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Comment on Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2000. Revised slightly Dec. 13, 2000.

Bill Irons, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

Patrick Tierney's recent book Darkness in El Dorado makes very serious accusations of wrongdoing against Napoleon Chagnon, James Neel, and other scientists. Neel is accused of probably starting an epidemic among the Yanomamo in 1968 in order to observe its course as part of a secret experiment to test a eugenic theory. Chagnon is accused of aiding Neel in his genocidal experiment, of fudging data to make it support Neel's eugenic theory, of staging events for his ethnographic films, and somehow causing the warfare that characterizes the Yanomamo. Because of the nature of these accusations, a number of people began investigating them immediately after news of the forth-coming book spread through a widely-circulated email message from Professors Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel to officers of the AAA. In addition to this email message, the galleys of the book were widely circulated, and the book was excerpted in The New Yorker. As a result, by the time the book itself was published, one could read, on the web, the results of numerous investigations into Tierney's allegations! The list of organizations putting reports on line include the following: National Academy of Sciences (http://national-academies.org/nas/eldorado), The University of Michigan (http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness/html), the University of California Santa Barbara Department of Anthropology (http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/chagnon.html and http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/ucsbprelininaryreport.pdf), The International Genetics and Epidemiology Society, the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (http://hbes.homepage.com), and the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M. (This is not a complete list.)

There is a great wealth of fact checking available and all of what I have read indicates that Tierney's charges are false and that Tierney is not a reliable source of information. In this short comment, I will summarize some of this material. Anyone who is seriously interested in evaluating Tierney's many allegations should study the reports on these web sites. Interested persons might also check the messages on the Evolutionary Psychology eGroup (http://www.egroups.com/message/evolutionary-psychology) where argument, both for and against Teirney's allegations, can be read and where one can find numerous links to relevant web sites. Recently W. W. Norton the publisher of Darkness in El Dorado has put up a web site on which Tierney offers answers to some of the criticism of his book (http://www.darknessineldorado.com/). I suggest looking at these sources before deciding to spend money on the book.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report written by Bruce Alberts, the President of the Academy, states "Although Darkness in El Dorado gives the appearance of being well-researched, in many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites." (Page 1) It further states "Mr. Tierney's misuse of source material and the factual errors and innuendoes in his book do a grave disservice to a great scientist [James Neel] and to science itself." (Page 6.) This is the first time that the National Academies has ever made a public statement on the integrity of a book and they interpreted their charter as limiting the scope of their statement to commenting on what Tierney says about the NAS and about former NAS member James Neel.

The University of Michigan appointed "a fact-finding committee of approximately 20 persons -physicians, epidemiologists, geneticists, biological anthropologists, ethnologists, ethnohistorians, archaeologists, documentary film specialists, and eyewitnesses to James Neel's and Napoleon Chagnon's field work...." It is posted as an appendage to a "Memo to the Neel Family" dated October 26, 2000. (The book was not yet published, and the committee's preliminary report is based on the galleys of Tierney's book.) This University of Michigan Committee defined the scope of its investigation more broadly and addressed the accusations against Chagnon as well. In a section of their web report entitled "Preliminary Conclusions" they state the following:

"We began this study assuming that, in Turner and Sponsel's words, we would be investigating 'an impending scandal' concerning flagrant wrongdoing by two celebrated scholars. Almost immediately, however, we discovered published evidence that the most serious allegations were false. Neel was not a eugenicist, did not cause the 1968 measles epidemic, and did not run nefarious experiments on unsuspecting human subjects. What he did was what any responsible physician would have done: vaccinate as many people as he could in a circle around the mission where the epidemic began. That these facts were available in the medical literature 30 years ago (Neel et al. 1970) made us wonder why Tierney had so badly distorted the facts. Perhaps it was because he had become an 'advocate,' to use his own words.
"As our work progressed, the major allegations against Chagnon also began to crumble. None of Timothy Asch's films had been staged, nor were any of them designed by Chagnon to teach the Yanomami how to be violent. Records of Yanomami violence go back long before Chagnon's birth, and resemble similar records among the Jivaro and Waorani. Chagnon is aware that his data on Yanomami violence have been misused by others for their own ends, and he repudiated this misuse in 1983. While it is certainly legitimate to offer alternatives to Chagnon's neo-Darwinian theoretical framework, it is hardly fair to hold him responsible for a Brazilian gold rush or Venezuelan government corruption."

The conclusions in the NAS and Michigan reports cited above are based on a large amount of fact checking. In a short comment of this sort, I can not recount Tierney's misuses of sources in detail. However, I will explain two just to give an idea of what Tierney does with sources. Both examples are taken from the University of California Santa Barbara Department of Anthropology (UCSB) preliminary report.

The first has to do with Tierney's use of an article by G. S. Wilson ("Measles as a Universal Disease," Amer. J of Diseases of Children 53: 219-23, 1962) to back up his claim that the Edmonston B measles vaccine is contraindicated. This is crucial to his broader argument that James Neel intentionally started a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo in 1968 by using this vaccine, and that he did this in order to observe its effect and test a eugenic theory. Here is what Tierney says:

"In 1961, the National Institutes of Health sponsored a conference on the Edmonston vaccine. The keynote speaker was G. S. Wilson, head of England's Public Health Laboratory Service, who warned of possible fatalities. And, in unusually blunt language, he said the test of a vaccine was whether 'the disturbance caused by the vaccination' was 'greater than that caused by the disease itself.' With most vaccines, the difference was obvious; in the case of the Edmonston strain, however, Wilson thought the difference between the disease and the vaccine was 'not so clear.' " (Tierney, p. 56)"

Following is a summary of what Wilson actually wrote. He states that, in many parts of Europe and America, measles has become so mild that even mild vaccine reactions might be worse than the disease. In other words, the problem is NOT that Edmonston B causes severe reactions, but rather that in Europe and America the disease causes very mild reactions. This is the situation in which the vaccine may be contraindicated. Tierney has deliberately misrepresented Wilson's meaning by omitting the fact that the vaccine is worse than the disease only under these recent European and American conditions. What about tropical populations like the Yanomamö? In the same paragraph that Tierney cites, Wilson says: "In the tropics, of course, the position is different. There the case fatality rate for measles is high, and a much stronger case can be made out for vaccination." Tierney fails to mention those two sentences, and as a result completely misrepresented the source he cites.

