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Life Among the Anthros

There is a certain pathos in all this. One can sympathize with Chagnon’s predicament in trying to be at one and the same time a responsible anthropologist and what one of his enemies has called “Neel’s Kelly girl.” Or at least one could, had he not, as he went on, become more and more extreme in his views, increasingly rigid, belligerent, and self-celebrating, as critiques arose on all sides. All who questioned him, his work, or his social Darwinism—and they include by now almost all of his Amazonian colleagues—were excoriated as “Marxists,” “liars,” “cultural anthropologists from the academic Left,” “ayatollahs,” “politically correct bleeding hearts,” “pacifists,” “limp-wristed anthropologists afraid to take on the [Church],” and “anti-scientific, post-modern moralizers” advocating “noble savage” conceptions of primitive life. He fell out with many of his students, with Asch, finally even, apparently, with Neel. In the end, he has retreated, taking an early retirement at sixty-two, to his own private northern Michigan St. Helena, dreaming of reconquest, vengeance, and vindication:

His house can’t be seen from the road because of all the trees; it’s an ideal retreat for someone who wants privacy. But Chagnon has turned a small study by the front door into a war room. Beneath a portrait of Bonaparte, the anthropologist has battled for weeks to rebut Tierney’s allegations, going through old notes and organizing support among former students and sympathetic colleagues. E.O. Wilson calls every other day. Richard Dawkins [of the “selfish gene”] and Steven Pinker [of the “language instinct”] have backed him publicly. UC–Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan maintain websites…posting point-by-point refutations of Tierney’s arguments. “I’m considering legal action,” says Chagnon.10


During the German occupation of France, André Gide published, and was allowed to publish because he was Gide, a series of “interviews imaginaires” in the public press commenting, in an oblique, Aesopian way, on various aspects of literature, politics, and the cultural scene. In one, he takes up the question, then current, of the supposed responsibility of the “intellectuals” for the fall of France, and he ends it with a striking parable. A rowboat, moored at a riverbank, sits low in the water. Into it step in turn (as I remember it), a fat politician, a large general draped in medals, an enormous madam, and a bloated capitalist, the boat sinking deeper and deeper, water to the gunwales, as they board. Finally, a clergyman, thin as a rail, steps in and the boat finally sinks. The others all point at him: “It is he who is the culprit! It is he who has caused the disaster!”

Given all that has happened to the Yanomami over the past half-century, encountering anthropologists, and critics of anthropologists, as difficult as both may have been at times to deal with, surely ranks as historical small change, a very small blip on a very large curve. They have been caught up, these twenty thousand Indians, in the middle of the largest and most rapacious gold rush in history. The forests that shaped and supported them have been assaulted by international timber interests, bringing famine and malnutrition. They have been intensively missionized, they have been ruled by two vigorously Hispanicizing nation-states from which the best they could hope was pity and inattention, and they have become, or anyway are in the midst of becoming, that merest of mere locations, a tourist destination. And they have been plagued by a good deal more than measles which, however grave, are a one-time thing, while the malaria, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases they suffer from now are chronic, debilitating, only gradually fatal. Morbidity rates are estimated to be as high as 35 percent, death rates nearly 10 percent a year; birth rates, in some areas, are approaching zero.

In the space of hardly more than a generation, the people (or the population) over whom all these ethnographers, geneticists, sociobiologists, human rights activists, and “advocacy journalists” have been quarreling so furiously have moved from being “untouched” to being “imperiled,” from “recently contacted” to “at the edge of destruction.” Now that their values as a control group, a (supposedly) “natural,” genetically “ancestral population”—“the last major primitive tribe …anywhere on earth,”11 is diminished or disappeared and the experiments upon them have ceased and the experimenters departed, what sort of presence in our minds, what sort of whatness, are they now to have? What sort of place in the world does an “ex-primitive” have?

It is difficult to say; the precedents are hardly encouraging. Perhaps that enterprising lady in Florida is on to something. A movie would certainly seem possible (Sean Penn as Napoleon Chagnon? Jennifer Lopez as the Presidential Mistress?). The exchange of on-line accusations would seem destined to go on for a while, entertaining the principals if no one else, perhaps for years. Whatever happens to the Yanomami in what we used to call the real world—“acculturation,” “minoritization,” immiseration, migration to shantytowns, or what E.O. Wilson in an imprimatur to one of Chagnon’s books blithely calls “a leisurely and decent accommodation between their world and ours”12—their place in cyberspace seems assured. Anyone still looking for them will be able to find them with a modem and a search engine. Yanomami.com.

  1. 10

    John J. Miller, “The Fierce People,” National Review Online, November 20, 2000. 

  2. 11

    Napoleon A. Chagnon, Yanamamö: The Last Days of Eden (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), p. xiii. Italics in original. 

  3. 12

    Chagnon, Yanamamö: The Last Days of Eden, p. xi. 

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