Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Columbus Dispatch, FEATURES - ACCENT & ARTS, Pg. 7F, February 11, 2001
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It's Not Nice To Fool With Mother Nature

Michael Hawthorne, Dispatch Environment Reporter

Patrick Tierney's new book, Darkness in El Dorado, is more violent than a World Wrestling Federation match. It has enough sex to make Madonna blush. And it boasts a tangled web of political intrigue that rivals anything Nixon pulled in the 1970s.

All this in a book about anthropology.

At the center of Tierney's bitter critique is Napoleon Chagnon, a retired anthropologist from the University of California at Santa Barbara who wrote a best- selling book 30 years ago about a prehistoric Venezuelan tribe called the Yanomami.

Most Americans continue about their daily lives completely unaware and unscathed by the furor Tierney has created within scientific circles.

But his book is worth reading, if only to remind arrogant Anglo-Saxons that their forays into the jungle, whether to promote religion or broaden the knowledge of Western civilization, often have a perverse effect on the indigenous peoples they encounter.

During his 11 years of research in the field, Tierney concluded that Chagnon vastly overstated the thesis of his 1968 book about the Yanomami, subtitled The Fierce People.

Chagnon became a sort of cult figure among some anthropologists by arguing that the most violent men in the tribe had more female partners and more offspring, and thus became community leaders.

By winning battles and acquiring more wives, Chagnon postulated, the wife- beating, gang-raping Yanomami passed on their "superior'' genetic material and drove human evolution forward.

Tierney alleges that Chagnon deliberately falsified his studies to exaggerate the level of violence among the Yanomami.

With copious footnotes, Tierney also accuses Chagnon of provoking violence by flying in tons of coveted steel goods -- machetes, knives, guns and cooking utensils. The fighting, Tierney writes, seemed to follow where Chagnon went.

Forget the idea of a noble savage. Chagnon's studies, Tierney concludes, provided an intellectual excuse for additional exploitation of the natives by gold miners, one of whom had ties to the anthropologist.

In one scene described by Tierney, Chagnon made a dramatic entrance to a village by painting himself red, covering himself with feathers and firing off a pistol in a hallucinogenic rage, to prove he was "fiercer than the Yanomami.'' (The description brings to mind Col. Kurtz, Marlon Brando's mad character in the film Apocalypse Now.)

Tierney also alleges that film crews ushered into the jungle by Chagnon staged battles between Yanomami villages, at one point even constructing a village for a documentary.

"One of the oddest things I uncovered among the most Yanomami villages was a pattern of choreographed violence, dating back to the early, internationally acclaimed films of the Yanomami made by Chagnon and Timothy Asch, and continued to the present by Nova and the BBC,'' Tierney writes. "As one missionary who accompanied me said, 'It's amazing how many alliances were created and villages were built just to satisfy the film crews.' ''

Another serious charge is that Chagnon and his mentor, the late James V. Neel, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan, traded steel goods to the Yanomami in return for hundreds of blood samples, without telling them that the blood was requested by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The commission paid Neel to study the effects of radiation on genes and thought that blood from genetically isolated humans would provide useful comparisons.

What has caused the biggest uproar, though, is the accusation that Neel injected the tribe with an outdated, live measles vaccine, and that the inoculations contributed to the spread of a measles epidemic among the Yanomami.

Dr. Samuel L. Katz of Duke University, a developer of the Edmonston B vaccine, has said his comments in Tierney's book were misquoted and taken out of context. Supporters of Neel and Chagnon say the measles outbreak had already reached the Yanomami and that the researchers helped control it.

Those supporters are in full spin- control mode, attacking Tierney as if he were a barbarian attacking their ivory tower.

But Tierney's book, which was nominated for a National Book Award, prompted the American Anthropological Association to appoint a task force to explore the author's allegations.

The association also has dispatched its ethics committee to establish guidelines for fieldwork.

Several critics have noted that many of the allegations Tierney makes have long been the subjects of an intense debate in academic journals.

Reaction to his book reinforces my own longstanding belief that academics often aren't used to duking it out in the mainstream media, where ordinary Americans prefer debates to be conducted and explained in plain, and often unforgiving, English.

Chagnon and his supporters appear to be up to the task, though.

For instance, a Web site established at the University of Michigan to defend Chagnon and Neel says the charges are false. "The more we read, the less the affair looked like a scandal, and the more it looked like a professional vendetta that had been going on for years.''

Vendetta or not, the harsh counterattack suggests Tierney is on to something. The Venezuelan government kicked Chagnon out of the jungle in the early 1990s.

Now the past of this real-life Kurtz may be catching up with him.


* Darkness in El Dorado: How Scien-tists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon is by Patrick Tierney (Norton, $ 27.95).