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Shedding Light on Darkness in El Dorado

Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney claims to be an exposé of exploitation of the Yanomami people of the Amazon by scientists. This book generated a dozen web pages devoted to refuting its allegations of genocide against geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon before it had even been published. Now, it has been the subject of major debates, news articles and radio discussions. Before explaining what is wrong with this book, I will set out the context and explain why it should be of interest.

First of all, the book is primarily a critique of the life and work of Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon is important because he is widely used in undergraduate anthropology classes because his work is clearly written and an exciting story [ Yanomamö ]. It also criticizes other anthropologists, politicians and the geneticist James Neel. This review does not attempt to deal with these secondary criticisms in detail, though it mentions them in passing as examples of Tierney's method.

Hobbes and Rousseau For centuries, there have been defenders of the view that people before civilization were largely peaceful and cooperative, at least, a lot more so than they have been since civilization, with its division of labor, slavery and war, arose in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Foremost among them was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the other hand, there are those who say life before civilization was "nasty, brutish and short" in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes. A dramatic step in favor of the Rousseauian view was the publication of the work of Marshall Sahlins and Richard Lee [ Stone Age Economics , Man the Hunter ] in the late sixties/early seventies which looked at the !Kung San of the Kalahari, an ancient society of hunter-gatherers, and found that they worked less, ate more, and had far less chance of a violent death than their agricultural neighbors.

If the violence of civilization is a deviation from the way humans lived for 99% of their existence, it is a passing nightmare, not a product of human nature. The important point is that if this is true, there is hope for the abolition of civilization, and thus the survival of the human race and numerous other species. Such an important point needs to be defended coherently.

Since Lee's and Sahlins' writings in the late sixties, the debate about whether primitive society was nasty, brutish and short or actually not bad has continued [ War Before Civilization ]. We are card-carrying members of the Rousseau faction, but we are critical of most of his fellow-travellers, for example Fredy Perlman [ Against His-story, Against Leviathan! ]. Perlman attempts to suppress any discussion of his assertions by describing those who ask for "Positive Evidence" as "guards". Instead of examining his anti-civilization view, he urges us to "throw off our armor" and "dance". Well, maybe. But we think it important to consider evidence from both sides. Is violence among the Yanomamö, such as it exists, evidence that people all over the world before civilization engaged in regular warfare? Originally, our position was based on Perlman's. Subsequently, we have become quite critical of his methods. However, we still defend his basic idea. Rejecting the Marxist idea that civilization inevitably arose as the productive forces matured, we regard the productive forces as a product of civilization, development as a war against life, and civilization as a disastrous mistake. Among the issues we have with Perlman are his contempt for evidence. He parodies the methods of scientists by claiming they demand "Positive Evidence" [p2] as a password to enter their elite ivory tower. But good scientists [Popper] try to refute their hypotheses, not prove them. No quantity of positive evidence can prove a scientific generalization, but a failure to refute it can provide strong support for it, if great effort has been made to do this.

Tierney is also an enemy of the open society. In one of his most absurd detours into personal attack, he accuses Chagnon [p180] of being the heir of the anti-communist witchhunter Joseph McCarthy because they both came from Michigan. Chagnon occasionally mumbles his annoyance at "left-wing anthropologists", since he and other Darwinians often come under ignorant attack from the liberal thought police. It is Tierney who is closer to a McCarthyite, when he seeks to slander, simplify and distort the views and actions of those he chooses to attack. If Tierney were Neil Young, he would have added "Michigan" to his songs about Alabama and Ohio. (Thought: there are 48 states about which a whining hit record has not yet been recorded. Market opportunity?).

The work of Dawkins [ The Selfish Gene ], Wilson [ Sociobiology ] and Chagnon [ Yanomamö ] are unacceptable to simplistic liberal thinkers, so they parody and distort their views on evolution and anthropology as eugenicist or even fascist. Tierney is a particularly extreme example of a kneejerk liberal so incensed by the apparently unacceptable consequences of Darwin's discovery that we are animals [ The Origin of Species ] that he loses all respect for facts in his desire to make his "committed" political point. There are leftists of more intelligence and integrity.

