November 20, 2000
THE FIERCE PEOPLE
The wages of anthropological incorrectness
JOHN J. MILLER
It’s one of the most celebrated passages in the literature of anthropology: “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their noses.”
That’s how Napoleon A. Chagnon described his first encounter with the Yanomamo, one of the most primitive tribes on the planet. They were practically unknown to the outside world before the 1960s, when Chagnon journeyed to the wild borderlands of Brazil and Venezuela to live among them. His writings on that experience, plus documentary films based on numerous follow-up visits, made the Yanomamo famous. Chagnon described an exotic culture of drug-snorting Amazonians who wore almost no clothing, fought wars over women, and ate the ashes of their dead. Nearly 1 million copies of his groundbreaking book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People, are in print. It’s widely considered the best ethnography ever written. There’s hardly an Anthro 101 course in the land that doesn’t reference this pioneering work. Chagnon is simply the most important cultural anthropologist of his generation.
Now a forthcoming book by Patrick Tierney describes him as a fraud, and worse: a murderer who deliberately spread a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo. W. W. Norton & Co. won’t officially publish Darkness in El Dorado until mid November, but its galleys already have won it a National Book Award nomination and an excerpt in The New Yorker. Tierney supposedly documents what is the biggest scandal ever to touch academic anthropology-bigger even than Derek Freeman exposing Margaret Mead’s seminal book, Coming of Age in Samoa, as a sham. If conservatives hailed the Mead debunking as a case study in the dangers of cultural relativism, it’s the Left that now wants Chagnon’s head.
The stakes are enormous. Mead was probably nothing more than a dupe. Chagnon, according to Tierney and his allies, consciously destroyed thousands of lives. The charges are astonishing, and they’ve been reported virtually everywhere, often without skepticism. There’s only one problem with them: They’re wholly and indisputably false. Chagnon is the target of one of the greatest smear campaigns ever waged against a scholar.
In October, I met the gray-bearded, 62-year-old Chagnon at his secluded home just south of Traverse City, Mich. He greeted me on his driveway looking like he had just stepped out of the bush: He wore a khaki shirt and vest loaded with zippers and pockets, plus canvas-and-denim hunting pants. He retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara last year, and then moved to this wooded plot. 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 and Steven Pinker have backed him publicly. UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan maintain websites that are in the process of posting point-by-point refutations of Tierney’s arguments. “I’m considering legal action,” says Chagnon.
Controversy has surrounded Chagnon for years. Much of it is driven by pettiness: Less successful anthropologists envy the influence Chagnon wields. They’re offended, too, by the hard-headed, scientific approach he takes into the field, and they harbor ideological resentments for the way Chagnon has described the Yanomamo. Chagnon called his subjects “the fierce people”-partly because that’s what they call themselves in their own language, but also because of the chronic violence characterizing their society. In one survey, Chagnon estimated that a quarter of adult Yanomamo men die at the hands of other Yanomamo. He also reported data showing that Yanomamo men who kill produce more offspring than those who don’t. In other words, killers have greater reproductive success than non-killers. To a sociobiologist like Chagnon-i.e., someone who believes human behavior and culture are the result of natural selection-that’s a very important finding. To many anthropologists, however, sociobiology’s genes-to-culture pipeline is a gentrified form of racism, and Chagnon is the enemy.
Chagnon’s greatest nemesis may not be Tierney, but Terence Turner, a Cornell University anthropologist who has also studied Amazonians. “Sociobiology is an unviable and logically indefensible reductionism,” he says. Furthermore, “Chagnon’s pronouncements about the intrinsic violence of the Yanomamo has actively hurt them.” Turner complains that politicians and businessmen who want to exploit the Yanomamo homelands for their rich gold deposits use Chagnon’s work to demonize the tribe for standing in their way. He’s been making this point for more than a decade. In 1994, he labeled Chagnon “a sociopath” for statements that he believed were politically harmful to the Yanomamo, and he denounced Chagnon before a crowded room at the American Anthropological Association’s annual convention. Turner, who describes himself as “a Marxist,” told me that he first met Tierney “five or six years ago,” when he was commuting between Chicago and Ithaca, N.Y. He routinely changed planes in Pittsburgh, where Tierney was living. A mutual friend introduced them, and they began regular meetings at the airport. In the acknowledgments to Darkness in El Dorado, Tierney thanks Turner for his “encouragement.” (Tierney was not available for an interview.)
In fact, it was a letter from Turner and Lesley Sponsel of the University of Hawaii that set off the storm of press coverage that is now engulfing Chagnon. “Both of us have seen galley copies of a book by Patrick Tierney,” they wrote to the president of the American Anthropological Association in September. “In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption, [the scandal Tierney describes] is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.” Chagnon, they claimed, “probably started” a measles epidemic that killed “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of Yanomamo in 1968. This was done in the service of “fascistic eugenics.” What’s more, Chagnon’s scholarly work on the Yanomamo is tainted by “false, non-existent, or misinterpreted data.” The “nightmarish story” Tierney tells in his book, wrote Turner and Sponsel, is “a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele).”
It is indeed a nightmarish story-and a riveting one. Tierney, a self-described “human-rights activist,” relates how Chagnon first arrived in South America under the direction of James Neel, a University of Michigan geneticist. Neel, who passed away in February, wanted to study primitive people, and he picked the Yanomamo. Tierney suggests that Neel had a dark motive: What he secretly intended to do was test a pet theory that state-of-nature populations like the Yanomamo were more susceptible to selection pressures than those living in the comforts of civilization. Because only the fittest Yanomamo would survive, Neel speculated that tribe members were of a genetically superior stock. Neel, according to Tierney, was also on the lookout for something he called a “leadership gene” that would express itself among the Yanomamo, as if they were a tribe of baboons with dominant males. “Leadership gene” isn’t a term Neel used in any of his writings; Tierney employs it because a source of his said he heard Neel use it in 1963. The source is Terry Turner.
