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 I

Nicholas Nicastro

It is this kind of hostility that scientists who are aware of it find most enigmatic. There is something medieval about it, in spite of the hypermodern language in which it is nowadays couched. It seems to mock the idea that, on the whole, a civilization is capable of progressing from ignorance to insight, notwithstanding the benightedness of some of its members. We have the sense, encountering such attitudes, that irrationality is courted and proclaimed with pride. All the more shocking is the fact that the challenge comes from a quarter that views itself as fearlessly progressive–the veritable cutting edge of the cultural future.
——from Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science , by Paul Gross & Norman Leavitt

Consider two incidents of anthropological interest from last year:

• The Cornell University administration consulted with the Anthropology Department over whether it was best classified as a "social science" or as a "humanity." The alternative presented more than a terminological nicety: there are significant differences in the ways social science and humanities departments are treated at Cornell. That is to say, real resources were at stake. While there was no groundswell of support for categorizing the department along with creative writing and comparative literature, the bulk of the anthropology faculty hardly identifies with fields like sociology, psychology, and economics either. There was some suggestion that the phrase "human science" fits better (and renders all other varieties "inhuman sciences," one assumes). The final result was a compromise: the university now construes anthropology as both a humanity and a science…or perhaps neither.

• Around the same time, Terence Turner, Professor of Anthropology at Cornell, along with the University of Hawaii’s Leslie Sponsel, sent a supposedly confidential e-mail to Louise Lamphere, president of the Anthropological Association of America, and to Don Brenneis, the president-elect. In the message they express a wish "to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the [AAA]…and arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the Association." The scandal was to be prompted by the fall publication of the book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon , by Patrick Tierney. According to Turner and Sponsel, the book "presents convincing evidence," "well-documented," of a string of crimes "…in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption [that is] unparalleled in the history of Anthropology." Among other things, Tierney charges that a number of scientists, including the noted geneticist James V. Neel and the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, were responsible for eugenics-inspired biological experimentation upon the Yanomamö people of Venezuela that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands," as well as the fabrication of data and the fomenting of intervillage conflicts in cynical support of Chagnon’s "sociobiological" views of human evolution. "This nightmarish story," Turner and Sponsel continue breathlessly, "–a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)–will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial."1

The common theme in both these incidents–one prosaic, one sensational–is the relationship between anthropology and science. To be sure, the current cachet of the word "science" makes it so widely and loosely applied it is truly a matter of debate what it really means. But the state of the field pioneered in this country by Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber et al. is arguably in even deeper existential crisis. Just what has anthropology become, anyway? What is this "human science"?

The Cult of Culture

As a willing border-crosser from the doctoral program in anthropology to psychology, I offer here a perspective on these questions as they stand at Cornell. It also bears noting that Cornell’s Anthropology Department, whose scholarly heritage includes such distinguished past figures as C.F. Hockett and Turner (Victor, that is), is hardly unique. Much of what follows more or less applies to departments elsewhere.

What the Cornell administration almost belatedly found out last year is that anthropology long ago ceased to be a science. By "science," I take to mean a project of systematic inquiry that not only observes and describes, but makes comparisons, generates theories, and tests predictions. Admittedly, this state of affairs is hardly a matter of regret to many academic anthropologists. Nor should it necessarily be; there are other ways to apprehend reality than science. But it does represent a profound break with the discipline’s own history, which long integrated more or less scientific approaches to its subject.

That subject, as traditionally understood, was people. The purview was deliberately broad. The venerable but now endangered Boasian conception of the discipline is that it was composed of four subfields: linguistics, physical anthropology, archaeology, and sociocultural studies. The subfields cumulatively encompass much of what constitutes the experience of our species, both synchronically and diachronically, from language to practice, from the forms of human bodies to the patterns of human material lives. The practical consequence was to equip students to go out into "the field" and make ethnographic reports of other peoples–reports that competently treat of everything from the minutiae of a native verb system to the broad themes of kinship to the techniques of craft and beyond. This data became the material, in turn, for ethnological theorizing, including the comparison of cultures.

Some departments, such as at the University of Michigan and Arizona, reportedly still train their graduate students in the four fields approach. In most others, however, the old model of anthropology has devolved into something far more modest. There are a few reasons for this. The development and professionalization of linguistics, for one, has made it impractical for most anthropologists to acquire more than a basic knowledge of that subject. Something similar has occurred in archaeology, leading to semi-autonomous sub-departments in many cases. Perhaps most importantly, both the need and the taste for totalizing descriptions of colonial "others" no longer exists. Indeed, the ethnographic project itself is lately in diminished repute, suffering as it inevitably does from observer bias and a lingering whiff of objectivizing arrogance redolent of the field’s imperialist origins.