Chris Knight [ Blood Relations ] is an example. I cite him because his work attempts to address the problem simple Darwinism fails to: why is human culture so different from the law of the jungle? Any hack can explain why men fight over women, or selfishly hoard the product of their labor, and so on: what is more difficult to explain is when the opposite happens. According to Knight, most organisms compete against members of their own species, even when they would gain from cooperating. Human beings do not behave according to Darwinian biology. For example, wealth leads to fewer children, not more. Yet Darwin's theory is true of animals, and we are animals. It takes a smart scientist to begin to unravel this enigma.

Knight's criticism of sociobiology is more subtle than the moralists of the American left [ Defenders of the Truth ]. In a nutshell, he sees the neo-Darwinians as the equivalent of the bourgeois economists on whose shoulders Karl Marx stood, who drowned the philistine sentimentalism of their predecessors in the icy water of egotistical calculation. Wilson, Dawkins and co. showed that genes care only about themselves, not their species, freeing anthropologists and primatologists from unscientific notions such as species-identity in understanding human origins. Examining gender conflict and other types of conflict within a species became acceptable thanks to the saber-toothed sociobiologists of the seventies. In other words, although left-wing students attacked the neo-Darwinians, in some cases physically, they were misguided, because the findings of Wilson and other biologists could help progressive ideology, if approached in the right way.

Only humans have "transcended" the law of the jungle via culture. How? In a word, because female members of the species homo sapiens stumbled on the earliest form of "solidarity" - the sex strike. Synchronized menstruation occurred as a way in which all the women in a hominid community could signal to the men "No sex until you bring back meat" . This coincided with the waxing moon - the best time for extended hunting trips. They had to ensure that none of them broke the strike, or all the men would give up the hunt and compete for the strikebreaking females. From this primitive solidarity, human culture evolved. The evidence remains in great myths such as the Rainbow Snake. Most of the research which backs Knight is by or derived from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. I can't do Knight's ideas justice in this short piece; it's a bit wierd to begin with, but if you approach it with an open mind, it is a plausible theory.

Knight questions many of the assumptions of anthropology, but reintroduces a belief from Victorian days - progress. Most of anthropology, following the lead of Franz Boas, abandoned the idea that one human society can be said to be more advanced than another. When Knight describes the evolution of humanity from its primitive ancestor, he has no doubt it was a good thing. The most famous Victorian progressives Knight follows are Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

"Nothing discredits bourgeois development so much as the fact that it has not yet got beyond the economic forms of the animal world"

[Knight, p52, citing Engels]. He accuses Darwin of projecting bourgeois society onto nature, then using this distorted picture to justify capitalism. But the whole of his thesis depends on this view of nature - competitive, ruthless, red in tooth and claw. Human society potentially "transcends" this. One consequence of Knight's theory is to relegate pre-cultural hominids to the status of animals. It is universally accepted that hominids with all the physical characteristics of modern humans, including large brains, existed for a million or so years before language [ Future Primitive ].

Knight talks of the distinction between animal learning and human culture. Vervet monkeys learn to dip dry seeds into the sap of a tree to make them edible during droughts. Individuals imitate each other. But this knowledge is completely lost during rainy periods, then rediscovered. Human culture is different. It lives for tens of thousands of years even when it has no immediate practical purpose. Myths such as the Sleeping Beauty go back to the beginning, and according to Knight, contain coded information essential to understanding how human culture originated. "It is this kind of learning which -- according to my origins narrative -- anatomically modern humans transcended in the course of the momentous events which led up to and were consumated in the Upper Palaeolithic revolution whose reverberations began rippling across the world between 40 and 45 thousand years ago..." [ Blood Relations , p12].

Opposing this traditional distinction between nature and culture, Perlman would answer as follows: "These managers are broadcasting their news too soon. The varied beings haven't all been exterminated yet. You, reader, have only to mingle with them, or just watch them from a distance, to see that their waking lives are filled with dances, games and feasts" [ Against His-story , pp6-7].

Here's a contrasting passage from Knight: "...chimpanzees are not intrinsically gentle and co-operative, as used to be imagined twenty years ago, but often murderously aggressive, infanticidal and cannibalistic [Bygott 1972, Teleki 1975, Goodall 1986]". However, "It all depends on circumstances, not genes, just as it does with us". [ Blood Relations , p169]. But in general, Knight argues that apes and monkeys have their behavior governed by their individual genes, and the great mystery is, how did we overcome this? On page 135, Knight describes the genetically determined behavior of hanuman langurs. Like many primates, the males try to acquire a harem of females and monopolize them, keeping a horde of unsuccessful rivals at bay. When one of these bachelors conquers a harem and drives off its former sultan, the first thing he does is kill all the infants. The females will become fertile quicker, giving his genes more opportunity. He has no genetic reason to care about the offspring of another male. No human society has been recorded as barbaric as that. The question is, why not? Knight claims to provide the answer.

