The war within the American Anthropological Association probably started in 1994, with a shouting match between Professor Chagnon and Professor Terry Turner, of Cornell University, who called him "a sociopath" at a meeting arranged to reconcile Chagnon with the Salesian missionaries. Itís difficult to be more precise, because Chagnon and Turner had been enemies for years before then. But their equivalent of a murderous axe blow came this summer, with the release of an email, signed by Turner, and Professor Les Sponsel, of Hawaii University, in which they accused Chagnon of participation in "crimes beyond the imagination of Joseph Conrad, though not, perhaps, of Josef Mengele." In particular, he was supposed to have taken part in an experiment which started a deadly measles experiment among the Yanomamö in 1968, killing thousands and refusing medical treatment to those they had infected with a vaccine known to be potentially lethal. Both Turner and Sponsel are full professors, who have held high office in the AAA, "mature men, whose decisions few would question." The effect of their email was devastating. Had the charges been true, they would have finished Chagnonís reputation as surely as an axe to the back of his head would have ended his life.
What is truly extraordinary about the story is that the charges set out in Turner and Sponselís email, are not only untrue; they could not possibly not be true, as reports of a full and thorough scientific investigation made plain in front of an enthralled crowd of four or five thousand anthropologists crammed into a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco last month ó yet despite this, a sizeable minority of the profession clearly wish that one of their colleagues was guilty of genocide, and feel his moral guilt is established whatever the scientific and historical facts may be.
Patrick Tierney at the AAA meeting
(Susan Lindee in the background)
Napoleon Chagnon, the target of this animosity, is one of the most famous anthropologists alive. A large, bearded, weatherbeaten man, he lived and worked with the Yanomamö for a total of five years between 1964 and 1988 and his books and films about his time with them have become a set text in thousands of anthropology courses while at the same time provoking deep theoretical debates at the top of his profession and well outside it. He managed to combine dramatic human stories with a rigorous, but deeply controversial theory of the role of warfare and sexism in human nature which became one of the cornerstones of Evolutionary Psychology and all the modern Darwinism promoted by people such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and Steven Pinker. He argued that violence or the threat of violence shaped Yanomamö life in all sorts of ways and that the root of this violence was the competition between men for women.
But he had also made plenty of enemies. Some were professional. Chagnonís explanation of Yanomamö violence was deeply controversial, both among people who understand it as a general theory of human nature (which it is meant to be), and among those who see it only as a particular explanation of Yanomamö culture. The Yanomamö are not in fact exceptionally violent by the standards of aboriginal people ó which is to say that homicide is far more common among them than it is among better-armed, but more settled societies: it is something like eight times as high as New Yorkís, for example. Among the tribe, a quarter of all adult males die as a result of violence, according to Chagnonís figures. But this is about in line with the rate for the !Kung bushmen of South Africa, and far below some figures recorded for other tribes in the Amazon basin, or in New Guinea and among some aborigines. But plenty of anthropologists who accept the facts of Yanomamö violence as recorded by Chagnon reject his interpretation of it: some believe they are fighting over food supplies; others that they fight for access to Westerners and Western artefacts, among them the machetes with which Chagnon and other antrhopologists trade for information.Next: Sociobiology