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Life Among the Anthros

With the publication of the “extended excerpt” in The New Yorker, a feverish attack upon it and upon the magazine for publishing it, posted on Slate by John Tooby, the lead author of the “Big Lie” report, and a sharp response to that by the editors of The New Yorker, also on Slate, the battle was fairly well joined.6 It remained only for the American Anthropological Association to somehow express itself, and its response came, with wild unclarity and a good deal of ax-grinding, at its meeting in San Francisco in mid-November.

Two plenary sessions, both crowded with hundreds of anthropologists, journalists, visiting scholars, and, this being California, passing agitators, were held on successive evenings. The first consisted of a seven-member panel of experts—an epidemiologist, an immunologist, a specialist in medical ethics, a former student in Neel’s lab now a “scientific investigator” in Brazil, the head of Venezuela’s Bureau for Indigenous Indian Affairs, herself a Waru Indian, a designated defender of Chagnon (Chagnon himself, holed up in northern Michigan considering options, refused to attend what he called “a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait”), and, down at the end of the table, looking abstract and detached, or perhaps just bemused, through nearly three hours of non-stop attack, Patrick Tierney.

In turn, each of the other panelists, save the Indian woman, who remarked the absence of native voices in the discussion and called for Yanomami participation in any future inquiry, pronounced Tierney’s accusations of a vaccine-induced epidemic false and slanderous and his “anti-science approach” threatening to medical assistance programs throughout the world, after which Tierney said mildly that he was against neither vaccination nor science, that he understood that he had written a “wrenching book” that many people would find difficult to come to terms with, and that he hoped that the Santa Barbara and Michigan people would give Chagnon’s work as careful a going over as they had given his, and, sensing perhaps that he was a bit outnumbered, he more or less left it there. The next evening’s session, at which some thirty people, including Turner and Sponsel (but not Tierney, who was off to the Berkeley-to-Boston interview circuit), spoke for five minutes each, was, since almost no one had read the book which had only that day finally been published, hardly more clarifying. In the end, the president and the president-elect did what such people usually do in such circumstances: they asked a past president to head up a commission to look into the question of whether an official committee of inquiry should be formed.7


Tierney’s opus—three parts, eighteen chapters, 398 sources, 1,599 footnotes—which has to be the only work to have been nominated for a major literary prize (the National Book Award, nonfiction) while its author, having withdrawn the galleys from circulation, was still busily revising it to counter already published attacks, is, whatever else it is, full of production values. A series of loosely linked set pieces—“Savage Encounters,” “Outbreak,” “Atomic Indians,” “The Na-poleonic Wars,” “Gardens of Hunger, Dogs of War,” “To Murder and to Multiply”—it tells its story, a few statistical excursions and medical discussions aside, largely through setting, character, and dramatic incident.

A Venezuelan political adventurer, environmentalist, and strip miner (and the inventor of that “explorer survival knife”) parachutes into the jungle to separate two French anthropologists intent, for some reason, upon killing one another. The mistress of the president of Venezuela, “dressed in white,” wearing “enormous boots and an immense white hat,” helicopters about Indian country, ferrying US journalists, travel agents, and other celebrities in search of “virgin villages” and “authentic primitives.” Chagnon, stripped to his drawers, decorated with feathers, dancing and chanting, and drugged out of his skull on local hallucinogens, breaks arrows over his head as he ritually “kills” a terrified small boy. There are homosexual harems, goldfield massacres, captivity stories, soul-eating shamans, guerrilla invasions, four sorts of missionaries, and the death agony of an Indian woman and her newborn infant impassively filmed by a British television crew. And it is all driven forward by furious authorial voice-overs—oracular, condemnatory, comprehensive, and unforgiving:

In the end, the Yanomami concluded Chagnon was simply out to rip them off. He wanted complete control of the films and the blood and the budget, and he intended to give them only crumbs from his rich table. The man who had once incorporated the fearsome Vulture Spirits now landed his helicopter in the middle of [Indian villages] in the company of Venezuela’s leading [gold miner].
Sadly, [Neel] took both his beliefs and his experiments with him into the rain forest. [He] and his eugenic disciples imbued the impersonal nature of evolution with a personal animus: natural selection became selfish, murderous, cruel, and deceitful. Doctors trained by the AEC gave the Yanomami a radioactive tracer and a vaccine that was potentially fatal for immune-compromised people. Scientists kept on filming and collecting blood in the midst of epidemics. These brave men took a long walk on the dark side, but in the artificial brilliance of ground zero, they could see no shadows.
The attempt [by Chagnon] to portray the Yanomami as archetypes of ferocity would be pathetic were it not for its political consequences—for the fabulous distortions this myth has perpetrated in biology, anthropology, and popular culture…. Just as [Margaret] Mead’s beliefs about sexual freedom and child rearing worked their way into public-policy debates, Chagnon’s ferocious Yanomami have become proof to some social scientists that ruthless competition and sexual selection cannot be legislated away by idealistic do-gooders. The Yanomami are the Cold Warriors who never came in from the cold.

Hard charges demand hard evidence, or, failing that, at least an enormous mass of it. Tierney’s approach to assembling such a mass, a project he says took eleven years, much of it on site, mapping itineraries, interviewing Indians, and reading mission-station reports, was to trace, relentlessly and with great ingenuity, the obscure and complicated doings of his main suspects, Neel and Chagnon, between 1966, when the former, project in hand, first arrived on the Orinoco, and 1995, when, at long last definitively non grata (he had been expelled at least twice before), the latter finally left it. The result is uneven, in many places vague or insubstantial, and in some, it is, as the critics have charged, simply unfair—ideologized second-guessing. But, as the instances accumulate and their implications come home, it all, in some strange way, begins to add up. Whatever caused the measles epidemic (and that issue, it should be said, plays a much less prominent part in the book than it does in the discussion of the book), a case gets made, however clumsily, that something was seriously amiss in the relation between these confident and determined soi-disant “scientists” with their cameras, their vials, their syringes, and their notebooks and the beset and puzzled, put-upon “natives” to whom they looked for facts to fill them with—something in their encounter was deeply, and mutually, misconceived.

Why do [these anthros] want to study us so much?” one Indian who had watched them at work for thirty years and remembered running screaming into the forest when they first arrived, and rather wished that he had stayed there, asked plaintively: “[They] have a brain; Yanomami have a brain. [They] have two eyes; Yanomami have two eyes. [They] have five fingers; the Yanomami have five fingers. Why are they so interested in studying us?”

The problem was not just the thousands of blood and urine samples, the mysterious radioactive iodine tracers, or the ill-explained medicines and inoculations, which seemed more accompaniments of disease than cures for it. Nor was it just the visitors’ practice of taking reproductive histories which required the revelation of personal names, a matter so deeply tabooed and emotionally disturbing to the Indians that it almost got Chagnon, ruthless in the matter, killed at one point. Nor was it the earnest tabulation of murders, murderers, and victims, the playing off of rival families and competing headmen for movie-making purposes, or the bribing of members of the tribe with steel axes and machetes, occasionally even shotguns—all profoundly destabilizing interventions in a wood and clay village culture. It was not even just the grandiose plan (fortunately aborted when the president of Venezuela was overthrown and his wondrous mistress fled the country) of Neel, Chagnon, and their gold-rush, tourist-hunting allies “to turn the Yanomami’s homeland into the world’s largest private reserve,” a six-thousand- square-mile research station and “biosphere” administered by themselves. The problem was that the anthros (and the médicos), reductionist to the core, conceived the object of their study not as a people but as a population. The Yanomami, who indeed had the requisite sorts of brains, eyes, and fingers, were a control group in an inquiry centered elsewhere.

Neel, who actually had the sort of romantic conception of Indians that people who haven’t had much to do with them beyond watching them perform commonly have—brave, manly, direct, colorful, and uncorrupted by civilized appetites—went to the Yanomami hypothesis in hand. As the closest thing to an “untouched,” “unacculturated,” “natural” human community still around, a last living representative of our ancestral condition, the fundamental forces driving human evolution should be, he thought, more readily discernible among them than they are among modern populations, where such dysgenic institutions as the decline in childhood mortality, medical treatments for the elderly, the defective, and the disabled, draft deferments for the privileged and the nonbelligerent, and the disappearance of polygamy mask and distort them, degrading the species. In particular, it should be possible to find “a clear association, at least for males, between ‘ability’ and reproductive performance, a result of the greater fertility of leaders or headmen.”8 It is this program, “the search for the leadership gene,” with which Chagnon, then a graduate student in search of a thesis topic, decided to associate himself and his career. Neel wrote:

For these studies, the indispensable cultural anthropologist became Napoleon Chagnon. Nap… sought me out in Ann Arbor… having heard of our developing program. By virtue of the con-tacts I had already made, I could facilitate his entry into the field; he, for his part,…could put together the village pedigrees so basic to our work. [We] went through the same indoctrination concerning the nuances of genetic…pedigrees…. Those familiar with Nap’s writings concerning the Yanomama know how well the lessons took.9

All too well. It was the attempt to establish Neel’s Darwinian conjecture (whether or not one wants to call it “eugenic” rather depends upon definitions) that masculinity, violence, domination, and the appropriation of women are selectively linked in tribal society through the differential fertility of headmen, and thus that warfare and inequality were driving forces in the separation of Homo sapiens from other primates, that got Chagnon, “the indispensable anthropologist,” into all the trouble. He spent a quarter of a century, in the field and out, desperately trying to find evidence for Neel’s conjecture, counting, measuring, photographing, and perhaps stimulating violence, at the expense of his own more nuanced, immediate, finely detailed, and above all personally observed sense of what the Yanomami—less “the fierce people” than the resilient ones—were all about. The ethnographer, the connoisseur of the human particular, the celebrant of the special, gradually and, it turned out, irrecoverably disappeared into Neel’s, and later E.O. Wilson’s, totalizing visions. He became, like his namesake, the victim of a hypothesis.

  1. 6

    See Patrick Tierney, “The Fierce Anthropologist,” The New Yorker, October 9, 2000, pp. 50–61; John Tooby, “Jungle Fever,” Slate, October 24, 2000, 4:00 PM PT; “The New Yorker Replies,” Slate, October 27, 2000, 4:45 PM PT. In a separate release, “The Muddied Waters of Amazon Anthropology,” the New Yorker editors say that Chagnon originally agreed to be interviewed in connection with Tierney’s piece, and then backed out, threatening suit. For all this, see Inside Media, another on-line magazine, October 3, 2000, 6:54 PM. 

  2. 7

    And the beat goes on: Tierney, having perhaps caught his breath as well, has recently (December 3, 2000) issued, via his publishers, W.W. Norton, a response to the critiques of John Tooby and Bruce Alberts. Tooby, he says “is not a neutral observer,” but president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, of which Chagnon was president before him, and “co-director of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Anthropology Department,” which has funded some of the Yanomami work. Tierney says that Tooby (“who has been trying to block the publication and fair reviewing of [my] book”) conflates his work with the Sponsel-Turner e-mail, where the accusations against Neel and Chagnon are different, and less careful, than his own, and he lists ten examples of “errors” and “misrepresentations” in Tooby’s piece for Slate.

    Against Alberts (whose press release seems, in fact, to have been more a personal response than an officially deliberated Academy statement), he admits a few minor errors, but again denies that he accused Neel of purposefully starting the measles epidemic; he merely criticized his activities once the outbreak occurred. He also charges Alberts with distorting a number of his arguments, and remarks, “The prepublication assault [on Darkness in Eldorado ] has been nothing short of extraordinary, but not surprising given the stakes in the controversy…[which] has been spun to make [the book] seem a book only about a measles vaccine and…epidemic in the Amazon…[when it is actually] a work with a broad and encompassing theme.”

    The text of the American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board decision following the November meetings, which promises some sort of a decision in February, can now be found on the Association’s Web site, www.ameranthassn.org/press/eldorado.htm. 

  3. 8

    James V. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool: Genetic Lessons and Other Stories (John Wiley, 1994), p. 302. This is a combination autobiography and homiletical treatise in “genetic medicine.” Neel goes on to say, “One of the major disappointments of our fieldwork was that, despite much brainstorming, we could never devise a field test of Yanomama ‘smarts’—and if we had devised one, the Yanomama would have no motivation to take it seriously.” To Tierney, he confessed, in a 1997 phone interview, that his failure to isolate the alleles for his “Index of Innate Ability,” and thus pin down his big man/big smarts/big reproducer theory directly, “was the greatest disappointment of my life.” 

  4. 9

    Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool, p. 134. 

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