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Internet Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2013
Source URL: https://chronicle.com/article/An-Anthropologist-Once/137273/


An Anthropologist, Once Accused of Genocide, Tells His Story at Last

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 Mr. Tierney's account 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 taking anthropology with him. Sensational charges

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 than the nonkillers. 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 and then write his dissertation, and perhaps a popular book. He didn't know they would become his life's work. But he came to believe that 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.

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. In 2005, the association rescinded a 2002 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 Tenacious Tale

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 session.

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.