Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Daily News (New York), December 2, 2000, Saturday SPORTS FINAL EDITION, EDITORIAL; Pg. 27
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The Savaging of a Scientist

JOHN LEO

Most of us pay little attention to squabbles in the academic world, but the dispute over Napoleon Chagnon is one to watch. Chagnon is probably the most prominent anthropologist of our era, famed for his long work among the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. Now journalist Patrick Tierney is attempting to bring him down.

In a new book, "Darkness in El Dorado," Tierney offers evidence that Chagnon and a late colleague, geneticist James Neel, intentionally started a measles epidemic among the Yanomami in a bizarre eugenics experiment that killed hundreds of Indians. Tierney also charges that Chagnon mischaracterized the Yanomami as warlike, staged fights for filming and altered data to fit his theories.

When The New Yorker printed a toned-down advance excerpt of the book, the reaction was quick and explosive. Two of Chagnon's enemies announced that Tierney describes research that "in its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption . . . is unparalleled in the history of anthropology . . . beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)."

But the allegations seemed to dissolve by the day.

Susan Lindee, a science historian, found "a remarkable pattern of dishonesty" in the book. Kim Hill, an expert on the Amazon, calls the book "a hoax."

This controversy is spreading, in part because it is shadow warfare over other issues. Chagnon believes that a great deal of human behavior is genetically hard-wired. This outrages the majority of anthropologists who believe that humans are mostly shaped by culture and environment, not genes.

The antagonism has been magnified by the post-'60s radicalization of the academic world. Chagnon lashed out at "cultural anthropologists from the academic left," who are heavily devoted to political correctness.

He has a point. The once-staid American Anthropological Association is now devoted to left politics. Meetings now feature panels on "Transgendered Beauty Pageants" and "Doing Lesbian Community." It's doubtful so many scurrilous charges would have gained any currency if the academic culture hadn't gone radical.

In the traditional liberal view, anthropology is an attempt to reach out to other cultures and understand them. In the postmodern view, anthropology is a form of Western colonialism that tends to alter and destroy everything it touches. The subtitle of Tierney's book picks up this theme of Western destructiveness in the Third World: "How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon."

A related reason for attacks on Chagnon is that anthropology is full of people who still believe in the noble-savage myth - that preliterate societies are inherently peaceful and this harmony reflects a basically benign human nature. If you believe that, then Chagnon's findings are bad news indeed. Politically, the noble-savage myth plays out in idealistic treatment of primitive cultures and reflexive hostility toward developed ones.

So far, the anthropological association has not joined the attacks on Chagnon. But there is little doubt that many academics, plus the editors of The New Yorker, found it easy to join the assault. "A lot of intellectuals wanted to think that evolutionary people like Chagnon were wicked people," said anthropologist John Tooby. "That's why you get references to Mengele and Nazis."

A book that plays so strongly to prejudices of the chattering classes will always do well.