Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes

imagesI started grad school around the same time that Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney came out. In this book, Tierney accused a famous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, of doing some terrible things during his fieldwork among the Yanamamo, a group living in the Venezuelan Amazon. My graduate advisor was in the Anthropology department, and the scandal was a big deal in the field. It was impossible not to be fascinated by the whole thing. As a naive 22 year old, the wild accusations that Tierney made somehow seemed reasonable to me–even the ones of genocide. In grad school we all spent a lot of time thinking about the responsibilities of researchers to the people they study, and the accusations Tierney made against Chagnon seemed to fit into a long history of people from high-income places using and abusing people from low-income places. Frankly, I feel pretty guilty about giving this book the time of day.

Chagnon wasn’t the only one Tierney accused of doing terrible things to the Yanomamo in the name of science. James Neel was a famous geneticist with whom Chagnon worked, and Tierney leveled many of the same claims against him. In particular, Tierney accused Chagnon and Neel of setting loose a measles virus among the Yanomamo in order to document its effect in an immunologically naive population. It’s pretty instructive  to compare the way that the genetics community responded to the accusations against Neel and the way that anthropologists responded to the accusations against Chagnon. Both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) launched investigations into Tierney’s claims. By January of 2002, the ASHG had published their findings, which amounted to a spirited defense of Neel. They stated “The ASHG inquiry finds these allegations to be gross mispresentations and basically false. This commentary represents the response of the ASHG to the various charges against a major, widely honored figure…” They also had choice words for anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Spondel, who had widely circulated Tierney’s claims as truth even before his book’s publication, as well as the media coverage that ensued: “These two individuals showed a lack of judgment in propagating these allegations without some effort to ascertain their truth. We deplore their lack of objectivity in accepting as fact statements that, on investigation, can be shown to be false, resulting in severe damage to the reputation of a leading and highly respected human geneticist who was unable to defend himself. We also condemn the actions of certain newspapers and magazines, particularly The New Yorker (usually known for meticulous fact checking), The Guardian, and The Guardian Weekly, that repeated these allegations, now shown to be false, and thus ensured their widest circulation.” By contrast, the AAA didn’t exonerate Chagnon until 2005– and only after they had aided in ruining the poor guy’s life. Alice Dreger, a historian, studied the AAA’s handling of the Darkness in El Dorado scandal and concluded: “While the [AAA’s] Peacock and the Task Force Reports contain some critiques of Tierney, both explicitly took Tierney’s book as the roadmap to follow for further inquiries. Both even essentially thanked Tierney on behalf of anthropologists. The Peacock Commission concluded this: “Patrick Tierney’s provocative book, Darkness in El Dorado, has contributed a valuable service to our discipline” (Peacock et al. 2001). The Task Force later concluded this: “Darkness in El Dorado has served anthropology well” (AAA 2002a:9). No other scholarly organization treated Tierney’s house of cards as constituting a valuable service to their discipline.”

It’s also interesting to delve a little into Tierney’s background. In order for such dramatic accusations to be taken so seriously, this guy must have serious reporting chops, right? An impressive history of investigative reporting? Nope. Prior to Darkness in El Dorado, he’d written a single book, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice, which is now out of print. And Dreger reports that although Tierney provided copious notes in Darkness in El Dorado, “many of Tierney’s hundreds of citations lead nowhere. Others essentially say the opposite of what is claimed.” The fact that this book was taken seriously by a number of prominent anthropologists, reported on widely in the media, and even named a finalist for the National Book Award is pretty scary.

Now, in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes, Chagnon finally gets the chance to tell his story. And not surprisingly, he is pretty pissed off. The book deals with both his work among the Yanamomo and his trials and tribulations at the hands of his colleagues in Anthropology. There have been a lot of high profile, well written reviews of Noble Savages by Charles Mann, Douglas William Hume, Rachel Newcomb, Greg Laden, and others. And if you missed the fabulous profile piece on Chagnon in the New York Times magazine by Emily Eakin, timed to coincide with the book’s release, check it out. I thought Noble Savages made for really interesting reading. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Darkness in El Dorado, I’d never really learned much about Chagnon’s findings, and this was a great introduction to his work.images-1

The controversy, of course, isn’t over. Marshall Sahlins recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest over Chagnon’s induction. And the response of many anthropologists to Noble Savages has been far from positive. I was surprised that some critics, like Elizabeth Povinelli, felt the way that he portrayed the Yanomamo was very negative, irresponsibly so. In her opinion, Chagnon  depicted a “hideous society” composed of “deceitful, stubborn and murderous people.”  I finished the book with a completely different assessment. I felt Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomamo was nuanced and pretty evenhanded. Some of the people he met in Venezuala were kind, and some were cruel, and that was true of both the Yanomamo and the non-Yanomamo with whom he interacted. Chagnon certainly didn’t sugarcoat things, but he was quick to point out all of the acts of kindness he witnessed. It seems as though some of his detractors in anthropology believe that vulnerable study subjects should only be portrayed in a flattering light. While I can understand that no one wants to write something negative about a group of people that might provide a reason for other groups to treat them badly, sacrificing honesty to avoid writing something that could be construed negatively doesn’t seem very respectful to the people with whom you’re working. No self-respecting reporter covering a story in the United States, for example, would decide to depict his or her subjects in a wholly positive light prior to even beginning their investigation. If we treat the people we study differently than we expect to be treated ourselves, it seems as though we are automatically turning them into “others.” Whether anthropologists are studying workers at the World Bank or people living in some remote region of the Amazon, their research involves the study of other human beings. And humans deserve to be treated as individuals. Portraying whole groups of people as uniformly “good” or uniformly “bad” plays into stereotypes–which isn’t helpful to anyone involved and certainly isn’t scientific.

I guess if anything positive has come out of this decade-long saga, it is that it has thrown into relief some of the schisms inside Anthropology. Perhaps bringing these different approaches to ethnography into the light will lead to some fruitful debates. I haven’t seen much evidence of that so far, though. Chagnon’s book has also led to some interesting considerations of his actual work. After gathering data for decades, he has drawn some fascinating and controversial conclusions about the motivation for violence in human societies, and engaging with his hypotheses in a scientific way is important. I can’t imagine this mess has improved anyone’s perception of Anthropology, though, and I doubt many anthropologists feel they can count on support from the AAA if they find themselves unfairly accused of something. And that’s a shame.