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FW: [hbe-l] Review of DARKNESS IN EL DORADO: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon
From: Jesse S. Cook III [mailto:jesse_cook@...]
Sent: Monday, November 13, 2000 11:17 AM
Subject: Fw: [hbe-l] Review of DARKNESS IN EL DORADO: How Scientists and
Journalists Devastated the Amazon
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Date: Sun, 12 Nov 2000 16:12:20 -0500 (EST)
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Sunday Review of Books
November 12, 2000
Hearts of Darkness
Patrick Tierney writes about anthropology's attempts to discover the
secrets of the Yanomami tribes of the Amazon.
By JOHN HORGAN
DARKNESS IN EL DORADO
How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.
By Patrick Tierney.
Illustrated. 417 pp. New York:
W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
Over the past half-century, anthropologists scrutinizing far-flung
people have become increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of
complete objectivity. They agonize over ''the observer effect,''
their version of the physicists' uncertainty principle: the mere
presence of a tape-recording, note-scribbling stranger among an
isolated people alters their behavior. The anthropologists usually
have subtle psychological effects in mind. But consider the following
encounter: a military helicopter bearing the anthropologist Napoleon
Chagnon and a television crew suddenly looms above a remote Amazonian
village, whipping roofs off huts and sending baskets and hammocks
flying. As women and children run screaming into the jungle,
tribesmen hurl rocks and sticks at the chopper, eventually driving it
away. Now that is an observer effect.
Incredibly, this 1991 incident is one of the more benign observer
effects uncovered by Patrick Tierney in ''Darkness in El Dorado.''
Tierney's exhaustively reported book exposes the horrendous
scientific and journalistic exploitation of the Yanomami, the most
studied and vilified tribe in the history of anthropology. For more
than 30 years, these diminutive rain-forest dwellers -- who live in
villages scattered across Venezuela and Brazil -- have served as the
archetype of the ignoble savage. The Yanomami were hardly pacifists,
but Tierney makes a powerful case that they were much less ignoble
and savage than the scientists studying them.
The chief villain of Tierney's tale is Chagnon, who first trekked
into Yanomami land in 1964. His 1968 book ''Yanomamo: The Fierce
People'' became the best-selling ethnographic work of all time,
surpassing Margaret Mead's ''Coming of Age in Samoa.'' And why not?
Chagnon, who has recently retired from the University of California
at Santa Barbara, packed his narrative with the staples of
best-sellerhood: sex, violence, even drugs. Chagnon's Yanomami
warriors got stoned on hallucinogenic snuffs, raided one another's
villages, killed rival warriors and kidnapped their women.
The Yanomami came to my notice in 1988, when the journal Science
published a sensational report by Chagnon that Yanomami men who
killed the most also had the most offspring. These findings were
touted by sociobiologists (now called evolutionary psychologists) and
others who plead the nature side of the nature-nurture debate.
Chagnon's results suggested that male aggression, and war itself, may
be less a cultural phenomenon than a product of natural selection.
Like many other journalists, I found this work too juicy to ignore,
and I wrote a positive story about it for Scientific American. The
complaints of Chagnon's critics -- notably Brian Ferguson of Rutgers
University, who blamed outsiders for exacerbating Yanomami conflicts
-- seemed to reflect wishful thinking rather than hard-headed
analysis. The suggestion of critics that Chagnon was projecting his
own macho persona onto the Yanomami also struck me as implausible.
Tierney has convinced me that Chagnon's critics were right after all.
First, the visits of Chagnon -- or any outsiders -- to the Yanomami
exposed them to pathogens to which they were extremely vulnerable.
Because the Yanomami attributed illness to the sorcery of enemies,
they blamed one another for infections caused by foreigners.
Tierney claims that Chagnon's distinctive modus operandi also stirred
up trouble. He enjoyed bursting into villages decorated in war paint
and brandishing a shotgun. Yanomami men soon realized that the white
man would reward their own displays of aggression with machetes and
other highly prized tools. Tierney says Yanomami men competed for his
attention and gifts. They fought over access not to women, as Chagnon
claimed, but to him.
His method of obtaining genealogical data ignited still more ill
will. The Yanomami have a taboo against naming dead ancestors. To get
information on a headman's ancestry, Chagnon would interview a rival,
exacerbating tension between the men. Given his methods, Tierney
concludes, it was not surprising that Chagnon reported more Yanomami
violence than other anthropologists did.
