Spin-Doctoring the Yanomamo
Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
Science as a Candle in the Darkness of the Anthropology Wars
THERE IS A MAXIM anthropologists often cite about the geopolitics of diplomacy and warfare among indigenous peoples: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In reality, of course, the maxim applies to virtually all groups, from tribes and villages to city-states and nation-states--recall the temporary friendship between the US and USSR from 1941-1945 that promptly dissolved into the Cold War upon the defeat of their common enemy.
I thought of this maxim on Monday, November 20, 2000, when I interviewed journalist Patrick Tierney for the science edition of NPR affiliate KPCC's Airtalk, when he was in Los Angeles on tour for his just published book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.  Tierney had just flown down from San Francisco where, the previous day, he was pummeled by a panel of experts in front of a thousand scientists gathered at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
Among the many scientists that Tierney goes after none take more hits than the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose study of the Yanomamo people of Amazonia is arguably the most famous ethnography since Margaret Mead's Samoan classics. Since I knew of Chagnon's reputation as an intellectual pugilist who has accumulated a score of enemies over the decades, I fully expected that, in obedience to the maxim they would have rallied around Tierney in a provisional alliance. With a couple of minor exceptions, however, there was almost universal condemnation of the book. A British science writer told SKEPTIC Senior Editor Frank Miele, who was in attendance: "If I had taken such a beating as Tierney I would have crawled out of the room and cut my throat." 
Tierney did seem shell-shocked, as he timorously tiptoed into the studio with a subdued countenance. On the air he seemed almost apologetic for his book, emphasizing that he was not presenting the final word on the subject of the mistreatment of the Yanomamo but, rather, he was merely suggesting the need to investigate the scandalous charges against Chagnon and others that he had gathered in his decade of research.
A wispy thin man with an edge of wilderness about him, left over from a waif-like nomadic lifestyle spent chasing down what he thought might be (and his publisher trumpeted as) the anthropological scandal of all time, Tierney struck me as a conciliatory man ill-suited for the fight he had instigated. Indeed, he seemed the very embodiment of the type of man Rush Limbaugh would call a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging liberal, and someone environmentalists would call a friend. His publicist at W.W. Norton told me that he was flat broke from years of grant-less, salary-less research and that his very survival hinged on the success of this book. Her interpretation of the AAA meeting, which she attended in hopes of this being a coming out celebration for a potentially bestselling book, was that Tierney had few friends there because he was an outsider, a mere journalist at play in the field of the scientists.  Who was he to stick his nose in the private business of professionals whose union card--the Ph.D.--was hard earned through the centuries-long system of mentor-ship and hoop-jumping, not unlike the rites of passage young men endure in many indigenous cultures? Had Tierney simply not paid his scientific dues, or was there something else going on that turned Chagnon's erstwhile enemies into new found friends?
Despite his lack of scientific training Tierney did spend 11 years researching his book, and since outsiders occasionally do make important contributions to science, I wanted to give him a chance. His on-air stories were eye-popping, and his book is filled with so many stories and anecdotes, charges and accusations, backed by interviews, documents, and 70 pages of endnotes and bibliography, that at first blush one is left thinking that if only half, or even a tenth of them are true, there is darkness in anthropology, indeed, in all of science. …