Tierney then describes how Neel and Chagnon set about performing a sick experiment to test the fitness of the Yanomamo. They went into the jungle with a measles vaccine called Edmonston B, which uses a weakened live virus. This was exactly the wrong approach to take with an isolated, immune-depressed population like the Yanomamo, says Tierney. The result was “ethnocide”-“the worst epidemic” in Yanomamo history. “I determined that the course of the epidemic closely tracked the movements of Neel’s team” in Yanomamo territory, he writes. In other words, everywhere they went, Neel and Chagnon spread measles. Tierney doesn’t come right out and say that the scientists wanted to start a measles outbreak in order to demonstrate their Darwinian ideas, but he comes awfully close, and he notes that the Seneca, an Indian tribe in the United States, were once used in syphilis studies.
It all sounds horrible. But it’s based on a lie. Live-virus measles vaccines have never caused an outbreak anywhere, even though they’ve been used hundreds of millions of times. That’s according to just about every medical expert who’s been consulted on the question, including Samuel Katz, one of the Edmonston B vaccine developers, and Mark Papania, who runs the measles-eradication program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s plausible that someday there will be a documented case of transmission, but the likelihood is so small it approaches zero. Tierney himself must know this, because he reports that “Today, scientists still do not know whether people who have been vaccinated with Edmonston B can transmit measles.” What a loaded statement: It’s like saying lunar geologists still don’t know whether the moon’s core is made of green cheese.
There was, in fact, a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo in 1968, when Neel and Chagnon arrived on the scene. But they didn’t cause it, and their vaccination efforts actually reduced an expected death rate of about one-third to less than one-tenth. For these life-saving efforts, Tierney gives them no credit. Instead, he presents them as monsters-making an extraordinary claim with extraordinarily little evidence.
If that’s the book’s biggest smear, there are plenty of smaller ones, too. Tierney likes to paint Chagnon as a right-winger who enjoys baiting liberal professors. His primary source for this claim is a 1999 article in the Santa Barbara News-Press, in which a critic describes Chagnon as “a kind of right-wing character who has a paranoid attitude on people he considers lefty.” That critic turns out to be Terry Turner. (For what it’s worth, Chagnon told me that until this year, he’s always voted for Democrats.) Tierney also notes that Chagnon grew up in Port Austin, Mich., “where differences were not welcomed, where xenophobia, linked to anti-Communist feeling, ran high, and where Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed strong support.” Tierney has no source for this statement-he simply asserts it-and he isn’t at all clear about what it’s supposed to reveal. “I don’t remember anybody in Port Austin ever talking about McCarthy,” says Chagnon. Tierney, nonetheless, declares that Chagnon “received a full portion of [McCarthy’s] spirit.” Finally-and weirdly, considering that it’s irrelevant to the book’s larger questions-Tierney calls Chagnon a draft dodger. He writes that Chagnon “got a draft deferment” during the Vietnam War (again, citing no source). “It’s bulls**t!” sputtered Chagnon when I read him the passage. “I never had a deferment. They didn’t draft men my age who were married and had two kids. It never came up.” (Chagnon was born in 1938, married in 1960, and was a father twice over by 1963.) Yet Tierney ominously notes, “Chagnon has never discussed his decision to avoid the draft.” The author of that sentence would be wise to avoid accusing others of McCarthyism.
Turner is now busy distancing himself from Tierney. “I didn’t do the research. I’m by no means a knee-jerk advocate of his work,” he told me. He’s also trying to disown the widely circulated letter he wrote with Sponsel. “It was a confidential memo that was leaked on the Internet,” he explains. He’s irritated that it has become public, but less because of its fantastically erroneous claims than the fact that he must now face the inconvenience of owning up to what he’s said. And Turner continues to hope that some of the allegations made by Tierney will stick. “Chapter Ten will be found to be true,” he insists, referring to a section in which Tierney says Chagnon faked data to make dubious points about the Yanomamo for the sake of sociobiology. Of course, Chapter Ten has plenty of its own problems. In it, for instance, Tierney makes much of the fact that Chagnon doesn’t reveal the names of certain villages he studied. “It took me quite a while to penetrate Chagnon’s data, but, by combining visits to the villages in the field with GPS locations and mortality statistics, I can identify nine of the twelve villages . . .” Tierney could have saved himself all this trouble if he had simply looked at a footnote in one of Chagnon’s scholarly articles, which reveals the names of the villages. He should know where to find it, because he cites it in his own book.
Chagnon will remain a controversial figure, if only because he’s a sociobiologist. “There’s a school of cultural anthropologists that doesn’t like to consider the possibility that humans are nasty,” he says. “Every theoretician makes assumptions about the nature of human nature. My critics prefer to believe in a myth of a golden age in which people ran around in the forest acting altruistically.” He’s not exaggerating: Sponsel, the coauthor of Turner’s letter, has written elsewhere that “nonviolence and peace were likely the norm throughout most of human prehistory and that intrahuman killing was probably rare.” If the Yanomamo are an authentic glimpse at what human prehistory might have looked like, of course, Sponsel’s theory is dead wrong-and Chagnon’s empirical observations prove it. And so, by the way, does the vicious behavior of Sponsel, Turner, and Tierney.