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Coming of Age in Venezuela | The Nation

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Coming of Age in Venezuela

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A few years back, critics of postmodernism, both left and right, chuckled at the academic sting pulled on the journal Social Text when it published Alan Sokal's bogus article on the socially constructed nature of nature. For conservatives, that the journal ran Sokal's fuzzy call for a progressive postmodern science confirmed the fundamental divide between the politicized humanities and the objective sciences--proof positive of cultural studies run amok. In all the discussion that followed, however, little notice was paid to the origins of post-World War II radical critiques of science. In the shadow of Hitler and Stalin and in the wake of the Vietnam War, theorists from Theodor Adorno to Donna Haraway have been concerned with the ways in which science has colluded with acts of barbarism.

Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado examines the tragic consequences of medical and social science research on the Venezuelan Yanomami and reminds us why scientific practices and theories should indeed be the domain of social critics. White scientists in the jungle have long been central characters in the stories the West tells about itself. Alongside Humboldt and Mengele, Tierney's book now adds to the tropical pantheon James Neel, founder of the University of Michigan's human genetics department, and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps the world's most infamous living anthropologist.

Well before Darkness's publication, Tierney's most damning charge--that Neel and Chagnon provoked, perhaps knowingly, a fatal 1968 measles epidemic responsible for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of deaths--has created a scandal that threatens to distract from the real significance of his research. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the book may create a crisis "unparalleled in the history of anthropology." At a special American Anthropological Association forum in mid-November, defenders of Neel charged libel and politicized agendas. One panelist proclaimed that Tierney's "anti-science views" would jeopardize future vaccine efforts and lead to more deaths from disease. Chagnon, evoking the terms of the Sokal affair, has responded that only "cultural anthropologists from the Academic Left" who "despise the words 'empirical evidence' would take Tierney's claims seriously."

Empirical evidence is not lacking in Tierney's copiously footnoted book. Like all good chronicles of Western rationalists who lose their mind among primitives, Darkness in El Dorado is filled with absurd and disgraceful behavior: a French anthropologist who loses himself for decades in a sexual Eden; the world's wealthy holding a tuxedo dinner catered by helicopters on a jungle mountain; researchers who try to kill one another with machetes or commit suicide after being spurned by a Yanomami lover. But aside from his Joseph Conrad-like musings as to what it is about the Yanomami that made white people crazy, Tierney has written a fascinating, but also frustrating, ethnography of the practices and beliefs of cold war medical and social science researchers.

Tierney focuses primarily on the long and strange career of Napoleon Chagnon, who originated the myth of Yanomami aggression in his book The Fierce People, the all-time-bestselling ethnography. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomami as one of the most violent cultures on earth, where villages went to war to procure women and serial murderers bred at a higher rate than men who did not kill.

Tierney convincingly demonstrates his charge that unethical methodology and false science produced this myth. He also describes its often fatal consequences.

Most cultural anthropologists now believe that the wars Chagnon witnessed were provoked by Chagnon himself. He offered axes, machetes, fishhooks and pots in exchange for ethnographic information, creating tensions among villages that vied for monopoly control of his wares. Within months of Chagnon's arrival in 1964, three different fights broke out between villages that had previously been at peace for decades. Anthropologist Brian Ferguson reports that Chagnon was "very much involved in the fighting and the wars. Chagnon becomes a central figure in determining battles over trade goods and machetes."A Yanomami reports that Chagnon offered him an outboard motor in exchange for help, including the procurement of a Yanomami wife. Shotguns, a seemingly unlimited supply of trade goods and willingness to don feathers, face paint and a loincloth allowed Chagnon to transform himself from an "impoverished Ph.D. student at the bottom of the totem pole to being a figure of preternatural power."

Tierney argues that many of Chagnon's data are simply false. The Yanomami do not have a particularly high murder rate, nor do men who kill reproduce more than those who don't. Neither are the Yanomami particularly well-nourished--a claim that Chagnon uses to argue that men fight over women and not food.

In the United States, Chagnon and his sociobiologist allies continue to portray the Yanomami as an untainted relic of our past--a handy control group used to prove the biological basis of a range of aggressive human traits. In Latin America, the endurance of the myth of Yanomami aggression has reinforced racism and justified indifference. Both the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments have used unfavorable images of the Yanomami to justify their failure to protect them from migrants, who, starting in the late 1980s, increasingly entered the region, resulting in the death from disease and violence of untold numbers of Yanomami.

