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Internet Source: Discovery Channel Canada Online, November 16, 2000
Source URL: http://www.exn.ca/Stories/2000/11/16/51.cfm

Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney

David Smillie

It's like a scene out of a movie (and not necessarily a good one). A respectable anthropologist penetrates the heart of the Amazon, meeting fierce tribes who have never been studied before. He begins to take on their ways, wearing their clothes and painting his naked skin. He leads film crews to the isolated villages, intricately choreographing "authentic" dances, and risking the lives of countless of the natives. Meanwhile, a rival anthropologist (with a fetish for young boys) sets up camp nearby, and their respective villages end up going to war against each other. If you believe Patrick Tierney, that really happened.

And far, far more. Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado is a look at the (in)famous Yanomami people of the Amazon. Made famous by the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon as the most warlike people on earth, they've spawned uncounted movies and television specials, books and references in the academic press. They are held up as examples of man in a state of nature -- their lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The fight constantly, life is cheap, and men boast about their many kills and successful raids. Except that Tierney says that isn't true - neither is it fair. He presents the Yanomami as victims of a cruel hoax perpetrated by Chagnon, who actively distorted the reality of what he found there.

I wish this was a better book, because it contains several really good ideas ... but they're left hideously unformed, drifting along in the background. Let's look at what's good, shall we? First off, the book is a scathing indictment of anthropology. Anthropology is often held up as one of the "harder" of the soft sciences, but Tierney shows just how weak it can be. Whether it's Margaret Mead seeing an idyllic paradise in Samoa, or Napoleon Chagnon finding the savage Yanomami, anthropologists often end up seeing exactly what they want to see. They also seem to go mad an awful lot. (Tierney comes up with a sad litany of anthropologists who went into the jungles and ended up as savage and warlike as the stereotypical Yanomami themselves.) By casting a harsh, unpleasant light on anthropological field work, Tierney has done a real service.

He's also right on the mark in attacking film-makers and journalists who have traveled to "document" the life of the Yanomami. As he points out, the filmmakers (following the lead of Chagnon) inevitably created the reality they expected to find, and often caused the very wars they so wanted to film. The desire to put on a good show overwhelms the scientific desire to see what's really happening. It's most disturbing when we see anthropologists playing along ... abandoning scientific detachment in the interest of a better film.

But the subtitle of Tierney's book, How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon shows not only the strength of his argument, but also his fatal flaw. Because Tierney, as he admits in the Foreword, isn't interested in objective journalism. He's an open advocate for a certain viewpoint, and as the book unfolds, it becomes quite clear that his viewpoint is left-wing. Now, I have nothing against the left wing. But when it biases a person's world-view, it's going to bias his or her writing. In Tierney's case, that means making Chagnon the villain of the piece, because Chagnon is gasp! right-wing. In fact, it's even worse ... he may be a sociobiologist.

(A brief aside: Sociobiology is the belief that genes play a large role in human behavior. It's been a controversial idea, leading to the sort of bitter name-calling and personality assassination that's seldom seen in science. Tierney, a Marxist, is philosophically opposed to sociobiology because it contradicts Marxist dogma. To the point that he (like Richard Lewontin) uses the word "sociobiologist" with the same snide dismissal that I utilize when I type "Marxist". He can't get over his bias against sociobiology, to the point that when he approvingly quotes someone who agrees with the idea, he feels obliged to write something like, "Even though Bob is a sociobiologist ..." in the same way that someone else would write, "Even though Bob is a child molester ..." It's Tierney's biggest stumbling block, and one he never manages to surmount.)

But the biggest controversy is bound to be over a measles epidemic that hit the region. Chagnon and several other scientists documented in a film their attempts to fight the outbreak by an emergency vaccination program. However, Tierney doesn't buy their heroic stance. He claims that at the very least, they handled the outbreak incompetently and made things worse. He also strongly alleges that the outbreak might actually have been caused by the scientists ... whether through stupidity or callous intent, he never makes clear (though his demonizing of Chagnon makes it clear that these perfidious scientists wouldn't hesitate to kill hundreds or thousands of villagers just to make a better film). Unfortunately, such extreme claims require extreme evidence, which Tierney doesn't supply. Instead, we're left with a series of allegations, none of which would stand up for a second in a court of law.

This incident once again establishes how Tierney's advocacy affects his book. Because he's so convinced that Chagnon and his right-wing cronies (the expedition was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, hardly a bastion of morally correct, leftist thought) must be in the wrong, he goes out of his way to demonize them. While he may lack the facts (or the moral courage) to directly accuse the scientists of murder, he's certainly willing to insinuate. Tierney has already complained how his allegations over the measles outbreak have overshadowed the rest of the book, but he has only himself to blame. By including such an inflammatory (and ill-supported) accusation, he had to have known journalists would seize on it. And if it doesn't stand up, the rest of his book can be dismissed as well.

Except that it shouldn't be. I may disagree with Tierney about sociobiology, and I may think he's gone too far with his allegations over the measles outbreak, but I think he makes some excellent points ... about the potential dangers in anthropology, the baggage that anthropologists take into the field with them, and the way the Yanomami have been shamefully portrayed time and again in the media. Unfortunately, because he can't get past his political biases, the work comes across as hopelessly biased and untrustworthy. An obvious comparison is with Edwin Hopper's The River, which investigated the controversial idea that the AIDS epidemic was started in a polio vaccination program. Both are highly-charged, controversial theories. Both authors spent years on the research. But while Hopper managed to produce a work that was stirring and apolitical, Tierney's book rings hollow ... a screed rather than scholarship.

Ultimately, the greatest harm to the Yanomami has probably been done by journalists and film-makers. They'd fly in, shoot what they expected to see, disrupt the lives of the Yanomami, and then fly away to accept awards and reap the plaudits. It's those films, more than anything else, that have bolstered our view of Yanomami life. Ironically, the Yanomami are the source of the famous tribal taboo against taking pictures ... the idea that taking a picture steals a bit of someone's soul.

In this case, maybe they were right.