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Page Overview :

Is the Darkness in El Dorado scandal a hoax? The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that it is. See for yourself by reading what is on this page, and following the links. Check back periodically, because this list will soon be expanded considerably, and thereafter will be periodically updated, with new evidence posted as soon as it is discovered and written up.

For an orientation, start here .

What scandal?

Patrick Tierney has written a book called Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon to be published by W.W. Norton on November 16th. There are a series of serious allegations made in this book, in its excerpts in The New Yorker , in a widely circulated email by two anthropologists, Terence Turner and Lee Sponsel, and in the media coverage of this controversy.

This web page is intended to :

(1) cover this controversy in an ongoing way;

(2) provide links to various original documents and news articles relevant to this controversy; and,

(3) to provide point by point evaluations of the truth of the various allegations made by Tierney, Turner, and Sponsel, as well as it can be determined from the scientific literature, the galleys of Tierney's book, and other sources. Original citations will be given, so that interested parties can check out all claims for themselves.

We expect this page to be updated frequently, as new information becomes available.

Two overviews of the controversy can be found as follows:

On Monday, October 23, 2000, Slate will publish an article by John Tooby on the Tierney book, introducing the controversy, and discussing how even a brief examination of the sources Tierney cites shows that the book is best regarded as a hoax.

On Wednesday, October 25, 2000, this site will post a longer essay here describing the development of the controversy in more detail, and exploring how intense intellectual conflicts inside anthropology, and a consequent lack of respect for facts, is costing lives in the underdeveloped areas around the world. Portions of this will appear in Anthropology News next month.

These two articles were written to be accessible to journalists and nonspecialists, as well as to those better versed in the topics covered. Other entries on this page will also explore the allegations in greater depth, or will provide links to others' in depth evaluations. See Guide below .

This page is being maintained by John Tooby (hereafter "I" or "me") and several younger colleagues and students who are not being named to prevent professional retaliation. These younger colleagues have provided generously and unselfishly of their time and effort, and this page and my essays would not exist without their work.

What is the origin of this page?

I am presently president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society , a professional organization of scholars to which Napoleon Chagnon belongs. As such, I was obligated to make an investigation of the very serious allegations that have been made, just as the American Anthropological Association will be doing. I have been investigating these charges now for over a month. This page had its origins in that investigation, and serves to report what I and others have found so far.

What is the point of view represented by this page?

We are interested in finding out what it is true. For this reason, it is important for each allegation to be treated separately, and evaluated on its own merits.

Moreover, when I first read the accusations, I reasoned that there must be some kernal of truth to them after the hyperbolic language was stripped away. Why would someone go to all this work, risking exposure, if there was nothing to it? The publisher, Norton, is very well-respected among academics, and The New Yorker was famous for its fact-checking. It couldn't, I thought, be made up out of whole cloth.

However, it is possible to characterize what we have discovered over the past month, and to show, with evidence, why we have come to certain conclusions:

Within hours of beginning to investigate, it became clear that Tierney had engaged in major falsification of his sources. This misrepresentations are so severe, and so pervasive, that the book appears to be deliberately fraudulent. Whenever I or my colleagues looked up Tierney's own citations for a major claim, the citations would contradict Tierney, not support him. The book's own references impeach the book; the book's various chapters impeach each other; and overwhelmingly well-established facts, easily found in easily accessed sources in the scholarly literature further contradict Tierney's accounts on every point of substance.

This pattern has sustained itself for every claim material to Tierney's argument I have looked into. Not a single allegation that I have investigated so far has turned out to be true, except for some already well-established claims made about the anthropologist Jacques Lizot, which Lizot himself has admitted.

The Slate essay and the companion essay mentioned above provide a short introduction to some of Tierney's misrepresentations and outright deceptions. A far longer list of errors, inversions, and falsifications is being compiled from our work and the work of other contributors, and will be posted on an ongoing basis as it can be drafted. If we find that Tierney is correct on some allegation, we will report that as well.

Is someone asleep at the switch?

It says something remarkable that this hoax could have been so successful, and the book have gotten so far in the publishing world when most of its major claims can be shown to be false by simply consulting the sources that Tierney himself cites as supporting his claims.

Guide to important links :

The scandal erupted when Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel, two long-standing academic adversaries of Napoleon Chagnon, sent an ethics complaint to both the present and incoming president of the American Anthropological Association, and others, that rapidly spread across the internet. Their letter can be found here .

The letter provided their distillation of a series of sensational "revelations" made by an author, Patrick Tierney, in his forthcoming book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon . If Norton actually publishes the book, you can purchase it here .