Tierney is at his best when he discusses Chagnon's career within the cultural history of the cold war. Born poor in Michigan, Chagnon used the expanding university system to climb out of poverty. Like many at the time who through discipline and hard work improved their class standing, Chagnon developed a visceral antipathy toward communism. It manifested itself in an intense masculine persona that earned Chagnon a reputation for barfighting and academic brawling. One of Tierney's insights is that Chagnon's theories had their "genesis during the Vietnam War and its cultural equivalent on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where hippies in tepees chanted slogans like 'Make love, not war.' The whole point...was that you had to make war in order to make love--that violence was part of the natural order.... As a cold war metaphor, the Yanomami's 'ceaseless warfare' over women proved, that even in a society without property, hierarchies prevailed."

Tierney is on to something important here. The Fierce People was published in 1968, a particularly tough year for the United States abroad. American officials justified counterinsurgency campaigns that were taking place in the jungles of Latin America, Africa and Asia in decidedly Chagnonian terms. As one 1968 dissenting State Department memo put it: "We have condoned counter-terror.... We suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that... murder, torture, and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."

Tierney rightly reads The Fierce People as a piece of home-front propaganda. To counter those who argued that war was caused by struggles over resources (a central claim of New Left interpretations of both the cold war and the Vietnam War), Chagnon "engineered a bold creation myth, a ferocious Garden of Eden, where the healthy, well-fed Yanomami fought for... sexual pleasure.... It was not the Yanomami but Chagnon's fellow Americans who belonged, in reality, to one of the best-fed, healthiest societies in history. America enjoyed abundance so delirious that it seemed, for a short time in the 1960s, that its citizens would not agree to the stress of world combat against Communism.... At that critical moment, The Fierce People... came to reverse a dangerous complacency, proof that the battle is never won, that the fight can never be abandoned."

By the late 1980s Chagnon was in trouble. Tierney misses an important opportunity to discuss how the decline in Chagnon's fortunes was tied to the end of superpower tensions. At home, a generation of anthropologists critical of its discipline's role in justifying US foreign policy came into professional power. In Venezuela his former research subjects were demanding that he be barred from entering their territory. And reflecting the post-cold war extension of economic activity into areas previously off-limits, gold miners poured into the Amazon, causing widespread ecological destruction and social dislocation. Challenged by his liberal colleagues, harangued by feminists, threatened by dark-skinned peoples and adrift in the new post-cold war economy, Chagnon became an international version of the angry white man.

Chagnon did what many did at the end of the cold war--he went private. He teamed up with a flamboyant Venezuelan industrial gold miner, who turned "tracts of forest into mud soup," and the mistress of the Venezuelan president, who has since fled the country following indictments for corruption and fraud. The three came close to establishing a private biosphere in Yanomami territory that would have given them political authority over the Yanomami and monopoly rights over mineral and scientific claims. In order to muster international support for their scheme, they shuttled journalists and scientists in and out of remote Yanomami communities on lightning helicopter tours, without providing protection against possible contagion. Newspapers and television news ran stories of recently discovered "lost villages," while "foreign scientists carried out huge amounts of plant and animal samples."

When Venezuelan and international opposition scuttled his plan to set up a fiefdom in his former field site, Chagnon, now largely shut out of anthropology journals, stepped up efforts to disseminate his theories in the popular press. Although Chagnon often casts himself as an embattled truth-seeker--the preferred role of most biological determinists, no matter how much funding or open access to the media they have--Tierney points out the "abject admiration many male journalists apparently felt for the great anthropologist." He cites a fax that Matt Ridley, the science reporter at The Economist, sent to Chagnon apologizing for not writing a more sympathetic piece: "I have written it in the way that the International Editor wanted, which means 'impartially.' (She is a bit PC, herself.) So you may find it less unambiguously sympathetic to you than you might have hoped, but it is about as far as I dare go.... I do hope you like it."

What will make and, unfortunately, probably break Darkness in El Dorado is its description of the deadly 1968 outbreak of measles that coincided with the arrival of an expedition, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and headed by Neel and Chagnon, to collect Yanomami blood samples.

Tierney's speculation that Neel may have been responsible for the epidemic is based on Neel's decision to use what was by 1968 an antiquated vaccine, Edmonston B, which was contraindicated for isolated populations such as the Yanomami. Tierney suggests that Neel chose this vaccine to prove that American Indians were not genetically vulnerable to European germs. Since Edmonston B produced the same level of antibodies as an infection of real measles, follow-up antibody tests would allow for a comparison of European and Yanomami immune systems. This may be why, according to Tierney, Neel opted for Edmonston B even though it was known to cause measleslike symptoms among isolated groups and even though a cheaper, safer vaccine (but one that did not produce antibodies comparable to the disease) was available. Tierney argues that because Edmonston B produces symptoms similar to measles, its use may have ignited the outbreak; he goes even further by proxy, citing a medical historian who ventures that Neel may have intentionally started the epidemic.

