Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Metro (Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper) February 22-28, 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.metroactive.com/metro/cover/lq1-0108.html

The Fierce Academics: A scholars' war threatens the future of an Amazon tribe

Geoffrey Dunn


Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow.

--T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"


NO BOOK in recent memory--certainly none dealing with issues as arcane as anthropological ethics and the plight of indigenous peoples in faraway lands--has been ushered into publication with such controversy and acrimony as Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado.

Beginning as early as last summer, when a pair of prominent American anthropologists issued a dire, if not hyperbolic, email warning officials of the American Anthropological Association of "an impending scandal" with genocidal implications, Tierney's opus has fueled a sustained, often bitter debate with far-reaching implications.

The controversy elevated Darkness in El Dorado into a National Book Award nomination, placed it on several bestseller lists and forced anthropologists to confront the very essence of their discipline.

But Darkness in El Dorado, and the firestorm that has engulfed it, also raises troubling questions about investigative journalism, the incendiary nature of communicating via email, and the construction and consumption of knowledge in the age of the Internet. And it has thrust a vulnerable indigenous people--the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil--onto center stage in a worldwide drama that threatens to envelop its own particular urgencies.

Impending Scandal

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER of last year, a colleague of mine at the University of California, Santa Cruz, forwarded me, without comment, an email from Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel, professors of anthropology at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, respectively.

The email had originally been addressed to only two recipients, Louise Lamphere, then president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), and Don Brenneis, the current president of the association, who is also chair of the anthropology department at UCSC. According to Sponsel, the email was sent to four additional AAA committee heads without any intention of public dispersal--though in a matter of weeks, it had spread like wildfire across the Internet.

Turner and Sponsel's message, some 3,000 words in length, began with reference to an "impending scandal" that in its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality. . . is unparalled in the history of Anthropology." They noted that a forthcoming book by Tierney would identify the late human geneticist James Neel and former Unversity of California at Santa Barbara anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon as having "exacerabated, and probably started," a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomami.

The email then referenced allegations of sexual improprieties by various anthropologists, the dangers in science of the "uncontrolled ego, the lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence," "fascistic eugenics," "genocide," political corruption and graft:

This nightmarish story--a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)--will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial.

I was outraged by the charges. With vague recollections of Chagnon--I had read excerpts from his classic study Yanomamö: The Fierce People as an undergraduate--I found myself consumed by the immediate impulse to drive down to Santa Barbara to confront him.

A few weeks later I read an excerpt from Tierney's book in the October 9, 2000, edition of The New Yorker . Contrary to my expectations, the allegations in the article were far more tempered and cautious than those anticipated by the Turner and Sponsel email and its ad hominem reference to the Third Reich.

Rather than providing "convincing evidence" that Chagnon and Neel "exacerbated, and probably started" the 1968 measles epidemic that killed an untold number of Yanomami, The New Yorker article merely raised questions--albeit significant ones--about the role Chagnon and Neel played during the epidemic; it certainly offered no conclusive evidence of "criminality," and didn't pretend to.

I returned once again to the Internet to find that literally hundreds of thousands of words had already been posted on the controversy and that there were a number of websites dedicated to excoriating or defending Tierney--all this before the publication of his book.

In fact, as a result of the prepublication controversy and allegations, the publication of Darkness was delayed by more than a month, as Tierney continued to revise and rewrite various sections. As a result, many of the charges and countercharges directed at Tierney on the Internet had nothing to do with the actual content of his book.

It is only fair, in my opinion, to judge Darkness in El Dorado by the version that was published by Norton in mid-November--more than two months following the eruption of the controversy--and not by unpublished galleys indirectly referenced by Sponsel and Turner, both of whom, it should be noted, contributed favorable blurbs for the cover of Darkness in El Dorado and who have longtime academic conflicts with Chagnon.

Steeling Souls

ALTHOUGH SUBTITLED "How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," Darkness in El Dorado offers nothing less than a devastating assault on Chagnon's entire life's work and on a small supporting cast that includes his late mentor Neel and French anthropologist Jacques Lizot. Chagnon's footprints can be found on almost every page of Tierney's text.

Born to an impoverished working-class family of 12 children in Depression-era Michigan, the strong-willed and fist-wielding Chagnon won an academic scholarship to the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, where he had hoped to study physics. Instead, he was captivated by anthropology, and by his mid-20s, he was well on his way to completing his Ph.D. in the field.

