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<nettime> Sahlins on the Tierney/Chagnon anthro brouhaha
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<nettime> Sahlins on the Tierney/Chagnon anthro brouhaha


   Jungle Fever
   By Marshall Sahlins
   Sunday, December 10, 2000; Page X01
   How Scientists and Journalists
   Devastated the Amazon
      By Patrick Tierney
      Norton. 417 pp. $27.95
   Guilty not as charged.
   Well before it reached the bookstores, Patrick Tierney's Darkness in
   El Dorado set off a flurry of publicity and electronic debate over its
   allegations that, at about the same time American soldiers were
   carrying out search-and-destroy missions in the jungles of Vietnam,
   American scientists were doing something like research-and-destroy by
   knowingly spreading disease in the jungles of Amazonia. On closer
   examination, the alleged scientific horror turned out to be something
   less than that, even as it was always the lesser part of Tierney's book. 
   By far the greater part is the story, sufficiently notorious in its own 
   right, of the well-known anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon: of his work 
   among the Yanomami people of Venezuela and his fame among the science 
   tribe of America.
   The pre-publication sound and fury, however, concerned the decorated
   geneticist and physician the late James Neel--for whose researches in
   the upper Orinoco during the late 1960s and early 1970s Chagnon had
   served as a jungle advance man and blood collector. Sponsored by the
   U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Neel's investigations were
   designed to establish mutation rates in a population uncontaminated by
   nuclear radiation for comparison with the survivors of Hiroshima and
   Nagasaki. But according to Tierney, Neel also had another agenda: He
   wanted to test an original theory of immunity-formation in a "virgin
   soil" population, exposed for the first time to a devastating foreign
   disease. Hence the sensational chapter on "The Outbreak," where
   Tierney alleges that Neel abetted, if not created, a deadly measles
   epidemic by inoculating Yanomami Indians with an outmoded type of
   vaccine known to cause severe reactions. Or so it says in the original
   review galleys of the book.
   But by the time Darkness in El Dorado was published, it was already in
   a second, revised edition, one that qualified some of Tierney's more
   sensational claims in the galley proofs of "The Outbreak." Tierney is
   an investigative journalist, and critical aspects of his original
   indictment of Neel took the form of well-documented speculation,
   leaving plenty of space for the heated exchanges by e-mail and
   Internet that ensued among respectable scholars who for the most part
   hadn't read the book. These hasty incriminations and recriminations
   created their own versions of what Neel had done--and, accordingly,
   criticisms of Tierney that had nothing to do with what he had said.
   Still, it became clear enough that Neel could not have originated or
   spread genuine measles by the vaccine he administered. Tierney then
   revised the conclusion of the relevant chapter in the published
   version, making the vaccine issue more problematic--and to that
   extent, the chapter self-contradictory. Other issues, such as whether
   Neel was doing some kind of experiment that got out of hand, remain
   unresolved as of this writing.
   The brouhaha in cyberspace seemed to help Chagnon's reputation as much
   as Neel's, for in the fallout from the latter's defense many academics
   also took the opportunity to make tendentious arguments on Chagnon's
   behalf. Against Tierney's brief that Chagnon acted as an
   anthro-provocateur of certain conflicts among the Yanomami, one
   anthropologist solemnly demonstrated that warfare was endemic and
   prehistoric in the Amazon. Such feckless debate is the more remarkable
   because most of the criticisms of Chagnon rehearsed by Tierney have
   been circulating among anthropologists for years, and the best
   evidence for them can be found in Chagnon's writings going back to the
   The '60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was
   the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant
   perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global
   projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in
   an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society
   and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to "deconstruct"
   it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his
   ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining
   control over people.
   Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of
   Chagnon's fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation. In a
   scientific reprise of a losing military tactic, he also attempted to
   win the hearts and minds of the people by a calculated redistribution
   of material wealth, and in so doing, managed to further destabilize
   the countryside and escalate the violence. Tierney quotes a prominent
   Yanomami leader: "Chagnon is fierce. Chagnon is very dangerous. He has
   his own personal war." Meanwhile, back in California a defender of
   Chagnon in the e-mail battles has lauded him as "perhaps the world's
   most famous living social anthropologist." The Kurtzian narrative of
   how Chagnon achieved the political status of a monster in Amazonia and
   a hero in academia is truly the heart of Darkness in El Dorado. While
   some of Tierney's reporting has come under fire, this is nonetheless a
   revealing book, with a cautionary message that extends well beyond the
   field of anthropology. It reads like an allegory of American power and
   culture since Vietnam.
