I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2001 and the same year attended the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings and was surrounded by panels on the publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. As a folklorist, these discussions and the worry about the “state of the discipline” were largely not a great concern to me. Although folklorists and anthropologists are academic first cousins (Franz Boas was influential in the formation of both disciplines) we’re different enough that I knew folklorists were unlikely to be mistakenly tarred in the controversy surrounding Mr. Tierney’s sensational book.
As it turns out, Anthropology survived. The AAA, perhaps in a fevered rush to protect the reputation of the organization, formally chastised Mr. Chagnon. Still years later, Patrick Tierney’s work was at last properly vetted and found to be largely sensationalized, thanks to the investigative work of Alice Dreger. She completed an exhaustive review of Tierney and his work. Her report published in this article in Human Nature, essentially undid Tierney and his “work.”
But why had AAA been so quick to believe the claims Tierney made, the most offensive that Chagnon had purposefully infected the Yanomani with measles vaccine? It turns out that the problems most anthropologists had with Chagnon’s work was his clear-eyed vision of the Yanomani, a tribe who engaged in violent conflict and were clearly not noble savages. That disjuncture was apparently sufficient to call his work into question. (Note: Never underestimate the power of folk belief.)
In the meantime, Chagnon has written a memoir, available here (after Feb. 19), and the initial reviews indicate that it’s quite well written. After a decade of bad press, I’m pleased that he’s decided to tell his own story. I’m buying the book and encourage you to do the same. It’s not often that an academic survives the type of smear campaign that Chagnon suffered. It’s time we all heard his story.