Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2001
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Academic Warfare


Anthropology has never had a particularly good reason for existing. How could an enterprise that began as a Victorian gentleman's hobby--the effort to catalog every facet of the savage mind--remain respectable in a postcolonial world? Anthropologists deal with this problem in two ways. Some of them elevate anthropology to a science, an inquiry into the universal truths of man. (The great anthropologist Franz Boas defined his field as "the biological history of mankind in all its varieties.") Others scoff at such pretensions. In their view, anthropology is an applied branch of the humanities, an intellectual apprenticeship in the delicate art of getting to know other cultures without flattening them to the contours of your own.

That these disparate approaches have managed to cohabit a single discipline for more than a century, the pendulum of fashion swinging judiciously between them, is that rare miracle, a successful marriage of convenience. Lately, though, one senses a growing interest in divorce. Over the past decade, several American anthropology departments have split up, prompted in part by biological anthropologists demanding laboratories for their research, but also by the perception that the two subdisciplines are becoming mutually incompatible. Stanford University is only the latest to find itself in possession of a department of cultural and social anthropology and a department of anthropological sciences.

And now there's the Tierney affair. Even readers who know how irritable anthropologists become about their differences must have been unprepared for the outbursts of raw fury and delight that greeted news of Patrick Tierney's recent attack on scientific anthropology, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," long before publication. Visitors to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association this winter were treated to the spectacle of tenured professors, presumably careful readers all, lining up before a microphone to denounce or defend a very long and heavily footnoted book most of them had bought only a day or two before. (Anyone who wants an introduction to the rhetoric of scholarly vituperation should spend some time on the Web site www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/index4.htm, where every intervention in the dispute, whether print or e-mail or audio, has been anthologized.)


"Despite their previous acquaintance, the Dorita-teri were not enthusiastic about seeing Chagnon and Brewer again. The village headman, Harokoiwa, greeted them with an ax. Swaying from side to side, Harokoiwa upbraided the scientists for driving away game with their helicopter. He also accused them of bringing xawara--evil vapors that, in the Yanomami conception of disease, cause epidemics. Harokoiwa angrily claimed that Chagnon had killed countless Yanomami with his cameras. In reality; many of the Yanomami who starred in The Feast died of mysterious illnesses immediately afterward--new sicknesses the Indians had attributed to the scientists' malefic filmmaking. The Yanomami abandoned the village where The Feast was made and never returned. Later they shot arrows into a palm effigy of the film's anthropologist--Napoleon Chagnon."

-- from the first chapter of 'Darkness in El Dorado'

What is the squabble about? To start with, the facts. Tierney, an investigative journalist, claims to have uncovered a horrific scandal. An anthropologist with controversial neo-Darwinist ideas about violence and how it gives some men a reproductive edge took unconscionable advantage of an indigenous Venezuelan tribe. Moreover, he and his mentor, a prominent geneticist, may have subjected the tribe to an experiment in eugenics. Is Tierney right about this? It's hard to know for sure, but he appears to have bungled his most sensational charge, which is that in 1968 the geneticist, James Neel, and the anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, willfully injected an obsolete and dangerous measles vaccine into members of the isolated and immunologically vulnerable Yanomami tribe. Tierney implied that these actions resulted in terrible suffering at best and a genocidal outbreak of measles at worst. But doctors and historians of science have refuted Tierney's hypothesis on three grounds: First, no measles vaccine has been known to cause an actual case of measles, so Neel's vaccine couldn't have been the source of the epidemic; second, a more thorough examination of the historical record shows that the vaccine needn't have seemed outmoded or dangerous to Neel at the time that he used it; and third, the epidemic appears to have broken out before the vaccination program began.

The measles episode makes up only a small portion of the book. Tierney spends the majority of his time criticizing Chagnon's other activities in the field. These include helping Neel take Yanomami blood and urine samples for genetic testing; reconstructing Yanomami genealogies despite the tribe's strict taboo against uttering the name of the dead; and indulging in acts of swashbuckling bravura that may have instigated the very violence for which he made his tribe notorious in his best-selling monograph, "Yanomami: The Fierce People." There's also a complicated scheme Chagnon is said to have hatched with an unsavory Venezuelan politician and a naturalist-turned-adventurer to convert Yanomami territory into a private research and tourism reserve.

Given Tierney's wobbliness on the vaccine issue, to say nothing of his hectoring tone, it's hard to know what to make of all this. But the factual truth isn't what anthropologists are worked up about. What's so incendiary about this book, intellectually speaking, is the way in which both of the scandals generated by it--Tierney's tale of exploitation and the disregard for truth that his critics have accused him of--serve to justify the most damning prejudices that scientific and cultural anthropologists each harbor about the other. The bad things Tierney says about Chagnon and Neel confirm cultural anthropologists' hunch that only morally obtuse people would adopt a strictly biological approach to fieldwork on humans. The neutral scientific stance, they say, so appropriate to the laboratory, becomes outside of it an exercise in ethnocentrism, a reduction of rounded character and subtle nuance to empty abstraction and meaningless data points. Some radical anthropologists even argue that when it comes to studying the poor and powerless, the very quest for objectivity is unethical, a screen behind which anthropologists conveniently duck when the politics gets complicated, thereby unwittingly colluding with the oppressor. Tierney's biggest supporter, the cultural anthropologist Terence Turner, believes this. Actually, he believes worse. He accuses Chagnon of colluding wittingly with the oppressor--the gold miners and speculators who covet Yanomami land--and doing lasting damage to the tribe.

Science-minded anthropologists are no less certain that their colleagues' defense of Tierney is indicative of the cultural anthropologists' chronic fuzzy-mindedness, as well as their unscrupulousness in waging ideological war. To Chagnon and his defenders, Tierney and Turner and their kind are conducting a smear campaign against a man who dares to speak an unpopular scientific truth--that natural selection rewards aggression. John Tooby, who is an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (where Chagnon is now a professor emeritus), a champion of evolutionary psychology and the figure leading the countercharge against Tierney, has dismissed the position of his adversaries as "intellectual isolationism." By that he means that they obstinately refuse to see that social phenomena exist on a continuum with the natural sciences and must be subjected to the same techniques.

Given the depth of the animosity and the incongruity of these opposing worldviews, I wouldn't hold my breath for reconciliation any time soon. The real shame here is that the occasion for this epic but extremely interesting quarrel is a book as unrigorous as Tierney's, since it presents an ideal opportunity to look at what really goes on in the encounter between anthropology's subjects and researchers, and to ask whether the knowledge gained, even if true, can sometimes come at too high a price. On the other hand, the anthropologists' association is about to issue the first of what promises to be many reports on Tierney's accusations, and these are sure to keep everyone going for a while. If we're lucky, somebody will have to fly down to the Amazon and dig up the facts behind his story. If we're really lucky, this time they'll get it right.