Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Note: This is a three-part set of readings on Sociobiology and imperialism. Part I is my critique of the book Consilience, E.O. Wilson's latest statement of the frascist ideology and goals of sociobiology. Part II is an article from the British newspaper The Guardian reviewing Patrick Tierney's recent book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Tierney documents how a prominent U.S. anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, and physician, James Neel, exploited the indigenous Amazonian people, the Yanomami, and misrepresented them to further the ideological goals of sociobiology. Part III is an essay I posted on the Progressive Sociologists Network (PSN) analyzing the connections between Wilson, Chagnon, and Neel.



How Science is Perverted to Build Fascism: A Marxist Critique of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

Steve Rosenthal

Paper (revised) presented at the 1999 Meeting of the Southern Sociological Society

For twenty-five years Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has put forward the idea that it is human nature to be fascist. In his latest book Consilience (an archaic word that means combining), Wilson insists that sociobiology must be imposed on all academic disciplines.

E.O. Wilson is a Harvard professor emeritus of entomology, the study of insects. In the 1970s he updated the old social Darwinist ideology that human societies are shaped by the biological nature of humans. Just as the nature of ants creates colonies of queens, drones, workers, and slaves, the nature of humans creates racism, sexism, patriotism, wars, religion, and class exploitation. Wilson used this “revelation” to argue that efforts to fight against racism, sexism, and imperialism go against human nature and are thus exceedingly difficult, and to claim that communism is not scientific and cannot work. Wilson proudly says of himself, “At my core, I am a social conservative, a loyalist. I cherish traditional institutions, the more venerable and ritual-laden the better.”

Wilson put these arguments into Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975 by Harvard University Press and widely promoted by the popular media. Many natural and social scientists exposed human sociobiology as an unscientific attempt to defend the capitalist status quo as natural and unchangeable.

Because of these sharp critiques, Wilson reinvented himself as an environmentalist concerned about bio-diversity. A quarter century and five books later, Wilson today poses as a reasonable advocate of genetic and cultural “co-evolution” and as a proponent of genetic/environmental interaction. He pretends to reject biological determinism, social Darwinism, and eugenics. The ruling class has extolled Consilience as the crowning achievement of a visionary elder statesman of capitalist science. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal lavishly praised his call for the subjugation of the social sciences and the humanities to the natural sciences, and for the elevation of his pseudo-science to state religion. The Atlantic Monthly interviewed Wilson and published excerpts of Consilience.

The unifying concept of Consilience is human nature. According to Wilson, human nature “is the ereditary regularities of mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction and thus connect the genes to culture” (p. 164). Therefore, in all human societies we favor our own family, ethnic and religious group, impose male dominance, create hierarchies of status, rank, and wealth and rules for inheritance, promote the territorial expansion and defense of our society, and enter into contractual agreements (pp. 168-172). Recycling the main ideological assertions of Sociobiology, Wilson claims that racism, religious hatred, sexism, and war are not inevitable features of capitalism, but universal traits of our genetically evolved human nature.

The natural sciences, Wilson claims, have discovered these truths, and the social sciences and the humanities must adopt them in order to achieve “consilience.” Cognitive neuroscience, human behavioral genetics, evolutionary biology, and the environmental sciences are the four “bridges of consilience” from the natural sciences to the social sciences and humanities. Only “consilience” can rescue social scientists and humanists from “the pits of Marxism” and postmodernist relativism.

To illustrate “consilience,” Wilson interprets the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He writes that it was partly an example of “ethnic rivalry run amuck,” reflecting our genetically based tribal instincts. It also had a “deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography.” Population growth outstripped the carrying capacity of the land. “The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way.” And, Wilson concludes, “Rwanda is a microcosm of the world” (pp. 287-88).

Consider what Wilson omits from his analysis. Hutus and Tutsis intermarried centuries ago, and there is no biological distinction between them. European colonialists arbitrarily created an ethnic distinction and used the Tutsi minority to impose indirect rule on the Hutu majority. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed agricultural and financial reforms that shifted land use from subsistence food production to export crops such as coffee. Environmental scientists and demographers (specialists on population) have shown that famines and wars in Africa are the result of imperialism, not overpopulation. France, Egypt, South Africa, Russia, and other imperialists armed rival factions in Rwanda. Nationalist leaders in Rwanda recruited, incited, and armed the “teenage soldiers.” Pres. Clinton prevented the US Government and the UN from intervening to halt the genocide. Wilson blames genocide on human nature and overpopulation to let imperialists and local nationalists off the hook. Under the banner of “consilience” Wilson excludes from his analysis knowledge provided by history, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, demography, and environmental science.

