Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: The Kansas City Star, March 9, 2013
Lightning rod sets up camp at MU
By Darryl Levings
Who would have thought that anthropologists could fire more poisoned barbs than the Amazon Indians they study?
One of the best known and most controversial of this squabbling scientific clan, Napoleon A. Chagnon, has just joined the University of Missouri’s Department of Anthropology. Coincidentally, a few weeks later came the release of his memoir, “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.”
Now 74, Chagnon is setting up camp in Columbia, a research professor preparing to wade into the seminar rooms to relate again what he once found in the rain forests of southern Venezuela.
“He is a very high-profile anthropologist, no doubt,” said department chairman R. Lee Lyman, and not just because Chagnon’s 1968 book — “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” — was read by more than a million college undergraduates over the decades.
Chagnon also has been a scorched but unbending lightning rod at the center of an academic tempest over evolutionary anthropology. In Darwin’s world (and Chagnon’s), where the fastest, fiercest, smartest and perhaps cruelest survive to pass down their genes, what does this mean to human nature today?
Those arguing against this sociobiology fiercely contend our behavior and culture are rooted in our environment — or, at least, one cannot credibly discern the effects of a “mean gene” from a war-ax-wielding ancestor in the family tree.
Beyond his research into rain forest genealogy, a cloud was cast over Chagnon’s methods, as well as his personal dealings with the peoples. He’s been called brilliant, incompetent, swashbuckler, braggart, rebel and sociopath.
“I’ve been responding to all these academic criticisms all my career. I unflinchingly defend the scientific method,” Chagnon noted in an interview last week. “A prominent academic told me that I’ve changed the face of anthropology and caused a paradigm shift in the social sciences.”
His election last spring to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences was taken as vindication by many. When accepting the honor, he remarked: “In the end, my defense of the scientific method won.”
But the academic war cries hardly were silenced. Last month, Marshall D. Sahlins, a retired and highly regarded anthropologist at the University of Chicago, resigned his membership in the august academy in protest, condemning Chagnon’s inclusion as a “large moral and intellectual blunder.”
And so it goes. A posting on the Chronicle of Higher Education says: “Take sides with (or against) Napoleon Chagnon here.”
Bringing to the table Chagnon and his contributions to evolutionary theory shows the University of Missouri’s hunger to move into “the high echelons of anthropology departments,” as Lyman puts it.
“If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes. The Darwinian perspective might give us unique insight. Chagnon was one of the founders of that approach. Unfortunately, it became a political issue as opposed to a scholastic issue. It was heresy.”
Chagnon and Hobbes
Doing his first field work as a University of Michigan graduate student, Chagnon posited in “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” that the isolated tribe existed in lives of stress and brutality, “in a state of chronic warfare,” mostly over the chance to kidnap women from neighboring villages.
No romantic primitivism, no utopia here. What he described was the “state of nature” of “war of all against all” suggested by the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “in which one suffered through lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Chagnon seems to have reached this conclusion almost immediately, writing of his first confrontation in 1964 with “filthy, hideous” warriors, who in turn were startled by the large white man and so drew their bows at him. He still likes to relate how they were covered with green slime — that is, dripping mucus from a hallucinogen blown up their noses — and had just returned from a bloody, club-wielding, woman-snatching raid against another clan.
“Noble Savages,” his new book, looks back on his years of observations moving from shabono to shabono in the anthropological “Wild West” of the South American jungles. Its last chapters sum up, too, how he and his empirical work were stoned by some of his academic peers.
“It’s a heck of a good basic anthropological study and it’s written in a way anyone can understand it,” said Lyman.
The New York Times’ science section called it “a beautifully written adventure story.”
But “Noble Savages” infuriates some of his peers anew. In a New York Times Book Review last month, Professor Elizabeth Povinelli, an anthropologist at Columbia University, blistered Chagnon for his attitude toward the Indians.
“Does their pain and grief matter less even if we believe, as he seems to, that they were brutal Neolithic remnants in a land that time forgot?” she asked. “By the time the reader makes it to the sections on the Yanomamö’s political organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating Chagnon’s soiled image.”
