Napoleon Chagnon

Wet Socks: He Borara Chapter 3.2

(2,252 words. Or start from the beginning.) 

He wakes, panicked and disoriented, to the sound of rapid shuffling. A light sleeper, he nearly always knows when someone enters the room in the middle of the night. Mom probably, he thinks, but why would she be moving so quickly, without so much as a murmur to announce her presence. Peering into the dark, he recognizes his brothers by their silhouetted outlines.

            “I can see you guys. What are you doing?”

            “He’s awake!” Connor. “Quick, grab his legs!”

            “I said, what are—”

            Lac’s face is covered, his head pushed back onto the mattress. Connor must’ve moved around to the head of his bed as he sat up to see who else had stirred from his bed or entered through the door to the hallway. Now his older brother is pressing a pillow down on his face. “I can’t breathe!” Lac shouts, the words formless and muffled. He reaches up to free himself but feels his wrists gripped and pulled away from his body. It won’t be any of these sensations that live on in his mind, for him to re-experience over and over in his dreams. In his panic, he relies on some instinct to tell him which way to writhe, first to his right, as he pulls with his bound arms to hoist himself up off of the mattress, and then to his left as he twists his neck backward, chin to the side, creating enough space for a single gasping breath.

            “Lordly Lachlan likes leaving the earth on his lengthy constitutionals,” Rachel taunts, half singing.

            How many of them are in here? Four at least. Not Bess. She wouldn’t be part of this. She must not even know it’s happening.

            “This should help you come back down to earth, your lofty Lordship.”

            It’s not the blows he’ll remember either, delivered by an attacker on either side, thudding loudly into his stomach and ribs. Lac grits his teeth, determined not to make a sound, not to cry. What feel like baseballs wrapped in slings he’ll later learn are bunches of socks soaked in water and stuffed into the ends of longer socks.

His mind brimful with rage, every corner of his awareness splashed with scalding pain, he still manages a thought, observing how the succession of blows, half a dozen landed in alternating turns from either side—loggers bringing down their axes in rhythmic chops—constitute neat bursts of fury, the exact rhythm, intensity, and duration you’d expect from an assailant provoked to sudden violence on the occasion of catching an antagonist at a stark disadvantage.

            What he’ll remember most, though, is the sensation of his legs, kicking wildly at first, thwarting any attempt at fixing a firm grasp, promising, for a thrilling moment, a mode of escape from all the other hands pinning and holding him in place; he could kick loose, plant his heels, and pivot his upper body free—until inspiration strikes one of his siblings. The sheet landing softly over his knees won’t limit the torque he can generate, he’s sure—until it pulls tight, folding into a rope. No, no, no. Hands on his ankles. The twisted sheet passing under his knees. Once around his shins then jerked roughly downward, lashing his bound legs to the bed, dashing his last desperate hope. The thwacking blows collide loudly, painfully, with his chest and abdomen, but his trapped feet are what lie in wait to haunt his nightmares, vivid replays of the sensation readily triggered by the slightest echo of immobility.

The lesson delivered, his teachers release him abruptly, but in his shaking frenzy it takes him several seconds to unbind his legs. His brothers and sisters had earlier that night found the notebook he’d been filling upon his return from each night’s walk with all the airy thoughts that occurred to him along the way. What fourteen-year-old doesn’t have grandiose fantasies? he would pose years later to reassure himself, still feeling the sting of exposure and shame.

His kicks having set the hammock to swaying dramatically once again, Lac opens his eyes to the full light of dawn issuing in through the netting at the door of the Malarialogìa men’s hut. Clemens’s hammock is empty. Lac swings his legs out over the floor as he runs his hand along the seam of his mosquito net. His back stiff, his legs above each knee alive with a pinching ache, he pauses to arrange his thoughts. It’s to be back to Tama Tama with Clemens today to gather his supplies for the next seventeen months into a larger dugout canoe. Then Clemens will motor back up the Orinoco with him before turning around and going back to the mission outpost, leaving Lac here alone, with the Yanomamö. The thought jolts him to his feet, flailing about in the netting. I’m supposed to get situated and then have Laura and the kids join me in the hut I’m to build outside the shabono, he thinks. But how can I bring them to this place? How can I be sure they won’t be killed? Or kidnapped? Or contract some fatal disease? What the hell was I thinking? So, what then? Is it back to Michigan? Back to all my benighted professors? Back to my family and—I’ll have to find some other type of work.

After securing his research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Lac had worked out an arrangement with the head of the University of Michigan’s Department of Human Genetics. He’d heard that Dr. Nelson was looking for anthropologists to help him with a project to study isolated tribes in South America. The plan was to compare the Indian’s genetic material to that of a cohort of Japanese people who’d survived exposure to radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Seeing the project as an opportunity to get funding for future research, possibly even obviating the need to interrupt his fieldwork with long stints of teaching, Lac had agreed to serve as a guide and translator for a research team slated to arrive next year, near the end of his time with the Yanomamö. He’d undergone training back in Ann Arbor so he could help take blood samples and give general health assessments. How would he explain to Nelson his immediate retreat from the jungle, before learning a single word of the language?
Lac, ducking clear of the mosquito netting at last, but still struggling to shed the residue of his dream-saturated sleep, catches himself after several moments staring vacantly at the empty hammock between the door and where he now stands alongside his own. Clemens has told him about how he joined the New Tribes after leaving the army at the end of the war. He wanted to see more of the world. He wanted to do some good. He couldn’t, after all he’d seen, after all he’d done, simply go back home to his old life. Five years later, he and another missionary were making first contact with the people of Mahekodo-teri, a few hours further up the Orinoco from the confluence with the Mavaca. Clemens stayed on after the other missionary returned to the states—for his wedding in 1951. When Clemens did eventually leave Yanomamöland to recuperate and raise funds, the Salesians, who’d ignored the Yanomamö up till then because they were too difficult to reach, took the opportunity to start building the mission compound at Platanal, a short distance from Mahekodo-teri. So it was downriver to Iyäwei-teri for Clemens. He convinced the people there to move closer to the confluence of the Ocamo River with the Orinoco, where he set up another mission outpost, staying for a few years. When he left, however, the Catholics moved in again. Lac has in fact spoken over shortwave radio to the Italian priest who’s currently stationed at Ocamo. Now Clemens has his hut outside the Bisaasi-teri shabono near the Mavaca, and so far the Salesians have been content to leave him to his own brand of mission work there.

Lac can’t help but admire Clemens, who’d even mentioned on the way from Tama Tama that he was considering bringing his own wife and children to stay with him at Bisaasi-teri when he returns, around six months from now. I wonder if the incident with the kidnapped women will dampen his excitement about bringing his family out here, Lac thinks as he attempts to stretch out the kinks in his shoulders and lower back. Either way, Clemens will be returning to this place himself—despite having admitted to Lac that he can’t claim to have converted a single Yanomamö. “They listen to the stories,” Clemens said to him at Tama Tama, “but they expect their holy men to prove their magic somehow—by curing sick children or by making a charm that brings success in a hunt—and until they see the magic working they’re skeptical. The best I can hope for usually is that some of them will pick up elements of the gospel and incorporate them into their mythology. It’s a start anyway, a foundation.”

Lac hid his smile upon hearing this, thinking the prospect of the missionaries ever managing to build anything atop so flimsy a foundation far too miniscule to warrant taking on the risks. Now, though, he realizes that, regardless of who gets the best of the petty squabbles among the missionaries, the white people as a general block, with all their technology and medicine, along with the sheer inexhaustibility of their creeping presence, will soon enough be offering the Yanomamö all the proof anyone could possibly need of their magic’s deadly effectiveness. The proselytizing at this stage may be futile, but the unceasing migration of people is nonetheless a harbinger of much more far-reaching, much more cataclysmic, transformations to come. Clemens has told him of the Yanomamö at Bisaasi-teri’s stories of several other villages to the south, almost twice as large and as yet uncontacted. How long before someone from the New Tribes—maybe Clemens himself—or someone with the Salesians reaches these more remote groups? Or worse—how long before some mining outfit or some logging operation decides to move into the territory?

No one’s really had a chance to study a tribal society comprised of so many independent villages before, Lac reminds himself. Where else in the world is there enough unexplored territory to support such a society? New Guinea perhaps. The chance to learn what these cultures have to teach us isn’t going to remain in existence for long; the tribes themselves won’t exist for long. If so much of what my professors back home believe about people living in these societies is wrong, then that’s all the more reason to stay in this damn jungle and do some proper research. Plus, if Chuck has survived repeated expeditions to this place over the course of a decade, then I should be able to manage a year and half out here myself.