Wilson similarly perverts the humanities. Consider his analysis of ethics. Ethical behavior for Wilson is patriotic behavior. Therefore, religion is “a necessary device of survival,” because it promotes submission to the group. Religion “is also empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism.” Moreover, humans by nature are easily indoctrinated and manipulated (pp. 245-260). The human brain, Wilson asserts, “is a stone-age organ.” It makes people “intuitive and dogmatic,” emotional and unscientific. These “preliterate traits are commonplace in citizens of modern industrial societies” (p. 208). Revealing a despicable elitist contempt for most of humanity, Wilson laments that human nature creates genocidal Nazis, who are easily indoctrinated with religious and nationalistic ideologies to become mass murderers, yet he urges us “to discipline the old ways of thought but never to abandon them” (p. 208).

Wilson also applied his sociobiological ideological framework to the US/NATO war in Yugoslavia. He spoke to a large audience at Emory University Medical School last spring (personal communication from a faculty member who was present) while the war in Yugoslavia was going on. Wilson explained ethnic cleansing as an expression of natural human religious dogmatism and tribalism, thereby justifying Western military intervention as a humanitarian effort. Wilson did not mention that United States and Western European leaders ruined the economy of Yugoslavia by the imposition of free market structural adjustment programs and promoted the breakup and division of Yugoslavia into small dependent neo-colonial states. Wilson did not explain that the US/NATO alliance wanted to assert strategic domination of the Balkans in order to remove the region from Russian influence and safeguard future oil pipelines to be built from the Caspian region into Western Europe. Wilson did not explain that Balkan rulers are fascist demagogues who diverted the anger of workers by making scapegoats of members of other Balkan nationalities and religions. Wilson ignored the multiethnic unity that was achieved by the Yugoslav partisans against fascism during World War II, because for him such multiethnic unity is a genetically impossibility.

If we recognize Wilson’s approach to human nature as an atrocious example of reification, how should we as sociologists analyze human nature? Humans create our nature through our history, our labor, and through our interaction with each other and with our environment. Although our brain is a product of evolution, there is no such thing as a fixed human nature. Before the invention of agriculture, our human ancestors lived for tens of thousands of years in small communal societies that had no state, private wealth, or contracts. There is no genetic basis for tribalism, racism, sexism, or other features of present societies. These ideologies and behaviors in the world today reflect the class interests of capitalist rulers, and millions of workers throughout the world have fought against them. We can develop a scientific outlook toward human nature, only if we have no ideological need to justify or perpetuate any aspect of class exploitation and social inequality.

What is a Marxist approach to ethics? Wilson’s sociobiological approach to ethics evades the concrete reality of workers’ subordination to capitalist rule by focusing on the relationship between the individual and society. Marxist ethics recognizes that what is good for the exploiting class is bad for the working class. Egalitarianism and internationalism are the ethical precepts of the working class. Patriotism, religion, racism, and sexism benefit the exploiting class. They enrich capitalists, blur class lines, and promote divisions within the working class. That is why Wilson wants to “discipline but never abandon” them.

How should we view the “unification of knowledge?” We should oppose “consilience” not to defend academic disciplines developed historically under capitalism, or to defend the postmodernist view that everything is relative. We should oppose Wilson’s “consilience,” because it is an attempt to unify the academic world under a fascist pseudo-science. Marxists strive to unify and expand our understanding of the world. In contrast to Wilson’s reductionist, mechanical materialist approach to science, dialectical materialism is the Marxist scientific method based on the reality that everything in the world is interconnected and in the process of changing.

In universities today capitalist control over science has been tightened up. Biotech, pharmaceutical, and military interests control public and private research funding, and pressures to obtain grants preoccupy most scientists. In the social sciences and the humanities, however, there are more minority and women faculty and students, and there is more critical and Marxist oriented thinking about society. Wilson wants to use “consilience” to whip the rest of the academic world into line for the ruling class. His sharpest ideological attacks are directed at Marxists.

Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, writing about the rise of fascism in Italy during the 1920s, called those who played a major role in helping the ruling class build ideological support for fascism “organic intellectuals.” E.O. Wilson is an organic intellectual, a “loyalist” who has dedicated his career to assisting the growth of fascism in the United States. Marxists led the anti-fascist struggle to defeat the eugenics movement that was the “crown jewel” of fascist pseudo-science during the first half of this century. Today we must organize to defeat Wilson’s attempts to make “sociobiological consilience” the academic centerpiece of a new period of fascism.



Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory’

Geneticist accused of letting thousands die in rainforest

Paul Brown, Environment correspondent

The Guardian (British Newspaper) Saturday September 23, 2000

Thousands of South American indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, in order to for US scientists to study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.

The astonishing story of genetic research on humans, which took 10 years to uncover, is likely to shake the world of anthropology to its core, according to Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University, who has read the proofs.

“In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology,” Prof Turner says in a warning letter to Louise Lamphere, the president of the American Anthropology Association (AAA).