What is culture? Symbols. What are symbols? Imaginary objects which stand for real objects and relate to each other according to rules. Knight says culture was a good thing which was invented by women, then stolen by men. For Zerzan, culture was always a disaster, and the "oppression of women" one of its consequences. "...the ritual 'Venus' figurines appear as of 25,000 years ago, and seem to be an example of earliest symbolic likeness of women for the purpose of representation and control" [ Future Primitive , p26].

Manipulate, control, represent - for Zerzan, all these are bad things which the emergence of symbolic culture inevitably led to. Then came the division of labor, agriculture, domestication, war and disease, then civilization and the accelerating rush to annihilation.

Though Knight defends ritual, at the same time he describes it as totalitarian. This echoes his defense of dictatorial proletarian acts such as attacking people crossing picket lines during strikes, and similarly, the enforcement of the "sex strike" by women in primitive society. "It is thought that no act which has to be directed or controlled collectively can be as valid as the spontaneous action of an individual. This, however, says much about the individualistic assumptions of Western Culture" [ Blood Relations , pp80-81]. Zerzan on the other hand is savage in his criticism of ritual [ Future Primitive , pp26-27].

For Knight, human culture began as an act of forced discipline, though he doesn't say what the primeval women would do to one of their number who broke ranks by having sex before the menfolk had brought home the bacon. Ritual, marriage and food taboos, and much of the compulsion that prevails in hunter-gatherer cultures all derive from this original strike. This is OK for Knight - he is a communist. He believes in suppressing the individual in the interests of the majority, not just during emergencies, but as part of the normal day-to-day life of society. Collective control and power is the only alternative to "a mere assemblage of egoistic, competing individuals" [ Blood Relations , p80]. Instead, thanks to the "human revolution", "...availability or non-availability was no longer a private issue between the individual and his/her sexual partner but a matter for decision through negotiation on the basis of groups" [p292]. Zerzan, as an anarchist, would endorse violence against recalcitrant individuals by collectives in struggles for survival, but for him, the compulsory nature of the origin of culture, if Knight is correct, would be an indictment of it.

I went to the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco, where the Tierney scandal was debated. According to Tierney's marketing team, Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel

"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology".

Tierney spoke, after a series of speakers denounced him for forging evidence and adding weight to anti-scientific attitudes. Most of the speakers were scientists, who showed, for example, how the Edmonston B measles vaccine does not cause measles, but prevents it, how Napoleon Chagnon's research was sound, and how James Neel was not a fascist. Tierney's attempt to defend himself was lame:

"If you have a heart... If you could see those villages with their roofs blown off by Super Puma helicopters..."

I thought he was talking about a military assault - all he meant was that anthropologists' helicopters blow off the straw roofs of Yanomamö houses when they land: hardly one of the great crimes of the twentieth century. He didn't so much defend his allegations, resorting instead to emotional blackmail to avoid the issues. Some of his critics regard him as a dupe of a bunch of Catholic priests called the Salesians who have waged a war of character assassination against Chagnon for decades.

If so, he is in bad company. Norman Lewis's book [ The Missionaries ] paints a bleak picture of the effects of missionary work on native peoples in Latin America and elsewhere. This is mostly a condemnation of the New Tribes Mission and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, two sects of protestants, rather than the priestfuckers to whom Patrick panders. But, papist or proddie, the whole missionary position -- saving, converting, civilizing -- is worse than that of the anthropologists, who at least try to observe without influencing.

This link http://cogweb.english.ucsb.edu/Debate/UMichOnChagnon.html at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in the section "Chagnon's 'turf war' with the Salesian Missionaries", suggests that the Salesians in the Yanomami area influenced Tierney to attack Chagnon because Chagnon had denounced them for encouraging Indians to live near missions, which renders them more susceptible to disease, and giving them shotguns, which increases their fatality rate. Hunters need dispersion. Concentrated, they quickly out-hunt the area. They become dependent on the mission for food. This gives the missionaries corporeal and hence spiritual power.