As if conjured by the thought, Clemens just then pokes his head into the hut, where Lac is still stretching and shaking his limbs, working to emerge from his early morning fog. “These damnable bareto,” he says, ducking inside, swatting frantically at the invisible tormentors swarming his face. “It looks like we may get some rain today. That could make traveling on the river a bit smoother, if the water level raises enough. And it’ll keep the gnats under control too if we’re lucky.”

Lac had been eager to step out of the hut into the leaf-filtered sunlight until the missionary’s reminder of what he’d inevitably have to suffer in the daytime forest. A solid globe of anxiety has begun forming beneath his sternum, impeding the downward expansion of his lungs, leaving him to gulp in the musty air in tiny gasps, a giant guppy trapped in a bowl of stagnant water. When he’d passed out last night with that cracker leaching the moisture from the corners of his mouth, he was determined to get out of this jungle as quickly as he could, leaving those wretched people he’d encountered yesterday to whatever fate had in store for them. Now he knows there’s no way he’ll be able to live with himself if he returns to Ann Arbor emptyhanded, defeated, having vindicated everyone at home who swore to his fecklessness. At least for the time being, he’ll be going through with the original plan. Back to Tama Tama for the rest of his supplies. Then back to the Mavaca in a dugout canoe. Back to Bisaasi-teri to live among the Yanomamö and see what he can find out about them and their battles over women.

“Let’s get a bite and then get moving,” Lac says, convinced the best way to break down that globe of tension growing under his heart is to start working. Laura and the kids? You’ll have to get a better sense of how safe it is, he tells himself. You don’t have to decide that now. It’s seventeen months. Take it one step at a time. You’ll still have chances to get out if you decide it’s necessary. For now, just get to work. Get your supplies up here. Get Chuck’s hut outside the shabono into livable condition. Get to work on your own hut, big enough for everyone in case they eventually do end up coming. Start writing down observations. Start doing your best to learn the language. And see if you can keep your damn self from getting killed. 
Continue reading: Confessions of Murder: He Borara Ch. 3.3

Sign up for Dennis's author page on Facebook to get notifications when new chapters are published. 

Other stuff you'll like to read:

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

Why Tamsin Shaw Imagines the Psychologists Are Taking Power

Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, provocatively titled “The Psychologists Take Power,” is no more scholarly than your average political attack ad, nor is it any more credible. (The article is available online, but I won’t lend it further visibility to search engines by linking to it here.) Two of the psychologists maligned in the essay, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, recently contributed a letter to the editors which effectively highlights Shaw’s faulty reasoning and myriad distortions, describing how she “prosecutes her case by citation-free attribution, spurious dichotomies, and standards of guilt by association that make Joseph McCarthy look like Sherlock Holmes” (82).

Upon first reading Shaw’s piece, I dismissed it as a particularly unscrupulous bit of interdepartmental tribalism—a philosopher bemoaning the encroachment by pesky upstart scientists into what was formerly the bailiwick of philosophers. But then a line in Shaw’s attempted rebuttal of Haidt and Pinker’s letter sent me back to the original essay, and this time around I recognized it as a manifestation of a more widespread trend among scholars, and a rather unscholarly one at that.

Shaw begins her article by accusing a handful of psychologists of exceeding the bounds of their official remit. These researchers have risen to prominence in recent years through their studies into human morality. But now, instead of restricting themselves, as responsible scientists would, to describing how we make moral judgements and attempting to explain why we respond to moral dilemmas the way we do, these psychologists have begun arrogating moral authority to themselves. They’ve begun, in other words, trying to tell us how we


reason morally—according to Shaw anyway. Her article then progresses through shady innuendo and arguments based on what Haidt and Pinker call “guilt through imaginability” to connect this group of authors to the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation,” i.e. torture, which culminated in such atrocities as those committed in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Tamsin Shaw

Shaw’s sole piece of evidence comes from

a report

that was commissioned by the American Psychological Association. David Hoffman and his fellow investigators did indeed find that two

members of the APA

played a critical role in developing the interrogation methods used by the CIA, and they had

the sanction of top officials

. Neither of the two, however, and none of those officials authored any of the books on moral psychology that Shaw is supposedly reviewing. In the report’s conclusion, the investigators describe the responses of clinical psychologists who “feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques.” Shaw writes,

It is easy to imagine the psychologists who claim to be moral experts dismissing such a reaction as an unreliable “gut response” that must be overridden by more sophisticated reasoning. But a thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses might well leave human beings without a moral compass sufficiently strong to guide them through times of crisis, when our judgement is most severely challenged, or to compete with powerful nonmoral motivations. (39)

What she’s referring to here is the two-system model of moral reasoning which posits a rapid, intuitive system, programmed in large part by our genetic inheritance but with some cultural variation in its expression, matched against a more effort-based, cerebral system that requires the application of complex reasoning.

But it must be noted that nowhere does any of the authors she’s reviewing make a case for a “thorough distrust of rapid, emotional responses.” Their positions are far more nuanced, and Haidt in fact argues in his book

The Righteous Mind

that liberals could benefit from paying


heed to some of their moral instincts—a case that Shaw herself summarizes in her essay when she’s trying to paint him as an overly “didactic” conservative.

Jonathan Haidt

            Haidt and Pinker’s response to Shaw’s argument by imaginability was to simply ask the other five authors she insinuates support torture whether they indeed reacted the way she describes. They write, “The results: seven out of seven said ‘no’” (82). These authors’ further responses to the question offer a good opportunity to expose just how off-base Shaw’s simplistic characterizations are.

None of these psychologists believes that a reaction of physical revulsion


be overridden or should be


distrusted. But several pointed out that in the past, people have felt physically sick upon contemplating homosexuality, interracial marriage, vaccination, and other morally unexceptionable acts, so gut feelings alone cannot constitute a “moral compass.” Nor is the case against “enhanced interrogation” so fragile, as Shaw implies, that it has to rest on gut feelings: the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming. So while primitive physical revulsion may serve as an early warning signal indicating that some practice calls for moral scrutiny, it is “the more sophisticated reasoning” that should guide us through times of crisis. (82-emphasis in original)

One phrase that should stand out here is “the moral arguments against torture are overwhelming.” Shaw is supposedly writing about a takeover by psychologists who advocate torture—but

none of them actually advocates torture

. And, having read four of the six books she covers, I can aver that this response was entirely predictable based on what the authors had written. So why does Shaw attempt to mislead her readers?

            The false implication that the authors she’s reviewing support torture isn’t the only central premise of Shaw’s essay that’s simply wrong; if these psychologists really are trying to take power, as she claims, that’s news to them. Haidt and Pinker begin their rebuttal by pointing out that “Shaw can cite no psychologist who claims special authority or ‘superior wisdom’ on moral matters” (82). Every one of them, with a single exception, in fact includes an explanation of what separates the two endeavors—describing human morality on the one hand, and prescribing values or behaviors on the other—in the very books Shaw professes to find so alarming. The lone exception, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

, wrote to Haidt and Pinker, “The fact that one cannot derive morality from psychological research is so screamingly obvious that I never thought to explicitly write it down” (82).

Yet Shaw insists all of these authors commit the fallacy of moving from is to ought; you have to wonder if she even read the books she’s supposed to be reviewing—beyond mining them for damning quotes anyway. And didn’t any of the editors at

The New York Review

think to check some of her basic claims? Or were they simply hoping to bank on the publication of what amounts to controversy porn? (Think of the dilemma faced by the authors: do you respond and draw more attention to the piece, or do you ignore it and let some portion of the readership come away with a wildly mistaken impression?)

Paul Bloom

            Haidt and Pinker do a fine job of calling out most of Shaw’s biggest mistakes and mischaracterizations. But I want to draw attention to two more instances of her falling short of any reasonable standard of scholarship, because each one reveals something important about the beliefs Shaw uses as her own moral compass. The authors under review situate their findings on human morality in a larger framework of theories about human evolution. Shaw characterizes this framework as “an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology” (38). Shaw has evidently attended the

Ken Ham school

of evolutionary biology, which preaches that science can only concern itself with phenomena occurring right before our eyes in a lab. The reality is that, while testing adaptationist theories is a complicated endeavor, there are usually at least two ways to falsify them. You can show that the trait or behavior in question is absent in

many cultures

, or you can show that it emerges late in life after some sort of deliberate training. One of the books Shaw is supposedly reviewing, Bloom’s

Just Babies

, focuses specifically on research demonstrating that many of our common moral intuitions

emerge when we’re babies

, in our first year of life, with no deliberate training whatsoever.