The most disturbing incident recounted by Tierney involves a measles
vaccination program initiated in 1968 by James Neel, a prominent
geneticist and mentor of Chagnon. Neel, who died earlier this year,
chose a vaccine that some medical authorities had condemned as unsafe
because it often triggered virulent reactions. Tierney suggests that
Neel's covert intention was not to protect the Yanomami from measles
but to test their response to a live-virus vaccine; Neel believed
that the Yanomamis' survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle had given them
immune systems more robust than those of us in pampered modern
societies have. As Neel's team, which included Chagnon, began
inoculating Indians, a measles epidemic erupted that eventually
killed hundreds of them, according to Tierney. He unearths evidence
that Neel and Chagnon suspected the vaccine was causing the epidemic
but kept administering it anyway. Neel and Chagnon have claimed that,
far from starting the outbreak, they contained it with their
Another lurid subplot centers on a French anthropologist, Jacques
Lizot, who lived among the Yanomami from 1970 to 1994. He found not
''fierce people'' but connoisseurs of noncoital sexuality, including
masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality. Again, this image was a
projection of the anthropologist's predilections, Tierney says. He
charges Lizot with giving machetes, jewelry, Western clothes and
other gifts to young men who performed sex acts with him and with
each other. Paradoxically, in his writings Lizot deplores the
corruption of his subjects by the encroachment of civilization.
Indeed, those whom Tierney accuses of exploiting the Yanomami
invariably portray themselves as the Indians' champions. Chagnon
describes himself as a protector of Yanomami rights, even though his
portrayal of the Yanomami as bloodthirsty brutes has been used by
miners and others to justify usurpation of Yanomami land.
Tierney implicates the news media too. As criticism mounted against
Chagnon in the early 1990's, he arranged to fly reporters from ABC
News, Newsweek, The New York Times and other organizations to
Yanomami villages on military helicopters. The planes were procured
by Chagnon's powerful ally Cecilia Matos, the mistress of Venezuela's
president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. In 1992 Venezuelan officers outraged
by these junkets mounted an unsuccessful coup against Andrés Pérez.
Tierney is particularly tough on the producers of a 1996 Nova/BBC
documentary, ''Warriors of the Amazon.'' The program was filmed in
Lizot's village and orchestrated by him, although at his insistence
his involvement was unacknowledged. The film's highlight was the
illness and death of a young mother and her baby. During filming, the
crew had a new camera flown in from England. But the filmmakers did
not fly the feverish mother and child out to a clinic or fly a doctor
in. Brian Ferguson told Tierney the film crew seemed to treat the
deaths ''as an act of God.''
''Darkness in El Dorado'' has already provoked extreme reactions. It
was excerpted in The New Yorker; it has been nominated for a National
Book Award; and a colleague of Chagnon has denounced it as a ''hoax''
in the online magazine Slate. Critics have challenged several of
Tierney's assertions, particularly his claim that Neel and Chagnon
caused the 1968 measles epidemic. The fact is he should have worked
harder to prove this horrific charge. His book has other faults. It
concludes with a strained attempt to depict the Yanomami as victims
of cold war extremism (the Atomic Energy Commission paid Neel and
Chagnon to gather Yanomami blood samples for studies of the effects
of radioactive fallout on diverse populations). Tierney's moral tone
also oscillates disconcertingly. He disparages documentaries about
the Yanomami as ''snuff films,'' but confesses that he would have
made similar ones if he had been in the filmmakers' shoes. Perhaps he
feels a twinge of complicity. He admits that his admiration for
Chagnon's work helped lure him into Latin American studies. He
himself drew attention to Indian savagery in his book on human
sacrifice in the Andes, ''The Highest Altar.''
But Tierney went on to become an advocate for Indian rights. And his
book's faults are outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My
guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature,
sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field
studies. Tierney evokes Derek Freeman's ''Margaret Mead and Samoa,''
which argued that Mead's portrayal of Samoan life was just a
projection of her utopian fantasies. But Mead, at worst,
misrepresented her subjects; she did not incite, sicken and corrupt
them. When anthropologists speak henceforth of the observer effect,
the horrors documented by Tierney will be exhibit A.
John Horgan is the author of ''The End of Science'' and ''The
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