Pandaemonium

FROM THE VAULTS: DARKNESS IN ANTHROPOLOGY

I am in the death-throes of finishing a book, so have little time to tend Pandaemonium. Rather than abandon it, however,  I thought I would raid the vaults, as it were, for old material that I have not published here. Given that it is book-writing that is keeping me away from blog-writing, it seemed only appropriate that I republish some old book reviews. And given thecurrent controversy over Napoleon Chagnon, both over his new book Noble Savages, and his election to the National Academy of Sciences, I thought I would dig out this review of Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Doradofirst published in the New Statesmen in 2000. Re-reading it, I would phrase some of it differently, but I think it has held up pretty well.


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There have been few scientific disciplines with a history as sordid, fractious and ideologically riven as anthropology. The academic study of the Other has more often than not reflected home-grown political and social aims, and the methods of anthropology have swung violently, and sometimes virtually overnight, as those political and social aims have changed. In the nineteenth century, anthropology developed as the handmaiden of imperialism, providing in racial science, a justification of European superiority and barbarism. ‘What signify these dark races to us?’, the biologist Robert Knox asked in 1850. ‘Destined by the nature of their race to run, like all other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.’

In the twentieth century, the consequences of racial science led anthropologists to reject naturalistic explanations and to see human behaviour as dictated largely by culture, not biology. The desire to undermine racism led, some suggested, to a new set of myths about human behaviour. Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa became one of the most famous anthropological works of the twentieth century. Mead described an idyllic society, unconstrained by the sexual neuroses that characterised America. Her message was simple: human sexual mores are shaped by culture and it is modern civilisation that has made us neurotic about sex. In the 1980s the Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman suggested that much of Mead’s data was worthless, that Mead had seen what she wanted to see, and that the Samoans had cooperated, telling her what she wanted to hear. Freeman’s critique was been the source of fierce controversy. Many anthropologists accused Freeman of twisting the facts, and of seeing what he wanted to see, as much as he claimed Mead had done. Nevertheless, Freeman’s destruction of Mead’s work was eagerly seized upon by a new generation of anthropologists who, inspired by sociobiology, sought to rehabilitate evolutionary explanations of behaviour.

The most prominent of the new generation of sociobiological anthropologists was the American Napoleon Chagnon. In 1964, as a young student, Chagnon travelled deep into the Amazon rainforest in the wild borderlands of Brazil and Venezuela to begin a lifetime of study of an almost unknown group of people – the Yanomamö. Nearly four decades of fieldwork transformed the Yanomamo into just about the most famous tribal group in the world – and Chagnon into the most celebrated anthropologist. Chagnon’s book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, published in 1968 quickly become the best-selling anthropological work of all time, selling over a million copies.

fierce people

Chagnon presented the Yanomamö as a fierce, primitive tribe whose mores opened the window onto our own past (‘our contemporary ancestors’ as Chagnon has described them). Most controversially, he linked Yanomami violence to genetic success. In a paper published in the prestigious journal Science, Chagnon reported that 30 per cent of all Yanomami males from his study group were killed in warfare, while 44 per cent had murdered someone. Most dramatically, Chagnon revealed that men who had killed had more than twice as many wives and three times as many offspring as non-killers. The idea that murderous violence enhanced Yanomami men’s reproductive success was manna for sociobiologists.

Chagnon’s paper is one of the most widely cited scientific studies of all time – and one of the most fiercely criticised. An academic war erupted in the early 90s as other Amazonian specialists questioned Chagnon’s data, his methods and his statistics. They also questioned his politics. The anthropologist Leslie Sponsel, for instance, opposed the ‘Darwinian emphasis on violence and competition’, promoting instead an ‘anthropology of peace’. He remained convinced that ‘nonviolence and peace were likely the norm throughout most of human prehistory and that intrahuman killing was probably rare.’ Many of Chagnon’s supporters, on the other hand, embraced his work precisely because it seemed to question such assumptions, suggesting instead that humans are an inherently violent and aggressive species. Chagnon himself has said that violence ‘may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture’ and that his work debunks ‘all that crap about the Noble Savage’.