What counts as anthropology in many university departments now is just cultural anthropology. To put it another way, the subject of anthropology is no longer people, but culture . It would be difficult to overestimate the fundamental importance of this single concept to the modern discipline. Indeed, there are very few explicatory notions in any academic discipline that so fully seem to dominate a field as this—plate tectonics, for instance, is of momentous importance to modern geology, but we hardly can define geology as "the study of crustal plates." Nor have we (yet) to see any departments of Evolution or Deconstruction or Reception Theory instead of Biology, English or Art History, respectively. Yet anthropology has become, in effect, culturology .

The appeal of the culture concept might be better understood by considering its very first use in the modern sense. Marshall Sahlins, one of the leading lights in the field, has characterized both it and its antithesis, civilization :

...‘culture’ of the modern anthropological persuasion originated in Germany...in the late eighteenth century, but precisely in defiance of the global pretensions of Anglo-French ‘civilization’...For the German bourgeois intellectuals...bereft of power or even political unity, cultural differences became essential. Defending a national Kultur at once against the rationalism of the philosophes and a Francophile Prussian court, Herder (most notably) opposed ways of life to stages of development and a social mind to natural reason…Unlike "civilization", which is transferable between peoples...culture was what truly identified and differentiated a people...Culture came in kinds, not degrees...2

It is certainly ironic that Kultur could be so useful both to German intellectuals rationalizing their woeful lack of colonies, and to post-colonialist anthropologists desperate to disavow their field’s roots in the imperialist experience. Indeed, the political climate in anthropology being what it is today, the discrimination of societies by any sort of would-be objective metric, by any sense of "degree" not kind, carries an unmistakable taint of rationalist "civilization," and therefore of Western triumphalism. Even at the outset, then, the culture concept had (and has) a powerful political valence. Useful or not, fruitful or misleading, it is impossible to practice anthropology in the current context without it.

One reason cultural anthropology is not a science, then, is that the culture concept a la mode originated in a revolt against rationalism. Essential activities of science, for example, are comparison, abstraction, explanation. To engage in cultural comparison, though, is at best to pointlessly compare apples and oranges. To abstract cross-cultural descriptors or (egad!) descriptive principles is, as cultural anthropologist Nancy Jay wrote of the term sacrifice , "…more like doing sacrifice than understanding it…The victim has indeed been brought under a kind of analytic control, but in the process it has been killed."3 To engage in explanation or the positing of universals is to miss the essential point that culture thrives in the details, or as Clifford Geertz has argued, that it is "in the cultural particularities of people–in their oddities–that some of the most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are to be found…" The analysis of culture, Geertz has influentially written (albeit not to universal agreement), is "…not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."4 One "explains" a culture no more than one "explains" a poem or a painting. There’s always been something cultish, if not downright occult, about the prevailing notion of culture.

The rationale, if not the rationality, of modern cultural anthropology also has a vital historical impetus. Colonialism—as well as other recent instances of disastrously abused genetic and biological scientisms, such as fascist racial "anthropology"—has understandably left many within the discipline with an almost visceral reaction against all the modes of reductionist explanation. Such modes now go under the generalized pejoratives reductionism , evolutionism , structural-functionalism et. al., and are excluded from the current mainstream of "progressive" sociocultural discourse through the application of values "proper" to the study of humankind. As they affirm the importance of particularism, collaboration and mutual respect, these values also assure that the field never seems to sort, classify, interrogate, integrate, reduce—that is, never seems to explain —its cultural objects. This is because, as Derrida and Bourdieu have argued in their own ways, to explain is to presume to encompass, to posit a fictional, higher externality where the view is clearer. The implicit orthodoxy (it is never discussed, and therefore never questioned) is that humans are a blank slate written on by culture only. They have no essential nature–or, none worth thinking much about. In fact, to suggest otherwise is to flirt with racism.

But the flight from colonialist and fascist bogeys begs a number of significant questions. Is it possible to conduct scholarly inquiry that is entirely "nonmanipulative" and "non-violent," yet is also free to answer all of the questions that are constitutive of anthropology itself? Can or should we be satisfied with conclusions reached in scholarship overdetermined by a well-meaning consensus? Is it really fair to say that an anthropology that takes knowledge as its primary value will necessarily produce results that are "repressive?" Finally, doesn’t a tabula rasa view of human nature likewise lead to an ethical deadfall? Bolsheviks, for instance, firmly believed and acted upon what they regarded (to paraphrase George Orwell) as the infinite malleability of human nature.