The book accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people of Venezuela in the mid-60s, of using a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands.

Once the epidemic was under way, according to the book, the research team “refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit order from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help”.

The book, Darkness in El Dorado by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, is due to be published on October 1. Prof Turner, whose letter was co-signed by fellow anthropologist Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, was trying to warn the AAA of the impending scandal so the profession could defend itself.

Although Neel died last February, many of his associates, some of them authors of classic anthropology texts, are still alive.

The accusations will be the main focus of the AAA’s AGM in November, when the surviving scientists have been invited to defend their work. None have commented publicly, but they are asking colleagues to come to their defence.

One of the most controversial aspects of the research which allegedly culminated in the epidemic is that it was funded by the US atomic energy commission, which was anxious to discover what might happen to communities when large numbers were wiped out by nuclear war.

While there is no “smoking gun” in the form of texts or recorded speeches by Neel explaining his conduct, Prof Turner believes the only explanation is that he was trying to test controversial eugenic theories like the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele.

He quotes another anthropologist who read the manuscript as saying: “Mr. Tierney’s analysis is a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego, of lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence. It is a further extraordinary revelation of malicious and perverted work conducted under the aegis of the atomic energy commission.”

Prof Turner says Neel and his group used a virulent vaccine called Edmonson B on the Yanomani, which was known to produce symptoms virtually indistinguishable from cases of measles.

“Medical experts, when informed that Neel and his group used the vaccine in question on the Yanomami, typically refuse to believe it at first, then say that it is incredible that they could have done it, and are at a loss to explain why they would have chosen such an inappropriate and dangerous vaccine,” he writes.

“There is no record that Neel sought any medical advice before applying the vaccine. He never informed the appropriate organs of the Venezuelan government that his group was planning to carry out a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do.


“Neither he nor any other member of the expedition has ever explained why that vaccine was used, despite the evidence that it actually caused or, at a minimum, greatly exacerbated the fatal epidemic.”

Prof Turner says that Neel held the view that “natural” human society, as seen before the advent of large-scale agriculture, consists of small, genetically isolated groups in which dominant genes - specifically a gene he believed existed for “leadership” or “innate ability” - have a selective advantage.

In such an environment, male carriers of this gene would gain access to a disproportionate number of females, reproducing their genes more frequently than less “innately able” males. The result would supposedly be a continual upgrading of the human genetic stock.

He says Neel believed that in modern societies “superior leadership genes would be swamped by mass genetic mediocrity”.

“The political implication of this fascistic eugenics is clearly that society should be reorganised into small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge into dominance, eliminating or subordinating the male losers in the competition for leadership and women, and amassing harems of brood females.” Prof Turner adds.

In the memo he says: “One of Tierney’s more startling revelations is that the whole Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the atomic energy commission’s secret programme of experiments on human subjects.

“Neel, the originator of the project, was part of the medical and genetic research team attached to the atomic energy commission since the days of the Manhattan Project.”

James Neel was well-known for his research into the effects of radiation on human subjects and personally headed the team that investigated the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs on survivors and their children.

According to Prof Turner, the same group also secretly carried out experiments on human subjects in the US. These included injecting people with radioactive plutonium without their knowledge or permission.


“This nightmarish story - a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele) - will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial,” he says.

“This book should... cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the western world... This should never be allowed to happen again.”

Yesterday Professor Turner told the Guardian it was unfortunate that the confidential memo had been leaked, but it had accomplished its original purpose in getting a full response from the AAA.

A public forum would be held at its AGM in November to discuss the book its revelations and courses of action.

In a statement yesterday the association said “The AAA is extremely concerned about these allegations. If proven true they would constitute a serious violation of Yanomami human rights and our code of ethics. Until there is a full and impartial review and discussion of the issues raised in the book, it would be unfair to express a judgment about the specific allegations against individuals that are contained in it.

“The association is anticipating conducting an open forum during our annual meeting to provide an opportunity for our members to review and discuss the issues and allegations raised in the book.”



From: "Steve Rosenthal"

To: PSN@csf.colorado.edu

Date: Thu, 28 Sep 2000 21:39:27 +0000

Subject: Yanomami and Sociobiology

The controversy in Anthropology over the forthcoming book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney, is quickly spreading beyond academic disciplines. Today's (9/28) NY Times carried a major story, "Book Seeks to Indict Anthropologists Who Studied Brazil Indians."

I am probably like most PSN'ers in that I haven't had the time to sort out this matter as fully as I would like to. I think it is very important, but it requires a lot of investigation to work through the arguments against and in defense of Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel.

I do not know at this point whether Chagnon and Neel started a deadly measles epidemic among the Yanomami in order to test eugenical theories. I'm not even sure Patrick Tierney's book makes this charge. Actually, this question serves to distract us from dealing with the main issues.

