Before Napoleon Chagnon became known as the retired anthropologist vilified by Patrick Tierney in Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon–a sweeping attack on several scientists and reporters who worked with a tribe on the upper Amazon–Chagnon was known for being the author of the classic work on that tribe. Yanomamo: The Fierce People, published in 1968 and revised extensively since, is a memoir of jungle life that bears almost no resemblance to a contemporary piece of anthropological prose. Chagnon’s voice is bold, candid, and jargon-free. He is as sure of Western truths as he is willing to make fun of his own bumbling confusion when he first shows up in an Amazonian village. His disarming style locates him in the tradition of great English-language adventure writing; at times, he sounds like Herman Melville or Daniel Defoe. Like them, Chagnon is manly, even cocky, but also friendly and upbeat. He makes his way through dangerous terrain to live with natives he depicts as remarkably violent, yet his portrait of them is as affectionate as can be, perhaps because it’s so intimate and concrete. His scientific objective is to gather information about social structures–specifically, kinship patterns and habits of warfare–but to say that hardly does justice to the vividness of his study. The value of Chagnon’s book is to bring a leafy, pretechnical world to life in all its tension and struggle, even though he was out to make a narrower point: to show that Hobbes got it right when he decreed a state of nature to be a war of all against all.
People like Chagnon drive people like Tierney crazy. To Tierney, a human rights activist, Chagnon, with his old-fashioned swagger and theories about Indian violence, is indistinguishable from a conquistador, at least when you squint at both in the dim jungle light. Both exploited the Indians for their own advancement, and it only adds insult to injury that the scientist’s tale is told with an élan that gives his notions a greater currency than Tierney thinks they deserve. Tierney is not the first person to perceive a moral equivalence between the study of native tribes and their colonization–many anthropologists see one, too–and he may have cause to be angry about the treatment the Yanomami have received at the hands of the anthropologists, journalists, geneticists, and naturalists whose methods he criticizes. What he does with his anger, though, is a little bit scary. He barely feels the need to justify it before he lapses into a biting sarcasm. He hurls charges like Molotov cocktails–they’re crude, but they do the trick. Chagnon’s academic mentor, the late geneticist James Neel–a mass murderer! Tierney says Neel started a measles epidemic among the Indians during a visit in 1968, possibly in order to conduct a nefarious genetic experiment on an unsuspecting population. Chagnon–an accomplice to genocide! He accompanied Neel on that fateful trip (among other things).
To understand the tenor of Tierney’s book, you only need to read a few sentences of it. Here, for example, is his explanation of Chagnon’s and Neel’s motives for murder: “Like the old Marxist missionaries, these zealots of biological determinism sacrificed everything–including the lives of their subjects–to spread their gospel.” Here’s Tierney on why Chagnon would attack his critics as “Marxists” rather than agree to release some disputed data underlying his thesis about the Yanomami and their bellicosity: “[T]here was something familiar about Chagnon’s strategy of secret lists combined with accusations against ubiquitous Marxists, something that traced back to his childhood in rural Michigan, when Joe McCarthy was king. … Tailgunner Joe was still firing away–undefeated, undaunted, and blessed with a wealth of offspring, one of whom, a poor boy from Port Austin, had received a full portion of his spirit.” (Chagnon was born in Port Austin, Mich.)
If Tierney’s accusations were true, it wouldn’t matter how overwrought his finger-pointing was. We’d be duty-bound to confront a series of horrifying crimes committed by respected scientists. That’s why when news of the book first circulated on the Internet back in September–a private memo by two anthropologists summarizing its contents was e-mailed to the head of the American Anthropological Association and promptly leaked to the public–the book was treated as the most shocking revelation about abuses in human research since the secret experiments on syphilitic black men at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute first became known. The magnitude of Tierney’s supposed discoveries must explain why the book was nominated for a National Book Award. It simply isn’t possible that the judges considered Tierney’s third-rate prose to be prize-worthy.
However, Tierney’s most explosive charge–genocide–is in all likelihood not true. A reconstruction of the chronology of events strongly suggests that not only did Neel and Chagnon not start the measles epidemic as part of some Dr. Mengele-like scheme, Neel sacrificed his own relatively innocent research aims in order to run around the Amazon vaccinating everyone he could find to keep a pre-existing outbreak of measles from getting worse. (Click here to read a detailed rebuttal of the charge of genocide–among other accusations–by Neel’s former colleagues at the University of Michigan and here to read a less partisan account from Neel’s biographer.)
Tierney’s strongest piece of evidence is that Neel chose to bring to the Amazon a vaccine (Edmonston B) known to provoke a febrile response in isolated Third World communities with a low immunity to measles, when that vaccine had been discredited and abandoned by 1968. It turns out, however, that though the vaccine was old and about to be superseded by newer vaccines, it was not discredited and still in wide use at the time. There were probably milder vaccines available, but Edmonston B may have been the only strain Neel could get the drug companies to donate to him when he began rounding up medicine to take with him to the jungle. If the vaccine became a contagious form of measles and sparked the epidemic as Tierney claims it did, that would have been an incident so rare that it has never been repeated in the entire history of measles vaccines. (Click here to read an analysis of this point in Slate by John Tooby, Chagnon’s colleague at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and here to read an extended treatment of Tierney’s book by Tooby on Chagnon’s Website.)
