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Internet Source: The Dartmouth Review, October 30, 2000
Source URL: http://www.dartreview.com/issues/10.30.00/chagnon.html

Napoleon Chagnon's Waterloo: Anthropology on Trial

Andrew Grossman

James Neel was awakened by a messenger at 2:00 AM on February 16, 1968. Neel, the foremost geneticist of his generation, had been conducting genetic research amongst the Yanomami of Venezuela. But, for a time, his research would halt. A note from a colleague warned of an approaching epidemic; measles, foreign to the native peoples of South America, caught their immune systems unaware. The Yanomami were being ravaged.

According to his field notes, Neel spent the next two hours developing a plan to control the spread of the sickness. Movement from the port towns inland would be restricted. Treatments--mainly penicillin--would be offered. And, as possible, he and his team would use the vaccinations they had brought with them, as trade items, to protect as many as possible from the epidemic.

"It is clear from his notes that the epidemic drastically disrupted his field research," wrote Susan Lindee of the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently examined Neel's field notes from that expedition. "It is clear that he was at times frustrated, even angry, about the situation. A measles outbreak emphatically did not facilitate his research."

Lindee's research and strong words were prompted by an as-yet-unreleased book by journalist Patrick Tierney. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon is an account of how "self-serving anthropologists and obsessed scientists placed one of the Amazon basin's oldest tribes on the cusp of extinction," according to its publisher's blurb. It is an exposé: "Patrick Tierney describes how the Yanomami's internecine warfare was triggered by repeated visits of leading anthropologists...as well as by the Atomic Energy Commission, which wished to use Yanomami blood relations in studies in the mid-1960s." Tierney also alleges that Neel and one of his protégés, Napoleon Chagnon (pictured on cover), spread measles among the Yanomami to prove their perverse eugenic theories. It is a revolutionary analysis: "This is an epic, compelling work sure to shake the very foundations of American anthropology."

But is it true?

Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel, professors at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, respectively, inadvertently alerted the discipline to Tierney's book in early September, when an e-mail they had written to American Anthropological Association officials tore across anthropological e-mail lists. The letter warned of an "impending scandal" and "corruption...unparalleled in the history of Anthropology."

Turner and Sponsel, basing their conclusions on galleys of Darkness, hit hard with accusations. They claim "a genealogical connection between the the [sic] human experiments carried out by the AEC, and Neel's and Chagnon's Yanomami project." Chagnon, a cultural anthropologist who worked with Neel and later achieved renown for his writings on the Yanomami, and Neel are presumed guilty of having "exacerbated, and probably started, the epidemic of measles that killed 'hundreds, perhaps thousands' (Tierney's language--the exact figure will never be known) of Yanomami." Chagnon is further charged with having "cooked and re-cooked" his data to paint a picture of the Yanomami as "The Fierce People"--aggressive and competitive--an image which haunts them and threatens their welfare to this day.

In the world of academia, where a misspelling can touch off gender/race/ethnicity wars, Turner's and Sponsel's accusations were as blunt and powerful as Kebowa's ax, which rendered immobile his adversary Tourawa in Chagnon and Tim Asch's film, "The Ax Fight."

Excerpts from the book were published in the New Yorker in early October. Anthropology's dirty laundry was put out to air.


James Neel was less interested in culture than genetics. As one of several geneticists who had rescued the discipline from eugenics, Neel was renowned for his work on genetic mutation among Japanese atomic blast survivors and their descendants.

His work with the Yanomami, from 1966 to 1971, was organized around a multi-disciplinary approach to approximate the origins of human genetic variability, assuming that the Yanomami's social structure reflected that of primitive hunter-gatherers.

The Yanomami had been struck by measles before but only sporadically. Few carried the necessary antibodies to fend off the disease. The measles outbreak in the region began in November of 1967, fully two months before Neel's arrival in the field. It was for this reason that he had chosen the vaccine as a trading item, although Neel's concern for the Yanomami certainly figured into the decision. In his 1994 memoir, Physician to the Gene Pool, he wrote that the Yanomamis' lack of measles antibodies "posed a major potential threat, since the tragic impact of measles on what is termed a 'virgin soil’ population has been well-documented."