Historically, a rough division of labor developed in Western capitalist societies between sociology and anthropology. Ruling classes used sociologists to spy on and help control the working class within their own societies. They used anthropologists to spy on and help control "non-Western" peoples. After World War II, during the Cold War, the U.S. ruling class raised this to a higher level. They developed phisticated multi-disciplinary teams of scientists whose projects served the interests of U.S. imperialism. For example, in the late 1960s, at the same time that Chagnon and Neel were studying the Yanomami, the CIA was inancing social scientists through Project Camelot to assess the threat of revolution throughout Latin America. The U.S. Government was financing a team of experts in South Vietnam, including anthropologists and sociologists, who studied rural villages, trained agents, forcibly relocated peasants, planned a "land reform" that returned land from peasants to landlords, and recruited ethnic "Montagnards" to fight Vietnamese communists. So we should not be shocked by allegations that U.S. government funded scientists might have been up to serious hanky-panky in Brazil and Venezuela in the late 1960s.

Whatever may turn out to be true about measles vaccines and eugenics theories, it is clear that Chagnon and Neel were sociobiologists and racists. In fact, their research on the Yanomami, which has for years served in introductory Sociology textbooks to illustrate the "culture shock" that "Westerners" feel when exposed to the "exotic culture" of strange peoples, also served as crucial underpinning for the founding of sociobiology during the 1970s.

During the mid-1970s my wife and I were active in early efforts by the International Committee Against Racism and Science for the People to critique and oppose sociobiology. I gave a paper at the 1977 ASA meeting critiquing sociobiology. I collected a lot of books and articles by sociobiologists. In my ollection is Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, edited by Napoleon Chagnon and William Irons. This 1979 book is comprised of papers given at two symposia entitled "Sociobiology and Human Social Organization" at the 1976 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Chagnon contributed no less than four articles to this collection, and Edward O. Wilson contributed a summative article predicting and advocating the merging of anthropology and biology, an early version of "consilience."

The papers in this volume dealing with the Yanomami make clear that the work of Chagnon and Neel played a crucial role in the establishment of sociobiology. Sociobiologists analyzed "primitive" neolithic people in order to put forward their theories of kin selection and altruism. In order to argue that sociality or cooperation is reducible to maximizing reproductive fitness, they sought to demonstrate that, as Chagnon put it, "people behave in such a way that they consistently favor close kin, people with whom they have overlapping genetic interests."

Chagnon and Neel, in their studies of the Yanomami, were crucially concerned with documenting patterns of male impregnation of females, and of males fighting with males over females. Their analysis of the famous "axe fight" is devoted to making the argument that other males tooks sides based on genetic relatedness, and that those most closely related to the two initial combatants were the first to support their kin.

The entire edifice of sociobiology is built upon these arguments. Positing a genetically anchored human nature is fundamental to all sociobiological arguments. Thus, Edward O. Wilson, in his 1975 Sociobiology, cited Neel and Chagnon's work on the Yanomami in his chapter on "Dominance Systems" to support his argument that dominance systems confer reproductive advantage on dominant males and are therefore rooted in evolutionary biology. The clear message, of course, was that sexism, racism, and class domination are natural, and therefore efforts to eradicate them are futile and unscientific.

Neel, like E. O. Wilson, received a National Medal of Science award from the U.S. government, an honor reserved for the few "organic intellectuals" who have made the greatest contributions to their capitalist masters.

I have also recently reread sections of Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil, by Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett, a prodigious work that took over a decade to research and write. Nowhere is a more persuasive case made that U.S. imperialists made the most elaborate use of both scientists and missionaries in conquering the indigenous people of Latin America and plundering the resources of their lands.

I have seen an estimate that there were between five and nine million indigenous people in the Amazon region of Brazil before the arrival of imperialists. Now apparently fewer than 250,000 remain, a genocidal process comparable to that carried out throughout Central American, the Caribbean, and North America.

Chagnon apparently shed no tears over the rapid disappearance of peoples like the Yanomami. He wrote, "The primitive world is, after all, on the wane and unless research is done now, only questions will remain." In other words, Chagnon's only concern over the extinction of "primitive" peoples was that he complete his sociobiological field studies before they disappeared altogether.

One of the defenders of Neel and Chagnon wrote the following recently:

"Neel was a Cold Warrior deluxe, and an elitist, who was confident about his hierarchical rankings of races, sexes, civilizations, fields of knowledge production, and forms of social organization. His work drew heavily on the notion of the Yanomama as "primitive" and as a natural population which could be used to understand the 'conditions of human evolution'."

If that is what Neel's defenders say about him, we need not wait until we know whether he and Chagnon were also irresponsible mass murderers before condemning and repudiating the kind of science they represent.