Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Washington Post, Letters Page BW12, January 21, 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25160-2001Jan21.html

Jungle Fever

Marshall Sahlins's review of Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (Book World, Dec. 10) gives a false impression. Although Sahlins acknowledges that Tierney's reporting "has come under fire," he shows no awareness of the extent of the bombardment. For example, a research team of scholars at the University of Michigan has painstakingly dissected the book. Nancy Cantor, the University provost, states "the evidence we have uncovered supports the conclusion that these claims are false. . . . The serious factual errors we have found call into question the accuracy of the entire book as well as the interpretations of its author." The National Academy of Sciences, in an unprecedented response to the book, states that although the book "gives the appearance of being well researched, in many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites." Moreover, Tierney's "misuse of source material and the factual errors and innuendos in his book do a grave disservice to . . . science itself."

In brief, the book is profoundly untrustworthy, but Sahlins is credulous. He is way out of his depth. Tierney's insinuation that Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel (the principal targets of the book) deliberately started a measles epidemic is an embarrassment to Sahlins because it is so transparently false. But this reckless charge, apparently laid to rest in the first sentence of Sahlins's review, is then resurrected with the less-than-truthful claim that Neel may have indeed conducted some kind of hideous experiment, but the matter "remains unresolved as of this writing." In fact, Tierney's allegations regarding the measles epidemic and their dissemination by his followers are the real story here. These charges, universally discredited by epidemiologists, have been taken up by the international media and endanger the already precarious trust necessary for essential vaccination campaigns in developing countries.

Almost as disturbing as the allegations are Sahlins's intemperate language and hyperbolic metaphors. He sees the narrative of Chagnon's actions "as reading like an allegory of American power and culture since Vietnam," and compares Chagnon's activities to military campaigns. He finds parallels between Chagnon's research activities and conduct in concentration camps, and he uncritically cites Tierney as comparing Chagnon's films to "snuff films." In an obscure and weasel-worded sentence, Chagnon is said to mesmerize American youth with images of drugs, violence and sex. In a passage laced with shadowy images of Nazi Germany, Sahlins depicts the "scientific doctors" at the New York Academy of Sciences as according the "highest esteem" to Chagnon's poisonous "sociobiological gases." I am appalled by the lack of proper evidence, the vitriol and the rush to judgment in Sahlins's review. I find shocking the damage done to anthropology by its own practitioners, who turn upon their discipline and their colleagues in fury and self righteousness.


Professor and Chairman
Department of Anthropology
Vanderbilt University