            Bloom comes in for some more targeted, if off-hand, criticism near the conclusion of Shaw’s essay for an article he wrote to challenge the increasingly popular sentiment that we can solve our problems as a society by encouraging everyone to be more empathetic. Empathy, Bloom points out, is a finite resource; we’re simply not capable of feeling for every single one of the millions of individuals in need of care throughout the world. So we need to offer that care based on principle, not feeling. Shaw avoids any discussion of her own beliefs about morality in her essay, but from the nature of her mischaracterization of Bloom’s argument we can start to get a sense of the ideology informing her prejudices. She insists that  

when Paul Bloom, in his own


article, “

The Dark Side of Empathy

,” warns us that empathy for people who are seen as victims may be associated with violent, punitive tendencies toward those in authority, we should be wary of extrapolating from his psychological claims a prescription for what should and should not be valued, or inferring that we need a moral corrective to a culture suffering from a supposed excess of empathic feelings. (40-1)

The “supposed excess of empathic feelings” isn’t the only laughable distortion people who actually read Bloom’s essay will catch out; the actual examples he cites of when empathy for victims leads to “violent, punitive tendencies” include Donald Trump and Ann Coulter stoking outrage against undocumented immigrants by telling stories of the crimes a few of them commit. This misrepresentation raises an important question: why would Shaw want to mislead her readers into believing Bloom’s intention is to protect those in authority? This brings us to the McCathyesque part of Shaw’s attack ad.

            The sections of the essay drawing a web of guilt connecting the two psychologists who helped develop torture methods for the CIA to all the authors she’d have us believe are complicit focus mainly on Martin Seligman, whose theory of learned helplessness formed the basis of the CIA’s approach to harsh interrogation. Seligman is the founder of a subfield called Positive Psychology, which he developed as a counterbalance to what he perceived as an almost exclusive focus on all that can go wrong with human thinking, feeling, and behaving. His Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has received $31 million in recent years from the Department of Defense—a smoking gun by Shaw’s lights. And Seligman even admits that on several occasions he met with those two psychologists who participated in the torture program. The other authors Shaw writes about have in turn worked with Seligman on a variety of projects. Haidt even wrote a book on Positive Psychology called

The Happiness Hypothesis


            In Shaw’s view, learned helplessness theory is a potentially dangerous tool being wielded by a bunch of mad scientists and government officials corrupted by financial incentives and a lust for military dominance. To her mind, the notion that Seligman could simply want to help soldiers cope with the stresses of combat is all but impossible to even entertain. In this and every other instance when Shaw attempts to mislead her readers, it’s to put the same sort of negative spin on the psychologists’ explicitly stated positions. If Bloom says empathy has a dark side, then all the authors in question are against empathy. If Haidt

argues that resilience

—the flipside of learned helplessness—is needed to counteract a

culture of victimhood

, then all of these authors are against efforts to combat sexism and racism on college campuses. And, as we’ve seen, if these authors say we should question our moral intuitions, it’s because they want to be able to get away with crimes like torture. “Expertise in teaching people to override their moral intuitions is only a moral good if it serves good ends,” Shaw herself writes. “Those ends,” she goes on, “should be determined by rigorous moral deliberation” (40). Since this is precisely what the authors she’s criticizing say in their books, we’re left wondering what her real problem with them might be.

            In her reply to Haidt and Pinker’s letter, Shaw suggests her aim for the essay was to encourage people to more closely scrutinize the “doctrines of Positive Psychology” and the central principles underlying psychological theories about human morality. I was curious to see how she’d respond to being called out for mistakenly stating that the psychologists were claiming moral authority and that they were given to using their research to defend the use of torture. Her main response is to repeat the central aspects of her rather flimsy case against Seligman. But then she does something truly remarkable; she doesn’t deny using guilt by imaginability—she defends it.

Pinker and Haidt say they prefer reality to imagination, but imagination is the capacity that allows us to take responsibility, insofar as it is ever possible, for the ends for which our work will be used and the consequences that it will have in the world. Such imagination is a moral and intellectual virtue that clearly needs to be cultivated. (85)

So, regardless of what the individual psychologists themselves explicitly say about torture, for instance, as long as they’re equipping other people with the conceptual tools to justify torture, they’re still at least somewhat complicit. This was the line that first made me realize Shaw’s essay was something other than a philosopher munching on sour grapes.

            Shaw’s approach to connecting each of the individual authors to Seligman and then through him to the torture program is about as sophisticated, and about as credible, as any narrative concocted by your average online conspiracy theorist. But she believes that these connections are important and meaningful, a belief, I suspect, that derives from her own philosophy. Advocates of this philosophy, commonly referred to as


or poststructuralism, posit that our culture is governed by a dominant ideology that serves to protect and perpetuate the societal status quo, especially with regard to what are referred to as

hegemonic relationships

—men over women, whites over other ethnicities, heterosexuals over homosexuals. This dominant ideology finds expression in, while at the same time propagating itself through, cultural practices ranging from linguistic expressions to the creation of art to the conducting of scientific experiments.

            Inspired by figures like

Louis Althusser


Michel Foucault

, postmodern scholars reject many of the central principles of


, including its emphasis on the role of rational discourse in driving societal progress. This is because the processes of reasoning and research that go into producing knowledge can never be fully disentangled from the exercise of power, or so it is argued. We experience the world through the medium of culture, and our culture distorts reality in a way that makes hierarchies seem both natural and inevitable. So, according to postmodernists, not only does science fail to create true knowledge of the natural world and its inhabitants, but the ideas it generates must also be scrutinized to identify their hidden political implications.

Ullica Segerstrale

            What such postmodern textual analyses look like in practice is described in sociologist Ullica Segerstrale’s book,

Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

. Segerstrale observed that postmodern critics of evolutionary psychology (which was more commonly called sociobiology in the late 90s), were outraged by what they presumed were the political implications of the theories, not by what evolutionary psychologists actually wrote. She explains,

In their analysis of their targets’ texts, the critics used a method I call moral reading. The basic idea behind moral reading was to imagine the worst possible political consequences of a scientific claim. In this way, maximum guilt might be attributed to the perpetrator of this claim. (206)  

This is similar to the type of imagination Shaw faults psychologists today for insufficiently exercising. For the postmodernists, the sum total of our cultural knowledge is what sustains all the varieties of oppression and injustice that exist in our society, so unless an author explicitly decries oppression or injustice he’ll likely be held under suspicion. Five of the six books Shaw subjects to her moral reading were written by white males. The sixth was written by a male and a female, both white. The people the CIA tortured were not white. So you might imagine white psychologists telling everyone not to listen to their conscience to make it easier for them reap the benefits of a history of colonization. Of course, I could be completely wrong here; maybe this scenario isn’t what was playing out in Shaw’s imagination at all. But that’s the problem—there are few limits to what any of us can imagine, especially when it comes to people we disagree with on hot-button issues.

            Postmodernism began in English departments back in the ‘60s where it was originally developed as an approach to analyzing literature. From there, it spread to several other branches of the humanities and is now making inroads into the social sciences. Cultural


was the first field to be mostly overtaken. You can see precursors to Shaw’s rhetorical approach in attacks leveled against sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson and Napoleon Chagnon by postmodern anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins. In

a review published

in 2001, also in

The New York Review of Books

, Sahlins writes,

The ‘60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to “deconstruct” it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining control over people.

Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of Chagnon’s fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation.

The first thing to note is that Sahlin’s characterization of Chagnon’s books as narratives of “gaining control over people” is just plain silly; Chagnon was more often than not at the mercy of the Yanomamö. The second is that, just as anyone who’s actually read the books by Haidt, Pinker, Greene, and Bloom will be shocked by Shaw’s claim that their writing somehow bolsters the case for torture, anyone familiar with Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomamö will likely wonder what the hell they have to do with Vietnam, a war that to my knowledge he never expressed an opinion of in writing.

