Stephan Schwartzman weighs the case against a jungle legend
Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon created a public polemic of considerable proportions, by the placid standards of anthropology, through charges of grossly unethical behaviour - with fatal consequences in some instances - by researchers among the Yanomami Indians of the Upper Orinoco in Venezuela.
Tierney's Yanomamiland is a Conradian Heart of Darkness where blood samples and film footage replace gold and ivory, and his Kurtz (anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon) finds academic stardom and lecture halls packed with eager undergraduates rather than feverish death. Tierney's account unfortunately takes on some of the same obsessive character he describes in the bizarre exploits of his subjects. In fact, at key moments he substantially confuses and undercuts the real evidence of misdeeds and questions on the ethics of research among peoples such as the Yanomami that he raises.
The Yanomami, in the late 1960s, were the largest relatively isolated indigenous group in the Americas, some 20,000 people in hundreds of villages on the remote Venezuela-Brazil border. Notably, the group was then still engaged in tribal warfare, a once-prevalent but declining practice among Amazonian Indians. This became the focus of Chagnon's anthropological studies of them. Chagnon felt that aggressiveness was the distinctive characteristic of the group. His Yanomami: The Fierce People (1968) became an immensely popular undergraduate text. It cast the Yanomami as anti-noble savages, an indigenous exemplification of the war of all against all, and Chagnon himself as a species of anthropological leviathan, backing off Yanomami warriors intent on his store of trade goods and donning feathers and body paint and bellowing to intimidate the restive natives in bellicose shamanic displays. The Yano-mamis' supposed proclivity for violence crowned Chagnon's academic career when, in 1988, he published an article in Science purporting to show that Yano-mami killers had more wives and children than non-killers, hence passing on more of their genes. This, he claimed, proved that male violence confers reproductive success and has a genetic basis, as sociobiologists have argued. His argument was soon proved wrong. Chagnon's statistics were faulty and, even had they not been, his wider claim rested on unjustified assumptions - that the Yanomami are a good stand-in for our evolutionary ancestors, for example.
Tierney contends, on the basis of examination of Chagnon's extensive writings, interviews with other anthropological specialists, and missionaries, health-care workers and many Yano-mami, that Chagnon grossly manipulated his research data to create an unfounded image of Yanomami aggressiveness and of his own bravery and daring in working with them. Worse, he claims that Chagnon's reliance on massive distributions of trade goods, steel tools in particular, to secure information and compliance with researchers' needs - for blood samples, genealogies, dramatic film sequences of dances and fights - itself caused the internal disputes, raids and killings that Chagnon held to typify traditional Yanomami culture, as different sub-groups fought over access to the valued outsiders' goods. His research methods were disruptive enough that he was banned from the area by Venezuelan authorities, with strong support from the Yanomami themselves.
Tierney's most dramatic accusation is that geneticist James Neel and Chagnon induced a lethal measles epidemic among the highly vulnerable Yanomami in 1968 while they were collecting blood samples for a huge Atomic Energy Commission-funded genetic study. Tierney infers that either the epidemic was triggered through negligent use of an inappropriate vaccine or was a mad eugenics experiment. Hundreds of Yanomami died in the epidemic, but no evidence supports the notion that a measles vaccine could have such an effect, and this claim has been universally rejected by specialists. Tierney's related charges that Chagnon and Neel withheld medical care during the 1968 epidemic in order to study its effects similarly lack any coherent evidence, though some experts note that they could have prepared their expedition better to help combat it.
But just as paranoiacs may have real enemies, so too may conspiracy theorists hit on real wrongs. Even in the 1960s, the Nuremberg Convention and other internationally recognised protocols specified standards of informed consent for biomedical research that were certainly ignored in Neel and Chagnon's rapid, wholesale collection of thousands of blood samples in exchange for steel tools and other trade goods. No one who has worked with indigenous groups in the Amazon or is reasonably familiar with the literature can doubt that the airplane loads of hyper-valued goods that Chagnon distributed to the Yanomami to secure the blood and genealogies he wanted were a source of heightened competition and conflict among the Indians, and may perfectly well have led to bloodshed and killings that would not otherwise have occurred. Darkness in El Dorado will, in principle, be of interest to those concerned with the situation of indigenous peoples and research among Amazonian Indians, but is factually much too unreliable and tendentious to be taken at face value.
It is darkly ironic that a book so filled with moral outrage over abuses committed against the Yanomami is unlikely to direct attention to their current situation or to encourage any actual solidarity with them. The chief effect of the book to date has been to ignite debate within American anthropology, and to cause rivers of ink to flow over Tierney's most inflammatory - and specious - allegations. If Tierney did not exist, Chagnon, who has for decades flourished as "the controversial professor Chagnon", would gladly have invented him.
Meanwhile the Yanomami in Brazil face renewed challenges from the military and the Roraima state political elite to their land rights, while in Venezuela, absolute lack of medical assistance is precipitating a drastic health crisis. Tierney is eloquent on how Chagnon and his associates have prejudiced the rights of the Yanomami, but is all but silent on what others have done on their behalf. His account offers neither any framework to understand, nor a connection to constructive action for researchers, students, concerned citizens or anyone else. In Brazil in particular, researchers and national and international indigenous-rights and environmental organisations successfully supported the Yanomami in a 20-year struggle for recognition of their rights to a territory the size of Portugal, against powerful and intransigent opposition from the military and local political elites (who are once again mobilising against it). From a Yanomami perspective, the relevant question about Darkness in El Dorado is who, if anyone, will it move to supportive action?
Stephan Schwartzman is senior scientist on the international programme, Environmental Defence, Washington DC, United States.
Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon
Author - Patrick Tierney
ISBN - 0 393 04922 1
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 417