Neel heard reports of a nearby measles outbreak on January 20, 1968, while supplying his expedition in Caracas. He vaccinated several children on the 25. Three weeks later, he would be awoken and alerted that the epidemic had reached the Yanomami.

Fortunately, Neel was prepared. Intending to vaccinate Yanomami as recompense for participation in his studies, he had brought with him 2,000 doses of the Edmonston B vaccine and gamma globulin (which lessens post-vaccination fever) and ample supplies of penicillin and terramycin. He distributed all liberally.

For two weeks, his research was interrupted so that he could slow the spread of the disease. And his efforts were successful: the mortality rate among Yanomami was only 8.8 percent, much lower than the predicted 30 to 36 percent norm for untreated measles.

Patrick Tierney, however, paints a more sinister picture of Neel's involvement with the Yanomami.

Neel's research was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, and Tierney alleges that its real motivation was to "determine the effects of radiation on the genetic material of cells." Turner and Sponsel, in their letter to the AAA evaluating Tierney's book, describe Neel's work with the Yanomami as "an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commissions [sic] secret program of experiments on human subjects." They label Neel "the originator and director of the project."

While Neel had earlier researched the effects of radiation on humans--he had used as subjects Japanese who had been exposed in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki--no subjects had been exposed to radiation for the purposes of the research.

Neel's AEC funding was surprising to few at the time. He had worked with the AEC before. His research with the Yanomami would further understanding of natural genetic mutation. Additionally, Diane Paul, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts and author of Controlling Human Heredity, about eugenics, points out that "in some sub-fields of biology, the AEC funded most researchers."

Many are skeptical of the importance of the AEC link. In a widely circulated email, University of California-Riverside anthropology professor Alan Fix wrote, "Where 'probable truths emerge by implication,' I cringe."

Neel's work with the Yanomami was concerned with genetic mutation, the source of intra-specie diversity, but only from natural sources, not radiation. He concerned himself with the genealogy of the tribes, how villages came together and apart, how individuals chose marriage partners, and how all of these systems worked together to generate such diversity.

Nonsensically, then, Tierney labels Neel a "self-professed eugenicist"--interested in the Yanomami only because of their "superior genetic material," the result of living by the "survival-of-the-fittest principle." Neel would test this theory, according to Tierney, by measuring their responses to the Edmonston B vaccine, which was known, in some cases, to cause high fevers, especially when given without gamma globulin.

Tierney alleges that Neel vaccinated 40 Yanomami without gamma globulin, giving them fevers that "could not be distinguished from the fevers of natural measles." By using the Edmonston B vaccine, Neel had given them measles and created for himself the perfect opportunity to study the spread of a contact virus through a society of superior genetic stock. Turner and Sponsel wrote that Neel may have "thought that the genetically superior members of such might prove to have different levels of immunity and thus higher rates of survival to imported diseases." They allege that he went forward with such a twisted experiment, a plot that Juno Gregory, writing in Salon, deems a "genocidal conspiracy."

But was Neel even a eugenicist? His work and writing indicates otherwise. Paul considers Neel to be "on the (other) extreme of a continuum" from eugenics. Neel's papers criticizing eugenics go back to the 1930s, when he was a graduate student. Further, as a self-proclaimed "physician to the gene pool" and known widely as "the father of modern genetics," he advocated policies, such as "egalitarian control of population growth," to maintain humankind's wide genetic diversity.

Even had Neel wanted to touch off a contact epidemic among the Yanomami, Edmonston B, even without gamma globulin, would have been a poor choice. According to Dr. Samuel Katz, developer of the vaccine and chairman of pediatrics at Duke University Medical School, "measles vaccine viruses (Edmonston B...and any other descendants of Edmonston) have never been shown to be transmissible from a vaccine recipient to a susceptible contact." The vaccine itself poses little risk to those inoculated. "Despite the administration of millions of doses of vaccines to children throughout the world, the only deaths known to have occurred were in several youngsters who were under intense therapy for their leukemia and more recently a young adult with AIDS," wrote Dr. Katz. Among healthy recipients, the strongest reactions elicited from the vaccine are fever, symptoms of a urinary tract infection, and evanescent rash.

