Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Bookpress, December 2000

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

Why I Am Not a Cultural Anthropologist, Part II

Nicholas Nicastro

continued from Part I

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. In the same Los Angeles Times Magazine profile, we hear how Turner dramatically ambushed Chagnon at the 1994 meeting of the AAA, rising from the crowd to pronounce him a "sociopath" and the source of "lies [that] damage the Yanomamö." (As a graduate student in anthropology in 1996, I recall Turner’s graduate advisee likewise spreading vague rumors of Chagnon’s "evil.") "His [Chagnon’s] politics are bad," Turner tells the Los Angeles Times . "His ideas are used by miners and politicians, especially in Brazil, to argue for a breakup of Yanomamö land." That Turner blames Chagnon because third parties might exploit Chagnon’s ideas about the uses of violence in Yanomamö society is a striking piece of illogic. Are we to expect, therefore, that Turner, a Marxist, will soon rise to publicly denounce Karl Marx for crimes committed by left-wing extremists (governmental and otherwise) in his name?

Indeed, as remarkable as Turner’s reversal on the genocide charge is the moralistic flourish in which his pirouette was performed. In his Bookpress review, he laments

Headlines in the British and American press about "Nazi experiments that killed thousands" have made the book famous, or infamous, before its publication. The headlines are in fact wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately, the book has already become a succés de scandale through such irresponsible, and unfounded, journalistic hyperbole. There is no hard evidence that the use of the vaccine actually caused deaths, and Neel, though he seems to have held eugenic ideas, can scarcely be described as a Nazi.

The sensationalist headlines Turner rues are, in fact, accurately reflecting the tenor and the substance of the "leaked" memo that, as he actually writes, "two anthropologists" sent to the AAA–that is, the e-mail by Sponsel and Turner themselves! The newspapers didn’t have to make up tales of Neel’s "fascistic eugenics" and atrocities worthy of Josef Mengele. Turner and Sponsel did that for them. Nor was the ostensibly confidential memo the first time Turner has resorted to such "hyperbole." In the Los Angeles Times profile of Chagnon, Turner quite publicly pronounces his straw-man distortion of Chagnon’s work on differential reproductive success among Yanomamö males as "very close to the Nazi idea that there’s a leadership gene…"

The fact that Turner and Sponsel call their e-mail to the President and President-elect of the AAA "confidential" does not render it acceptable for them to endorse wild, deeply damaging charges based on a single secondary source. They were, after all, writing to the leaders of the premier professional organization of their discipline. The very gravity of the indictment, including as it does a genocidal pandemic, would seem to call for caution, not gilding the lily. Private indictments need to be responsible too.

Considering the relevance of genetics, immunology, and epidemiology to this story, the degree of handwaving about biology here is remarkable. The crux of the botched vaccination charge, as reported by Turner and Sponsel, is that Neel wanted to prove that the genetic supermen among the Yanomamö, the ones who "eliminate or subordinate the male losers in the competition for leadership and women, and [amass] harems of brood females…," would preferentially survive exogenous epidemics by quickly building up immunity to a disease like measles. "It is possible that he [Neel] thought that genetically superior members of such groups might prove to have differential levels of immunity and thus higher rates of survival to imported disease," they speculate.

The trouble with this theory (beyond that it fails to accurately reflect Neel’s actual views) is that there would be no reason for Neel to have assumed that immunity to any particular disease would be genetically linked to traits for "leadership." That great men can easily be struck down by lowly bugs has been known at least since Pericles fell victim to plague in Athens in 429 BC. Considering that even now, with the human genome almost entirely mapped, we have very little evidence for direct genetic influence on complex human behaviors like "leadership," there would have been even less reason for Neel (who was no fool) to assume some linkage between Machiavellianism and microbe-resistance. This problem would have confounded interpretation of Neel’s "experiment" no matter what "result" he got. There would have been very little motive for him to trigger an epidemic that could not have falsified or confirmed his hypothesis. Indeed, if Neel really was interested in establishing a correlation between immunity and hostility, why didn’t he just turn to something at least a bit more interpretable, such as the relationship between aggression and, say, parasite loads among Yanomamö men?