Lewis describes another Venezualan Indian tribe, the Panare:

"The Panare mentality and character were shaped in a relatively protected forest environment over thousands of years. In this famines were impossible, plagues are not recorded, and the wars that shaped our history were reduced here at worst to a ceremonial skirmish".

[ The Missionaries , p189].

The Panare live in the wetlands on the fringes of the Amazon. These areas are ideal for hunting and fishing. According to Lewis, the Panare in their undisturbed state are taller, fitter and healthier than their Spanish-Venezualan neighbors. If he and Chagnon are both right, it seems that the inhabitants of the inner Amazon, like the Yanomamö, ended up on the wrong side of the tracks.

In June 1993, about 20 Yanomami were murdered by Brazilian gold miners at a place called Haximu in the Venezualan Amazon. Chagnon was named to a commission to investigate on behalf of the Venezualan government, but was dropped after Salesian opposition. Part of the reason for their opposition was the conflict of interest of another proposed member, Charles Brewer-Carías, a close friend of Chagnon's, with whom he has worked since 1967, according to his preface to the fifth edition of Yanomamö , who owned mines. However, there was no evidence against Chagnon: nevertheless the commission on which he served was ordered out of the region, in favor of another which included the Bishop of Amazonas. Four miners were convicted of the crime. Survival International , one of Tierney's favorite causes, and one of Chagnon's bêtes noires , complain that the Brazilian courts overturned the convictions of miners for genocide ( http://www.webcom.com/wildcat/www.survival.org.uk/haximu.htm ), and urge us to write to the judges asking them to reinstate the original sentences.

http://www.webcom.com/wildcat/www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/Dark/darkness/0081.htm contains a delightful account of a priest trying to impress a Yanomamö chief with a crucifix. The Yanomami laughed, and said that he didn't need to be afraid of a spirit whose own people could nail him up. Chagnon loves telling this story, and apparently it annoyed the godbotherers immensely.

Tierney is selective in his account of the influence of corruption in Venezualan politics on the Yanomamö. Whereas the president, his mistress, Brewer-Carías and various other colorful characters are venal, the Fiscalía , an independent government body [?] which investigated them, is heroic. Like Survival International , he can clearly distinguish the good bits of South American government from the bad.

Lewis's book The Missionaries is subtitled "This book will make you angry" , and it did -- but that was because it told me what I wanted to hear -- "It is about genocide, practised today, against helpless people in the name of God..." . Tierney also tells us what we want to hear, except in his case its in the name of Science, not God. Fortunately, because his case is weaker, his arguments are much weaker too, so it is easier to abandon one's prejudices as Tierney attempts to confirm them.

Tierney's Data: the Raw and the Cooked

  • Neel and Chagnon caused measles by administering Edmonston B vaccine. This is a bare-faced lie. A superficial reading of some of the links at the end of this article will show that there is not a scrap of evidence that this vaccine can cause the disease it was designed to prevent.
  • Neel was a eugenicist. This is true. However, this argument depends on emotional links between words rather than an honest assessment of his real position. "Eugenics" means nothing more than deliberately choosing the promotion of alleles which produce desirable characteristics against alleles in the same gene which produce undesirable ones. At its worst, this includes forcible sterilization of people whom the state regards as mentally retarded. At its best, it includes people with inheritable genetic illnesses choosing not to have children. The Nazi programs were all evil, but in most cases, they were not eugenicist. Murdering people with inherited disabilities is eugenics; murdering people for their race is not. When US states sterilized black men with supposedly criminal genes, they were not being eugenicist. They were not "misusing" eugenics either. These men did not have criminal genes, therefore they were not victims of eugenics. The issues raised by James Neel and other scientists need to be debated, not suppressed. We all know that human beings are animals, that animals are highly subject to the ruthless forces of natural selection, but that we are not. We don't leave our disabled to the wolves; deer do. Neel did not say we should, but he found it an interesting issue. Whatever the answer to this problem, it won't be found if we allow our thoughts to be censored by the pinko Pasdaran.

