This article, by the editors of The New Yorker, is a response to “Jungle Fever,” which Slate published earlier this week.
Even before Patrick Tierney’s “The Fierce Anthropologist” was published in The New Yorker, it prompted a barrage of outlandish charges and countercharges. Tierney, after all, was about to publish a book about one of the most controversial figures in modern anthropology, Napoleon Chagnon. And, as John Tooby points out, Chagnon’s work has been enlisted in highly charged disputes within the social sciences. So it’s easy to imagine a sensationalist article of the sort Tooby is responding to. But you won’t find it in the pages of The New Yorker.
Did Tierney accuse Napoleon Chagnon of “genocide”? No. Tierney did raise serious questions about the choice of vaccines that James Neel and Chagnon used on indigenous Indians. A vaccine that was much less reactive and more widely used than Edmonston B was available, and although Edmonston B was, as Tierney notes, generally thought to be safe, there were concerns about its safety among isolated or immuno-suppressed people. Did Tierney write that an “immunization program can start an epidemic”? Again, no. The article did not claim that the vaccine spread the virus; Tierney noted Neel’s statement that the vaccination was an “exercise in preventive medicine,” and nowhere has Tierney questioned the immense value of vaccination programs around the world. (As for Susan Lindee’s views on whether Neel had permission to carry out the program, click here.)
Has The New Yorker erred in characterizing Neel as a eugenicist? Here Tooby makes the common mistake (echoed in Turner and Sponsel’s memo) of simply equating eugenic thought with the politics of the far right. Neel’s eugenic concerns are spelled out, among other places, in his article “On Being Headman,” in the Winter 1980 edition of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, where he bemoans “the loss of headmanship as a feature of our culture, as well as the weakening of other vehicles of natural selection.” Eugenic concerns also run through his memoir, Physician to the Gene Pool.
More broadly, Tooby says that Tierney unfairly singles out Chagnon for “inadvertently introduc[ing] various diseases besides measles into the region just by going there.” Chagnon has, Tooby maintains, been unfairly blamed for the actions of others. There are two caricatures to avoid here. One is a vision of the Yanomamö as denizens of a wholly pure and isolated realm. The other—which Tooby urges—is of a sort of Times Square in the jungle. Tierney’s article carefully avoided either extreme. It underscored the dangers of contact with all outsiders, including “gold miners, journalists, missionaries [and] scientists,” noting that outsiders were collectively to blame for their failure to take proper precautions (such as quarantining) and so causing “cultural disruption and epidemics.” Tierney also took care to highlight how various were the ways of life and the degrees of contact among different groups of Yanomamö—for instance, those who lived near the missions and those who were still in the mountains. He pointed out that when Chagnon arrived a transition toward a greater degree of settlement was under way. He also noted how later events, such as the Brazilian gold rush, have accelerated that transition. Such a nuanced view is necessary for a serious appraisal of how Chagnon’s actions affected Yanomamö villagers.
Tierney never claimed, then, that Chagnon was the sole cause of the violence he recorded. Tierney’s research—and that of others, such as Brian Ferguson—does show that some of Chagnon’s actions had the effect of promoting conflicts that he then attributed to the ferocity of the people he was studying. (Tooby writes, irrelevantly, that other pre-state societies have higher rates of violence, but he never refutes Tierney’s argument that Chagnon’s account of warfare among the Yanomamö was exaggerated.) Tierney pointed out that missionaries gave machetes to the Yanomamö, beginning in the ‘50s, and that it was a cause of warfare. But Chagnon’s machete trade was distinctive, Tierney showed, and distinctly destabilizing. Chagnon provided machetes in exchange for the names of dead relatives, a violation of tribal taboos, and in doing so, he contributed to discord among the Yanomamö. Chagnon also gave some Yanomamö villages a large number of machetes at once in exchange for their participation in his research projects. In one case, Tierney reported, he created an alliance between two villages which resulted in a raid on a third village and a death. In another case, which Chagnon describes in his book Yanomami: The Fierce People, the act of choosing one village over another for collecting blood samples in exchange for machetes resulted in conflict. According to one tribal leader Tierney interviewed, Chagnon promised machetes to those who would take part in an alliance that Chagnon created in order to make the film The Feast.
It may speak to the balance, context, and thoughtfulness of Tierney’s article that John Tooby, in the course of a lengthy critique, finds it convenient to quote almost none of it. But what finally distinguishes Tierney’s work is the care that he has taken to listen to what Yanomamö themselves had to say about the experience of being studied by Chagnon. Drawing on his own years of travel and research in Yanomamö territory, Tierney concludes: “The villagers had combatted malnutrition, intestinal parasites, and, more recently, malaria. But what they could not comprehend—and what had shaken their world—was the sudden arrival of visitors who seemed to offer an easier life and, at the same time, sowed so much confusion. For them, Chagnon had come to personify everything that both attracted and repulsed them about our culture. They wanted him, and they didn’t want him, and they could not forget him.”