Here is another example from the UCSB report (p. 6 and p. 37 - 38). Tierney cites the ethnographic data in Elsa Redmond's study of the Jivaro to challenge Chagnon's finding that among the Yanomamo successful warriors have more wives and children. This is part of his broader argument that Chagnon has misrepresented Yanomamo warfare and its role in Yanomamo life. Tierney says:

"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." (p. 178.)

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 mates. The same is true of Jivaro war leaders who might have four to six wives.... Distinguished warriors also have more offspring, due mainly to their greater marital success." (Redmond, Tribal and Chiefly Warfare in South America, Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, 1994, p. 125)

The original source says the opposite of what Tierney reports.

People who have been checking Tierney's references have found this degree of misrepresentation typical. This kind of data falsification inspired the above statements from the NAS and Michigan reports about misuse of sources. Tierney has fifty-eight pages of footnotes "documenting" his assertions. Not all have been checked yet. However, enough have been investigated to make it clear that Tierney is an extremely unreliable source of information. Tierney's mass of footnotes has led some people to say the book is impressively documented. I disagree. Fifty-eight pages of falsified evidence do not constitute impressive documentation. Of course, some of his evidence can not be checked, mainly his numerous statements attributed to Yanomamo informants. However, if he is unreliable when quoting published sources, which can easily be investigated, what reason is there to think he is any more reliable when quoting sources that can not be investigated?

One might ask why Chagnon has been criticized so severely. An answer is not hard to locate. In the last section of his ethnography Yanomamo, Chagnon criticized the policies of the Salesian missionaries. The Salesians have been encouraging Yanomamo in remote villages to move closer to mission stations, which some have done. Chagnon, however, presents data showing that the effect of moving closer to the mission station is an increase in deaths from infectious diseases. He also criticizes the missionaries for occasionally giving shotguns to Yanomamo and thereby increasing the brutality of inter-village warfare. The missionaries reacted with a campaign of libel against Chagnon (See the Michigan report.) They mailed out anonymous packets of material to anthropologists and funding agencies. Many of the allegations in the anonymous packets distributed by the Salesians in 1993 now appear in Tierney's book. Tierney does not explain in detail what his relationship with the Salesian missionaries was, but it seems likely, judging from the situation in southern Venezuela, that they supplied him with interpreters and contacts for his travels among the Yanomamo. The Michigan report contains statements by Kim Hill (Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and an expert on South American Native Americans) to the effect that he saw the Salesians coaching Yanomamo to condemn Chagnon. One wonders whether they might not also have supplied some coaching to Tierney. It is also significant that Tierney thanks Professors Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel for comments and encouragement in his acknowledgements. Many of the accusations in the Salesian's packets have also been repeated by Turner and Sponsel in various publications (see the Michigan report). It appears that much of what has been used to attack Chagnon began with the Salesian missionaries.

Some anthropologists have another reason for attacking Chagnon's ethnography Yanomamo. Many anthropologists still believe in some version of the noble savage myth. They believe that pre-state, pre-literate societies are inherently peaceful and that this harmony somehow reflects a basically peaceful human nature. Chagnon's ethnography is one of the most widely read ethnographies in existence and it describes a pre-state, pre-literate society that is plagued with endemic inter-village warfare. Some people attack the messenger because they dislike the message.

Another source of antagonism toward Chagnon is his use of neo-Darwinian or sociobiological theory. In several studies, Chagnon has tested hypotheses derived from the theory of evolutionary and found that various aspects of Yanomamo behavior conform to evolutionary expectations. There is a strong bias among many anthropologists against the idea that human behavior is shaped by past evolution, and this aspect of Chagnon's research often angers anthropologists with this bias. While it would be legitimate and constructive for people to offer alternative non-evolutionary interpretation of Chagnon's research and to design research to test these alternatives, some anthropologists prefer ad hominem attacks instead.

Let me end by urging that no one reads Tierney's book without first reading the reports available on the web. Without reading these reports, most readers will not be aware that there is a wealth of data showing that Tierney's main allegations are utterly and completely false. These are all preliminary reports and the investigations will continue. Anyone wishing to evaluate Tierney's claims thoroughly should watch for the final reports. However, the preliminary reports are sufficient to demonstrate that Tierney is a totally unreliable source of information. I recommend not buying the book. Tierney spent eleven years researching this book, but its major claims have been proven false in a matter of weeks after its appearance. Is it really necessary to spend your money and time on a book that is that obviously fallacious? For those of you who feel you need to read the book despite my suggestion (which is your privilege), I suggest reading, or rereading, the latest edition (the fifth edition) of Chagnon's Yanomamo as well so you can compare. I think you will find the comparison illuminating.


Note of other relevant web sites added February 25, 2001:

1. Tierney's web site http://darknessineldorado.com/

2. Douglas Hume, Grad. Student at U. of Connecticut


The latter web site is especially thorough and useful.