John Leo
Most of us pay little attention to squabbles in the academic world, but the dispute over Napoleon Chagnon is one to watch. Apart from Margaret Mead, Chagnon is probably the most prominent anthropologist of our era, famed for his long work among the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. Now journalist Patrick Tierney is attempting to bring him down.

In a new book, "Darkness in El Dorado," Tierney heavily implies that Chagnon and a late colleague, geneticist James Neel, started a measles epidemic among the Yanomami in a vaccination experiment that killed hundreds of Indians. Tierney also charges that Chagnon mischaracterized the Yanomami as warlike, staged fights for filming and altered data to fit his theories.

When The New Yorker printed a toned-down advance excerpt of the book, the reaction was quick and explosive. Two of Chagnon's enemies, both anthropologists, announced that Tierney describes research that "in its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption ... is unparalleled in the history of anthropology ... beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)."

But Tierney's allegations seemed to dissolve by the day. Epidemioloists pointed out that there is no record anywhere in the world of an epidemic being started by vaccination. Other evidence pointed to the Yanomami's long pre-Chagnon record for violence, and some loudly denied that Chagnon had exaggerated this behavior or staged any fights.

The National Academy of Sciences took the almost unprecedented step of attacking "Darkness" for "misuse of source material and factual errors and innuendo." Susan Lindee, an historian of science and a well-known critic of one of Tierney's main targets, James Neel, found "a remarkable pattern of dishonesty" in the book. Kim Hill, an expert on the indigenous people of the Amazon, calls the book "a hoax" and "unethical journalism."

This controversy is still spreading, in part because it is shadow warfare over other issues. Chagnon is a sociobiologist -- he believes that biology greatly influences culture. He does not take a hard-line position that genes determine a lot of behavior, but his analysis of the interplay between Yanomami culture and biologically based aggression outrages many in the field. Most anthropologists believe that humans are basically blank slates at birth, ready to be shaped almost entirely by culture and environment.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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