Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Psychology Today, Mar/Apr 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.psychologytoday.com/htdocs/prod/PTOArticle/PTO-20010301-000048.ASP

Darkness In El Dorado (Book Review)

Patrick Tierney (Norton, 2000)

By Weiss, Brian; Chance, Paul

Summary: Reviews the book 'Darkness in El Dorado,' by Patrick Tierney.

Darkness in El Dorado chronicles the devastation and death of perhaps thousands of Venezuelan Yanomami Indians, two careers, and any pretense of scientific objectivity. It is the story of the other side of science--the egos and enmities that often run beneath the still waters that are the public face of how science works.

The tale begins in the late 1960s, when Napoleon Chagnon, then a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote many scientific papers about a small, isolated group of Amazonian Indians. Chagnon dubbed the Yanomami "The Fierce People," and wrote a popular book of the same name that came to be standard fare in introductory anthropology classes. It was Chagnon's contention that the Yanomami world revolved around warfare, the purpose of which was to gain access to women. He argued that the Yanomami woo by war: Those men who kill the most, get the most women--and the opportunity to make a disproportionate contribution to the gene pool.

Though this view was disputed by other scholars from the outset, their voices had little chance to prevail against a provocative concept backed by a huge budget, a dramatic film, a popular text and a pugnacious proponent. The Yanomami even took drugs, making them the ultimate icons for that era.

Tierney joins the early critics in raising grave doubts about Chagnon's depiction of the Yanomami. He contends, for example, that the Yanomami are no more murderous than other preindustrial peoples. But Tierney's suggestion of researcher bias is the least of his accusations: A French researcher sets up a homosexual haven for himself in one Yanomami village, and bribes the local residents to perform sexual favors in exchange for modern tools; Chagnon helicopters in to remote areas with no quarantine precautions; the mistress of a Venezuelan president and a notorious adventurer and gold miner team with the researchers to create a private biosphere over which they would rule; warfare erupts with each new incursion of outsiders.

Arguably the most explosive charge is that Chagnon and renowned geneticist James V. Neel either deliberately--or through benign neglect--administered a form of measles vaccine that was inappropriate for an immunologically naive population and, in doing so, were substantially responsible for a 1968 measles epidemic that savaged the Yanomami. Neel is depicted as being on a single-minded quest to prove there is a gene for what might loosely be dubbed "male leadership." The measles epidemic in this isolated population was to be the ultimate data gathering opportunity. Chagnon is painted as Ned's handmaiden in attempting to prove this dubious bit of neoeugenic theory. Ironically, this charge is among the least important in terms of the devastation wreaked by social scientists on the Yanomami.

Anyone reading Darkness in El Dorado must come away asking, "Is this any way to do research?" The book raises disturbing questions about how social science research is--or should be--conducted, and the obligations of researchers who work with the few remaining isolated populations.

Darkness in El Dorado is not an easy read: Its many side paths make it like walking into an Amazonian swamp; Yanomami personal and place names are long and (to English-speaking minds) difficult; the information Tierney presents is voluminous and sometimes tedious. The tale is not neatly told. Yet it is difficult not to continue reading, and impossible not to shudder, at the indignities inflicted on the hapless Yanomami. They never asked for any of what they got. In the end, the reader can't help but wonder who the fierce people truly are.

Edited By Paul Chance, PH.D.

Brian Weiss is an anthropologist-turned-writer, head of Wordsworth, and a former editor of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.