However, according to postmodern logic—or we might say postmodern morality—Chagnon’s observation that the Yanomamö were often violent, along with his espousal of a theory that holds such violence to have been common among preindustrial societies, leads inexorably to the conclusion that he wants us all to believe violence is part of our fixed nature as humans. Through the lens of postmodernism, Chagnon’s work is complicit in making people believe working for peace is futile because violence is inevitable. Chagnon may counter that he believes violence is likely to occur only in certain circumstances, and that by learning more about what conditions lead to conflict we can better equip ourselves to prevent it. But that doesn’t change the fact that society needs high-profile figures to bring before our modern academic version of the inquisition, so that all the other

white men lording it over

the rest of the world will see what happens to anyone who deviates from right (actually far-left) thinking.



Ideas really do have consequences of course, some of which will be unforeseen. The place where an idea ends up may even be repugnant to its originator. But the notion that we can settle foreign policy disputes, eradicate racism, end gender inequality, and bring about world peace simply by demonizing artists and scholars whose work goes against our favored party line, scholars and artists who maybe can’t be shown to support these evils and injustices directly but can certainly be imagined to be doing so in some abstract and indirect way—well, that strikes me as far-fetched. It also strikes me as dangerously misguided, since it’s not like scholars, or anyone else, ever needed any extra encouragement to imagine people who disagree with them being guilty of some grave moral offense. We’re naturally tempted to do that as it is.

Part of becoming a good scholar—part of becoming a grownup—is learning to live with people whose beliefs are different from yours, and to treat them fairly. Unless a particular scholar is openly and explicitly advocating torture, ascribing such an agenda to her is either irresponsible, if we’re unwittingly misrepresenting her, or dishonest, if we’re doing so knowingly. Arguments from imagined adverse consequences can go both ways. We could, for instance, easily write articles suggesting that Shaw is a Stalinist, or that she advocates prosecuting perpetrators of what members of the far left deem to be thought crimes. What about the consequences of encouraging

suspicion of science

in an age of widespread denial of climate change? Postmodern identity politics is this moment posing a

threat to free speech

on college campuses. And the tactics of postmodern activists begin and end with the stoking of moral outrage, so we could easily make a case that the activists are deliberately trying to

instigate witch hunts

. With each baseless accusation and counter-accusation, though, we’re getting farther and farther away from any meaningful inquiry, forestalling any substantive debate, and hamstringing any real moral or political progress.

Many people try to square the circle, arguing that postmodernism isn’t inherently antithetical to science, and that the supposed insights derived from postmodern scholarship ought to be assimilated somehow into science. When Thomas Huxley, the physician and biologist known as Darwin’s bulldog, said that science “

commits suicide

when it adopts a creed,” he was pointing out that by adhering to an ideology you’re taking its tenets for granted. Science, despite many critics’ desperate proclamations to the contrary, is not itself an ideology; science is an epistemology, a set of principles and methods for investigating nature and arriving at truths about the world. Even the most well-established of these truths, however, is considered provisional, open to potential revision or outright rejection as the methods, technologies, and theories that form the foundation of this collective endeavor advance over the generations.

In her essay, Shaw cites the results of a project attempting to

replicate the findings

of several seminal experiments in social psychology, counting the surprisingly low success rate as further cause for skepticism of the field. What she fails to appreciate here is that the replication project is being done by a group of scientists who are psychologists themselves, because they’re committed to honing their techniques for studying the human mind. I would imagine if Shaw’s postmodernist precursors had shared a similar commitment to assessing the reliability of their research methods, such as they are, and weighing the validity of their core tenets, then the ideology would have long since fallen out of fashion by the time she was taking up a pen to write about how scary psychologists are.  

The point Shaw's missing here is that it’s precisely this constant quest to check and recheck the evidence, refine and further refine the methods, test and retest the theories, that makes science, if not a source of superior wisdom, then still the most reliable approach to answering questions about who we are, what our place is in the universe, and what habits and policies will give us, as individuals and as citizens, the best chance to thrive and flourish. As Saul Perlmutter, one of the discoverers of dark energy, has said, “Science is an ongoing race between our

inventing ways to fool ourselves

, and our inventing ways to avoid fooling ourselves.” Shaw may be right that no experimental result could ever fully settle a moral controversy, but experimental results are often not just relevant to our philosophical deliberations but critical to keeping those deliberations firmly grounded in reality.

Popular relevant posts:

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky’s “FierceControversy”

The Idiocy of Outrage: Sam Harris’s Run-ins with Ben Affleck and Noam Chomsky

Lab Flies: Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes and the Contamination of Walter White

(My essay on Greene’s book)

The Self-Righteousness Instinct: Steven Pinker on the Better Angels of Modernityand the Evils of Morality

(My essay on Pinker’s book)

The Enlightened Hypocrisy of Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind

(My essay on Haidt’s book)

He Borara: Chapter 2: Pandemonium

Yanomamö shabono (village enclosure)
(Read from the beginning, or follow this link to printable version, 6,695 words.)

Lac’s stomach rumbles ominously as he steps from the aluminum rowboat onto the muddy bank. Feet planted ashore, he has to fan the bareto away from his face before he can get a decent breath. It’s just after 2 o’clock; he hasn’t had a bite to eat since this morning, but in light of his other symptoms he can’t help letting this loud churning in his intestines add to his worry. They give you a whole slew of tests and shots for contagious bugs you’ve never heard of, he thinks, all to make sure you don’t start an epidemic when you meet these people whose white blood cells have heard of even fewer bugs than you have—and to make sure you don’t keel over dead yourself, or rot away from the inside out in some godforsaken hut no one will be able to find until the flies and ants have cleaned the last scrap of flesh from your bones. But everybody who goes into the jungle gets sick anyway. That’s what they say.

Trudging up the bank, he feels the tug of his pant legs clinging to the tops of his legs. His shirt is soaked through as well. Annoyed, he heaves that deep breath, vacuuming nary a gnat through the cautiously narrowed parting of his lips, and tells himself he’d better get used to being drenched in sweat, since he’ll be living in the most basic of lodgings for the next year and a half. He wonders how Laura and the kids will hold up in this heat. What will they think of this new odor of his? They’ll stink before long too. We’ll just have to get used to each other, he thinks, while we’re getting used to all the rest of it. Like the gnats. Good God, the gnats!

“The trail you’re standing on,” Chuck says, “is what the women take from the village every morning to fill their pots with water.”

Before going back to help Chuck haul the rowboat out of the water, Lac takes a long look up the darkly shaded trail—the trees towering to immense heights above, creating an illusion of compression in the shadows below, pressurizing the air, as if the space they’re about to wander into were a preheated oven. He then lowers his gaze to the area surrounding his feet, seeing if there are any telltale signs, any footprints or artifacts discernable in the mud or the moist dirt higher up the bank. I’m here, he marvels, moments away from meeting them. As the two men pull the rowboat onto dry land, he realizes that Chuck has just indicated it’s the women who fetch each day’s supply of water from the Orinoco. It must be part of their division of labor, perhaps a key social fact.

When he met Chuck in Chicago a few months back, he asked him hundreds of questions about where the Yanomamö live, how aware they are of the outside world, how many he estimates there are in the village, how many other villages might be in the region. But, just as Lac hates the idea of the Yanomamö’s culture being compromised by all the missionaries’ bribery and machinations, he’s also been loath to inquire after the details of that culture in his discussions with Chuck, keeping instead mostly to issues of logistics, a precaution intended to help him avoid unconsciously adopting any prejudices about what he’s eager to see with his own eyes and document with his own hands.

But that boy, that young man, standing on the rocks as they approached the Tama Tama mission outpost, an apparition hovering in the space over the river like some eternal feature of the landscape, his skinny arms dangling loosely, his posture lazily erect, his bearing unselfconsciously haughty, his belly rounded by the insouciant forward sway of his lower back, causing it to protrude proudly, like a Western man might thrust out his chest, but without any of the effort at affectation—the encounter has shocked the neophyte fieldworker into realizing it won’t be a hundred or so discrete but interdependent manifestations of a tribal culture he’ll be meeting, asking permission to live with, and conducting lengthy interviews with. It’s a village full of people, flesh and blood human beings. “I’ve never really asked you this before,” he says as he steps away from the rowboat, sweat falling in giant globules from his face. “What are they like? I mean, what was it like when you first made contact?”