Laments Tierney: While almost everyone applauded the democratic freedoms that allowed women to choose their own mates, Neel glumly concluded that the "loss of headmanship as a feature of our culture, as well as the weakening of other vehicles of natural selection, is clearly a minus." Neel even believed that students at American universities were all products of a mediocre gene pool -- "a large, increasingly homogenous, quivering blob of jelly" -- incapable of reproducing the superior qualities of Yanomami warriors. - [ Darkness , p49]. Shocking!

In his attempt to defend himself ( http://www.webcom.com/wildcat/www.darknessineldorado.com/alberts.htm ), Tierney cites Neel:

The military deferments for physical/mental reasons which obtain when armies are conscripted, as in the recent World Wars, render war an agent of negative selection.

In other words, war kills the fittest. Tierney is so blinded by his emotions, he thinks that Neel saw war as an agent for removing the mentally and physically weak and rewarding the strong and capable . This is the opposite of what Neel actually said.

He castigates Neel for believing there is something wrong with the gene pool that must be remedied . Like Huntingdon's disease, muscular dystrophy and hemophilia? Although the influence of genes on behavior and on many illnesses has been exagerated, it does exist and can be studied. The question of medical intervention in evolution is a complex one. Even the Unabomber considered the arguments before rejecting genetic tinkering.

  • Neel was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission. This is not as bad as it sounds. Numerous pieces of genetic research were funded by the AEC. Some of that research, such as the injection of plutonium into unsuspecting patients, was a crime. Some of it, like observing the effects of atomic bombs on the genes of Japanese children, seems rather tasteless. But let's not allow our emotions to get the better of us. Using the Yanomamö as a "control group" just means that Neel wanted to observe the genes of the people least affected by radioactivity, to see how much genetic mutations were caused in people exposed to atomic bomb fallout and their descendants.

Tierney's last chapter "Human Products" reiterates the findings of a real investigative journalist, Eileen Wellsome, who, in 1993, uncovered the fact that American citizens in the 1940's were unknowingly injected with plutonium to see what it did. Tierney is unable to produce a credible indictment of anthropologists as Wellsome did with doctors. Guilt by association just won't do.

Even where Tierney may have a point, it is important to treat what he says with a grain of salt, because of the blatant disregard for facts which major sections of his tirade exemplify. Tierney throws the word "sociobiologist" [Wilson] around at anyone he dislikes in scientific circles as though it were as unacceptable as "racist". Sociobiology is too complex a subject to be left to a liberal hack to explain.

  • Chagnon caused most of the wars he claimed to observe in vivo. This is a more difficult charge to refute, because of the complexity of the interactions betwen anthropologists, missions, miners and capitalist society as a whole and the fragile world of the Yanomamö. It seems there might be something in it. Chagnon didn't seem to realize that using underhand methods to collect his data might affect its quality. For example, he would use people's enemies to find out the names of their dead relatives. This is essential data in a study of kinship, which is kind of important to anthropology. But naming the dead is taboo among the Yanomamö, and Chagnon's duplicity may have made mortal enemies out of his informants.

The fact that Western people, anthropologists or whomever, have a considerable effect on small isolated tribes makes attempts to "study" the economics of such societies very difficult. One machete makes a man in a community which previously had no steel goods a king. Colin Turnbull [ The Mountain People ] is criticized for eating while Africans around him starved [Tierney, p184] while Chagnon is denounced for handing out machetes which enable Yanomami to eat [p217]. It seems you just can't win. It's true that Chagnon doesn't make it clear how much effect he's having, perhaps provoking battles rather than just observing them. Chagnon believed that the Yanomamö fight for revenge and over women: but Tierney's account argues that they mostly fight over anthropologists. Access to someone like Chagnon, with his axes, shotguns and motorboats could make a man rich in Yanomami land. If Tierney could restrict himself to studying anthropologists and their effect on the people they study, he could write a powerful indictment perhaps, rather than one easily rejected for its gaping errors.

  • Chagnon associated with dubious characters such as the president of Venezuala's girlfriend (Tierney calls her his "mistress". It sounds so much more scandalous). His friend Brewer-Carías sounds like a real bad apple, If a quarter of Tierney's allegations against them are true (which would be an unusually high percentage) Chagnon should not have accepted her hospitality nor his helicopters.