Into this debate now comes Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, an incendiary device lobbed into a crowded room if ever there was one. Tierney is an American journalist who has spent the past decade investigating the impact of anthropologists, and in particular Chagnon, upon the Yanomamö. Many have compared his dissection of Chagnon’s work to Freeman’s expose of Mead. But Freeman only charged Mead with being naïve and carried away by her political enthusiasm. Tierney accuses Chagnon, among other things, of scientific fraud, sexual abuse, political corruption and, most sensationally, genocide. According to Tierney Chagnon, and his mentor the geneticist James Neel, may have deliberately infected Yanomami with measles, beginning an epidemic that wiped out hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people, as part of a grotesque experiment to test the impact of natural selection on primitive groups. Even those familiar with the depressing history of anthropology have been shocked by Patrick Tierney’s tale in Darkness in El Dorado.

darkness_in_el_dorado

Not surprisingly the book has caused a huge commotion in America, both inside and outside the academy. The anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sopel have written of Chagnon’s activities that ‘in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption unparalleled in the history of anthropology’. Tierney’s book, they claim, is ‘a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego’.

Tierney’s critics have in turn described his book as a ‘hoax’, and the campaign against Chagnon as a politically-inspired witch-hunt led by ‘Marxists’ and ‘postmodernists’. Many of the biggest names in academia – EO Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker – have rallied to his side, as has the National Academy of Sciences. The conservative National Review claimed that ‘Chagnon is the target of one of the greatest smear campaigns never waged against a scholar’.

The debate presents neither side in a flattering light. Sociobiologists have dismissed all and every criticism of Chagnon as politically motivated, ignoring genuine problems with his work. On the other hand, many of Chagnon’s critics are politically motivated. Blinded by their dislike of sociobiology, they’ve been all too willing to ride roughshod over the facts in turning the critique of Chagnon into a moral crusade.

The most important part of Tierney’s critique is also the least original and the least sensational – his dissection of Chagnon’s methodology. Drawing heavily on the work of another Yanomamö scholar, Brian Ferguson, Tierney presents a convincing case that Chagnon has consistently overestimated Yanomami violence, and that he himself was responsible for fomenting much of it. In his book Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Ferguson revealed how Chagnon had changed the political balance between different Yanomami groups by favouring some over others, and by selectively providing steel goods and weapons to certain groups. Chagnon was apparently given to bursting into villages decorated in war paint and brandishing a shotgun. Yanomami men soon realized that their own displays of aggression would be rewarded with machetes and other highly prized tools. According to Ferguson, ‘A war started between groups which had been at peace for some time on the very first day Chagnon got there, and it continued until he left’. Far from being an objective observer of Yanomami violence, Chagnon was an active participant in the wars. Yanomami men were fighting for access not to women but to Chagnon himself.

Tierney’s figures show that the violence of a Yanomami group depended upon where their particular village was sited. Highland villages, distant from contact with outsiders tended to be more peaceable. Lowland villages, especially those sited along rivers, had greater contact with outsiders – including missionaries, American army and anthropologists – and tended to be far more violent. Of the Yanomami group that Chagnon studied, violent deaths were not chronic, but peaked in two periods. One was between 1949 and 1951, when there was a US army expedition in the area. The other was between 1964 and 1966 – the dates of Chagnon’s anthropological study. ‘The question is no longer why the Yanomami are so fierce’, Tierney writes, ‘but why Chagnon’s Yanomami have homicide rates so much higher than those of other Yanomami groups.’

yanomamo1

For most readers, however, the heart of Tierney’s book will not be his critique of Chagnon’s methodology but his far more sensational claim that Chagnon participated in mass murder. The Yanomami, like many isolated populations, are vulnerable to diseases to which Westerners have acquired immunity. Over the past five centuries, millions of indigenous people throughout the Americas have died of Old World germs to which they had never been exposed, and hence had neither immune nor genetic resistance. One such disease is measles. In 1968 a measles epidemic decimated the Yanomami population. At exactly the same time, Chagnon had embarked on an expedition to the Amazon under the leadership of the geneticist James Neel. During that expedition the two men initiated a programme of inoculation against measles to protect the Yanomamö. According to Tierney, however, it was that very programme of inoculation that caused the epidemic in the first place.

