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.