Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Athens Newspapers Inc., November 4, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/110500/boo_1105000025.shtml

Johnson: NBA, round two: dumb and dumber

Dennis Loy Johnson

Two weeks ago in this column, when I called the National Book Awards a ''shameful farce,'' I focused on the reprehensible ageism of the fiction judges, and the fact that this year's nominees included books that haven't even been published yet. I mentioned one in particular: ''Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon,'' by Patrick Tierney.

''How is it that books that don't even exist yet, such as 'El Dorado,' get nominated?'' I whined. ''Shouldn't they at least have to spend some time in the marketplace of ideas, to see if they merit the attention of anyone other than the judges?''

Actually, there were two unpublished books nominated for NBAs this year. But the other, ''W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Generation,'' by David Levering Lewis, was Vol. 2 in a series in which Vol. 1 had won a Pulitzer. Its nomination was still unethical, but it made more sense than nominating ''El Dorado,'' which was by an unknown.

More importantly, ''El Dorado'' leveled some sensational charges at two of the world's most esteemed anthropologists -- including that one had committed genocide, no less. Shouldn't this, of all books, have been given ''time in the marketplace of ideas''?

It seemed clear to me, then as now, that the nomination was the result of undue influence by the New Yorker magazine, which had run heavily-promoted excerpts of the book.

Meanwhile, the book's publisher, Norton, still hasn't announced a firm publication date.

Perhaps that's because Norton is now wondering if ''El Dorado'' deserves publication, let alone an award: controversy has erupted over the book's claims, with various leading experts in the field decrying it for having so many errors and mistakes that one prominent anthropologist says he thinks it's a ''hoax.''

''When cited against its own sources, the book is demonstrably, sometimes hilariously, false on scores of points that are central to its most sensational allegations,'' anthropologist John Tooby writes in a Slate.com article defending Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel, the two anthropologists profiled in the book. Both were famous for studying the Yanomamo, an indigenous people of the Amazon jungle.

Tooby's article presents a dizzying number of inaccuracies, including many ''facts'' that were misrepresentations of books listed in the bibliography -- indicating that author Tierney may not have read his own source material.

Meanwhile, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control says he was misrepresented in the book, and has, along with others, discredited one of Tierney's main contentions -- that a vaccine Neel administered to the Yanomamo led to a measles outbreak that killed thousands. Tierney contended Neel was conducting a heinous medical experiment; the CDC scientist says that's impossible with the vaccine in question, which has been administered hundreds of millions of times without incident.

Neel is dead, and so unable to defend himself, and Chagnon has so far declined to participate in a ''feeding frenzy in which I am the bait.'' But as UPI has reported, Tierney's case is ''crumbling by the hour.''

Meanwhile, this book has been nominated for one of our most prestigious literary awards.

You'd think the National Book Foundation, the NBA sponsor, would have learned its lesson last year, when it allowed Tom Wolfe's not-yet-published novel ''A Man in Full'' to be nominated for the fiction prize. Wolfe's publisher, FSG, provided early manuscripts to the judges months before its publication date. At the same time, FSG embargoed the book from critics, who usually get pre-publication ''reviewer's copies'' so they can write about the book in timely fashion. Thus, the NBF conspired with FSG to keep information from consumers in hopes they'd buy the book before the word got out that it wasn't very good.

It was unseemly, unethical, and, as it turned out, really dumb: the book was a turkey and it tanked, big time, making all concerned look bad.

So why did the NBF do it again? It's only one of the mysteries prompted by the National Book Awards. Others include, ''How is denying nominations to writers because they're old any different from denying nominations to writers because they're black, or female?''

And ''Why is the New Yorker magazine given such clout when they're obviously a bunch of cynical chowderheads?''

Also, ''Why is no one else writing about this?''

If you'd like to write to the National Book Foundation, or any of the judges I listed in my column two weeks ago, write to me and I'll pass along contact info.

You can reach syndicated columnist Dennis Loy Johnson at MobyLives@aol.com. Be sure to say where you're writing from.