   "I soon learned that I had to become very much like the Yanomami to be
   able to get along with them on their terms: sly, aggressive, and
   intimidating," Chagnon writes in his famous study Yanomamo: The Fierce
   People. This was not the usual stance toward fieldwork in the 1960s,
   when the anthropologist already enjoyed the protection of the colonial
   masters. Chagnon was working in the Amazonian Wild West, populated by
   small, independent and mobile communities in uneasy relations of
   alliance and hostility that could readily escalate to death by
   poisoned arrow. Moreover, when Chagnon began to collaborate with
   biological scientists, his fieldwork became highly peripatetic itself,
   and highly demanding of the Yanomami's compliance. By 1974, he had
   visited 40 to 50 villages in less than as many months, collecting
   blood, urine and genealogies--a tour punctuated by stints of
   filmmaking with the noted cineaste Timothy Asch. Hitting-and-running,
   Chagnon did fieldwork in the mode of a military campaign.
   This helps explain why many other anthropologists who have done longer
   and more sedentary work in particular Yanomami villages, including
   former students and colleagues of Chagnon, have disavowed his
   one-sided depiction of the Yanomami as "a fierce people." "The biggest
   misnomer in the history of anthropology," said anthropologist Kenneth
   Good of Chagnon's use of that phrase in the title of his popular
   Good and other Yanomami specialists make it clear that the supreme
   accolade of Yanomami personhood--the term waiteri that Chagnon
   translates as "fierce people"--involves a subtle combination of valor,
   humor and generosity. All of these, moreover, are reciprocal
   relations. One should return blow for blow, and Chagnon is hardly the
   only male anthropologist to get into dust-ups with Yanomami warriors.
   But according to his own account, while Chagnon readily joined the
   negative game of holding one's ground, he knowingly brought contempt
   on himself by refusing to be generous with food. Continuous
   food-sharing is a basic criterion of humanity for Yanomami, the
   material foundation of their sociality.
   Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his
   visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only
   in loincloth, body painted red, feathered--and carrying a shotgun. His
   field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric
   stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical
   power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic seances. When someone stole
   from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the
   favor by carrying off the latter's hammock until he got his stuff
   back. But when it came to the reciprocity of food sharing, he
   protested that he could not feed the whole village. On the contrary,
   he disgusted curious Yanomami by telling them the canned frankfurters
   he was eating were animal penises, and peanut butter likewise was just
   what it looked like. Unselfconsciously, he acknowledges that his
   unwillingness to share food generously or widely made him "despicable
   in their eyes."
   "The next morning," he writes, "I began the delicate task of
   identifying everyone by name and numbering them with indelible ink to
   make sure that everyone had only one name and identity." Chagnon
   inscribed these indelible identification numbers on people's
   arms--barely 20 years after World War II.
   But he indeed had a delicate problem. He badly needed to know the
   people's names and their genealogies. This information was
   indispensable to the AEC biological studies. He was also engaged in an
   absurdist anthropological project, which he took seriously, of finding
   ancestor-based lineage institutions among a people who by taboo could
   not know, could not trace and could not name their ancestors--or for
   that matter, could not bear to hear their own names. To utter people's
   names in their presence is the gravest offense, a horror: "In battle
   they shout out the name because they are enemies." As for the dead,
   they are completely excluded from Yanomami society, ritually as well
   as verbally, as a necessary condition of the continued existence of
   the living. But for the sake of science, Chagnon had to know--and so
   set in motion an opposition between their humanity and his
   epistemology that developed progressively through his professorial
   Chagnon invented draconian devices for getting around the name taboos.
   He exploited animosities within the village to induce some people to
   tell on others. He "bribed" (his quotation marks) children to disclose
   names when their elders were not around. Most productive of all, he
   went to enemy villages to get people's genealogies, and then confirmed
   the information by seeing if they got angry when he recited the names
   to their faces. By the early 1970s Chagnon had collected some 10,000
   Yanomami names, including 7,000 names of the dead. It must have caused
   a lot of pain and hate.
   Collecting names and blood was destabilizing not only for the insults
   it required, but because Chagnon was buying these with large payments
   of machetes, axes, utensils and other steel trade goods. These were
   prize objects of Yanomami desire, but not simply because of their
   economic advantages. The history of native Americans is too often
   written as if there had to be a white man behind every red man.
   Incorporating the foreign technology in their own cultural order, the
   Yanomami became the authors of its distinctive historical effects.