Neel and Chagnon used a primitive form of measles vaccine, known as Edmonston B, which contained a live virus, was very virulent and which, in a population as vulnerable as the Yanomami, Tierney claims, inevitably led to an epidemic. Tierney quotes several people who hint darkly that an epidemic might have been exactly what Neel wanted. Moreover, once the epidemic was under way, Neel and Chagnon ‘refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami’, insisting that ‘they were there only to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help.’ This was, in Tierney’s words ‘science in the service of ethnocide’.

But why should Neel and Chagnon wish to spread measles among the Yanomami? Because, Tierney suggests, Neel was a eugenicist, and the Yanomami inoculation programme was a covert eugenics research programme. Neel chose to inoculate the Yanomami with Edmonston B ‘precisely because it was primitive, provided a model much closer to real measles than other, safer vaccines in the attempt to resolve the great genetic question of genetic adaptation.’ According to Tierney, Neel rejected the medical orthodoxy that the Yanomami were genetically susceptible to measles, believing that the Yanomamis’ survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle had given them immune systems more robust than those of us in pampered modern societies have. The epidemic would prove Neel’s theories.

If Tierney’s story is true, then it has devastating consequences for the reputation of both Neel (who died earlier this year) and Chagnon. It would have been not just an ethically questionable but a murderously criminal act. The trouble is, though, that Tierney produces very little direct evidence to back up his monstrous claims. Darkness in El Dorado relies entirely on circumstantial evidence, hearsay, much of it from dubious sources, and questionable interpretations of film of Neel and Chagnon at work.

There is little doubt that Neel was a eugenicist who believed that modern society’s problems arose ‘primarily from abandoning the population structure and the selective pressures under which humankind evolved’. Humans originally evolved in small, relatively isolated tribal groups in which men competed with one another for access to women. In such societies, Neel assumed, the best fighters would have the most wives and children, and pass on more of their genetic ‘index of innate ability’ to the next generation. This, of course, was exactly the argument Chagnon was later to make about the character of Yanomami society.

yanomamo3

Neel’s eugenic views may seem highly distasteful and reactionary. But they were common to scholars of his generation, who had been brought up in a prewar intellectual climate largely shaped by racial science. Acknowledging Neel’s belief in eugenics is no reason to assume that he would act like a Josef Mengele. Indeed, far from showing that Neel and Chagnon deliberately began the measles epidemic, the evidence suggests the very opposite. The consensus is that the measles epidemic began before Chagnon and Neel arrived in Venezuela, and that they initiated their inoculation programme precisely because they were aware of the earlier outbreak. They used Edmonston B not because of Neel’s crackpot theories but after receiving advice from the Venezuelan government. Tierney suggests that the virulence of the vaccine caused the measles outbreak. There is, however, not a single recorded case in which live attenuated vaccine has been transmitted from one person to another. According to Samuel Katz, the developer of the Edmonston vaccine, more than 18 million children have been inoculated with the vaccine worldwide; none have suffered anything worse than a fever reaction, except for three deaths – one a patient with AIDS and two with immune systems damaged by leukaemia.

In the wake of the furore about Tierney’s book, the historian Susan Lindee has checked Neel’s field notes for the 1968 expedition. Neel, she acknowledges, was ‘a Cold Warrior deluxe confident in his hierarchical rankings of races, sexes, civilisations’. But, she concludes, there is no evidence either that he began the epidemic or that he ‘attempted to discourage anyone from providing treatment’ as Tierney claims. Indeed, Lindee writes, ‘for about two weeks [Neel] spent much of his own time administering vaccines and antibiotics.’