Chagnon - an Unlikely Mengele

What does Chagnon [ Yanomamö ] actually say? He is modest enough to admit that the Yanomami whom he met for the first time in 1964 were nothing like he expected - eschewing diplomatic niceties, he says he found them quite revolting and wanted to get back to Michigan and do civil engineering! The reason he calls them "The Fierce People" is, firstly, that's how they like to be known, and secondly, it's true. He says they live in a state of almost continuous warfare. He is honest in expressing his feelings about them - at first he doesn't like them. On the other hand, he finds their neighbors, the Makiritare, "pleasant and charming". Such unabashed subjectivity! Chagnon is not a mealy-mouthed liberal, hiding unpleasant facts about native people. Neither is he too objective - the Yanomami are people, not objects.

His illiberalism often leads to insensitivity, and perhaps this has what has got the pinkos up in arms against him. There is a serious superstition among the Yanomami against mentioning the names of the dead. He is so determined to collect genealogical information that he often has to find someone who will. For the most part, though, he simply treats the Yanomami as equals. He expresses his opinions about them as freely as he would about his fellow Americans. He doesn't treat them as precious specimens, the way liberal academics do. At the Anthropological Association's annual meeting in Nov. 2000, one speaker got a rousing cheer just for being an indigenous woman.

If Chagnon subscribes to a theory which argues that male violence leads to reproductive success, this theory can only be falsified by evidence or lack of it, or undermined by logic, not by cries of outrage. Social Darwinism and so on needs to be combatted, or integrated into a grander narrative, not simplified, distorted and politically corrected by the likes of Tierney. Arguments about killing increasing reproductive success and Tierney's refutation of them [ Darkness , pp158-180] are almost too trivial to discuss. Some men gain advantages from being violent which increases their likelihood of having children; some don't, eg. those who get killed. No particular society proves anything about society in general. The correlation between getting away with murder and having a lot of children is not causation: both may be the product of a third variable, such as, duh, economic success. Neither Neel nor Chagnon put forward the argument Tierney attempts to refute, in any case. Human societies are so varied that it is highly unlikely that a gene which predisposed someone to a particular kind of behavior, even if such genes exist, would produce success in many different societies. They change much faster than evolution. That is why there is no gene yet for financial ability!

Chagnon found Yanomami society to have high rates of abduction of women and murder of men. There was a serious division of labor between men and women, and some between villages. Villages trade women for labor and the protection of stronger villages. Villages use positions of strength to force weaker villages to cede labor, women and agricultural produce in return for protection from assasins.

There is widespread "domestic violence", and girls learn from an early age that they must slave whilst boys play. Still, boys learn to shoot arrows, partly for hunting, and partly for self-defence against raiders from other villages. "Yanomami society is decidedly masculine" Chagnon declares on page 81 of the first edition. This understatement comes after several pages of horrific descriptions of wars, treacherous invitations to feasts which end in massacres and gang rape, unequal exchange between more or less successful villages, and so on ad nauseam .

There is infanticide, particularly of girls.

There is plenty of political maneuvering, bluffing, and horsetrading. This is nothing new - the Spanish and the Portuguese reported similar things. Now of course all these observers could be "projecting" (Perlman) their "alienation" (Zerzan). But if we are to take centuries of evidence seriously, we have in the Yanomamö a violent, hierarchical, sexist society not unlike other third-world slums. There is no evidence that this has anything to do with pre-civilized people. Similarly, the absence of work and war among the San of the Kalahari [Sahlins] doesn't prove that this was the case before 8,000 BC..

Chagnon is accused of making his subjects look like pre-human primates. If I were to describe the behavior of some of the homeless people I see in California, I could be accused of de-humanizing them. It is not the observer who has made them this way, but the global society which has driven them to desperation. I don't know what drove the Yanomamö up the Orinoco, whether it was the arrival of the Spaniards, the predecessors of the Inca slave society, or just bad luck, but in any case, their internecine warfare, sexual violence and poverty proves nothing about the existence or otherwise of the golden age before civilization. It is possible that the Yanomamö and other fierce people of the Amazon are descendents of civilization, not directly primitive community. It seems there were civilizations in the Amazon prior to European conquest [Tierney, p265]. The Mayan Indians of the Lacandon jungle in Mexico are descended from a literate slave society, but they abandoned its advantages centuries ago.