Given how wrong Tierney has shown himself capable of being, his word should have no force. But his insinuations hang in the air. And there are quite a few, aside from the bombshells. Tierney says Neel is a eugenicist; Neel’s former colleagues deny it. Tierney says Chagnon and the late visual anthropologist Timothy Asch faked their award-winning films of life among theYanomami; Asch’s colleagues deny it. Tierney says Chagnon started wars among the Yanomani in order to prove his theories true; Chagnon’s defenders say he didn’t. (This is a partial list; Tierney’s bill of particulars is long.)
Culturebox doesn’t have the expertise required to choose sides in this debate. She would point out, though, that there’s a much more benign interpretation of Chagnon out there, based on the same facts. This is the approach taken by R. Brian Ferguson, author of Yanomami Warfare: A Political History (1995). Tierney cites this scholar often, but usually more to bolster his own ideas than to explain Ferguson’s.
Ferguson is an anthropologist of war whose work on the Yanomami consists of a reanalysis of existing data, much of it Chagnon’s. Unlike Tierney, Ferguson has no problem with Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomami are violent, but he disagrees with Chagnon as to the cause. Chagnon, who became a follower of sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in the 1970s, believes that tribal warriors express a “reproductive striving” when they raid other villages and abduct their women. But Ferguson holds that for the past hundred years or so, the tribes’ military activities have been focused on a goal much more immediate than their reproductive future: acquiring steel goods and gaining exclusive access to the missionaries, scientists, and other people who bring them into the jungle.
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which steel makes it easier for the Yanomami to hunt and tend to their gardens. “Experiments conducted by anthropologists in different parts of the world indicate that steel cutting tools are three to ten times more efficient than tools of stone,” writes Ferguson. All it would take to set the Yanomami off, he says, would be for Chagnon or any other outsider to show up with his gifts of machetes and pots and the like–and for his own safety and well-being, he had better not show up without them. Groups would promptly begin jockeying amongst themselves in order to get hold of–and deny everyone else–his goodies.
So while Ferguson would agree that Chagnon might have exacerbated or even initiated Yanomami intervillage hostilities, Ferguson does not hold Chagnon personally responsible for that. Chagnon needn’t have understood what was going on, and, Ferguson implies, he probably didn’t. Not as schooled as anthropologists are today in the art of self-consciousness, Chagnon probably thought the natives were acting on innate impulses, just as they always had, and the Yanomami would have been unlikely to tell him that they weren’t.
In other words, what Tierney sees as a willful effort to wreak havoc, Ferguson views as a tragicomic misunderstanding: An anthropologist who thought he was studying primitive society at its purest turns out to have been recording his own direct effect on it. Given Tierney’s inability to tell the difference between historical irony and individual malevolence, Culturebox suspects that many of the other villains in his book may well turn out to have been caught up in similar cross-cultural miscommunications. Efforts to reach across gaps such as the one that exists between the Yanomami and Americans have long been known to engender mix-ups that seem small in the event but have enormous consequences.
There is one of Chagnon’s research techniques, however, that seems to Culturebox to constitute a genuine scandal–not just because Chagnon used it, but because it apparently has not been a scandal until now. Tierney alludes to it as if he discovered it, but in fact it has been there for all to read in Chagnon’s book for the past 32 years. The issue is this: Chagnon’s chief aim in visiting the Yanomami was to reconstruct genealogies. He wanted to learn who was related to whom and thereby figure out the kinship lines along which Yanomami villages are organized. It turns out, however, that the Yanomami have a strong taboo against uttering the names of the dead and refused to cooperate with Chagnon’s effort to fill in their family trees.
As Chagnon tells it, he had quite a hard time maneuvering around this obstacle. After the Yanomami tricked him for about five months with fake names–for which Chagnon paid countless machetes and other objects–he finally figured out how to get what he wanted. He would play people against one another. He would go to one man and ask for the names of his rival’s dead relatives. Then he would go to the rival and reel off the names of his kin, gauging the accuracy of the first man’s information by the amount of anger it elicited in the second. The rival, by now an enemy of the first, would spew the names of that man’s dead relatives in retaliation. Round and round they’d go, Chagnon prying and his informants getting more and more upset with each other, but sparing Chagnon, the source of the their much-coveted steel.
Did this method of information extraction lead to dissension and death, as Tierney says it did? Who knows? But it is a staggeringly callous practice, and Culturebox, for one, was aghast when she read Chagnon’s proud account of it. Imagine an anthropologist attempting something similar in America or Europe–half tricking, half bribing devout but impoverished Catholics to have abortions or offering a fortune to starving Orthodox Jews to eat pork. Why trump up charges of genocide when you’ve got clear evidence of a chilling disregard for human dignity and individual belief? Culturebox can’t think of a better reason to believe that the critics of traditional anthropology are right when they say that its data has sometimes come at an unsupportable price.