In November of 1964 (at approximately the same time that the war in Vietnam was escalating), Chagnon, under the guidance of his mentor Neel, founder of the first human genetics department in the United States at the University of Michigan, headed off to the upper reaches of the Orinoco River in the rain forest of Venezuela. His stated intention was to study what was then "one of the most remote tribes on earth," the Yanomami Indians (also called "Yanomamö" or "Yanoama" in various dialects of the region).

Four years later, Chagnon published his doctoral dissertation, Yanomamö: The Fierce People , which eventually would become the best-selling anthropology text of all time, supplanting even Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa . Chagnon's primary thesis was that the Yanomami existed in a constant state of warfare (wayu huu ) as a result of reproductive factors--primarily, a shortage of women.

"I describe the Yanamamo as the fierce people because that is the most accurate single phrase that describes them," Chagnon asserted in his text.

Although he has dropped "the fierce people" subtitle in the current edition of Yanomamö, the characterization has stuck. A recent National Geographic article on the Yanomami referred to them as "the Fierce People" no fewer than three times on the title page alone (although the writer would later acknowledge that the entirety of his stay had been remarkably peaceful).

Chagnon's work, it should be noted, has been at the center of controversy long before the publication of El Dorado . His genetically determined views of human behavior have linked him to right-wing advocates of eugenics, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. His flamboyant, often confrontational demeanor has also created more than his fair share of adversaries, and virtually all of his longtime alliances, including those with Asch and Neel, have ended in bitterness and acrimony.

Several anthropologists, including Turner, Sponsel, Bruce Albert, R. Brian Feguson and Kenneth Good (a former student of Chagnon's), have written books challenging the accuracy of his findings, particularly in respect to Yanomami warfare and violence.

To read Chagnon is to encounter ethnocentric observations on virtually every page. From the now-classic passage of his opening encounter with the Yanomami, in which he refers to their appearance as "hideous" twice, Chagnon consistently treats the Yanomami as subjects or populations, rather than as human beings or as a people. They are a means to an end--and that end is Chagnon's.

But Tierney's work goes much further than challenging Chagnon's theories and findings, or his anthropological paradigm. He assaults Chagnon's motives and his methodology, his veracity and his ethics. In short, he undermines the foundation of everything that Chagnon has written or filmed over the past 35 years.

Through use of the Freedom of Information Act, Tierney discovered in detail that a large part of Chagnon's early research--and the ethnographic film work of Timothy Asch--was funded by a multimillion-dollar grant, administered by Neel, from the Atomic Energy Commission.

Neel's mission, Tierney points out, was to study Yanomami genetics by taking large numbers of blood samples and conducting broad genealogies of Yanomami villages. The Yanomami, because of their relative isolation and lack of exposure to genetic mutagens, were used as a "control sample" for the AEC's study of the genetic effects on radiation victims of Hiroshima.

Tierney asserts that while conducting his scientific research, Chagnon, at Neel's behest, violated basic anthropological tenets in securing blood samples and genealogies from the Yanomami--for whom providing both was profoundly taboo.

Chagnon dispensed steel goods--including machetes, axes, knives and cooking pots, all paid for by the AEC--to those Yanomami who would cooperate with him, and by so doing exacerbated differences among neighboring villages and significantly altered the conditions in which the Yanomami lived prior to his arrival. By the mid-1970s, he had secured more than 12,000 blood samples out of an estimated population of 27,000.

Chagnon himself admits in The Fierce People to "bribing children [to tell names] when adults were not around" and "capitalizing on animosities between villages" by getting enemies to inform on each other.

As Tierney conclusively argues, Yanomami conflict and intertribal warfare always seemed to come to a head when Chagnon was in the field, and he provides compelling statistics to substantiate his claims.

Olympians in a Funk

THESE CHARGES ALONE, in my mind, are enough to thoroughly discredit Chagnon's work--but they do not an international controversy make. What has elevated Darkness in El Dorado into a worldwide cause célèbre is a single chapter in Tierney's book titled "Outbreak," which chronicles a measles epidemic among the Yanomami in early 1968. Although not as irresponsibly rendered as some of his critics contend, in a very real sense it is the Achilles' heel of his book.