“Well, honestly, it was pretty tense when I first met them,” Chuck says as he squats down to secure the edges of a tarp covering the boat. “But that was back in 1950. You have to keep in mind they’d never seen a white man before. People in a bunch of the more distant villages still haven’t seen any. They had no idea who I was. But I wouldn’t worry too much. I think as long as you’re with me they’ll be much more welcoming.”

After pausing to consider his broader question, Chuck continues, “They don’t have the same stops as we do. It’s jarring at first, but it doesn’t take long before you start to accept it’s just the way they are. I used to think the natives—not just the Yanomamö but people I met from all the tribes—I used to think they were like children; they hadn’t been brought up learning how adults have to control their impulses, how adults have to fulfill the expectations surrounding the roles they serve in society. You know, or there are consequences. Here, there aren’t the same kinds of consequences. Over time, I’ve come to see that I was mostly wrong. They aren’t like grownup children the way I thought they were. They don’t have the same checks on their impulses, they don’t try to fill the same roles of course, and the consequences for inappropriate behavior are much different. But what they do makes sense in their own context, if not so much in ours.”

“You said ‘mostly wrong’.”

“I do my best to understand them on their own terms, and the fact is in some ways it’s men from our society who are more like children. If we had to fend for ourselves out here, with nothing but the kinds of tools and resources they have on hand, we probably wouldn’t last a week. But when I’m interacting with them I often can’t help seeing them as—not uncultured exactly, but still somehow less cultured. Fewer checks, simpler roles, that kind of thing. ”

“That makes sense,” Lac allows, though he’s wondering if it’s possible to square this with his Boas. For the first time, the incongruity is becoming apparent to him between insisting on treating every culture as equal, as fully developed in its own right, and looking to native societies for clues about life before civilization. He thinks again of the wild young man standing in his tatters on the chain of rocks poking up in the river, and how stark the contrast was between him and the dozen or so much younger children sitting along the benches at a wooden table outside one of the buildings of the New Tribes Mission, kids from several tribes, all flipping through prayer books, receiving their Western-style schooling from a severe woman ruling over them with a voice of measured authority, the type borne of unquestioning certainty in the rightness of her lessons, the righteousness of her calling. Maybe the adults, fortunate enough to escape such indignities, really are unconstrained and impulsive and child-like, he thinks, but maybe those of us who pride ourselves on our control, our tameness—maybe we actually lost something more valuable than we can fully appreciate when we traded in our own wild ways for the sake of being civilized grownups.

Lac can’t really run this idea by Chuck, but something in his guide’s tone when he attempted to describe the Yanomamö suggested that he wouldn’t quite agree. Then again, Chuck has his own agenda for these people, so he may be biased toward thinking there’s something lacking in their way of life. When Lac asked Marie, the austere and remarkably nondescript woman attempting to teach the children to read from a bunch of prayer books, how the Yanomamö react to the idea that they need to supplant the gods they know for this new Christian God, she said, “The spirits they conjure are demons.” For her, it’s as simple as that, an entire pantheon redesignated in one Miltonic swoop.

“You’re looking a little better,” Chuck says, stepping close enough to touch the back of his hand to Lac’s forehead. “You’re still really swollen from the gnat venom, but you don’t seem to have a fever.” Removing his hand, he turns and strides along the trail a few paces before stopping to wait for Lac to fall in alongside him. Lac looks one last time at the rowboat perfunctorily hidden within a latticework of roots running along the bank just downstream from the confluence with the Mavaca. The plan is to make the proper introductions at the village, stay for the night among the Yanomamö, and then return to the mission in the morning to retrieve the rest of his supplies, which he’ll need to exchange the rowboat for a much larger dugout canoe to haul back up the river. The Indians, Chuck has assured him, won’t mind them staying the night; the hut he built beside the village, the one he’s lived out of for several month-long stretches, ought to still be there. 

So far, aside from his reaction to the gnat bites—and, he notices now, the persistent rattling vibration he’s still hearing long after the hum of the outboard motor has ceased—the expedition is progressing according to plan. As he takes some jogging steps to catch up to the missionary on the trail, though, he feels that invisible anchor pulling at his neck again, tightening around his throat, as if tethered by a noose. He cranes to look back at the boat yet again—such a flimsy thing, such a tenuous line stretching between this place and everything in the world he knows and loves. He thinks of Laura, of his sister Bess’s subtle intimation that he was deluding himself on the score that his wife actually wants to join him in the field, in the jungle, with a bunch of naked unwashed natives living in mud huts. Shooing away the bareto, he takes another deep breath, closer to a sigh, and continues in step with Chuck toward the village. One thing I did delude myself about, he thinks, is that this would be a good time to cut back on smoking.

Away from the river, in the jungle proper, the heavy wet air suffuses the dark understory, filling the space like its own separate medium, in between a gas and a liquid, through which they’re half walking, half wading. His mouth and nostrils fill with the dank loamy smell of moss and watery soil, tinged with the sickly sweet scent of rot, and he has a sensation of being borne forth on a surging tidal wave of living green, the leafy fibrous substance of the forest, a sensation of being pulled at, tossed about, fraying and melting and disintegrating in the swell’s all-consuming roiling progression—expunging him, casting him farther and farther away from the world of impossible comforts he’s spent his entire life up till now taking relentlessly for granted.

His one comfort is the increasing solidity of the ground rising up to greet his shoes. Sweating so heavily, withstanding the incessant assault of so many insects, in the green immensity of the jungle that thrusts and buzzes and stretches and strangles—whose thronging, thriving existence is alive at every moment with the urgency of its every living cell clamoring to consume, to connect, to continue living, he feels the edges of his personhood blur, evaporating into the soupy air, the contours of his identity devoured by the voracious bugs, shaken to pieces by the inhuman scale of this teeming verdant chaos engulfing him. But with every solid step it’s as if he’s being incrementally reconstituted, fortified in his resolve, his excitement gradually bringing him back to himself.

            Moving along the trail—which, considering the Yanomamö women use it every day, is remarkably hard to discern at many points—Lac feels the field notebook in the back pocket of his trousers, checking to make sure it’s still there, a ritual reassurance, much the way he would often brush the outside of his thumb against the same pocket in other trousers back home to make sure his wallet was securely in place. Each time he touches the notebook, he briefly foresees himself standing amid clusters of skittish Indians, slightly intimidated himself, but with a purpose that shields him, not unlike the way grasping his surveying tools buoyed him as he stood road-side all those long summers during his undergrad years, justifying his idle presence to the countless passing drivers. He feels the notebook and reminds himself of his goals, his research questions, the methodical steps he plans to follow so he can arrive at answers, good solid scientific answers.

Chuck suddenly puts out a halting hand. “Listen,” he says. “You can hear them chanting—they must be calling their spirits.” Straining his ears, Lac has to choke back a cough as something between a burst of exhilaration and a jolt of panic invades his chest, swelling his throat. Okay now, he says quietly to himself, okay easy does it—focus on your research objectives.

            The first task, he rehearses as they continue paddling their way through the undergrowth, is to put them at ease and earn their trust. Chuck will help with that. He can also help at least get you started with the second task, learning the language and developing a scheme for transcribing it. Everything else hinges on the success of these first two steps. It will take a few weeks for you to get established and work out an understanding with them, and you’ll have to acquire sufficient competency with the language to even begin conducting interviews. In the meantime, you’ll observe their daily routines and interactions: food, family, shelter, hygiene, politics, sex, technology, ritual, art. As you gain proficiency with the language, you’ll turn to collecting genealogies, looking for patterns, analyzing the social structure that determines how any one individual is to interact with any other, building up to what will be your own unique contribution to the field of anthropology, your incorporation of the latest evolutionary theories into Structuralist approaches to ethnographic analysis, your introduction, in other words, of Charles Darwin to Claude Levi-Strauss.

            You may already be well into the genealogy phase, he tells himself, by the time Laura and the kids arrive in the country. Eventually, you’ll start to learn about other villages, groups living far deeper in the jungle. You may even be able to travel to villages that have never been contacted before by the missionaries. Imagine it—you’ll be the first white person they’ve ever seen. Then you can start the process over, but this time with a head start because you’ll speak the language and know the rudiments of the culture. Think of all you can accomplish like this in seventeen months. You can have genealogies comprised of hundreds, or even thousands of individuals. You’ll be able to compare ideal family structures to statistical measures of relatedness like no one ever has before, and that’s how you’ll finally break down the wall separating anthropology from biology. That’s how you’ll solve the mystery of how moral systems governed by kinship give way to more abstract notions like citizenship in the formation of early states.