Mark Papania, a Centers for Disease Control measles expert quoted by Tierney is even more blunt: "He took what I said out of context... There is no evidence that it would be possible for that vaccine to cause an epidemic."

So what caused the epidemic? Although specifics from so long ago are difficult to pin down, measles had clearly been in the region for several months prior to Neel's arrival, most likely introduced by Brazilian missionaries--a scenario more likely than that implicating Neel, even for those vaccinations that had been given without gamma globulin.

Still, Neel took seriously the threat that he might be held liable for the 1968 measles epidemic. Lindee found his notes and papers from the 1968 trip in a file marked "Yanomama-1968-insurance." Lindee suspects that Neel learned of Tierney's research before his death in February of this year.


The brunt of Tierney's allegations fall on Neel's associate, Napoleon Chagnon, whose work on the Yanomami has been a mainstay in introductory anthropology courses since he published Yanomamo: The Fierce People in 1968.

"The thing that impressed me most was the importance of aggression in their culture and way of life," wrote Chagnon in the first chapter of his book. Much of the rest of the work is spent explaining the intricacies of Yanomami warfare, from raiding to wife-beating to ax duels. In Chagnon's formulation, Yanomami culture pivots on the focal point of respect, which is had by threats and, when necessary, violence: "The fact that the Yanomamo live in a chronic state of warfare is reflected in their mythology, ceremonies, settlement pattern, political behavior, and marriage practices."

Chagnon's interpretation of Yanomami society has been criticized as oversimplification. Others claim it to be outright misrepresentation, Chagnon's own conception of what hunter-gatherer societies (although it should be noted that the Yanomami gardened extensively--plantains, and likely maize before that) should be like and not, as he once put it, "all the crap about the Noble Savage."

Yet, Chagnon's writing is engaging, easy to understand, and conveys clearly the anthropologist's culture shock at living with the true Other, untempered by discussions of theory, philosophy, or other graduate-level concerns. The Fierce People is, as many have remarked, Indiana Jones-style anthropology--exciting and not altogether unscholarly. Hence its popularity as an introductory text.

In an age of absolute relativity and enforced multiculturalism, Chagnon's candidness is otherworldly. "I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!," wrote Chagnon of his first meeting with the Bisaasi-teri Yanomami, whom he studied.

His mentor, Neel, had written in a 1970 Science article about the evolutionary mechanisms of primitive man, using his Yanomami research as a guide. A section, "Polygyny and Genetic Significance of Differential Fertility," stands out. Genealogical data collected by Chagnon indicates that "polygyny begets polygyny"--that is, the sons of men with multiple wives are more likely themselves to have multiple wives. Neel proposed that "since the number of wives a man obtains and holds also depends on personal attributes, unquestionably determined genetically to some extent, here is an example of an interaction between the genetic system and the social system." In writing this, Neel was to foreshadow the vicious sociobiology debates that would take place nearly a decade later over the genetic basis of human behavior.

And Chagnon was to reinvigorate the debates in 1988 with the publication of "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population" in Science, in which he presents data linking individual success in tribal warfare to success in reproduction, in effect proving Neel's theory. Further, Edward Wilson, author of the infamous (within the social sciences) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, contributed the foreword to Chagnon's 1992 book, Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden.

Chagnon had proposed a male-based model of early human evolution, framed by Neel's ideas and filled with his own data from the Yanomami. Males would compete for access to nubile females through warfare--the losers would be removed from the gene pool unmercifully.

While cultural anthropologists had been willing to excuse Neel's work from the early seventies because he was not one of them--a geneticist dabbling far afield--Chagnon's paper struck long after the lines in the sociobiology debate had been drawn. Chagnon, so far as most anthropologists were concerned, had come out on the wrong side, espousing a genetic determinism at odds with postmodern notions of the primacy of culture and environment.

Attitudes in anthropology had changed, markedly, since the late sixties, but Chagnon hadn't changed with them. The anthropologist no longer aspired to be an Indiana Jones but was instead concerned with native peoples' rights, Marxist analysis, and other nontraditional approaches. Chagnon was a throwback to an earlier area and, with his popularity, a black eye on the new, sensitive face of the discipline.