"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology" wrote Turner and Sponsel. "It should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western World..." The indictment listed a series of crimes -- "beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)" -- including genocide committed by U.S. scientists against the Yanomamö (also variously called Yanomami , and Yanomama ). The Yanomamö are an indigenous (and suffering) people of estimated to number somewhere between 20,000 and 28,000 (the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it at 10,000!), scattered through seventy thousand square miles of rainforest in Venezuela and Brazil. If you are interested in helping indigenous peoples, click here .

The Turner-Sponsel email inevitably led to a spate of sensational media coverage. The first newspaper to carry the story was the Guardian , which ran it under the headline Scientist 'killed Amazon indians to test race theory' .

For more recent news coverage, see UPI's news analysis here (As it says, the accusations against Neel and Chagnon "are crumbling by the hour").

Substance of accusations : The accusations were directed primarily against James Neel, a physician and founder of modern human genetics (now dead), Tim Asch, a famous ethnographic filmmaker (also dead), Napoleon Chagnon, the world's most famous living social anthropologist, and Neel's medical team.

Neel, in the indictment, was described as an adherent of "fascistic eugenics" who believed that "mass societies of modern democratic states" were a eugenic mistake, and that "society should be reorganized into small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge into dominance, eliminating or subordinating the male losers in the competition for leadership and women, and amassing harems of brood females."

According to Tierney, Neel and his researchers were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct Nuremberg-violating medical experiments on the Yanomamö. The most serious allegation was that the researchers had killed hundreds or thousands as an experiment through knowingly administering a "virulent vaccine," Edmonston B measles vaccine, that supposedly released contagious measles virus into the previously unexposed Yanomamö population. As Turner and Sponsel comment, "Tierney's well-documented account, in its entirety, strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all probability deliberately caused as an experiment designed to produce scientific support for Neel's eugenic theory."

Napoleon Chagnon - described by Tierney as a "disciple" of Neel's eugenics theories - was implicated in this crime, and of having introduced warfare and numerous diseases into the Yanomamö, of staging events for his films, of fabricating evidence, and generally twisting his scholarly portrayal of the Yanomamo to make them conform to "Neel's ideal alpha-male-dominated groups."

Tim Asch, a highly respected ethnographic film-makers, was accused of being complicit in the medical genocide, of staging events to be filmed, and similar acts.

Here are links by various scholars - most of whom have no intellectual connection to Chagnon or Neel - that respond to these accusations:

Click here for the official statement from the University of Michigan Medical School , giving the preliminary results of their investigation, dealing with Tierney's errors on measles vaccines and other points. Claims they address include "Improper use of a vaccine initiated and exacerbated a measles epidemic that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands....Refusal of medical care so that Dr. Neel could observe an epidemic....Secret radiation experiments were conducted...Neel held extreme eugenic theories" .

Click here for statements by Dr. Samuel L. Katz, a co-developer of the Edmonston B vaccine, on studies of the vaccine's safety, including in comparable tropical populations.

Among other things, Katz says:

a memo (undated) from Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel to Louise Lamphere and Don Brenneis. Their comments regarding Neel's use of measles vaccine are totally incorrect. Edmonston B vaccine which Neel administered at a time when an epidemic of measles was already underway (Amer J Epidemiology, 1970, 91:418-429, Neel et al) was a scientifically established and proven method of attempting to interrupt an outbreak. Nearly 19 million infants and children between 1963 and 1975 in the US and internationally received this licensed (by FDA) vaccine with or without immune globulin. Vaccine virus has never been transmitted to susceptible contacts and cannot cause measles even in intimate contacts. Drs. Turner's and Sponsel's memo indulges in hyperbole as well as errors ("virulent vaccine", "counterindicated by medical experts", "greatly exacerbated and probably started the epidemic of measles", etc.). Who are the unnamed "medical experts" they cite?

Once again, I cannot comment on Neel's style, goals or objectives, but the use of Edmonston B vaccine in an attempt to halt an epidemic was a justifiable, proven and valid approach. In no way could it initiate or exacerbate an epidemic.

We and other investigators had studied previously the responses to Edmonston B vaccine in children in developed nations as well as those in developing lands (Haute Volta--now Burkina Faso, Nigeria, among others) in infants and children with malnutrition, protein depletion, malaria and other underlying problems. Several results were consistently observed: the children responded with excellent antibody levels (often greater than their more fortunate contemporaries in developed nations), although they had febrile responses they remained well and active, there was never any transmission of vaccine virus to susceptible contacts who were controls receiving placebos. Despite every attempt to demonstrate communicability of the vaccine virus, it has never occurred in any populations of the many studied.