   They placed imported steel in the highest category of their own
   hierarchy of values, together with their most precious things, a
   position to which the foreign objects were entitled because of their
   analogous associations with marvelous powers--in this case, European
   powers. Surely steel was useful, but its utility was transcendent,
   beyond the ways Yanomami knew of making or controlling things. And as
   signs and means of power, the foreign goods were engaged in the
   fundamental transactions of a native Yanomami system of alliance and
   competition. They were materials of feasting, marriage payments,
   trading, making alliances, attracting followers, sorcerizing and much
   more. More than producing food, trade goods produced and reproduced
   Yanomami culture, hence every kind of satisfaction the Yanomami know.
   Accordingly, the foreign goods themselves became objects of native
   competition--as did their human sources, notably Napoleon Chagnon.
   Chagnon was not the only outsider whose distribution of steel goods
   plunged him in a maelstrom of Yanomami violence, although it's
   doubtful that any other anthropologist became so involved in
   participant-instigation. "The distribution of trade goods," as Chagnon
   observed early on, "would always anger people who did not receive
   something they wanted, and it was useless to try and work any longer
   in the village." Yet moving could only generate further contention,
   now among the villages so favored and disfavored by Chagnon's
   presence. Hostilities thus tracked the always-changing geopolitics of
   Chagnon-wealth, including even pre-emptive attacks to deny others
   access to him. As one Yanomami man recently related to Tierney: "Shaki
   [Chagnon] promised us many things, and that's why other communities
   were jealous and began to fight against us."
   Movie-making was an additional mode of provocation, especially when
   Chagnon and Timothy Asch used wealth to broker alliances among
   previously hostile groups for that purpose. The allies were then
   disposed to cement their newfound amity by combining in magical or
   actual raids on Yanomami third parties. Deaths from disease were also
   known to follow filming, prompting Tierney to observe that Chagnon and
   Asch were being awarded prizes for "the greatest snuff films of all
   Over time, the demands on Chagnon's person and goods became more
   importuning and aggressive, to which he would respond with an equal
   and opposite display of machismo. ("He glared at me with naked hatred
   in his eyes, and I glared back at him in the same fashion.") Soon
   enough he had good reason to fear for his life, by magical as well as
   physical attack--including the time when some erstwhile Yanomami
   friends shot arrows into an effigy of him. Yet Chagnon also knew how
   to mobilize his own camp. Early on, he fostered what was to become a
   life-long sociology of conflicts whose "basic logic," as Tierney put
   it, saw "Yanomami villages opposed to Chagnon attacking those villages
   that received him."
   By 1976, however, Chagnon's ethnography had cost him official
   anthropological support in Caracas, and for nearly a decade he was
   unable to secure a permit to resume fieldwork. In 1985, when he did
   return, in the company of one of his students, the latter reported
   they were greeted by a crowd of Indians shouting the Yanomami version
   of "Chagnon go home!" In 1989 Chagnon was again kept out because the
   law required that foreign researchers collaborate with Venezuelan
   scientists, and, as he complained to a missionary whose help he
   sought, "the local anthropologists do not like me." Bereft of
   legitimate support, Chagnon returned in 1990 under the dubious aegis
   of Cecelia Matos, the mistress of then-president of Venezuela, and one
   Charles Brewer Carias, a self-proclaimed naturalist, known opponent of
   Indian land rights and entrepreneur with a reputation for illegal gold
   mining. The trio had concocted a scheme to create a Yanomami reserve
   and scientific biosphere in 6,000 square miles of the remote Siapa
   Highlands, to be directed by Brewer and Chagnon and subsidized by a
   foundation set up by Matos. According to Tierney, Brewer had his eye
   on rich tin resources in Yanomami territory. In an intensified
   repetition of a now-established pattern, the huge amount of goods that
   military aircraft ferried in for the project helped set off the
   bloodiest war in Yanomami history, with Chagnon's people pitted
   against a coalition of Yanomami opponents, directed by a charismatic
   leader of their own.
   In three years, the scheme collapsed. Matos was eventually indicted
   for corruption, in part for her role in commandeering military support
   for the reserve caper, and she remains a fugitive from Venezuelan
   justice. In September 1993, in the wake of huge protests that followed
   from their appointment as administrators of the reserve, Chagnon and
   Brewer were expelled from Yanomami territory by judicial decree.
   (Among the protesters were the 300 Indians representing 19 tribes at
   the first Amazon Indian Congress, who took to the streets against
   Chagnon and Brewer in the town of Porto Ayachuco.) An army colonel
   escorted Chagnon to Caracas and advised him to leave the country,
   which he did forthwith.
