[Marxism] Napoleon Chagnon speaks out

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 13 07:26:14 MST 2013

(God, I despise Chagnon. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Anthropologist Once Accused of Genocide Tells His Story at Last

In his new autobiography, Napoleon Chagnon describes his research among 
the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon region, and what allegations about his 
work there have cost him.

By Tom Bartlett

When the 150-pound anaconda burst upward from the river, nearly seizing 
him by the head, Napoleon A. Chagnon wasn't fearful—he was furious. The 
famous anthropologist grabbed his double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun and 
pumped round after round into the snake, more shots than necessary for 
the kill, before dragging the still-twitching beast from the water and 
skinning it with his hunting knife.

Mr. Chagnon is, in other words, not easily cowed. He offers multiple 
examples of this fortitude in his new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among 
Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon & 
Schuster), including when a tiger leans over his hammock and when a 
leopard stalks him silently on a long hike. He does not run screaming 
from the jungle to the anaconda-free comforts of civilization. He toughs 
it out. It's not until Page 452 that he really shows weakness, admitting 
that he tried and failed for years to write his life story. Those early 
drafts were too depressing, he admits, and he was too emotional.

It was the second tribe mentioned in the subtitle, those barbarous 
anthropologists, that finally got to him, with an assist from a 
now-notorious journalist named Patrick Tierney. In 2000, Mr. Tierney's 
book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated 
the Amazon was published to acclaim. An adapted excerpt ran in The New 
Yorker. It was a finalist for a National Book Award.

Before the book was published, two anthropologists—Terence Turner and 
Leslie E. Sponsel—sent an e-mail to the president of the American 
Anthropological Association, raising fears about what the book would do 
to the discipline: "This nightmarish story—a real anthropological heart 
of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though 
not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)—will be seen (rightly in our view) by the 
public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline 
on trial." The e-mail leaked and was soon everywhere. Mr. Chagnon was 
going down, and he was bringing anthropology with him.
Challenging Rousseau

Among Mr. Tierney's allegations was that the late James V. Neel, who 
founded the human-genetics department at the University of Michigan at 
Ann Arbor, had experimented on the Yanomami, an indigenous people who 
live in the Amazon rain forest. The book suggested that he and Mr. 
Chagnon had started or exacerbated a measles epidemic in 1968 by giving 
the Yanomami a vaccine, called Edmonston B, that killed hundreds or 
perhaps thousands. Mr. Tierney essentially accused them of genocide. The 
book inspired exciting headlines like this one in The Guardian: 
"Scientist 'killed Amazon Indians to test race theory.'"

Lots of experts shot that idea down. In a detailed report in 2000, the 
president of the National Academy of Sciences countered that the vaccine 
(which contained attenuated live virus) had never been found to cause 
measles or to make the recipient contagious. And the vaccine had 
previously been given, without serious incident, to isolated populations 
like the Yanomami. Far from being some strange, experimental treatment, 
this was the vaccine that the World Health Organization recommended. In 
Noble Savages, Mr. Chagnon describes the race to vaccinate the Yanomami 
as measles swept through the region, and tells of an infected Brazilian 
man who probably exposed the tribe to the disease. The reactions from 
the vaccine itself, Mr. Chagnon writes, were mild.

Always in the background of the allegations against Mr. Chagnon were 
objections to his theories and his findings. His huge 1968 best seller, 
Yanomamö: The Fierce People, and films he made with Timothy Asch paint a 
portrait of a tribe where killing was commonplace—challenging Rousseau's 
notion, dear to some fellow anthropologists, of the peaceful, noble 
savage. In a 1988 article in Science, Mr. Chagnon reported that 45 
percent of adult males in the tribe had participated in at least one 
killing. Perhaps even more provocatively, he found that the killers had 
acquired, on average, more wives and had produced more offspring. There 
seemed to be an evolutionary upside to violence.