Tierney unfortunately has presented his case in a way that allows for easy dismissal. He provides compelling evidence that Neel and Chagnon did indeed treat the vaccination campaign as an experiment. For instance, by Neel's own telling, in the first village, before the epidemic, the team inexplicably vaccinated only forty Yanomami out of a total population of seventy-six, even though it had enough doses for all. Combined with the fact that most in this village had been tested for measles antibodies two years earlier, the inoculation of half the village created a fortuitous control group for Neel's published findings. It also seems that the vaccine did induce fevers and rashes in many Yanomami. Nevertheless, the fact that Tierney gives no direct evidence to back up his most serious conjecture--that the measles epidemic was caused by the vaccine--threatens to discredit his entire study. (Also, in response to the pre-publication controversy, most medical experts insist that it is impossible for a vaccine, no matter what symptoms it may bring on in the inoculated, to spread as an epidemic.)

Tierney's missteps here speak to a larger problem with his book, which draws its inspiration more from The X-Files than from the Frankfurt School. Tierney tries too hard to link the actions and motives of the individuals involved in a tight net of intrigue, misrepresenting cold war social science as a secret society of an elected few.

Of course, for many, the actions of the United States during the cold war don't make sense any other way. Consider this history: Neel, who did research on Hiroshima survivors, was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to collect thousands of samples of Yanomami blood because it was thought it could be used as a baseline to measure degrees of genetic mutation. In 1958 the AEC, which in other instances engaged in deadly human radiation experiments, paid Marcel Roche, a Venezuelan doctor who worked on Neel's 1968 expedition, to inject the Yanomami, without their knowledge, of course, with radioactive iodine to study why they did not suffer from goiters. Tierney should not be entirely blamed if he didn't have a theory, other than conspiracy, to explain this.

Darkness in El Dorado unconvincingly attempts to trace this shameful history directly to Neel ("I felt that Neel was the key"), unfairly describing him as an extreme eugenicist. This is unfortunate, for Tierney could have written a more powerful book by demonstrating how the cold war produced acts of barbarism regardless of individual motive.

This is not to let Neel and Chagnon off the hook. They were instrumental in the creation of a body of knowledge that valued the Yanomami not for their own sake but for what they could provide cold war science. Their blood was believed to contain answers to questions raised by the new post-Hiroshima world, while their culture was thought to be a distilled version of what the West once was and, for some, should be again.

In the documentary made of the 1968 expedition, Neel and others are shown professionally inoculating Yanomami, who are presented as pictures of vibrant health. Sound outtakes reveal a different story. The team was exhausted, sick and panicked as the epidemic escaped their control and ravaged the Yanomami. Neel can be heard ordering the cameraman to stop filming a sick Yanomami. Whatever the cause of the measles outbreak, it is probable that the research team exposed the Yanomami to respiratory infections and other illnesses. The outtakes also reveal that Neel and Chagnon were much more concerned with making the documentary and collecting blood samples than with containing the epidemic. They broke quarantine lines to procure donors and quickly abandoned the area so that their blood would not be ruined in the tropical heat.

Tierney's effort to pin the tragic history of the Yanomami on Neel speaks to a larger problem, both in his book and in current ways of thinking about colonialism. With the failure of socialism and the discrediting of revolutionary movements and governments, many First World activists have thrown their energy into advocating on behalf of the cultural rights of native peoples. Much of this work is profoundly apolitical, justified more by appeals to Indian virtue than by critical analysis. This kind of activism too easily sets itself up for dismissal when it is revealed that Indians may have their own interests and may not be as innocent as portrayed.

This problem is reproduced in Tierney's book. It speaks to the poverty of our political culture that Tierney, an experienced investigative reporter, refuses, either out of ignorance or bias, to discuss the history of the Amazon in reference to colonialism, capitalism or racism. Instead, he searches for the mastermind behind the mayhem. Tierney creates a kitschy Heart of Darkness-like tale and casts himself as Marlow and Chagnon as Kurtz (Neel, perhaps, could be King Leopold). Well before we hear any Yanomami voices, we learn of Tierney's battles against jungle thieves and malaria, heroically rescuing Yanomami children and fending off evil gold miners.

Tierney's narrative rightly demonstrates how objective scientists can be implicated in a history of atrocity--and his gaffes should not distract from this history--but it can't account for the fact that while the AEC was paying for Neel's and Chagnon's jungle excursions, it was also funding the work of Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, along with other progressive scientists and anthropologists. These scholars became powerful critics of how the supposed objective research of their colleagues served not-so-objective agendas and had not-so-benign consequences. These politicized scholars have served science well--proof positive that Adorno was right, that "science needs those who disobey it."

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