It appears that the Yanomamö retain some of the characteristics of their pre-civilized predecessors. It is mandatory for a hunter to give away all he has killed, for example. For a clear insight into how the Yanomamö and other illiterati retain elements of human community, and for a clear demonstration of an anthropologist's lack of understanding, read this passage, which has survived virtually unchanged in five editions of Yanomamö :

The Yanomamö do not openly regard trade as a mechanism the ulterior function of which is to bring people repeatedly together in order to destablish an amicable basis from which more stable types of alliance can develop. Nor do they overtly acknowledge the relationships between trading and feasting cycles to village interdependency. In this regard they are like the Tobriand Islanders of Melanesia. They have a 'functional ignorance' of the more significant adaptive aspects of their trading institutions [Malinowski, 1922]. To both the Yanomomo and the Tobrianders, the mechanisms by which peoples from different groups are compelled to visit each other are ends in themselves and are not conceived to be related to the establishment of either economic or political interdependency. For the Yanomamö participant in a feast, the feast itself has its significance in the marvelous quantities of food, the excitement of the dance, and the satisfaction of having others admire and covet the fine decorations he wears -- and hopefully an opportunity to have a clandestine sexual affair with one of the host women. The enchantment of the dance issues from the dancer's awareness that, for a brief moment, he is a glorious peacock that the commands the admiration of his fellows, and it is his responsibility and desire to present a spectacular display of his dance steps and gaudy accoutrements. In this brief, ego-building moment, each man has an opportunity to display himself, spinning and prancing about the village periphery, chest puffed out, while all watch, admire, and cheer wildly, as shown in the film The Feast (listed at the end of this book).

[ Yanomamö ], 5th edition, p164.

Very simply put, there are four schools of anthropology. There is the British colonial school ("functionalism"), the French school ("structuralism"), the stage-managers ("Marxism") and the anti-colonial, anti-theoretical American school founded by Franz Boas. As we saw in the above citation, Chagnon is quite comfortable with the mechanistic hack Malinowski, who thinks he knows the real function of other societies' institutions. Chagnon makes one attempt to use French-style "theoretical" anthropology. He argues that, even in small groups like Yanomami villages, behavior is determined by rules such as "marriage is a stronger tie than consanguinity" . One's brother is a competitor for a mate; one's brother-in-law is not, because he cannot marry the same women as you can. The problem with this is it reduces human behavior to the relationship between objects - kinship structures. It's elegant, but human behavior isn't. Mythology is the only area where structuralism still seems to work [ Blood Relations ]. In any case, Chagnon doesn't have any more to say about his kinship theory. He's not a theoretician: he tried his best to observe an interesting bunch of people, and wrote a few books about it. So Tierney's attempt to portray him as a purveyor of incorrect ideology misses the mark: he doesn't appear to have any.

Having attacked social science in the opening paragraph of his Future Primitive , John Zerzan says nonetheless "the literature can provide highly useful assistance,if approached with an appropriate method and awareness and the desire to proceed past its limitations" [ Future Primitive , p15].

But Zerzan's method consists of picking the literature which suits his argument, and ignoring that which raises uncomfortable questions -- Sahlins and Lee rather than Chagnon and Keeley. Those who disagree with him are "ideologically loaded" whereas those who agree are "far more plausible" (p17). One point that Tierney does make well (pp 23-24) is that the "Fierce People" are not typical of the Yanomamö. Chagnon has dropped the subtitle and all references to this phrase from later editions of Yanomamö . Its a complicated story, but, simply put, the area Chagnon studied is heavily affected by disease, slave-raids and massacres by European infiltrators. The Yanomami who live further from major rivers are more peaceful. Tierney's tear-jerking style is reminiscent of Fredy Perlman, but Tierney makes the mistake of being specific, so it is easy to refute his claims.

But Perlman points to the main reason why all this data about primitive societies really doesn't prove much about our distant ancestors in the time before civilization.

Most "primitive" tribes no longer live in the "state of nature" idealized by Perlman and Zerzan, but in places where they have been driven by their need to escape civilization's deadly embrace. They are victims, and like many victims of civilization, most of their violence is directed at each other rather than their real enemy. No-one would use the violence in Africa today to claim that Africans were prone to internecine warfare prior to slavery. It is obviously a legacy of the rape of Africa by the European powers. Neither should warfare among Amazonian tribes be used to claim that primitive society was more violent than civilization.

