Napoleon Chagnon and a member of the Yanomamo

Napoleon Chagnon and a member of the Yanomamo (February 19, 2013)

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.

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"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.