Warring anthropologists reflect larger cultural ri

John Leo

12/5/2000 12:00:00 AM - 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.

This antagonism has been magnified by the post-'60s politicization of the academic world. Chagnon lashed out at "cultural anthropologists from the academic left," who are heavily devoted to postmodern relativism and political correctness.

He has a point. The once-staid American Anthropological Association is now heavily devoted to left politics, taking stands on hate crimes, gay rights, affirmative action, globalization, and many issues only vaguely related to anthropology. Association meetings now feature panels on such topics as "Spank the Bank: the Battle in Seattle," "Transgendered Beauty Pageants" and "Doing Lesbian Community."

This dramatic political shift within anthropology has created a climate for attacks on traditional field workers, particularly ones like Chagnon, whose theories are generally associated with conservative politics. Chagnon has always been controversial and open to attack on many fronts, but it's doubtful that so many scurrilous charges, including the heavily implied accusation of genocide, would have gained any currency if the academic culture hadn't gone radical.

In the traditional liberal view, anthropology is an attempt to reach out to other cultures and understand them. In the opinion of postmodernists, anthropology is a form of Western colonialism that tends to alter and destroy everything it touches. The subtitle of Tierney's book picks up this theme of Western destructiveness in the Third World: "How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon." Kim Hill writes: "We can be certain that well-known anti-science, anti-sociobiology and anti-American groups will do their best to publicize the false accusations in this book."

A related reason for attacks on Chagnon is that anthropology is full of people who still believe in the noble savage myth -- that pre-literate societies are inherently peaceful, and that this harmony reflects a basically benign human nature. If you believe that, then Chagnon's findings, and those of many other anthropologists, are bad news indeed. Politically, the noble savage myth plays out in idealistic treatment of primitive cultures and reflexive hostility toward developed ones, particularly the United States.

So far the anthropological association has not joined the attacks on Chagnon, possibly because if it did, it would be promoting the idea that American scientists are spreading diseases around the world. But there is little doubt that many academics, plus the editors of The New Yorker, found it easy to join the assault.

"A lot of intellectuals wanted to think that evolutionary people like Chagnon were wicked," said anthropologist John Tooby. "That's why you get references to Mengele and Nazis." A book that plays so strongly to the prejudices of the chattering classes will always do well.