Opening Old Wounds

An unusually bitter academic argument of 2000 came up again at the American Anthropological Association annual convention in Philadelphia. At issue was the long and famous (critics would say, notorious) work of Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. The Yanomomi are not among the most endearing of what used to be called primitive cultures. They acquire women by raiding nearby villages. In the process, the victors kill all the men, bash the brains of babies out on rocks, then gang-rape the women over and over and cart them home as spoils of war. A 1988 article in Science by Chagnon provoked praise and controversy, but the anger reached its peak in 2000 with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, a vehemently anti-Chagnon book by journalist Patrick Tierney.
The book argued that Chagnon had exaggerated the violence of the Yanomami, staged some fights, and collaborated with his late colleague, geneticist James Neel, in starting a measles epidemic by vaccinating some members of the tribe.(The name Josef Mengele surfaced among critics of Chagnon and Neel.) In a syndicated column at the time, I suggested that the uproar over Chagnon was a shadow war over other issues—the noble savage myth versus the reality of the Yanomami, the sociobiological approach versus the blank-slate theory, and respect for traditional field work versus the post-Sixties politicized view that anthropology is little more than a destructive form of colonialism. The AAA censured Chagnon, an astounding act by a professional academic group. To the amazement to many, myself included, the association later revoked the censure and did it with unusually blunt language: “The task force compromised its objectivity by merging its investigation with a political agenda, in that its mission in conducting the investigation was intended to challenge ‘Western elites,’ and ‘interrupt regimes of knowledge and power.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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