Lévi-Strauss puts it well about another Amazonian tribe. He says the Xavante are not examples of archaic ways of life that have been miraculously preserved for millenia, but the last escapees from the cataclysm that discovery and subsequent invasions had been for their ancestors - [Tierney, p39].

Colin Turnbull's studies illustrate in a dramatic fashion the view that poverty is the main cause of violence. Pre-civilized people had infinite material wealth. But as Perlman points out, the material things are the least of what has been lost in the fall into civilization. Visions, trances etc. have been replaced by religion. In the Yanamomo jungle, poverty has led to a suboptimal life. Jungles are not ideal - savannah and wetlands have a much wider variety of game and edible plantlife.

On some issues, Perlman and Zerzan take opposite positions. Whereas Perlman points to primitive agriculture and coppersmiths on the Great Lakes to ridicule the idea that the material forces "give rise to" civilization, Zerzan believes that agriculture is a one-way rollercoaster. He goes even further, and condemns all symbolic culture - language, for example - as inherently "manipulative", which is a bad thing. From dugout canoes to nuclear submarines... it's a slippery slope. Perlman rejects such determinism.

However, we owe much to Zerzan. He asks questions nobody else does. He cites Foster in Emergence of Modern Humans : "the symbolic mode... has proven extraordinarily adaptive, else why has Homo Sapiens become material master of the world" adding "the manipulation of symbols" is "the very stuff of culture" , but as Zerzan points out, Foster "appears oblivious to the fact that this successful adaptation has brought alienation and destruction of nature along to their present horrifying prominence" [ Future Primitive , p25]. Knight is more than oblivious to the problem.

One of Knight's unstated prejudices is that human culture was a good idea - was "progress", or a "revolution". Zerzan rejects such cheerleading, questioning - quite rightly, if not very adequately - whether the human cultural revolution was not an error with disastrous consequences. Perlman's arguments - if you can call them that - are even more inadequate, but his identification of civilization as the big mistake is both more realistic and easier to defend. Prior to about 10,000 years ago, human society was full of marvellous rituals, dancing, trances and so on. Food was abundant. At some point, probably in the Middle East, temporary village headmen somehow became permanent chieftains. The Fall began. Disease, warfare, slavery, famine and the other horsemen of the apocalypse began to drag us down the road to armageddon. You have to admit, he has a point.

Conclusion Anyone sympathetic to the ideas of this website ( http://www.webcom.com/wildcat/www.webcom.com/wildcat ), Perlman and Zerzan, should take heed, and not fall into the trap of attacking scientists because you don't like their style, nor believe someone because they are ethnically indigenous. We should not conflate geneticists, eugenicists, genetic engineers and fascists without careful investigation.

What's wrong with anthropology is not that it spreads measles and myths of male supremacy but the idea that you can "study" other people. I don't study my neighbors in North America - they would be offended if I said I did. Why then would you study people in South America? Anthropology per se if not exactly an act of colonial violence, is a bit dodgy. You can't be objective about other people - though as we have seen, you can be more or less truthful. One doesn't go to Latin America to study the Indians, but to defend them.

But opposing scientific inquiry has to be done very carefully, not by wild unsubstantiated claims. We would hope to distance our critique of science from the witchunters of feminism and political correctness. The American Anthropological Association has an "ethics committee" which seeks to ensure that the subjects of research have given their informed consent, among other things. ( "You understand that your DNA is being used in base-pair comparisons using polymerase chain reaction" ). To give them credit, they are trying not to be too obnoxious, and are modest enough to recognize that it is difficult to know exactly how to behave in an Amazonian Indian village. But there is no difference in principle between the problem of how to deal with Yanomamö and how to relate to the people around you. Although you find things out about people you don't know when you become involved with them, you don't "study" people. The ethical problems are considerably less when you are involved in a common struggle with people rather than in using them to advance your career. Although the enemies of South American jungle tribes are somewhat diffuse, we can certainly identify the governments of the area, large corporations and free-market capitalism. Exactly how to help the last survivors of primitive society to survive a while longer is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would suggest it is not by making interactive CDs about their domestic disputes. The recent battle of Prague showed in a vague and disorganized way that there is awareness and anger against the world system and its faceless acronyms, the WTO, the IMF, etc.. It is the intensification and, er, ideological refinement of this struggle which will save the Yanomamö and the rest of us from extinction.