Chagnon dismisses Povinelli as anti-science and throws scorn on the charge that he has painted the natives in an unfair light.
“Apparently, to be an acceptable Indian, he can’t fart, belch, perspire; he must be as clean as the driven snow. And he can’t steal his neighbor’s wife. He can’t do a lot of things that even we do.”
He said many of his detractors “were jealous of my success and my career. Most accusations are made against me by people who have never seen a Yanomamö.”
Perhaps, but some of his critics have worked the shabonos themselves.
Much of the criticism, his supporters say, began during the Vietnam War when the “Ugly American” was seen by Marxists and the politically correct as the aggressor against other peoples of the world. But with Chagnon’s old-fashioned swagger and theories about Indian violence, one suggested, he was “scarcely indistinguishable from a conquistador, at least when you squint at both in the dim jungle light.”
“The Yanomamö are now very famous, mostly as a result of my work,” he said.
But detractors decry Chagnon’s descriptions of the tribe, saying his work encouraged gold hunters to take over the Yanomamö lands in northern Brazil — why preserve such a “savage” way of life?
Even the title of his first best-selling book, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” came under fire, to which Chagnon, who said he was threatened various times, replied that the Indians describe themselves as the waitiri, translated as “fierce and valiant.”
Peers accused him of exaggerating the violence, even being the root of some of it. One foe quoted one Yanomamö as saying: “Chagnon is fierce. Chagnon is very dangerous. He has his own personal war.”
The lanky, shotgun-carrying “Shaki” — the Indians’ name for an annoying bee — gave out steel fish hooks, knives and axes to those who cooperated. These items were precious to those metal-poor tribesmen, but they could cause jealousy and anger.
One Rutgers anthropologist, R. Brian Ferguson, who tracked over some of Chagnon’s ground, believes the Indians he studied had already been disrupted by contacts with the outside world, such as introduced diseases, which explained much of the violence. Ferguson suggested further that it was not women and reproductive opportunity that explained the pattern of warfare, but the struggle over steel tools provided by missionaries and scientists.
But colonial Spaniards noted the Yanomamö raids too, and similar pre-state warfare was observed in New Guinea and other primitive places. All the back-and-forth arguments seem as endless as the Amazon.
As John Tooby, a faculty colleague at Santa Barbara, wrote, the Yanomamö were hardly a petri dish of purity into which Chagnon alone “sneezed.”
‘Killers have more kids’
Chagnon’s determination to build a genealogy of as many of the 25,000 scattered tribe members he could reach was either ticklish or callous, depending on whom one talks to — because the Yanomamö believe it is taboo to speak the names of the dead. He tells a story about leaving one village only to discover at the next how he had been tricked. When he mentioned some
recently acquired names, hilarity ensured. He was repeating the Yanomamö words for genitalia.
But no one was laughing after Chagnon used those family trees for a 1988 article in the journal Science, arguing that the killers among the Yanomamö fathered three times as many children as the less violent men.
From that, he suggested: “Violence may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture.”
A dozen years ago, at the University of Chicago, Sahlins had blasted the article: “Chagnon’s statistics were hardly out before Yanomami specialists dismembered them by showing, among other things, that designated killers among this people have not necessarily killed, nor have designated fathers necessarily fathered. Many more Yanomami are known as killers than there are people killed.”
The article, summed up as “killers have more kids” by some, rattled or outraged many in his discipline. Suggesting that brutality might be embroidered into our genes by evolution seemed a slippery slope toward racism or a step backward toward eugenics that saw the forced sterilizations of thousands.
“This is no longer thought to be true. There are, of course, a few holdouts,” explained Bill Irons, Northwestern University professor emeritus and a Chagnon ally. “Many anthropologists and many on the political left as well preferred to believe that human behavior was shaped completely by culture.
When elected into the National Academy of Sciences last spring, he called it “a great honor for any researcher, especially one whose work has provoked a great deal of controversy like mine has done … because of an article I published in the journal Science.”