What we appear to be left with, then, is a discipline content with celebrations of cultural difference that amounts to a form of professional stamp collecting. Discourse is dominated by tissues of bootless speculation rooted in personal anecdote, post hoc rationalization, and the secular equivalent of liberation theology. Indeed, as the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have suggested (and year after year of Cornell’s Friday colloquia attendees can attest) discourse in the modern field can seem like

some nightmarish story Borges might have written, where [social] scientists are condemned by their unexamined assumptions to study the nature of mirrors only by cataloguing and investigating everything that mirrors can reflect. It is an endless process that never makes progress, that never reaches closure, that generates endless debate between those who have seen different reflected images, and whose enduring product is voluminous descriptions of particular phenomena.5

But of course, the point isn’t "closure" at all. Instead, it is a program of circumlocution that builds up a rich loam of half-digested verbiage in which scholarship sprouts, toadstool like. The compost is salted by buzzwords and phrases ("globalization," "identity," "habitus," "big lack," "intersubjective spacetime extension") imported from economics, psychology, and au courant lit-crit, each deployed as if to swell debate but rarely to clarify it. In a particularly ubiquitous terminological mannerism, cultural phenomena are invariably "dynamic," "dialectical," "structured," or "constructed"——opposed, one assumes, to a discarded view of culture that is "unitary," "linear," or "substantive." Indeed, it is all reminiscent of the ontological musings of the pre-Socratic Greeks, who were divided between those who saw reality as monistic and unchangeable, and those who imagined everything was "flux." Such arguments, then and now, seem based not so much on descriptive utility but on highly selective attention to the evidence.

The prevailing hostility to systematic empirical approaches to understanding human behavior takes many forms. The requirements for a graduate education, for instance, include no training at all in quantitative methods, such as statistics. Considering that most modern ethnographies contain more interpretation of cultural "texts" than tables of numbers, there just doesn’t seem to be any need for future anthropologists to be capable of formulating statistical arguments. Archaeologists, alas, find it more difficult to do without quantitative information. The result is that the culturologists mostly ignore, sometimes bemusedly tolerate, archaeological discourse, unless it is steeped in the "proper" theoretical arcana of cultural anthropology.

Ironically, the current dread of quantitative approaches among cultural anthropologists amounts to a kind of unilateral disarmament in the struggle against the reductionists, the sociobiologists, the evolutionary psychologists. The latter very often adduce numerical data and mathematical models to advance their views. While numbers aren’t magic, the fact that an entire cohort of professionals is being turned out which can’t begin to evaluate a statistical argument seems oddly self-defeating. True, such self-perpetuating insularity can serve as its own defense, but that goes only so far. Against the barbarians-at-the-gate, the biological determinists, culturologists ultimately appeal to politically congenial outsiders, such as Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin. And indeed, the anthropological left seems to resort to Gould and Lewontin about as regularly as the political right trots out Colin Powell. (Gould’s Mismeasure of Man , for instance, is regularly touted by those who would happily ditch the entire enterprise of physical anthropology, yet who wouldn’t know a multivariate analysis if one came up and bit them on the habitus.)

Instead of describing, comparing, and elucidating human behavior, the main occupation of the modern cultural anthropologist now appears to be to "help" native people. Indeed, this impulse appears to provide the moralistic thrust behind the Turner/Sponsel crusade against Neel and Chagnon. This is not the place to give this notion the full examination it deserves. Certainly, many native people do need political support against unscrupulous developers, prospectors, miners, politicians, etc. Everyone can probably agree on the injunction to "do no harm." But the insistence that anthropologists must advocate for natives is, in its own way, patronizing and historically myopic. Many previous workers–such as Christian missionaries and educators–also fervently believed they were "helping" matters. Insofar as tales of lab-coated thugs deliberately spreading disease and death inspire avoidance and mistrust of medical personnel, native people are not "helped" at all. Nor is any clear

constituency served, let alone some naïve but still compelling ideal of "truth," when culturologists collaborate in constructions of innately non-violent, non-exploitative native prehistories that serve to flatter, not illuminate, the past. Brown University’s Shepard Krech has been particularly articulate about such mythmaking with respect to Native America.6

Of Ax Fights and Long Knives

The dismantling of anthropological science has broken into the open with the ongoing furor over Tierney’s book. The original Turner/Sponsel portrayal of what Neel, Chagnon et. al., wrought seems designed to render horribly literal Nancy Jay’s nightmare of the anthropological subject brought under analytic control, but in the process killed. A full review of the rap sheet was recently published in these pages by Turner himself.7 The most flagrant of many offenses leveled by Patrick Tierney are 1) that Neel, under the aegis of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and with Chagnon’s assistance, did knowingly innoculate many Yanomamö people with a virulent form of measles vaccine that ended up causing, not forestalling, an epidemic, 2) that Chagnon’s premise that the Yanomamö are innately warlike and "fierce" is a misrepresentation rooted in Chagnon’s own disruptive effect on that tribe’s society, such as handing out steel axes like party favors and pitting villages against each other; and 3) that Chagnon, with the increasingly reluctant complicity of filmmaker Tim Asch, cynically and recklessly orchestrated the action portrayed in their classic ethnographic film, The Ax Fight , among others.