That a highly regarded cultural anthropologist like Turner was initially moved to endorse Tierney’s story does not do credit to his judgment of matters biological. Unfortunately, it is not a unique incident. In 1997 Cornell’s department hosted a colloquium talk by the physical anthropologist Peter Rodman. After Rodman’s lecture on the evolution of mating systems among great apes, Turner delivered a peroration that boiled down to the question "Why do the apes shun incest if they don’t rationally know the genetic costs of inbreeding?"

The audience, which was dominated by faculty and students interested in issues of primate behavior and evolution, was stunned. Rodman was momentarily thrown by the question, but recovered with an appeal to the Westermarck effect. Clearly, if organisms needed to "know" the consequences of their behaviors in order for the laws of natural selection to apply, Darwinian evolution itself would be on very shaky ground. The question might as well have been asked, "How can birds fly without knowing the principles of aerodynamics?"

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 to puzzle over how natural selection works. In his book The Use and Abuse of Biology , Sahlins (half-facetiously, one hopes) wonders how kin selection is supposed to work if native people cannot rationalize partial relatedness because they lack the linguistic terms to express fractional relationships. To this, Richard (The Selfish Gene ) Dawkins sarcastically replied

A snail shell is an exquisite logarithmic spiral, but where does the snail keep its log tables; how indeed does it read them, since the lens in its eye lacks ‘linguistic support’ for calculating µ, the coefficient of refraction?13

Turner has produced a considerable body of thoughtful ethnographic and theoretical work over his career. His analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus in terms of kinship and kin symbolism, for instance, is one of the most penetrating works of anthropologically-inspired literary criticism I’m aware of.14 Culturologists do the study of behavior a service when they express legitimate skepticism about overly enthusiastic genetic and biological reductionisms. I have expressed like skepticism about certain popular tenets among evolutionary psychologists, such as Stephen Pinker.15 Pinker, incidentally, has publicly supported Chagnon against Tierney’s attack.

What is implicit in this entire sad episode, however, is a hostility to science far more virulent than the Edmonton B vaccine. In a characteristic passage, Turner and Sponsel write "Tierney’s analysis is a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego, of lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence" (emphasis added). It is interesting that the authors felt the need to add the words "in science" to their warning; one would think, after all, that an "uncontrolled ego" would be dangerous in any context, including among cultural anthropologists.

One of Neel and Chagnon’s real crimes, it appears, is to dare to root an explanation for one aspect of Yanomamö social life at some order of integration other than sociocultural. Chagnon, in particular, rankled the sensibilities of many culturologists by publishing a study in Science that purported to demonstrate (with statistics, no less) that Yanomamö who killed male enemies had more wives and children than those who hadn’t.16 This would presumably give behaviorally dominant males a fitness advantage over others, promoting the frequency of certain behaviorally-relevant alleles in the population. Genetic relatedness, moreover, was claimed by Chagnon to be a better predictor of overall observed patterns of violence than political or cultural factors. In other words, Chagnon actually attempted to explain an aspect of Yanomamö social behavior, not just to describe it, celebrate it, or invoke its cultural ramifications.

Even worse, he stands accused of portraying the tribe in a state of "Hobbesian savagery," red in tooth and claw, and therefore of naturalizing/rationalizing extermination or dispossession of the Yanomamö. This runs despite the fact that Chagnon notes, in the very same Science paper, that notwithstanding the prestige attached in the tribe to the epithet waiteri ("fierce"), "I suspect the amount of violence in Yanomamö culture would not be atypical if we had comparative measures of precontact violence in other similar tribes." That any portrayal of "savagery" among the Yanomamö should scarcely excuse savagery against the Yanomamö seems not to have occurred to the immaculate advocates. As Gross and Leavitt observe in Higher Superstition , "The academic left’s critiques of science have come to exert a remarkable influence. The primary reason for their success is not that they put forward sound arguments, but rather that they resort constantly and shamelessly to moral one-upmanship "17 (emphasis in original).