            Distinctly now he hears a loud high-pitched howl. It drags out and drops precipitously down the scale before being drowned out by a similar cry from what must be another man. His mind is frantically awhirl with eager anticipation over what he, and all Westerners, might learn from these wild Indians about what life is really all about, excitement that moment by moment vies with what he hopes is his budding professionalism, one part Boasian chastening about his conception of the natives’ wildness, one part pragmatic disdain for the Rousseauian fantasy of savage wisdom. 

            Chuck has told him about the circular enclosures the Yanomamö live in. They’re actually formed from a series of discrete houses belonging to individual men and their families, wrapping around into a mostly contiguous ring. The central courtyard is the site of various animistic rituals, like the ones they must be engaging in this very moment. Some distance from the enclosure will be the garden they clear by cutting down and burning all the local vegetation. As the two men continue along the trail, emerging into a large open meadow, the howls and cries growing louder all the while, more unmistakably human, Lac tries to imagine being born within a circular pavilion carved out of the jungle, returning to a nearby plot of cultivated land every day for food, knowing nothing of schools and newspapers and motorized vehicles—nothing, anyway, that can’t be gleaned from fantastical rumors delivered from the mouths of the most intrepid travelers.

            When he finally picks out the walls of the enclosure through the foliage, Lac has the sense that they’re negotiating their way stealthily through the brush toward a giant egg, nestled among the trees, as if in the untended lair of some mythical monster, the type you’d expect to find only in a place like this, a land of the lost: lost cities, lost tribes, legendary beasts. As they get closer, though, he realizes that as appropriate as the image of an egg may be, it wouldn’t be any monster inside. No, what’s inside this egg is humanity itself in its embryonic form. His thoughts momentarily whirl again with censures and qualifications, his knowledge of the impropriety of thinking that he’s about to step through a portal back in time to some lost Eden colliding with the thrill of being on the threshold of finally standing face-to-face with the mysterious figures that have so long occupied his thoughts, his studies, his dreams. Hadn’t Levi-Strauss himself made the case, he thinks as the village walls come full into view, that primitive minds hold the key to our natural patterns of logic and thought, their most basic of cultures serving as a sort of bedrock beneath the accumulated layers of institutional precepts, lessons, and ideologies, all our civilized training to live lives so dramatically removed from what was once considered human? Maybe he did, Lac answers himself quietly, but you don’t hear many anthropologists talking like that these days. 

            “There,” Chuck says, pointing to the spot where the trail runs directly into the wall. “That’s where the entrance is. Sometimes they cover the openings with brush like that.”

            The wall is close enough now for Lac to examine its composition. The structure has revealed itself to be far larger than he’d first estimated. These are not the Suyá, he reminds himself, surprised by how much his preparatory research into this other tribe has shaped his expectations. He’d been forced to abandon his plans to study the famously community-minded Suyá by the military coup in Brazil. Much less is known about the Yanomamö; Clemens has actually been the first Westerner to be in sustained contact with them for any length of time. Lac has the passing thought that, the lively ritual that’s audibly going on inside notwithstanding, the stacks of logs making up the lower walls of the enclosure, along with the massive thatched awning, however brittle and egg-like they’d appeared from a distance, must have required a colossal undertaking to build, especially for a group of peaceful horticulturalists. It looks, he reasons, more like a fortification than a simple brace against the weather, leaving him to wonder just how severe the storms in this jungle really are.

            Chuck walks up to the wall near a spot that as they approach resolves into a gap between two discrete sections in the roof of intricately interwoven leaves. He squats down, removes his hat, and drags his sleeve along his dripping forehead. Even amid all his excitement, Lac can’t help smiling at the shine reflecting off the missionary’s bald head through so many tiny beads of sweat. Still squatting as Lac walks up to the division at the back of the conjoined units, Chuck replaces his hat and reaches across the opening to draw away the bunched branches and leaves.

            “Well, Doctor Shackley, this is it,” he says. “You’re about to meet your first Yanomamö. Would you like to do the honors?” He gestures toward the low entrance, which Lac has to crouch down himself to pass through.

            “Actually,” Lac says, “it’s still just Mr. Shackley—at least until I defend the thesis I write based on what happens in here.” As he bounces and scoots sideways through the opening, his knees pulling at his sweat-soaked trousers, he hears Chuck mumble to himself, “The first thing I’ll have to do is find out who all has died since I left.” Lac scowls and starts to turn back to ask what he means, but then he notices a shift in the nature of the vocalizations inside the village. Still huddled uncomfortably in the dark, and leaning to recover his balance after an awkward step, he shuffles and waddles the rest of the way through the short tunnel.

            Before fully emerging back into the sunlight, he hears the stirring of an angry commotion. Just as he’s crawling out of the passage, he’s broadsided, almost knocked backward, by a volley of enraged voices. Before he can rise from his crouch, he squints up to see what are unmistakably the points of arrows, gleaming, dancing, unmistakably aimed at his face and chest. Afraid to move, he remains squatting in the entrance, his mouth gaping uselessly as he’s struck full force by the indecipherability of the men’s shouting. “Uh, Chuck,” he manages to call from the side of his mouth. “We may have a problem.” One of the men darts forward, bringing Lac fully upright as he retreats from the nocked arrow whose length he can all but feel vibrating with the taut creaking tension of the string. Now he sees them, ten or more thickly built men, their faces demoniacally contorted, their noses oozing long dangling strands of green snot, each of them barking meaningless words at him, glaring at him with the purest malice he’s ever been met with. From their eyes and the thick strings of snot, his gaze moves to the hands gripping the straining bows, and back to the arrow points a mere twitch away from impaling him. Mindlessly lifting his hands, he sees that he’s clutching his field notebook, holding it aloft, desperate to have something, anything between him and what he sees are the almost ridiculously long wooden shafts.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the missionary emerge through the low entrance. Chuck is speaking frantically and gesturing toward him. The men’s heads start turning, one, then the others, as they look back and forth between Lac and Chuck, the green snot swinging from their chins. Lac catches sight of a single bow relaxing but simultaneously feels a sudden pull at his pant cuff, something latching onto it and jerking so violently that it sends him momentarily staggering to catch his balance. The sudden movement sets all the bows creaking to life again. He holds his breath, imagining first one, then the entire volley of arrow tips piercing his flesh, thudding into the wood piles behind him. A pack of tawny dogs, underfed to the point of starvation, is weaving in and out from between the men’s legs, taking turns circling toward him and biting at this calves. All he can do is keep trying to kick them away as he continues holding up his hands, the notebook still clutched in one of them, and do everything he can think of to signal his surrender.

            Chuck goes on excitedly jabbering, and as the encounter stretches on, Lac’s frustration at not being able to speak or comprehend builds to a near fury. What the hell is wrong with you people? he wants to shout. I come here to learn about your culture and this is the reception I get? Damn near getting killed? No sooner has the first of the men lowered his bow and stepped away from the group than Lac notices the medley of odors pervading the air. The men’s sweaty bodies, what he swears must be feces, maybe from the dogs, spoiled vegetables, rotting garbage, smoke from charred meat. He doesn’t see when the last of the men finally lower their bows and relax, because he’s turning his face away and covering his nose and mouth with the back of his hand, trying not to retch. 

            Before he can right himself, one of the men steps up to him, smiling, his bottom lip hideously deformed, jutting out from his teeth. But these same lips manage to form words as the man reaches out, not to Lac’s hand but to his arm. He clutches it, as if to see if it’s actually real, to see if beneath the shirt this creature is a flesh and blood man like him. Just like that, they’re all walking up to him and clutching him and patting him, conducting a thorough examination, even sticking their hands into his pockets. “Chuck,” he calls. “Tell them…” he begins, before realizing there’s no sense to what he wants to say. “Tell them they’re hands are dirty.” His clothes are already splotched with green and streaked all over with what looks like red paint. And the smell—he can’t escape the smell.