This writer is not in a position to judge the veracity of all the book’s charges. The concern here is not the conduct of the journalist Tierney, but rather that of certain academics who appear to have received his story with a suspicious degree of credulity. (It should also be noted that this essay was written before the 2000 American Anthropological Association meetings, and whatever revelations its sessions might have produced, were completed.)

It is certainly convenient for the accusers that Neel (d. February, 2000) and Asch (d. 1994) are unavailable to answer them. Nor is there much doubt that Napoleon Chagnon is regarded as more of a cowboy than as a serious thinker by his academic competition. The University of New Mexico’s Kim Hill, renowned for his extensive work among the Ache of eastern Paraguay, and who has criticized Chagnon in the past, writes

The strongest complaints that I heard were about his lack of material support for the tribe despite having made an entire career (and a good deal of money) from working with them, and his lack of sensitivity concerning some cultural issues and the use of film portrayals. However, I think most of Chagnon’s shortcomings amount to little more than bad judgment and an occasional penchant for self promotion (something which seems to infuriate Yanomamö specialists who are less well known than Chagnon).8

The self-promotion and episodes of backcountry egomania attributed to him might stem from an oddly close identification with his namesake: Chagnon reportedly keeps a portrait of the little Corsican on display in his study. Like Bonaparte, Chagnon also has had a chequered history of relations with the Catholic Church. According to a January 30, 2000 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile published long before the Tierney story broke, Chagnon freely admits having antagonized Venezuela’s Salesian missionaries and mocked their proselytizing activities. Though indicted as an arms dealer by Tierney, Chagnon apparently annoyed the missionary establishment by going public with his opposition to the order’s policy of handing out shotguns to the Yanomamö, citing evidence of rising firearm-related deaths as a direct result of that policy. Notes Marvin Harris: "I’m not sure Chagnon understood the role the Church plays in that part of the world…or that he has rubbed the Salesians the

wrong way."9

Terry Turner, interestingly, makes no mention of this important aspect of Chagnon’s problems in his review. Nor does he appear to be aware of evidence that the Salesians have been witnessed "coaching" the Yanomamö to denounce Chagnon.8 While Turner quite properly insists in his review that "It is finally time to hear their story from the Yanomami themselves," it appears that some parties are working very hard to ensure the Yanomamö finger the "correct" villain.

In both his original e-mail and his review Turner credits Tierney with uncovering "convincing evidence", "well-documented." In fact, there is a thickening docket of objections to Tierney’s own methods and conclusions. The 1968 measles epidemic could not have been started by Neel & Co. because it began before they arrived. That the Edmonton B vaccine could or has caused a full-blown case of measles, even after millions of inoculations around the world, has been dismissed by numerous medical experts, including Dr. Samuel Katz, developer of the vaccine.10 The President of the National Academy of Sciences testifies that Tierney got himself confused about the relationship between the Atomic Energy Commission and Neel’s outfit, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, and that he grossly misreports the latter’s research activities on radiation.11 To the charge that he was a eugenicist, Neel’s supporters point to a career devoted to combating simpleminded genetic determinism. Kim Hill finds hypocrisy in Tierney’s indictments of Chagnon’s gift-giving and travel to remote villages (sans truly effective quarantine) when Tierney committed the very same "crimes." Anyone who has actually paid attention to The Ax Fight knows that, far from an

attempt to hoodwink the viewer that the filmed incident is a piece of unmediated reality, Asch and Chagnon memorably highlight the constructedness of cine-ethnographic "truth." After showing the film to a group of mission-based Yanomamö in 1991, Asch reported "They looked at the films attentively and said that while they thought that the films were quite accurate , it would be the ‘kiss of death’ for people to think that the Yanomamö still live today the way they appear to in the films. They suggested that I make a film about the way they live today"12 (emphasis added). Kim Hill concludes "His [Tierney’s] evidence far from being ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is instead a shoddy collection of distortions, exaggerations, misrepresentations and fabrications".8

continued in Part II