Chagnon had conducted research with the Yanomami in the sixties and seventies. An anthropologist in the field assumed the roles of participant and observer--to an extent, he must involve himself in his subject's activities. He is dependent on the people whom he researches, both for information and for assistance in living in such a foreign and, hence, hostile environment. To repay subjects for their time, assistance, and information and to ease social ingratiation, the anthropologist in the field relies on trade goods, whether cigarettes, shovels, foreign food, or, in Chagnon's case, axes and machetes. These were the items for which the Yanomami were willing to break their strongest taboo, the sharing of ancestors' genealogical information.

Tierney quotes extensively from Brian Ferguson's 1995 Yanomami Warfare: A Political History. Ferguson attempts to reconstruct the development of Yanomami hostilities as competition for prestige goods and weapons, specifically machetes and axes. He analyzes, at great length, Chagnon's contribution to the region's instability, concluding that much warfare and many raids resulted from Chagnon's anthropological work.

Tierney accuses Chagnon specifically of instigating raids between villages, bribing the Yanomami to perform certain ceremonies, and, when all else failed, simply falsifying his data. According to Ferguson, as paraphrased by Tierney, "Chagnon stirred up village rivalries by behaving like a regional big man and an 'un-Yanomami...wild card on the political scene.'"

To begin with, was Chagnon's field technique inappropriate? According to his The Fierce People, the only trade goods the Yanomami wanted were steel axes and machetes, which were demanded unendingly and often stolen, or "borrowed," from the anthropologist's hut.

The decision to trade axes and machetes was likely uncontroversial. "I don't think at the time anybody would have thought twice," claims Kirk Endicott, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth who has conducted fieldwork with the Batek in Malaysia. "[Dispensing weapons] was a mistake, but probably more on the level of blundering," says Endicott.

Further, John Tooby writes in Slate that "Chagnon's contributions...were dwarfed by all the other sources of such items, such as the military, who hired Yanomamo laborers, and especially the vast mission system, which imports boatloads of machetes and other goods, and even has its own airline."

Nor are the bribery charges straightforward. Did Chagnon bribe the Yanomami to perform ceremonies? Or did he compensate them for their time and assistance? The distinction is a delicate one. Tierney quotes Chagnon's filmmaker collaborator, Tim Asch, on the staging of his film, "The Feast." By his account, Chagnon convinced the Patanowa-teri tribe to move to a village near the Orinoco River more accessible to his project. Asch did not claim, however, that the rituals depicted in his film were inauthentic. Another Asch anecdote that has circulated (Asch died in 1994), reveals the conflict in "The Ax Fight" to have been a surprise to him and Chagnon (apparent itself to any viewer of the film).

Chagnon's data, especially from his 1988 Science article, has been a source of great debate since their publication. His numbers have been alternately bolstered and debunked many times over. Tierney adds little to the debate, other than to quote Chagnon's detractors at great length.

Times have changed in anthropology. Endicott notes that "The whole code of ethics in anthropology didn't really emerge until the seventies," after Chagnon had completed much of his fieldwork. Especially undeveloped at the time was the concept of "informed consent." Anthropologists today explain to their informants how the information they collect will be used--specifically, how it might be used against them and what the repercussions might be.

Tierney charges that Chagnon's research, misrepresenting the Yanomami's aggressiveness, has been directly responsible for the tribes' poor relations with the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments, which have taken from Yanomami use large parcels of land as part of the Amazonian gold rush. Tierney uses as proof his own experiences with the Yanomami, whom he's worked with as a "human-rights activist" on their behalf. But are the Yanomami of the nineties, many of whom are missionized, who have descended from the mountains to the rivers, who have had so much contact with outside culture, the same, culturally, as their parents? It is unclear whether meaningful comparisons can be made of Yanomami raiding activity now and in the past.

By today's standards, delicate as they are, Chagnon's work is an ethical mess. He became an active participant in Yanomami culture, involving himself in village politics and inter-tribal relations--activity that anthropologists today would avoid.

The conspiracies that Tierney concocts, from trying to kill the Yanomami with viruses to instigating warfare to trying to ruin them politically, however, are elaborate and unlikely. Chagnon is just an anthropologist, and a well-intentioned one at that, who has spoken repeatedly on the need to reverse the encroachment of industrialized society onto the Yanomami's lands. He laments, in the third edition of The Fierce People, that when "sovereign, primitive culture...disappears, it is gone forever, a page torn from human history," and considers it "a distinct privilege and onerous responsibility to have been able to read that historical page when it was still in the book." Chagnon's motives and emotions are incompatible with Tierney's grandiose, murderous schemes.