Depending on whom you read, Chagnon’s sociobiological claims have been either falsified or supported. One clear flaw in his presentation is his failure to quantify degrees of relatedness not only within villages, but between them (fission appears to be a regular event at the village level); another is the general problem of evaluating whether this or that degree of relatedness may be behaviorally relevant. In short, Chagnon may well be wrong, and could be proven so. This stands in stark contrast to the vague admixtures of Delphic lit-crit cant, political slogans, and ad hoc anecdotage typical of much recent sociocultural writing.

Unfortunately, in some anthropological circles theses that might just seem unflattering to native people must not only be disproved. Rather, their scientistic advocates must be professionally destroyed . In accord with Tierney’s highly tendentious, highly disputed version of what happened on the upper Orinoco in 1968, Turner and Sponsel write "He [Neel] insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help "1 (emphasis added). Inhuman sciences, indeed.

Efforts to address the questions that first animated anthropology, about the origin, evolution, and variety of human experience, have not vanished but only moved elsewhere. One model for this shift is the fissioning of Stanford University’s department into a department of Anthropological Science and a Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Another is the process long underway at Cornell, where such fields as Psychology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Rural Sociology, and Human Development (among others) have steadily taken up many of the preoccupations of traditional anthropology. The joke may ultimately be on militant moralists like Turner and Sponsel: as they help render anthropology into a post-scientific enterprise, their field becomes less and less relevant beyond its own rapidly contracting horizon.


Nicholas Nicastro is a doctoral student in Psychology at Cornell University. He is the producer of Science or Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology and the Law, a video documentary distributed by the University of California Center for Media and Independent Learning. His second novel, Between Two Fires , will be published in Spring 2002 by McBooks Press.



1. Turner, Terence, and Leslie Sponsel. (2000) http://www.egroups.com/message/evolutionary-psychology/7180. Downloaded 11/13/00.

2. Sahlins, M. (1995) How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 10-13.

3. Jay, Nancy. (1992) Throughout Your Generations Forever . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, xxv-xxvi.

4. Geertz, Clifford. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures . New York: Basic Books, 5, 43.

5. Cosmides, L. and J. Tooby (1992) "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," in The Adapted Mind . J. Berkow, et. al., eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 19-136.

6. Cf. Krech, Shepard III (1999) The Ecological Indian: Myth and History . New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

7. Turner, Terence. (2000) "Heart of Darkness," The Bookpress . Vol.10, No.7. 1, 11.

8. Hill, Kim (2000) http://www.psych. ucsb.edu/research/cep/eldorado/kimhill.html. Downloaded 11/13/00.

9. D’Antonio, M. (2000) "Napoleon Chagnon’s War of Discovery," Los Angeles Times Magazine . 1/30/00.

10. Katz, S.L. (2000) http://www.egroups. com/message/evolutionary-psychology/7341. Downloaded 10/9/00.

11. Alberts, B. (2000) "Setting the Record Straight Regarding Darkness in El Dorado," ttp://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nas. Downloaded 11/13/00.

12. Ruby, Jay (1995) "Out of Sync: The Cinema of Tim Asch," Visual Anthropology Review . Vol.11 No.1 Spring 1995.

13. Dawkins, R. (1995) "Reply to Lucy Sullivan," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London . B, 349, 219-24.

14. Turner, T. (1969) "Oedipus: Time and Structure in Narrative Form," in Forms of Symbolic Action (Proceedings of the 1969 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society). R.F. Spencer, ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 26-68.

15. Nicastro, N. (1998) "How Pinker’s Mind Works," The Bookpress . Vol.7, No.9, 6-7, 11.

16. Chagnon, N. (1988) "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population," Science . 239, 985-92.

17. Gross, P. and N. Leavitt (1994) Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 8.