And then came whistling in Sahlins’ flaming arrow last month, his resignation from the academy after more than 20 years of membership: “By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research.”
Sahlins declined to comment for this story about his resignation, which also was to protest academy scientists’ work with the U.S. military. But his statement also referred back to the 1988 Science article: “proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline.”
That old article, Chagnon has acknowledged, “was like pouring gasoline on a smoldering academic fire,” but he says the criticisms of his science are invalid.
“I spent a lot of time in the villages, amassing data meticulously.”
With the refreshed emphasis on evolutionary anthropology, he said, “I’m afraid Professor Sahlins and his followers are going to take a beating.”
Chagnon complains that too many in his field have shifted to what he calls “forensic anthropology” — that is, emphasizing how the indigenous people have been harmed by contact with civilization, including earlier generations of their colleagues.
“I object to turning anthropology into a criminal investigation. They have defined my activities as criminal. It’s just nonsense.”
For Irons, “evolutionary anthropology applied to social behavior and culture is coming into its own, and Missouri is now leading the way.”
A ‘Darkness’ descends
Chagnon made just over two dozen trips to South America, but even by the mid ’70s, he was finding it more and more difficult to get the right papers in Caracas back into the jungle.
His personality, often described as arrogant by his enemies and abrasive even by his friends, may have been a factor. Part of his problems stemmed from a feud — turf war, some called it — with the Catholic Salesian missionaries operating in the back country for a century.
His last sight of the jungle was in 1995 on the Brazilian side of the Yanomamö territory. Frustrated, he retired four years later from his University of California-Santa Barbara post. But worse was to come.
The American Anthropological Association received an email in August 2000 from two members warning of a “nightmarish story — a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagination of even a Josef Conrad (through not, perhaps of a Josef Mengele).”
It was “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon,” written by journalist and human rights activist Patrick Tierney. Published late that year, the book attacked Chagnon and others on several fronts, from helping cause a measles epidemic to staging documentaries, even to looking for gold, slanders later dismissed.
The AAA assigned a task force. Its strongest finding was that he “violated Venezuelan laws, associated his research with the activities of corrupt politicians and involved him(self) in activities that endangered the health and well-being of the Yanomami.”
The University of Michigan investigated as well and found behind the attacks “a professional vendetta that had been going on for years.” Similarly, Tooby at UC Santa Barbara examined the case and in 2001 declared that “Darkness in El Dorado,” up for a national non-fiction award, “should have been in the fiction category.” An independent study at Northwestern years later found the same. Tierney has acknowledged only minor mistakes.
To The Star, Chagnon said: “Tierney’s book is totally debunked and absolutely irrelevant to the discussion going on now.”
And in 2005, the AAA membership voted more than 2-to-1 to rescind the task force report.
“Those five years seem like a blurry bad dream,” Chagnon writes in “Noble Savages.” “What seems to stand out in this fog are the many articles that were published about this scandal and how ill-informed, misleading and outright wrong many of them were and how self-righteous, unkind and cynical many were.”
He said his health suffered under the stress.
Chagnon was working as an unpaid research professor at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, when he heard from MU anthropology professor Mark Flinn, one of his students at Penn State who followed him to Northwestern.
“He’s one of many of my advocates,” Chagnon said.
Flinn has said the Yanomamö research could be useful in studying aspects of modern humanity, from genocide to the nuclear arms race.
So he agreed, mostly as a courtesy, to visit Columbia and talk to people there, who ended up offering a paid professorship to write articles and hold seminars on his take on sociobiology.
“I had no idea of moving to Columbia. I thought, goodness, this is a wonderful opportunity. And I signed on the dotted line.”
Chagnon likened the old article in Science to gasoline. Now he’s back at the bonfire with a fresh, sloshing can — “Noble Savages.”
“This book has ignited a firestorm of new interest in my career,” Chagnon exclaimed, “and shaken out of the bushes many anthropologists who know what I went though with the American Anthropological Association. The tide has turned in my favor.”
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