Uncut version of Chagnon story Page 7 of 8

Through all this demolition, Tierney sat with the pale calm of a martyr, as if he were being reviled for the sake of the Yanomamö. When he finally came to microphone to answer his critics, he spoke with huge, aching silences between his phrases. "I feel that there have been many points raised tonight that I don't agree with. I never called the Edmonston B vaccine ‘virulent’. I never called it that. They are found in the famous Turner and Sponsel email: That email has coloured the reception of my text. I think you must read it first.

"I've seen the widows of Chagnon's guides who were bribed to break away from other villages. I have seen the people who were filmed watch those films and weep.

"John Tooby says that I had a bleeding heart. If you had seen the things that I have seen, I hope your hearts would be moved, and maybe they would be -- if you have a heart.

"Having checked all my footnotes, and having gone though my book. I want to ask, did they ever check Napoleon Chagnon's footnotes?"

Napoleon Chagnon, exploiting or listening?

Of course, none of this answered the points that the critics of his book had raised. But it did go some way to answering the question of why the audience was so willing to think ill of Chagnon. Throughout Tierney’s presentation, and his book, Chagnon appears as a kind of ogre-father, and the Yanomamö as helpless children at his mercy. Again and again, Chagnon’s critics maintain that the Yanomamö are not fierce at all: in fact they’re intrinsically harmless and he appears among them as a bully. Frank Salamone, quoting a Yanomamö enemy of Chagnon’s, put it as clearly as anyone: "Caesar Dimanawa said Chagnon is terrified of Yanomamö and terrified of Caesar. He is a wily kind of character and no more violent than my own relatives. It’s an interesting situation with Chagnon. he is afraid of them and they know this and take advantage of it. If you want to see violent people let him go to Nigeria where I did my fieldwork."

Les Sponsel held it against Chagnon that he went into the jungle armed with a huge knife and a stun-gun. It wasn’t, he said, ethical to work among people if you needed protection of that sort from them. At the open mike session, speaker after speaker returned to this theme, often prefacing their remarks with the confident assertion that they knew nothing about the Yanomamö but a great deal about professional ethics; and that it was surely the first principle of ethical anthropology to do no harm to the people you are studying. Since Chagnon’s activities have undoubtedly been part of the surge of Western interest and activity that has done much to damage the Yanomamö the moral case against him existed, in some sense, quite independent of the facts. But it seemed an extraordinary position for an anthropologist to take. Carried to extremes, it would lead to a complete ban on contact with any uncontacted people, since no amount of doing them good could outweigh a breach of the commandment to do them no harm. Still, it was clear that a sizeable minority of anthropologists think this is acceptable constraint for their colleagues to work under.

No one doubts that the situation of the Yanomamö and of the other indigenous peoples of South America is truly dreadful. "Their poverty is beyond poverty" says Frank Salamone. It is sometimes true that contact increases the horrendous infant mortality rates. What was odd was the belief to which Tierney seemed to appeal, that anthropologists could do something for the Yanomamö — could struggle on their sides — by ritually blaming themselves; better yet, by blaming other, unethical anthropologists for the evils of the world. It made about as much sense as the Yanomamö blaming measles on the wicked spirits sent from a neighbouring village, which is to say it probably did make people better about a situation they could do nothing to change.

Bill Irons, the Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University who was Chagnon’s representative on the panel, was rather blunter. "People cultivate guilt for their own purposes. Pointing out how guilty everyone is has become part of the standard PC culture: somehow, slinging mud at everybody has become some kind of redeeming act.

"It is hardly fair to hold Napoleon Chagnon responsible for a Brazilian gold rush, or Venezuelan government corruption."

Next: The immaculate conscience of Professor Sponsel