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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: W. W. Norton (Publisher of Darkness in El Dorado ) (
Source URL: http://www.darknessineldorado.com/tooby.htm

Response to John Tooby

A Slate article by Professor John Tooby called "Jungle Fever," which appeared online on October 24, 2000, about my book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon , has been cited by various academics, scholars, and concerned readers. The article is filled with inaccuracies and misrepresents my book in various ways. With this statement, I wish to set the record straight.

It is first necessary to understand the background surrounding the Slate piece. John Tooby began attacking Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon before he even read it. He has good reason to do so. The co-director of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Anthropology Department, Tooby has been trying to block the publication and fair reviewing of a book that details his colleagues' role in disastrous helicopter expeditions to the most remote, least-disturbed cluster of aboriginal villages left in the Amazon--the Siapa Highlands. These expeditions were undertaken by Napoleon Chagnon despite the opposition of Venezuela's Indian Agency and elected Yanomami leaders. The helicopter descents themselves blew down roofs and, at the village of Ashidowa-teri, injured five Yanomami. According to Charles Brewer-Carias, who described himself as a research associate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the expedition to Ashidowa-teri was partly financed by the UCSB. 1 Moreover, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, which Napoleon Chagnon once headed and Tooby now heads, has played a partisan role of great importance in the aftermath of Chagnon's expulsion from Venezuelan Yanomami territory in 1993. 2 While Professor Tooby has identified himself as a colleague of Napoleon Chagnon, he has withheld this information that would have been pertinent to his article.

To underscore the point that John Tooby is not a neutral observer, I need to cite many important facts that he has gotten wrong about Darkness in El Dorado . Although I cannot deal with all of Tooby's mistakes here--since he continues to update his website constantly and so much of what he writes is either wrong or distorted--let me take up the following points:

  • Tooby conflates an August e-mail by Leslie Sponsel and Terence Turner about the book with the book itself. In this way, the letter's speculation about Neel's intentions to deliberately create a measles epidemic by vaccinating with the Edmonston B strain becomes " Tierney's genocide thesis ." In fact, I state that Neel did not intend to create an epidemic: "The outbreak took him by surprise." 3 Confusing other people's statements with my book is typical of Professor Tooby's approach.
  • Tooby is also mistaken when he writes, " You'd think that Tierney's book, 10 years in the making, might mention the relevant and easily discoverable fact that 'live attenuated vaccine has never been shown to be transmissible from a recipient to a subsequent contact.' " My book does mention that--twice on one page. 4
  • Contrary to Tooby's claim, I never link Neel's decision to vaccinate the Yanomami with " eugenic theories ." Nor do I conclude that the vaccine " triggered the epidemic ." I admit that I do not know how the measles epidemic started and I show, from the sound tapes of the expedition itself, that Neel and Chagnon, despite their later accounts, did not know either.
  • Tooby also cites the historian Susan Lindee, who claimed that James Neel had administered the Edmonston B with permission from the Venezuelan government. But Lindee was not able to substantiate this claim and told The New Yorker fact-checking department that "her evidence for the claim was erroneous." 5
  • Tooby writes that I never acknowledge that other tribes have higher levels of violence than the Yanomami and that I do not credit Napoleon Chagnon with his admission of this fact. Yet I repeatedly say that other tribes--Huarani, Achuar and Kayapo--have much higher homicide rates than the Yanomami 6 and I quote Chagnon as saying that Yanomami violence is "actually quite low" by world standards. 7
  • Tooby claims that my identification of nine villages of the twelve in Chagnon's famous homicide study is trivial, since Chagnon himself identified them all. This is false. Tooby refers to a 1990 article in which Chagnon makes a vague reference to "some dozen or so villages" without names, or locations. 8
  • Tooby claims James Neel was not a eugenicist, that none of his ideas were undemocratic. Neel himself wrote that headmanship in tribal societies had "strong eugenic implications" in creating genetically superior breeding groups. 9 Neel also criticized colleagues who feared "the opprobrium of an eugenic label . . ." 10
  • Tooby claims that I misrepresent Elsa Redmond's finding that Jivaro warriors who kill have more wives. But her own data about wives and killings does not support her conclusion. The majority of wives belonged to just two chiefs who were not known to have killed anyone; the majority of killings were done by men who were not known to have any wives. 11
  • Tooby says I ignore the role of missionaries. But I show that two thirds of the deaths in Yanomami warfare over a 30-year period documented by Chagnon occurred immediately after the arrival of American missionaries, whose steel goods altered terms of trade and war. 12
  • Tooby, who himself is not an authority on the Yanomami, speculates that " Tierney's ability to do research in this restricted area was almost certainly his endorsement of one side in this feud. " In fact, I obtained air and boat transport from an unaffiliated Protestant mission, as opposed to the Salesian mission which has come under attack from Napoleon Chagnon, and traveled with a variety of guides, translators and medical personnel. I wish that Professor Tooby had spoken to me before guessing about my affiliations.

The points cited above only begin to reflect the massive amount of rumor and misguided information that has been swirling about me and my book. I trust that this succinct statement will begin to clarify the confusion.


Patrick Tierney
December 3, 2000

1. Charles Brewer-Carias, Curriculum en Antropologia , p. 13.
2. Napoleon Chagnon, "The View from the President's Window," Human Behavior and Evolution Society Newsletter 2, No. 3, October, 1993.
3. Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), p. 82
4. Ibid, p. 80.
5. Patrick Tierney, "The Fierce Anthropologist," The New Yorker , October 9, 2000.
6. Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado , pps. 23, 41
7. Ibid, p. 34.
8. Napoleon Chagnon, "On Yanomamo Violence: Reply to Albert," Current Anthropology , Vol. 31: 49-53.
9. James Neel, "On Being Headman," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 23 , Winter 1980, pp. 277-294.
10. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , p. 394
11. Elsa Redmond, Tribal and Chiefly Warfare in South America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, 1994), p. 126.
12. Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado , p. 29 and p. 34.