In many ways Darkness in El Dorado raises as many questions about Tierney’s motives, and those of Chagnon’s other critics, as it does about Chagnon’s own work. It is one thing to accuse a scholar of having poor judgement, or of using misleading data. It is quite another to accuse him of mass murder. Before one even begins to think about making public such a charge, one requires considerably more than simply circumstantial evidence and supposition and insinuation based on a dislike of a scientist’s methodology and politics. It is astonishing not only that Tierney should make such monstrous claims on such flimsy evidence but also that so many leading anthropologists should back him in doing so.

chagnon

For Tierney, however, as for many of his supporters, anthropology is less a scientific discipline than a political mission. The aim of anthropologists in their view is to defend the dispossessed. Tierney has been an active participant in the political struggles in the Amazon, seeking to defend Yanomami rights against claims made by gold miners and the Brazilian government. In his eyes sociobiology is not so much a scientific method as a political programme. Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomami, he believes, has paved the way for the use of violence against them by miners and government officials. As a result, Tierney writes, ‘I gradually changed from being an observer to being an advocate’. According to Tierney, ‘Traditional, objective journalism was no longer an option for me.’

What Tierney is questioning is the very possibility of a scientific anthropology. Anthropologists cannot simply be observers, but must actively take sides in any political struggle involving the peoples they are studying. And in such a struggle the norms of scientific objectivity become subordinate to the political aims. It is an ironic argument, given Tierney’s own critique of Chagnon for his lack of objectivity, and for becoming a participant in, rather than an observer of, Yanomami affairs.

I have for many years been highly critical of many aspects of sociobiology. I find many of its methods flawed, many of its arguments naïve, many of its claims veering from the banal to the bizarre. But there can be no critique of sociobiology if we dismiss the possibility of a scientific study of humankind. Darkness in El Dorado raises important questions about anthropological methodology in general, and Chagnon’s work in particular. But it unwittingly raises even more troubling questions about the methods and motives of Chagnon’s critics.

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3 comments

  1. Hi Kenan, thank you for the links and I would agree this review stands up well. However, I find your last paragraphs somewhat curious. It’s debatable whether Tierney ever did any “traditional, objective journalism,” but in any case you shift from his questioning of objective journalism to a questioning of scientific anthropology, which is a somewhat different issue.

    You must of course have already seen Jonathan Marks The Times, it is Outragin’ on the current controversy. Marks brings up issues with a simple subject-object distinction when trying to understand human evolution. Things get even trickier in an ethnographic situation, when there are several layers of people talking to each other and reflecting on their own behavior as they are talking about it. The issues quickly become very thorny, and the problem is often not so much that of advocacy and political struggle, but of recognizing how much of the fieldwork situation means navigating situations in which the anthropologist is constantly “taking sides,” often without being fully aware. As an example from my own fieldwork, the fact that I had a recommendation from a local professor to contact several people landed me on one side of a political divide in the town. Of course I eventually talked to people on all sides, but I was branded before I began! This is not at all to say that there is no truth in ethnography (or journalism!), but we do have to be as aware as possible of these positions.

    • Jason, thanks for this. The point I would make about Tierney is that he was supported by many anthropologists who were all too willing to believe what he said about Chagnon and Neel because of their political animus rather than because of the evidence he produced. Hence the penultimate paragraph. Yes I’ve seen Jon Marks’ post (and tweeted it!). I agree that when it comes to studying humans the subject-object distinction becomes complex. And particularly so because it refers to two different kinds of tensions. The first comes out of the recognition that humans are subjects as well as objects, and so in studying humans we inevitably transform that which we are studying. The second derives from the temptations of being subjective in the sense of ignoring the facts for political, ideological or personal reasons. We necessarily have to accept subjectivity in the first sense, but be wary of subjectivity in the second sense. I am not suggesting that one cannot be an advocate and a journalist or a scientist. I am suggesting that the problem arises when we confuse those roles.

      • Hi Kenan, thank you for this, and definitely agree. One of my best graduate school mentors, Michel-Rolph Trouillot who sadly passed away in 2012, was very insistent that anthropologists try as much as possible to understand the potential political implications of their work, but also on the need to separate the political project from the academic anthropology. As I think I remember him saying: “You can’t have your job and eat it too”–your anthropology is not your political project.

        Good luck finishing up your book!

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