            Chuck laughs. Laughs! Then he steps closer to Lac and, still smiling grandly, translates his complaint. The men step back, looking either confused or offended—Lac can’t tell which—and one after the other proceed to spit on their hands—slimy dark green saliva—rub them together rigorously, flick them several times in the air, and finally drag them through their hair, leaving gluey shimmering traces in clumped hanks of their thick black strands. This cleansing ritual complete, each in turn takes up his inspection of Lac’s person again, his arms, legs, hair, face, beard, ears. He sees a couple of the men extend the improvised baths to their faces, roughly swiping beneath their noses to remove the festoons of green snot swinging down as far as their chests. But, as the pack of men gradually loosens, Lac feels something like a bubble rising up in his chest, and before he knows it he’s laughing and smiling along with the missionary—and, he realizes, the Yanomamö men as well.

            Chuck begins holding court with three of the men. The others, having wrapped up their far-roaming examinations of his body, start to disperse, returning to the ceremony the two white men had interrupted with their arrival. His heart thumping away as his nervous laughter trails off, Lac is at last free to notice some of the details of his surroundings that fall short of being imminent threats to his life and health. He steps over to stand beside Chuck, who in turn directs his attention to two of the men squatting across from each other near the center of the courtyard. They’re each clutching opposite ends of a straight stick that’s about two or three feet long, one holding it to his nose and the other to his mouth. Lac flinches as a sudden puff of green powder shoots from the opposite nostril of the man holding the stick to his nose. The man winces, reels backward, stands to his full height before leaning forward to rest his hands on his knees and retch loudly. The stick the men were holding must actually be a tube, Lac realizes. They’re blowing drugs up each other’s noses. That’s why they all have the green snot oozing down their faces.

            Lac grins at the resolution of this minor mystery, quietly embarrassed by how quick his mind was to transform the oddity of the men’s appearance into something monstrous. Though it does seem a singularly harsh method of administering a dose, with each man responding as if in acute, if momentary, pain. Of course, that could be the point, he considers, since it’s possible that part of the desired effect comes from a kick of adrenaline. How different would that be from the way we consume a shot of tequila back home?

            The men take turns firing the blow-gun bullets of the drug along the length of each other’s sinuses before returning to their singing and chanting, which is mostly directed skyward, but is sometimes addressed to invisible beings occupying the center of the village with them. They proceed periodically performing dancing lunges at these entities, as if trying to rattle or intimidate them. Lac can only wonder at what the men must be seeing as he stands chagrined by how long it took him to note the dazed expressions signaling their entrancement. Now he takes a moment to look them over thoroughly. They all have some kind of plug pushing out their lower lips, not a plate like the Suyá have, but rather a cylindrical wad, which must be the source of the green in their saliva. Is it tobacco? Lac thinks back to Chuck’s suggestion that the Yanomamö have fewer checks on their impulses. Do they just snort green powder and suck on green tobacco all day?

            Around their foreheads, most of them are wearing a band of dark fur, which along with their jet black hair cut in the customary bowl shape—with circular tonsures shaved at the cap of the skull—make it look like they’re wearing padded helmets. As they rhythmically prance and skirmish with their imaginary adversaries, they appear to Lac like a team of short but burly football players dramatically taunting and goading their rivals. Each man’s face and torso is adorned with a unique pattern of red paint, the same paint that’s smeared all over him now too. But aside from some feathers poking out of bands tied around their upper arms, and some cords running across their backs and around their waists, they’re completely naked. Their penises seem to be fixed to their waist strings by the uncircumcised, stretched foreskin.
            Just as Lac is about to interrupt Chuck’s conversation with the three men who have yet to return to the ceremonial dance with the spirits, everyone abruptly freezes and falls silent, turning their gaze toward the far end of the enclosure. Lac pricks his ears to listen for a repetition of whatever caused the sudden alarm, but the only sound now is from a couple of the men whispering to each other as they bound across the village to the far wall. For the first time, he notices some women and children as they retreat in either direction from the shaded spot under the pavilion where the noise emanated. His curiosity inches closer to fear as he catches sight of still more women nervously scurrying about in the shadowy edges of the enclosure. “What’s happening?” he whispers to the missionary.

            Chuck gestures for him to keep silent. As Lac turns his gaze back to the two men who rushed to investigate the sound, around whom several others are now converging, their bows at the ready, the starving dogs circling and agitated, he makes the connection with how he was greeted just minutes earlier. Holy shit, he mumbles to himself. They’re expecting an attack. They thought we were here to attack them. He looks back toward Chuck and sees that he’s as alarmed as the Yanomamö men. Lac grips the notebook tighter in his right hand as he reflexively scans the village for some missing element of the story they’ve walked into the middle of, some cache of food or weapons or riches, anything men from another village might risk life and limb to procure—might kill their neighbors in order to obtain. He sees huge bundles of bananas hanging from the crossbeams of several houses’ awnings. He sees smoke rising up through wooden racks holding small animals—the source of that charred meat smell. But there’s nothing he can imagine would be worth killing anyone over.

            After waiting by the far entrance to the enclosure for some moments, one of the men ducks through to investigate. Next comes laughter and more excited speaking. The men begin milling about, the alarm apparently having proved false. Lac feels a tug on his sleeve, Chuck getting his attention as one of the three men standing with him takes up the conversation again. The man tells the story while the missionary tries to keep up with a simultaneous translation for him. “Another group,” he says, “is visiting Bisaasi-teri, an allied group—this place is called Bisaasi-teri. The other village sought their help because...” The Yanomamö man is unmistakably using his fingers to indicate a number. So their terms for numbers are limited, Lac notes. “Because,” Chuck continues, “a third group, an enemy group, raided them and stole seven of their young women.”

            “What?” Lac says. “They stole women? Like slaves? Do they really do that?”

            But the man continues speaking, ignoring Lac’s befuddled incredulity. Chuck translates, “The men from the allied group petitioned this group to help them get their women back. So they teamed up, traveled to the enemy village, and challenged the men there to a fight—a sort of chest-punching duel.” The storyteller counts off with his fingers again. “They managed to get five of the women back—they’re here now. But the enemy villagers were furious. They vowed to raid Bisaasi-teri, take the girls back, and kill all the men in the process.”

            Lac, recovering briefly from his shock, feels his mouth gaping. To counteract his astonishment, he determines it’s time to start taking notes. Since the man won’t stop yammering on for even a second, Lac finally interrupts him to ask Chuck what his name is. He doesn’t see the blank look this question induces on Chuck’s face at first because he’s busy fussing with his pen, which is refusing to grip the humidity-softened notebook pages enough to issue any actual ink, leaving tracks but no marks. When he finally glances up and sees Chuck looking almost stricken, his frustration ticks up again. “What now?”

            “We can’t speak their names out loud.”

            “We can’t? Why not?”

“I told you, they have a strong taboo against speaking each other’s names, especially the names of dead relatives. They’ll get angry if you say them—violently angry.”

Lac remembers Chuck’s comment when he was first ducking down to enter the village, about having to find out who all had died since the last time he was here. Understanding now what he was getting at, he says, “I thought you meant they use titles—like sir or mister—and they’d get upset if you didn’t address them properly. For chrissakes, my main research objective is to draw up genealogies for everyone in the village—and whatever other villages I can make it to. How am I supposed to create family trees if they’re violently opposed to saying anyone’s name aloud?” The absurdity of his own phrase—research objective—is left hovering in the air.

More men are standing around now, all talking at once, all standing too close, all showing no compunctions about poking or pushing or grabbing him, all seemingly trying to demand something of him. Without realizing it, Lac is being moved in an arc around the edge of the courtyard, as he unconsciously retreats, and retreats again, from the pushy Indians. “Chuck, what do they want?” he finally shouts, his irritation getting the better of him. Before anyone can respond, the whole village falls silent again, all eyes turning toward yet another mysterious sound heard in the vicinity of yet another brush-covered entrance to the enclosure.

            As a group of men rushes over to investigate—or to greet the raiders with a volley of six-foot long arrows—Lac forces himself to take some breaths. In doing so, he ends up taking a massive whiff of burnt meat. Turning, he spots, about thirty feet from where he’s standing, the simple smoker fashioned from what looks like little more than a bunch of long, straight sticks. They must like their meat well-done, he thinks, because they’re burning the hell out of whatever it is. Chuck follows as he quietly approaches the fire, ready to take advantage of the Yanomamö men’s distraction to exchange a few words—assuming they don’t find themselves under attack, forced to seek cover from an enemy camp’s arrows. But, despite the men’s obvious anxiety, Lac can still barely bring himself to believe such a thing is possible.

