formed by the American Anthropological Association to study what aspects of the case should be further investigated. Not "whole cloth," then, but strong indications that some of Tierney’s allegations about the epidemic may well be true. Fifthly, the reference to Turner’s "enthusiasm for his continuing ax fight with Chagnon" picks up the charge, repeated ad nauseam by the defenders of Neel and Chagnon, that my criticisms of Chagnon are merely a personal vendetta not based on issues of principle. This is a

misrepresentation intended to trivialize and obscure the issues involved. There is no "personal vendetta," only a series of occasions on which Chagnon has slandered or libeled Yanomami leaders or non-governmental organizations and missionaries who have rendered important support to the Yanomami, either in my presence or in print, and I have spoken up in defense of these leaders and groups, whom I knew personally, against what I knew to be untrue and damaging calumnies.

Chagnon has damaged the Yanomami both by statements of commission and omission. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, his repeated charges that effective Yanomami leaders like Davi Kopenawa were mere "parrots" of NGOs, mouthing lines they were fed by the do-gooding organizations that supposedly kept them as useful symbols handy for self-serving fund-raising campaigns, played into the hands of politicians and mining interests looking for public rationales to justify the dismantling of Yanomami territory. When these same political and economic elements resorted to Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomami as ferocious savages involved in chronic warfare over women to argue that Yanomami communities should be isolated from one another by corridors of open land (which could incidentally provide access for gold miners), Chagnon stood by without comment. Chagnon’s silence on the point became understood by both sides in the struggle to preserve or dismember Yanomami territory as a statement by omission in support of the miners and their political allies. This had a serious enough impact for the Brazilian Anthropological Association to formally appeal to the American Anthropological Association in 1988 demanding that the U.S. body investigate the ethics of its member’s tacit support of those who were exploiting his statements. The American Association failed to take action, and this failure has come back to haunt it. At the AAA meetings just held in San Francisco, the Brazilian Association sent a message recalling its former appeal and the American Association’s failure to act, and renewing the appeal now that the AAA was preparing to investigate the charges in Tierney’s book.

The issue, as the Brazilian Association’s statement forcefully put it, is not simply that third parties exploited Chagnon’s statements and silences for their own purposes. Anthropological researchers, it acknowledges have an obligation to speak the truth about their research findings, and cannot control the uses to which others may put their findings. They do, however, have an ethical responsibility to speak out against the misuse of their findings by third parties, especially when such misuse directly damages the people who were the subjects of the anthropologist’s research. The Brazilians’ problem with Chagnon is precisely that he did not speak out against the misuse of his statements by the miners and their political representatives in ways that damaged the vital interests of the Yanomami, in contexts where his silence would be (and was) interpreted as tacit support of these misuses. Nicastro’s account of this issue misses the whole point; he calls my blaming Chagnon for his failure to speak out, and his overtly damaging statements "a striking piece of illogic" (exactly why is not clear). He goes on to assert an analogy between my ethical criticism of Chagnon’s behavior and the possibility that I, as a Marxist, should criticize Marx for crimes committed by "left-wing extremists" in his name. Note the striking piece of illogic (in effect a logical inversion) here. The logically analogous case would be to criticize the extremists for their misuse of Marx’s ideas: as I have done often enough; and as Marx himself did often enough.

Speaking of illogic, Nicastro attempts to blame me and Sponsel for the misuse of our confidential memo after it was leaked to the media. We were not responsible for the circulation of the memo to the media. Whoever leaked the memo bears the responsibility for the misuses to which it was put by sensationalist journalists. Once the memo was leaked, however, we considered it our duty to speak out against the misuses and misinterpretations of what we had written by others. We took responsibility for checking on Tierney’s allegation about the vaccine as a source of the epidemic that we had reported in the memo, and upon finding it unsustainable, for correcting it in the media at every opportunity (as in my review of Tierney in the October Bookpress )——precisely what I (and the Brazilian Anthropological Association) blamed Chagnon for failing to do with the misuse of his statements by journalists and politicians. Sponsel and I have practiced what we preached to Chagnon. Logically, what’s sauce for the goose should serve equally as sauce for the gander.

continued in Part II