Click here for an account by Susan Lindee, a sociologist, historian of science, and contributor to journals such as Social Text , on the lack of factual corroboration between what she found from reading Neel's fieldnotes and the accusations made against Neel.

Lindee remarks on a puzzling element - that in donating his papers, Neel made and kept a xeroxed set of his field notes for the year in question, marked "insurance." This is explained by a letter Chagnon sent Neel when he learned of the nature of Tierney's accusations. Click here to read Chagnon's letter to Neel. This link also includes Chagnon's recent letter to Time Magazine , in response to their queries.

Tierney claims that the Brazilian source of measles that Neel and his colleagues identified could not have been sick with measles, and that the only source was therefore the vaccine itself. To do so, he strongly misrepresents the geography of the region, among many other things. For a discussion of this, with map, and relevant extracts from Chagnon's field notes on other sources of the measles epidemic, click here

All told, the evidence against Tierney's genocide thesis is now so overwhelming that even Turner, its once-enthusiastic supporter, has backed off. He now concedes in a new letter that the medical expert he finally got around to consulting took Tierney's medical claims and "refuted them point by point."

Tierney claims that the footage to the film The Ax Fight was staged by Chagnon and Asch to exaggerate Yanomamo violence. Peter Biella is an ethnographic film-maker who has worked with Tim Asch (who died several years ago). In making a CD ROM version of the Ax Fight , Biella has studied it and documents concerning its history for several years, including tapes made of conversations of the film-makers as they tried to figure out the events they had filmed. Click here to read his assessment of this claim based on these documents, the transcripts, the history of the film, and internal evidence from the film itself. Moreover, as he comments,

The film...bends over backwards to qualify and reject stereotypic impressions of irrepressible Yanomamo violence. The film is about ways that violence is muted, restrained, and non-fatal. Essentially it argues that without police, Yanomamo manage to make their system of dispute settlement work pretty well, with nobody in this case getting very hurt. Why would the filmmakers go to the trouble of starting a fight in order to prove the existence of outrageous, uncontrolled Yanomamo violence if their purpose were to argue that the fight is restrained and relatively peaceable?

Over the next few weeks, this page will make the following points, often using the very sources that Tierney claims to base his "findings" on.

Neel was a lifelong opponent of eugenics, not a eugenicist. Tierney misrepresents ordinary genetics as eugenics.

Neel's team and vaccine was not the source of the measles epidemic, and Tierney conceals key evidence concerning likely sources.

The administration of vaccine was a humane act designed to prevent measles, not cause it. Tierney's sources show that the vaccine was known to be safe and effective, but Tierney dramatically misrepresents his sources.

Chagnon could not plausibly have been the source of Yanomamo violence, since Yanomamo violence occurred prior to Chagnon's arrival in the field, and in other areas from where Chagnon was working.

Tierney works hard to cover up actual sources of Yanomamo violence.

Chagnon did not invent or exaggerate Yanomamo violence. Chagnon's claims are validated by a large number of independent sources, well-known to Tierney. Tierney misrepresents them as contradicting Chagnon's descriptions, when they support them.

Chagnon's reports of rates of violence among the Yanomamo show them to be consistent with the vast majority of other reports.

Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomamo as fierce is unlikely to have caused them net harm.

And many, many others.


Tierney misrepresents Chagnon's views on Yanomamo violence. Tierney misrepresents what the evidentiary record shows about Yanomamo violence.

The following is a brief sketch. It will be elaborated over the next week or so.

Let's start with the two points on which Tierney hangs the logic of his entire Chagnon narrative. While Tierney repeatedly claims that Chagnon exaggerates Yanomamo violence, Chagnon actually writes "their mortality rate due to violence is much lower than that reported for other tribal groups." Tierney's Chagnon believes, as "Neel's disciple" that humans are innately violent. Back in reality the actual Chagnon wonders about the relative rate that "people, throughout history, have based their political relationships with other groups on predatory versus religious or altruistic strategies," tamely concluding that "We have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy" as a function of what our culture rewards. This is remarkably similar to what sociocultural anthropologists who oppose Darwinian approaches to culture maintain - that people are violent when their culture rewards it, and are not violent when it does not. (To be fair, other of Chagnon's opponents have caricatured his views as well, and the straw-Chagnon is far better known than the real one. It is a useful foil.)

These two Chagnon quotations are from his best-selling ethnography, Yanomamo. 5th Edition (New York. pp. 205-6), under the heading "general comments on Yanomamo violence" to prevent anyone but investigative reporters like Tierney from having trouble finding his thoughts on the matter.

