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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon | The Nation

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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon

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Though Neel had little concern for the specifics of Yanomami life and (according to Chagnon) a disdain for anthropology in general, he sometimes went on the sample-gathering trips. On one, in 1968, a measles outbreak was erupting just as his team arrived. In the account presented in Darkness in El Dorado, Neel and his team—despite delivering a thousand vaccines—made the epidemic worse, causing many more Yanomami to fall ill and die than would have otherwise. This was not, Tierney insinuated in the pre-publication proofs of the book sent to reviewers, a matter of neglect; instead, Neel had knowingly made the epidemic worse because it gave him the perfect chance to observe the immune systems of a virgin-soil population in action. In this account, a founding figure of modern genetics comes across as little different from a Nazi scientist, with America’s bestselling anthropologist as his willing handmaiden.

Noble Savages
My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.
By Napoleon A. Chagnon.

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About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker lives in DeKalb, Illinois.

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After Norton sent out the proofs of Tierney’s book, his tale of killer anthropologists started circulating at great speed on academic listservs. It was a “nightmarish story,” wrote two of Chagnon’s longtime critics in August 2000, “a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps a Josef Mengele).” Chagnon’s partisans set in motion efforts to discredit Tierney’s book page by page, hoping to stem the inevitable tide of bad press. Allies like Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser e-mailed people covering the book, urging them to denounce it. In late 2000, an excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, and the book—though still not released—was nominated for a National Book Award. Meanwhile, Tierney and Norton continued editing it, softening some of its more incendiary claims about the measles epidemic; when released, it still claimed that Neel had made the epidemic worse, but allowed that it had not been intentional.

Sensing the possibility of a public relations disaster for the entire discipline, the AAA’s leadership convened a task force to evaluate Tierney’s charges. This was highly unusual: unlike a state medical or legal board, for example, the AAA is not a licensing body; you need not be a member of the association to practice anthropology. (Chagnon canceled his membership in the late 1980s.) It has little in the way of meaningful investigative authority, and its ethics guidelines are notoriously muddled and difficult to apply. The task force’s preliminary report, released in 2001 soon after the book’s publication, concluded that Tierney’s argument was shot through with flaws: the accusation that Neel had worsened the measles epidemic, as one example, was found to be baseless and not even possible. But many of Tierney’s less sensational, more complex charges against Chagnon were substantiated, and the task force declared that the book was of definite value to the field. This satisfied no one, not least because of an obvious procedural failing: two of the task force’s members admitted to not having read the whole report.

The final report, released a few months later, was considerably more critical of Chagnon. But for his detractors, it was at best an imperfect attempt to grapple with fundamental questions, and at worst a PR move designed to hurry the discipline past an ugly episode. For Chagnon’s supporters, it was a disgraceful hatchet job, one more sign of cultural anthropology’s resentment over the encroachment of “hard” science onto its turf. Three years later, a referendum was put forth to rescind the report, on the grounds that the original task force had been illegitimate, biased and sloppy. Roughly 10 percent of the AAA’s members voted: 846 for, 338 against. The report was removed from the organization’s website, and the question of which, if any, of its conclusions had been true was left for die-hards to debate in academic journals and on their personal websites. There is little agreement even about what the controversy is exactly, and most often the people involved—tenured professors—do little more than talk past each other, bemoan the quality of debate, and then continue talking past each other. Davi Kopenawa, a prominent Yanomami activist, put it well: “I want to know how much they are making each month. How much does an anthropologist earn?… This is a lot of money. They may be fighting but they are happy. They fight and this makes them happy. They make money and fight.”

There were two other referendums on the ballot when the AAA voted to rescind the El Dorado report. One expressed a strong preference for holding the annual meetings at facilities staffed by unions; it passed by a vote of 695 to 624. The other was a repudiation of the 1919 censure of Franz Boas, whose accusations about anthropologist-spies had since been confirmed by researchers—including the fact that some of the men who voted to censure him were the spies he had declined to name out of respect for their safety. The language of the 2005 repudiation implied that the original censure had been a regrettable error from another era, the sort of mistake anthropology didn’t make anymore and hadn’t made for a long time. It passed by an overwhelming margin: 1,245 to 73.

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