If Chagnon is guilty of anything, it is of refusing to kowtow to anthropology's intellectual hegemony and the anti-scholastic demands of the native rights movement.

The quarrel, then, between Chagnon and his detractors is a political one, borne of intense rivalries, inflated egos, and, on some level, genuine ideological and methodological difference.

Marketing Darkness

Gregory Finnegan, a librarian at Harvard's Tozzer library, noted that a Library of Congress record had been created for Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rain Forest by Patrick Tierney, scheduled to be published in 1995 by Viking. The book was never released. Was Tierney dropped from Viking, the publisher of his first book, The Highest Alter, upon completion of the manuscript? Viking refused to comment on Tierney.

W. W. Norton & Company, Tierney's new publisher, recognizing the sensational nature of Tierney's accusations, chose reviewers accordingly. Terence Turner, co-author of the e-mail "to describe [Tierney's] allegations" (as Turner later put it), has feuded with Chagnon for years, characterizing him previously as "a sociopath who slanders those who help the Yanomami without regard to the Yanomami themselves" and "a liar whose lies damage the Yanomami." Likewise, Chagnon has criticized Turner as "forfeiting all credibility as an anthropologist." Chagnon and Turner's remarks at the 1994 meeting of the AAA read like verbal fisticuffs.

Similarly, Chagnon and Leslie Sponsel, the other author of the e-mail, have sparred before as well, in print as well as in person.

The sensationalistic nature of Darkness in El Dorado was no less evident to the editors of the New Yorker, where excerpts were published. According to Chagnon, at one point the magazine offered to publish his response alongside Tierney's article to avoid a libel lawsuit, an unusual offer from a magazine usually confident in its reporters and fact-checking. In any case, the offer was never consummated; Tierney's piece--modified from Turner's and Sponsel's original characterization and containing excerpts from the many e-mails that had circulated in the two weeks before its publication--ran without comments from Chagnon in the October 9 issue of the New Yorker.

Chagnon is currently in consultation with lawyers and may sue the New Yorker, Tierney, Norton, and unnamed others for libel.

The Future

Darkness in El Dorado, originally scheduled for release in early October, will now be available on November 16, according to Norton. A Norton representative, quoted by the Associated Press, downplayed Tierney's measles accusations, noting that the book sent to reviewers like Turner and Sponsel was an uncorrected proof.

The book has already been nominated for a National Book Award.

Neel, mercifully, died before these accusations arose. The future, immediate and otherwise, is unclear for Chagnon, who retired last year from duties at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Chagnon has been invited to participate at the next meeting of the AAA in November, in a Committee on Human Rights open forum. He fears that it may degenerate into "a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait."

Also invited are Patrick Tierney, Terence Turner, and Leslie Sponsel.

Chagnon is currently at work on his own book, The Noble Savage, to be published by Simon and Schuster later this year, in which he plans to rebut Tierney's accusations.

Neel's and Chagnon's reputations, although certainly harmed in the public eye, haven't suffered extensively within the discipline.

Recent e-mail messages sent over mailing lists reflect a backlash against the more serious of Tierney's claims. Further, "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," according to Kent Flannery of the NAS, are at work now at the University of Michigan to debunk Tierney's more outlandish claims. An informal, unofficial report is already circulating on the Internet (and available for download at http://www.dartreview.com); a final version, abbreviated, will probably be released to the public soon.

More so than any other group of professionals, anthropologists are aware of the effects of perspective and political motivations on objectivity. Tierney's grand accusations amount to, as one mailing list participant implied, "an X-files theory of history"--a mess of misplaced causality, unlikely conspiracies, and misleading appearances.

The debates will begin anew when Darkness in El Dorado is actually published, albeit freed from the ivory tower and in a more public forum. The commentary will be fast and furious--with reviews promised by the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and many other mainstream publications--and may influence the future practice of the social sciences, injecting caution and apprehension where curiosity once ruled.