As a result of the wide-ranging blood tests they conducted, Chagnon and Neel realized that the Yanomami had little, if any, resistance to measles. By the mid-1960s, they concluded, the isolated population apparently had never had any exposure to the virus.

According to Neel's version of events, he and Chagnon arrived back in Yanomami territory in January of 1968 armed with 1,000 doses of Edmonston B measles vaccine to help ward off a potential medical catastrophe. Instead, by their account, they found themselves arriving in the middle of a measles epidemic--though Tierney suggests that, in fact, they may have predicated that epidemic, perhaps even intentionally.

The Edmonston B vaccine was by that time outdated--a "dinosaur" in Tierney's words--and required an accompanying shot of gamma globulin to stave off sometimes difficult side effects. In certain indigenous populations similar to the Yanomami, it was found to precipitate virulent reactions, though it was never known to have resulted in a full-blown case of measles.

Nonetheless, the government of Venezuela had just recommended against the use of Edmonston B, and contrary to recent charges by Neel's biographer, Susan Lindee, Neel did not have government permission to employ the vaccine among the Yanomami.

Using a journalistic language that is both sensational and speculative, Tierney constructs a circumstantial case that suggests the possibility that Neel may have intentionally introduced the Edmonston B among the Yanomami as part of a Machiavellian scheme to prove some of his controversial genetic theories. It is, in essence, a charge of genocide--yet Tierney provides no concrete evidence to support these criminal allegations.

Virtually every scientific expert who has responded to the measles controversy has sided against Tierney in his account. There is simply no evidence that Edmonston B ever initiated a case of measles, nor is there any concrete evidence that Neel and Chagnon were there to spread the disease; in fact, it is far more likely that they were there to prevent it. Furthermore, Dr. Mark Papania, head of the U.S. measles vaccination program, has charged that Tierney misquoted him and took other statements of his out of context.

What is not contested--the problematic nature of the Edmonston B vaccine; the fact that Neel did not have permission from the Venezuelan government; the fact that recordings of Neel and Chagnon reveal their own uncertainties about their efforts; and, perhaps most importantly, that the Yanomami had not provided "informed consent" for either the vaccine or blood studies--constitute serious enough charges about the nature of Chagnon and Neel's efforts in and of themselves.

By stretching his accusations beyond what he could prove conclusively, Tierney has made himself vulnerable to those who would seek to discredit the entirety of his work. While the fact-checkers at The New Yorker were obviously zealous in their efforts to confirm Tierney's charges--and allowed only those they could to be printed--those at Norton were clearly less fastidious. Little mistakes throughout the text have become lightening rods for his critics. I cringed, for instance, when I read Tierney's reference to the mountains of California as the "Sierra Madre."

What a shame. Tierney spent more than a decade following in the footsteps of Chagnon--a journalistic Willard in search of a modern-day Kurtz--and he did something that one can assume Chagnon and his colleagues would have never anticipated: He went to the Yanomami themselves to get their version of the anthropologists' activities. At almost every turn, he encountered startling revelations.

In one instance, he was told how Chagnon and documentary filmmaker Timothy Asch literally constructed a faux village for the staging of one of their films. Tierney also depicts how Chagnon commandeered helicopters into Yanomami territory only to have them destroy the villages (shabonos ) at which they attempted to land.

Tierney's accounts of Chagnon's more recent activities are more convincing, largely because there is corroborating evidence from other sources. Tierney chronicles how Chagnon joined forces with his longtime crony Charles Brewer Carias, a shady gold miner cum naturalist, and Cecilia Matos, the mistress of then-Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez, in an attempt to take over a Yanomami reserve, which would have given them complete control to exploit the region's natural resources and its people. Fortunately, that particular scam failed.

Between 1976 and 1985, Chagnon was prevented from returning to Yanomami territories, and again in 1993, after massive protests by human rights groups and Yanomami leaders against him and Brewer Carias in Venezuela, he was escorted to Caracas by an army colonel and advised to leave the country. He remains persona non grata to this day.

But Chagnon was not alone in wreaking havoc on the Yanomami. What is certainly the most lurid and, aside from the measles epidemic, perhaps the most troubling thread in Tierney's book is his account of the French anthropologist Jaques Lizot, who had been a student of Claude Levi-Strauss at the University of Paris.

