In 1998, just before Napoleon Chagnon retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he signed a contract to write a book about his life as an anthropologist among the Yanomamö people, who live in the forests of Venezuela and Brazil. It promised rip-snorting adventure — threats at spear point, psychedelic snuff, wars over women — from a serious and celebrated academic who had lived among people who had little or no previous contact with the modern world when he began his work in the 1960s.
Now, 15 years post retirement, Chagnon's book, "Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists," is finally available. That it took Chagnon nearly a decade and a half to write it should surprise no one given the events of the intervening years. What may be more surprising is that it doesn't drip bitterness on every page. It very nearly did.
"I'd write two or three days, produce a chapter for my book, and tear it up and throw it in the garbage can," Chagnon said in a telephone interview from his new home in Columbia, Mo. He joined the anthropology faculty at the University of Missouri in December after a long hiatus from academia. "Everything I said sounded very depressing and very angry," he said. "Everything I wrote became tarred with the putrid smell of (author Patrick) Tierney, (and) the American Anthropological Association …."
Of the many tales Chagnon tells about life with the Yanomamö, about death threats from angry head men and tragic epidemics and killing raids, probably few are more bracing than what happened to him in his home country, among his own tribe, the American Anthropological Association. Chagnon's shove from grace is about as spectacular as it gets, featuring long smoldering academic disagreements that burst into a wildfire of accusations — accusations that continue to reverberate. Late last month, Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, citing Chagnon's election to the academy as one reason.
Chagnon's ideas had long been controversial among some of his colleagues. His depiction of the Yanomamö as "The Fierce People" — the subtitle of his best-selling textbook, "Yanomamö" — drew critics who said he exaggerated Yanomamö violence. The reasons for the violence were also in dispute. Chagnon said extensive taped interviews in many Yanomamö villages prove that many of these battles were over women. But opponents said the fights were due to the lack of animal protein in the people's diet. Chagnon created more enemies when he came to champion sociobiology — an idea that, when introduced in 1975, met angry denunciation through its claims that all behavior, even human behavior, is shaped by natural selection.
An article Chagnon published in Science magazine in 1988 led to further ruptures among the cultural anthropologists. Chagnon's data showed that Yanomamö men who participated in killings had more wives and more offspring than those who had not killed — in fact, three times more children. His opponents said he manipulated his data to exaggerate violence and that his research led to violence against the Yanomamö, charges he vigorously rejected.
As contentious as Chagnon's career had been, it was the 2000 publication of a page-turner of a book called "Darkness in El Dorado" by Tierney that changed everything. It portrayed Chagnon as manipulative character inciting the Yanomamö to violence and warfare. Most sensationally, Tierney accused Chagnon and University of Michigan geneticist James Neel, who died before Tierney's book was published, of causing a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö and then letting it run its course in a sinister eugenic experiment — a claim that was quickly debunked.
Before "Darkness" hit the bookstores, two anthropologists with a long history of academic disagreements with Chagnon over things far less interesting to the public than eugenics experiments fanned the flames among their colleagues. Leslie E. Sponsel, now an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii, and Terence Turner, now visiting professor at Cornell University, sent an email to the leadership of the anthropology association. Against their wishes, they say, their email quickly went viral.
Turner and Sponsel wrote that they had seen galley proofs of "Darkness" and wanted to warn their organization to prepare for an "impending scandal" involving "corrupt and depraved protagonists."
"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of American Anthropology," the email said. "This nightmarish story — a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele) — will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial."
Not exactly the temperate prose of academia.
The Tierney book attracted additional attention with the October 2000 publication of an excerpt in The New Yorker. Over the next several years, the American Anthropological Association dedicated entire sessions of its annual meeting to the charges leveled by Tierney and his supporters. "My life was just one constant depressive moment after another," Chagnon said.
In fact, the "Darkness" chapter in his life is an impossible gravitational force, distorting his story in a way that seems to defy a chronological account of his life. Many readers first met Chagnon through the pages of "Darkness at El Dorado," and they'll turn to "Noble Savages" to see the riposte. But they'll read through nearly 200 pages before they reach it. Chagnon tries to resist making this controversy the central organizing premise of the book, but he cannot really leave it alone. He drops hints we will need later, such as his remarks on the need for data-driven research. One wonders if surrender-to-gravity might have been a sounder strategy, introducing the controversy that took over his life sooner. But Chagnon said his publisher wasn't keen on focusing on "Darkness."
"Toward the end, my publisher and editor were more sympathetic to including this kind of information," he said. "Although the intention was to just write the story about the Yanomamö and my adventures among them, it turned out the viciousness of my colleagues was a better and more compelling story."
The attack on Chagnon was unique, said historian Alice Dreger, who recently completed a book, yet unpublished, about scientific controversies. "What made this story different was the role played by the American Anthropological Association and the ways in which they knew pretty much at the beginning that the book had major falsehoods in it, but they proceeded anyway." Dreger is a professor of bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She published her findings in the journal Human Nature in 2011.
