Anthropology has, ironically enough, been riven by the conflict of two tribes: those who tend to favour biological interpretations of societies and those who lean towards a view of social determinism. This is crude, of course – as all generalisations will be – not just as I’m sure that there are thinkers with more singular perspectives but as much else is wrapped up within the two – just to embrace this crudeness – “sides”. The former retain a view of anthropology as an objective, scientific pursuit; the latter feel it’s indivisible from the wellbeing of its subjects, even claiming, sometimes, that it should be advocatory in its work.

The most violent bout in this struggle was enacted after the turn of the Millenium and concerned the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon, who could be lumped in with the sociobiologists, has been both celebrated and reviled. In his work with Ya̧nomamö tribesmen of the Amazon (who readers unfamiliar with anthropology might know from Deodata’s wildly exploitative anti-exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust) he devised a view of them as “the fierce people”, with men warring for control of women and, thus, the most aggressive fighters being the ones who’d propagate their genes.

Chagnon’s work earned him respect, both within his discipline and from the evolutionary theorists who were pleased to see their methods being used. It also inspired criticism. Anthropologists believed he was promoting a stereotype of brutish tribesmen – one that could be exploited by their state and corporate foes. Some accused him of misusing data. Others claimed the violence of the tribesmen was exacerbated by materials Chagnon had given them. These charges, however, seemed like paper darts compared to those that followed them.

A book – Darkness in El Dorado – by the journalist Patrick Tierney trashed Chagnon in extraordinary style. Tierney didn’t merely charge him with statistical deceptions, dodgy funds and forgeries, he claimed that with geneticist James Van Gundia Neel he’d induced a measles epidemic amongst the tribespeople and withheld medical treatment. He was, essentially, a killer. When somebody claims respected academics are mistaken there’s often a vicious furore: accusations and denials flying like hand grenades. When somebody claims respected academics aren’t just wrong but practically genocidal you’d be wise to make for cover.

As the book was packed inside warehouses the Professors Leslie Sponsel and Terry Turner, both anthropologists and both critics of Chagnon, wrote to the President of the American Anthropological Association gasping, without a semblance of scepticism, that Tierney’s allegations had revealed a “scandal” that was “[in] its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality…unparalleled in the history of [the field]“. Papers like The Guardian gave breathless commentary as the foes of Chagnon started to descend, howling, from their lairs.

Yet there was a problem with Tierney’s book: it was rubbish. Critics were soon tearing it apart and even Turner granted that it was strewn with errors. Now, over a decade on, a report by Alice Dreger argues that Tierney harboured a grudge against Chagnon and Darkness, which she gives a further mauling, was the crass, invidious product of this spite.

Dreger is a boundary-hopping academic, best known for critiquing the response to psychologist J. Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be King. (This seems to have been a fascinating fracas though in terms like those it sounds as worthwhile as that favourite messageboard pastime of reviewing reviews.) I’ve no desire to stoke the embers of that old debate but it seems to have left Dreger troubled by emotional responses to scholarship; fiery reactions that cremate research.

Her defence of Chagnon – who, she cheerily admits, she’s gone on to befriend and who she lauds as “forceful, fearless, prominent and articulate” – is limited to the sensational claims against him: from Tierney’s accusations to charges of bigotry. The reader might start imagining the poor Professor has been treated in a manner somewhat like a peasant wedged into the stocks. In fact, his work also inspires more reasonable critiques[1]. I’d caution Professor Dreger against feeling that her project is too broadly applicable. Academic work can have serious human consequences that – inevitably – will provoke more feeling than yer average thesis. Just consider Yoshimura’s ominously titled Studies on the Reactivity of Skin Vessels to Extreme Cold to see how grotesque scientists – as with us all – can be, or the research of the early eugenicists to see how even well-meant studies can bolster atrocities.

Yet these points should divert us from the uncomfortable fact that someone has been widely charged with causing death on an enormous scale and on the word of little more than a deceitful hack. It was a tremendous accusation. If you’ve ever been accused of being wrong you’ll probably have felt a little vexed. If it’s ever been alleged that you are, say, a bigot you may well have been dismayed.

Dreger doesn’t merely bin the scraps of Tierney’s book: she reveals that the American Anthropological Association seems to have let down its colleague, Chagnon. While its investigators dismissed much of his accuser’s book it welcomed Darkness in El Dorado as “valuable“. Dreger has turfed up an email from Jane Hill, who chaired its Task Force into the affair, revealing that the book “is just a piece of sleaze” but that they’d have to dignify it so as to endear themselves to the tribespeople…

The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America—with a high potential to do good—was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.

This is somehow fitting as the AAA considers redefining its field as one that doesn’t merely “study” people but tries to “advance public understanding” of them[2]. It’s suspected that the latter would encourage more advocatory research; the interrogation of the practice to reveal whose interests it serves. These aren’t worthless goals. It’s clear that anthropological research can be used to aid or justify exploitation and if knowledge lends itself to such appropriation it needn’t be valuable. Yet the storm of lies and obscurantism that defines this case; the human consequences for the people it’s affected; the research that I’d presume has fallen by the wayside – it all shows the havoc that results from the indulging of one’s biases instead of due respect for objectivity; the harm that disregarding truth can cause.


[1] See Kenan Malik‘s piece at his very worthwhile blog.

[2] See this fascinating piece from Daniel Lende for a broad – and rather less crude! – overview of the affair.

Title stolen from this interesting documentary.

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