   In America anyhow, he suffered no such indignities. On the contrary,
   the more unwanted Chagnon became in the Venezuelan jungle, the more
   celebrated he was in American science. The day before his last
   expulsion from Yanomami land, the New York Academy of Sciences held a
   special meeting devoted to his work.
   In the course of Chagnon's career, the further away he got from any
   sort of anthropological humanism, the more he became a natural
   scientist. (This could be a lesson for us all.) Whatever the
   accusations of ferocity and inhumanity made against his ethnography,
   he increasingly justified it by claims of empirical-scientific value.
   So he was able to answer his growing chorus of critics by the
   scientific assertion that they were "left-wing anthropologists,"
   "anti-Darwinian romantics" and other such practitioners of the
   "politically correct." One might say that Chagnon made a scientific
   value of the belligerence in which he was entangled, elevating it to
   the status of the sociobiological theory that human social evolution
   positively selects for homicidal violence. Whatever the other
   consolations of this theory, it brought Chagnon the massive support of
   prominent sociobiologists. The support remained constant right through
   the fiasco that attended his attempt in 1988 to prove the reproductive
   (hence genetic) advantages of killing in the pages of Science.
   The truth claims of the argument presented by Chagnon in Science may
   have had the shortest half-life of any study ever published in that
   august journal. Chagnon set out to demonstrate statistically that
   known killers among the Yanomami had more than twice as many wives and
   three times as many children as non-killers. This would prove that
   humans (i.e., men) do indeed compete for reproductive advantages, as
   sociobiologists claimed, and homicidal violence is a main means of the
   competition. Allowing the further (and fatuous) assumption that the
   Yanomami represent a primitive stage of human evolution, Chagnon's
   findings would support the theory that violence has been progressively
   inscribed in our genes.
   But 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 because the Yanomami accord
   the ritual status of man-slayer to sorcerers who do death magic and
   warriors who shoot arrows into already wounded or dead enemies.
   Anyhow, it is a wise father who knows his own child (or vice versa) in
   a society that practices wife-sharing and adultery as much as the
   Yanomami do. Archkillers, besides, are likely to father fewer children
   inasmuch as they are prime targets for vengeance, a possibility
   Chagnon conveniently omitted from his statistics by not including dead
   fathers of living children. Nor did his calculations allow for the
   effects of age, shamanistic attainments, headship, hunting ability or
   trading skill--all of which are known on ethnographic grounds to
   confer marital advantages for Yanomami men.
   Supporters of Chagnon, and lately Chagnon himself, have defended his
   sociobiology by referring to several other studies showing that men
   who incarnate the values of their society, whatever these values may
   be, have the most sex and children. Even granting this to be
   true--except for our society, where the rich get richer but the poor
   get children--this claim only demonstrates that the genetic impulses
   of a people are under the control of their culture rather than the
   other way around. For dominant cultural values vary from society to
   society, even as they may change rapidly in any given society. There
   is no universal selective pressure for violence or any other genetic
   disposition, nor could genes track the behavioral values varying
   rapidly and independently of them. It follows that what is strongly
   selected for in human beings is the ability to realize innate
   biological dispositions in a variety of meaningful ways, by a great
   number of cultural means. Violence may be inherently satisfying, but
   we humans can make war on the playing fields of Eton, by sorcery, by
   desecrating the flag or a thousand other ways of "kicking butt,"
   including writing book reviews. What evolution has allowed us is the
   symbolic capacity to sublimate our impulses in all the kinds of
   cultural forms that human history has known.
   In time, Chagnon became a legend of ferocity in the Amazon.
   Representations of him grew more monstrous in proportion to the scale
   of the struggles he provoked, and even his trade goods were poisoned
   with the memories of death. Tierney reports that shamans now portray
   his cameras, guns, helicopters and blood-collecting equipment as
   machinery of black magic, the products of a factory of xawara wakeshi,
   the deadly smoke of disease.
   Yet in America, the scientific doctors accord the sociobiological
   gases emanating from this same technology the highest esteem, worthy
   of hours and hours of inhalation in the rooms of the New York Academy
   of Sciences. On college campuses across the country, Chagnon's name is
   a dormitory word. His textbooks have sold in the millions. In the huge
   undergraduate courses that pass for education in major universities,
   his prize-winning films are able to hold late adolescents spellbound
   by primitivizing, hence, eternalizing, their own fascination with
   drugs, sex and violence. America.

   Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service
   Professor of Anthropology emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is
   the author of the just-published essay collection "Culture in

                      2000 The Washington Post Company

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