"Had I been discussing wild boars, yaks, ground squirrels, armadillos, 
or bats, nobody in the several subfields of biology would have been 
surprised with my findings," Mr. Chagnon writes.

In the book, he remembers how he first came into contact with the 
Yanomani. As a graduate student, he expected to spend a short time with 
them, write his dissertation, and perhaps a popular book. He didn't know 
they would become his life's work. But he came to believe the Yanomani 
were a "very special people" in part because they were "one of the last 
remaining large tribes that were still locked in intervillage warfare." 
Also, their contact with the outside world had been extremely limited. 
They perhaps offered an unspoiled peek into how all of us once lived.

In 'the Hands of the Triple A'

Those making the most noise about the alleged ethical breaches Mr. 
Tierney reported were also those who found Mr. Chagnon's discoveries 
distasteful. They wondered whether the anthropologist himself, by 
trading tools like axes for cooperation in his research, had turned the 
natives vicious. But Mr. Chagnon had done more than collect horrible 
anecdotes (though he had plenty of those). He had hard data—information 
that, for example, Steven Pinker uses to help make his case for 
civilization in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Mr. 
Chagnon wasn't interested in vilifying the Yanomami (indeed, he writes 
that he had "grown to love and admire" them). But he wasn't 
romanticizing them either.

Dissections of Mr. Tierney's book started appearing soon after it was 
published. John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at the University of 
California at Santa Barbara, wrote a long article in Slate that 
thoroughly picked apart Darkness at El Dorado, concluding that it was 
"demonstrably, sometimes hilariously, false."

Yet nearly a decade later, it was still enough of an issue to be the 
topic of a session at the 2009 meeting of the anthropology association. 
At that session, Alice D. Dreger, a professor of clinical medical 
humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, chastised the 
association for, in her view, credulously accepting some of Mr. 
Tierney's dubious allegations. "I can't imagine how any scholar feels 
safe at the hands of the Triple A," she said at the time. The 
association later rescinded its original report that had criticized Mr. 
Chagnon, saying he had not been given due process.

If you're in a debate, you want Alice Dreger on your side. She has no 
shortage of passion, and, more important, she's a diligent researcher, 
bordering on obsessive. She interviewed nearly all the major players, 
except for Mr. Tierney, who has granted few such requests. Her paper on 
the controversy, published in 2011, cataloged the numerous problems 
others had found with Darkness at El Dorado and disclosed more, 
including that many of Mr. Tierney's own footnotes led to sources that 
contradicted his assertions. Wrote Ms. Dreger: "I had to wonder when I 
came upon this story years after all this, given the reality as 
evidenced by so very many documentary sources, how did Tierney's 
falsehoods get as far as they did?"
'A Piece of Trash'

When questions about his book surfaced, Mr. Tierney initially explained 
that "experts I spoke to then had very different opinions than the ones 
they are expressing now." But such defenses don't explain faulty 
footnotes. Mr. Tierney didn't show up to defend his research at the 2009 

Case closed, right? Ancient history, over and done.

Except it's never over. In 2010 a documentary titled Secrets of the 
Tribe was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film 
Festival. The filmmakers interview top anthropologists, including Mr. 
Chagnon, and also venture into the rain forest to meet the Yanomami. 
It's fascinating stuff. It's also, if you know anything about the 
history of Mr. Chagnon's case, misleading and rife with omissions. Mr. 
Tierney is held up as a credible investigator, not the author of a book 
that's been debunked. Allegations that were refuted years ago are dusted 
off and presented as new. The viewer who comes to that film fresh has no 
hope of separating truth from bull.

Mr. Chagnon, who is now at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has 
called the documentary "just a piece of trash." But you sense the sigh 
in that statement, and in the last 75 pages of his book, which deal 
mostly with the fallout from Darkness at El Dorado. He writes that the 
scandal took over and colored every aspect of his professional and 
personal life, sapping his time and energy. And he's almost surely 
correct when he writes, with what must be weary resignation, that his 
new book won't be the end of this very long discussion.

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