The anthropology association created a task force to look into the charges against Chagnon and Neel. The result was a two-volume work issued in 2002. According to association documents, the report acknowledged that Chagnon and Neel had not started a measles epidemic, but it affirmed other accusations, saying Chagnon's research had harmed the Yanomamö.
Three years later, association members voted by a ratio of 2.5 votes to 1 to rescind the task force's report. The vote followed an analysis highly critical of the task force published in American Anthropologist by anthropologists Thomas A. Gregor of Vanderbilt University and Daniel R. Gross, then of The World Bank.
"Chagnon and Neel have been held up to public opprobrium in a way unequaled in the history of the discipline," Gregor and Gross reported.
Their analysis found, among other things, that the task force had acted as both accuser and judge and that its members had conflicts of interest that should have disqualified them from the panel.
Also, the analysis found the task force appeared to say that only some research results should be made public. "It is hard to imagine a scientific association formally holding a colleague accountable for publishing valid data in a scholarly journal," Gross and Gregor wrote.
"The outrageous and unsubstantiated accusations leveled against [Chagnon] and Neel rendered reasoned discussion impossible," anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, professor emerita at the University of California at Davis, told Printers Row Journal in an email. "Great harm was done to the field of anthropology, not to mention collateral damage to Neel, Chagnon and their families, to the reputation for fact-checking of venerable publications like The New Yorker," she wrote.
"What a tragic and very damaging mess all round."
While Chagnon had long engaged in academic disputes with many accusers who lined up behind Tierney and "Darkness," he was stung by how quickly other anthropologists embraced the charges.
"A lot of academics who read that book — who knew me or knew my work — were guilty of some of the most unforgivable failures to investigate what Tierney was actually saying," Chagnon said. "They didn't approach it skeptically enough. They didn't say, 'That doesn't sound right. We can't believe Chagnon would do this.' They were mesmerized by the voluminous footnotes."
As persuasive as the 1,599 footnotes appeared to observers, those same footnotes proved the undoing of many of the charges Tierney makes. A University of California at Santa Barbara investigation showed that often, the publications to which the footnotes refer actually contradict the charge in Tierney's text.
Debate continues despite findings in Chagnon and Neel's favor by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the American Society of Human Genetics, among others. For their part, Sponsel and Turner, authors of the memo heard round the world, continue to argue that Chagnon and Neel are guilty of gross ethics violations. In a phone interview, Turner said that although Neel is not guilty of causing a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö, he failed to act fast enough.
"There is well-founded testimony by medical teams — a Brazilian medical team, for example — who studied the record of the expedition, and I myself have gone over Dr. Neel's … own notes, his field journal, which seems to me, and to others who have studied it, to bear out the charges of the Brazilian medical team that the expedition failed to move rapidly, with the rapidity that would have been called for the expedition to tend adequately to the medical needs," Turner said.
Others maintain Turner has it backward. "I think James Neel deserves some kind of award from the American Anthropological Association. Instead, just the opposite happened," said Raymond Hames, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has collaborated with Chagnon.
Sponsel says Chagnon's portrayal of the Yanomamö as "fierce," and his focus on Yanomamö violence in his research — "some would say to the point of obsession and exaggeration" — misrepresents the Indians Chagnon studied. Sponsel said Chagnon should not have concentrated on the 25 percent of males who die of violence. (Chagnon's research actually showed 30 percent of the adult males he studied died by violence.) "What about the 75 percent of other males who died from other things? Why focus only on violence and ignore the other 75 percent, and most of the other 75 percent died from introduced diseases? He could have written a book called Yanomamö: The Sick People."
Behind the Chagnon controversy are a number of intellectual disputes among cultural anthropologists that have raged for several decades. They involve notions of truth, whether anthropology is a science and whether biology can account for human behavior.
Hames said he used to resist the idea that anthropologists were particularly warlike. No more. "Anthropologists eat their own all the time. I think it's true. I've had too many people from [other disciplines] ask me, what the hell is going on with you anthropologists? Vilification for some reason is alive and well in anthropology."
Dreger agrees. "There is a whole wing of anthropology that is extremely ideological, that sees itself as activists, as champions of the downtrodden. They spend a lot of time eating their own, going after their own."
Given the strains within cultural anthropology, Chagnon made an attractive target, she said. He is outspoken.
"Chagnon is very rough around the edges," Dreger says. "He's a blusterous guy and pretty prickly. He swears. He drinks. He's not my favorite guy to hang around with. His personality no doubt played a role."
The price has been the eclipse of his accomplishments behind a wall of acrimony. "You don't recover emotionally," from an attack like this, Dreger said. "It's a lot like having a real bad form of cancer. Even if you kill all the cancer cells, and you're a survivor, it changes all your cells. It changes your body. It changes your psyche."
"He's not going to be able to undo the harm," she said. "It's going to be there, a part of his public identity."
Jenni Laidman is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.
By Napoleon Chagnon, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $32.50