According to Tierney and others who encountered Lizot in the field, Lizot bribed Yanomami teenaged boys with tools and jewelry to engage in mutual masturbation with himself and each other. The culture of sexuality in the village studied by Lizot, who was nicknamed "Ass Handler" by the Yanomami, had been entirely warped by his presence.

According to Tierney, Lizot's exploits went on for more than two decades. And, of course, what Lizot found in his anthropological studies was that the Yanomami were a publicly sexual people and that teenage boys were prone to homosexual activities.

"I didn't like going to Tayari-teri [Lizot's village] ..." reports anthropologist Kenneth Good. "Lizot had turned Tayari-teri into Sodom and Gomorra with mutual masturbation, and anal sex, and a system of paying for those favors with trade goods--and all of this among a people, who, as far as I know, never practiced homosexuality until Lizot. . . . Where Lizot describes this kind of sexual behavior, he's describing what he created." In some Yanomami villages, the word for sodomy became Lizot-mou --"to do like Lizot."

What's equally troubling is that Good and his colleagues did nothing to stop this indefensible behavior.

"Anthropologists have left an indelible imprint upon the Yanomami," Tierney concludes.

In fact, the word anthro has entered the Indians' vocabulary, and it is not a term of endearment. For the Indians, anthro has come to signify something like the opposite of its original Greek meaning, "man." The Yanomami consider an anthro to be a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities--an Olympian in a funk.

The anthros in this drama have not sat idly by on the sidelines. Academics at both the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor have both set up websites defending their respective colleagues (see sidebar). Chagnon, who has left Santa Barbara for a retreat in upper Michigan, posts periodic responses to the Tierney book on the Santa Barbara website and is reputed to be writing an account in his defense titled Noble Savages. Lizot, too, has vigorously defended himself against Tierney's charges.

Apocalypse Now

LOST, UNFORTUNATELY, amid all the academic hyperbole and intellectual posturing surrounding the publication of Darkness in El Dorado is the plight of the Yanomami themselves. What's clearly at stake in the center of the present controversy is not the fate of indigenous peoples but bruised egos and academic reputations.

This is partly a situation of Tierney's own making, even though he identifies himself as a human rights activist and is clearly concerned about Yanomami destiny. Had the focus of his book been on their plight, rather than on a seemingly Oedipal fixation with Chagnon, the content and tenor of the debate presently raging would be quite different.

This is not to say, or imply, that the wrongdoings of Chagnon, Lizot and others are in any way trivial or insignificant. They are not. Moreover, Tierney convincingly argues that Chagnon's projection of the Yanomami as "the Fierce People" has contributed to their demise and made them politically vulnerable to outside attacks and to the devastation of their land.

The Yanomami, themselves, are beginning to sense their own apocalypse. In a powerful collection of photographs by human rights activist Claudia Andujar, recently published in Brazil, Davi Kapenawa Yanomami made the following observation about his people:

Our land, our forest will only die off if the white man destroys it. Then the streams will vanish, the earth will become parched, the trees will dry up, and the rocks of the mountains will split with the heat. ... The land-forest will become dry and empty. The shamans will no longer be able to deter the smoke-epidemics and the evil beings who make us fall sick. Thus, all will die.

Such has been the fate of most indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere since the arrival of Europeans 500 years ago. As an Associated Press report on the Yanomami that appeared earlier this month noted, more than 4,000 gold miners have invaded Yanomami territory in Brazil alone, and with them have come malaria, river blindness and other diseases that have killed thousands of Yanomami, particularly tribal elders, leaving behind an "aimless" youth and a "bewildered civilization."

That the anthros have contributed to the plight of the Yanomami has been well proven by Tierney, his significant errors notwithstanding--but today they clearly face enemies that are far more numerous and more vicious than academics with notebooks, machetes or vaccines.

One would hope that the anthropologists who have made careers studying the Yanomami would stand up to demand that their subjects no longer be the fodder of Western science and that they be allowed to determine their own destiny and on their own terms. One would also hope that they would do so with the same tenacity and ferocity with which they have debated Tierney's book. Until that time, there will be darkness in El Dorado, indeed.

Geoffrey Dunn is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. He currently serves as a lecturer in Community Studies at UCSC and as executive director of Community Television of Santa Cruz County.