For those who only read titles, Chagnon's Yanomamo: The Fierce People appears to give Chagnon's views on the matter conclusively. Those who are willing to read more than the first three words of a book discovered that Yanomamo refer to themselves as waitiri, "fierce" or "valiant." Chagnon translated their way of describing themselves into English, something that is usually considered respectful. (Indeed, people from many human societies - including many native American cultures - appreciate being described in this way.) Chagnon dropped the subtitle when it became clear that it was causing confusion. As anthropologists recognize, how the Yanomamo might describe themselves is a separate issue from how an outsider might view them; Chagnon says that "the Yanomamo are not brave warriors" (p. 13 of his dissertation).

Tierney presents Chagnon's own views on the moderate nature of Yanomamo violence as if they were refutations of Chagnon's views - rather than refutations of the Tierney's caricatures of Chagnon's views.

In any case, qualitative descriptions can lead to endless and pointless disputes that arise not from the facts of the case, but from the rich, various, and imprecise ways different individuals use language on different occasions. In contrast, Chagnon puts a great deal of emphasis on quantitative information.

By this measure, and in comparison to other small-scale non-state societies, Chagnon's data on the Yanomamo place them in the middle of the distribution, not at the most violent end. This is true both for rates of intergroup conflict and for per capita rates of death by violence. In Lawrence Keeley's War before civilization , for example, Keeley lists the Yanomamo as 17th out of 31 societies in deaths from warfare per year (p. 195), using data from various original sources.

For Tierney's account to be correct, Chagnon would have had to find the one pre-state society that was non-violent, and then decide that fame and fortune lay in misrepresenting them as being just like everyone else. Tierney seems not to recognize that Chagnon's research is valued not because he discovered something unique and unprecedented, but because of the care with which he gathered data on a situation which is important precisely because it looks rather typical of small-scale societies.

The fabrications are Tierney's, and not Chagnon's.

Here is a standard example of how Tierney treats sources: Tierney cites a study by Elsa Redmond that he claims contradicts Chagnon's finding among the Yanomamo that the effective use of violence contributes to social status, wife acquisition, and more offspring.

Here is Tierney's version of Redmond:

Among the Jivaro, head-hunting was a ritual obligation of all males and a required male initiation for teenagers... Among the Jivaro leaders, however, those who captured the most heads had the fewest wives, and those who had the most wives captured the fewest heads (Tierney, p. 178).

Of course, Chagnon never says the most violent have the most wives and children, and in any case a finding among the Jivaro would not jeopardize findings among the Yanomamo, since it is after all possible that different societies differ, but never mind.

Here is what Redmond actually says:

Yanomamo men who have killed tend to have more wives, which they have acquired either by abducting them from raiding villages, or by the usual marriage alliances in which they are considered more attractive as mates. The same is true of Jivaro war leaders, who might have four to six wives; as a matter of fact, a great war leader on the Upano River in the 1930s by the name of Tuki of José Grande had eleven wives. Distinguished warriors also have more offspring, due mainly to their greater marital success ( From Redmond, Elsa 1994. Tribal and Chiefly Warfare in South America . University of Michigan, Memoir of the Museum of Anthropology 28. p. 125.)

Similarly, Tierney cites anthropologist John Peters at various points in his book. But what Peters actually writes (and Tierney evades) is far stronger than anything Chagnon has said:

Anyone who is even minimally acquainted with the Yanomami is familiar with the central role of war in this culture. Violence seems always just a breath away in all Yanomami relations, whether husband and daughter, husband and wife, and brother to brother, or between villages or host and guest (From Peters, John F. 1998. Life Among the Yanomami : The Story of Change Among the Xilixana on the Mucajai River in Brazil . Broadview Press. Chapter 11: p. 207.)

Peters began working with the Brazilian Yanomamo in 1958 as a missionary, before switching to anthropology. Tierney's claim that Chagnon was the cause of Yanomamo violence cannot account for Peters' observations, since Peters was there years before Chagnon, working mostly at other locations.

As a colleague writes: "Peters also refutes Ferguson's thesis that the Yanomamo are fighting over steel tools. 'The history of the Xilixana [Peters' focal group] since the time of contact gives no evidence that the acquisition of steel goods was the primary purpose of warfare. They had enough steel tools, and actually traded them with other Yanomami. The abundance of trade goods enhanced their position among other Yanomami. (p.216)' This is especially interesting because Tierney acknowledges Peters, but fails to mention in his manuscript that Peters' data refute Ferguson, whom Tierney relies on heavily to critique Chagnon."

For a more in depth review of Tierney's misrepresentations in his chapter attacking Chagnon's analyses of Yanomamo violence (Chapter 10: To Murder and to Multiply from Darkness in El Dorado ) click here .

Stay tuned. These are only a few examples of what has turned up.