            He keeps moving toward the smoker, pulled along by a tiny detail he’s noticed about the animals on the crude rack. He advances slowly, as though reluctant to identify the object he’s observing so intently from his safe distance, as though he’s harboring an unwelcome suspicion he’d rather not have confirmed. Just as he’s closing the distance sufficiently, though, he’s startled by a pair of shouts from the men over by the entrance. He gasps, automatically dropping into a crouch. But he quickly sees that the men are smiling, and then laughing. Another false alarm. He turns back to Chuck in time to hear him say, “We sure picked a great time to stop by, huh?” Lac flashes a tense grin before glancing back at the wooden frame. Squinting through the smoke, he sees what are undeniably tiny fingers curling in the shimmers of heat.

            All the queasy vertigo he felt on the boat taking him up the Orinoco over the previous three days returns in an instant. Squeezing his eyes shut, he feels his hand rise of its own accord to cover his mouth. If I thought I was heading for Eden, he thinks, I took one hell of a wrong turn somewhere. Chuck, witnessing his response, looks at the contents of the smoking rack himself. “Looks like they’ll be having smoked monkey meat for supper,” he says, guessing at Lac’s mistake. Lac looks back and plainly sees for himself that the creatures aren’t babies that have been killed by the Yanomamö, however human-like their cooked hands appear. It’s the first moment of genuine relief he’s felt since first squatting down to go through the entrance to the village. He shakes his head, grinning, and even lets loose a few halfhearted chuckles.

            “We may be in some real danger here, Shackley,” Chuck says as he scans the edges of the enclosure. “It would probably be a good idea for us to go back to the boat and sleep on the other side of the river tonight.”

            As much as I hate what this man is trying to do here, Lac thinks, as much as I hate everything he and his friends stand for, no one will ever hear a word against him coming from my mouth. “That sounds like a spectacular idea to me,” he says. Both men laugh now. But Lac’s next thought is of his wife and their two small kids. How can I bring them here and keep them safe if I’m not even safe myself? His next thought is still more troubling. Do I even want to stay here myself? How can I possibly live with these people for any length of time? He remembers his sister Bess’s admonition after they’d both said their farewells to each other: “Don’t get yourself killed in the jungle because you’re too damned stubborn to let anything go.” He’d turned to see the look of worry on Laura’s face as she climbed into his truck. “Seriously,” Bess went on, “now would be a good time to learn how to recognize a lost cause when you see one.” 

Continue reading: The Land of the Lost Ironies: He Borara: Chapter 3
Also read:

He Borara: Chapter 1: Journey up the Orinoco

Check out Napoleon Chagnon's original account of when he first met the Yanomamö (see particularly the section "The Longest Day: the First One" beginning on page 2).

Just Another Piece of Sleaze: The Real Lesson of Robert Borofsky's "Fierce Controversy"

(5,086 words, link to printable version.)

Robert Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It is the source book participants on a particular side of the debate over Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado would like everyone to read, even more than Tierney’s book itself. To anyone on the opposing side, however—and, one should hope, to those who have yet to take a side—there’s an unmissable element of farce running throughout Borofsky’s book, which ultimately amounts to little more than a transparent attempt at salvaging the campaign against anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. That campaign had initially received quite a boost from the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, but then support began to crumble as various researchers went about exposing Tierney as a fraud. With The Fierce Controversy, Borofsky and some of the key members of the anti-Chagnon campaign are doing their best to dissociate themselves and their agenda from Tierney, while at the same time taking advantage of the publicity he brought to their favorite talking points. 

The book is billed as an evenhanded back-and-forth between anthropologists on both sides of the debate. But, despite Borofsky’s pretentions to impartiality, The Fierce Controversy is about as fair and balanced as Fox News’s political coverage—there’s even a chapter titled “You Decide.” By giving the second half of the book over to an exchange of essays and responses by what he refers to as “partisans” for both sides, Borofsky makes himself out to be a disinterested mediator, and he wants us to see the book as an authoritative representation of some quasi-democratic collection of voices—think Occupy Wall Street’s human microphones, with all the repetition, incoherence, and implicit signaling of a lack of seriousness. “Objectivity does not lie in the assertions of authorities,” Borofsky insists in italics. “It lies in the open, public analysis of divergent perspectives” (18). In the first half of the book, however, Borofsky gives himself the opportunity to convey his own impressions of the controversy under the guise of providing necessary background. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly as subtle in pushing his ideology as he’d like to be.
Robert Borofsky

Borofsky claims early on that his “book seeks, in empowering readers, to develop a new political constituency for transforming the discipline.” But is Borofsky empowering readers, or is he trying to foment a revolution? The only way the two goals could be aligned would be if readers already felt the need for the type of change Borofsky hopes to instigate. What does that change entail? He writes,

It is understandable that many anthropologists have had trouble addressing the controversy’s central issues because they are invested in the present system. These anthropologists worked their way through the discipline’s existing structures as they progressed from being graduate students to employed professionals. While they may acknowledge the limitations of the discipline, these structures represent the world they know, the world they feel comfortable with. One would not expect most of them to lead the charge for change. But introductory and advanced students are less invested in this system. If anything, they have a stake in changing it so as to create new spaces for themselves. (21)

In other words, Borofsky simultaneously wants his book to be open-ended—the outcome of the debate in the second half reflecting the merits of each side’s case, with the ultimate position taken by readers left to their own powers of critical thought—while at the same time inspiring those same readers to work for the goals he himself believes are important. He utterly neglects the possibility that anthropology students won’t share his markedly Marxist views. From this goal statement, you may expect the book to focus on the distribution of power and the channels for promotion in anthropology departments, but that’s not at all what Borofsky and his coauthors end up discussing. Even more problematically, though, Borofsky is taking for granted here the seriousness of “the controversy’s central issues,” the same issues whose validity is the very thing that’s supposed to be under debate in the second half of the book.  
Chagnon with Yanomamö man
The most serious charges in Tierney’s book were shown to be false almost as soon as it was published, and Tierney himself was thoroughly discredited when it was discovered that countless of his copious citations bore little or no relation to the claims they were supposed to support. A taskforce commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, for instance, found that Tierney spliced together parts of different recorded conversations to mislead his readers about the actions and intentions of James V. Neel, a geneticist he accuses of unethical conduct. Reasonably enough, many supporters of Chagnon, who Tierney likewise accuses of grave ethical breaches, found such deliberately misleading tactics sufficient cause to dismiss any other claims by the author. But Borofsky treats this argument as an effort on the part of anthropologists to dodge inconvenient questions:

Instead of confronting the breadth of issues raised by Tierney and the media, many anthropologists focused on Tierney’s accusations regarding Neel… As previously noted, focusing on Neel had a particular advantage for those who wanted to continue sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this. Neel was a geneticist, and soon after the book’s publication most experts realized that the accusation that Neel helped facilitate the spread of measles was false. Focusing on Neel allowed anthropologists to downplay the role of the discipline in the whole affair. (46)

When Borofsky accuses some commenters of “sidestepping the role of anthropologists in all this,” we’re left wondering, all what? The Fierce Controversy is supposed to be about assessing the charges Tierney made in his book, but again the book’s editor and main contributor is assuming that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It’s also important to note that the nature of the charges against Chagnon make them much more difficult to prove or disprove. A call to a couple of epidemiologists and vaccination experts established that what Tierney accused Neel of was simply impossible. It’s hardly sidestepping the issue to ask why anyone would trust Tierney’s reporting on more complicated matters.

Anyone familiar with the debates over postmodernism taking place among anthropologists over the past three decades will see at a glance that The Fierce Controversy is disingenuous in its very conception. Borofsky and the other postmodernist contributors desperately want to have a conversation about how Napoleon Chagnon’s approach to fieldwork, and even his conception of anthropology as a discipline are no longer aligned with how most anthropologists conceive of and go about their work. Borofsky is explicit about this, writing in one of the chapters that’s supposed to merely provide background for readers new to the debate,

Chagnon writes against the grain of accepted ethical practice in the discipline. What he describes in detail to millions of readers are just the sorts of practices anthropologists claim they do not practice. (39)   

This comes in a section titled “A Painful Contradiction,” which consists of Borofsky straightforwardly arguing that Chagnon, whose first book on the Yanomamö is perhaps the most widely read ethnography in history, disregarded the principles of the American Anthropological Association by actively harming the people he studied and by violating their privacy (though most of Chagnon’s time in the field predated the AAA’s statements of the principles in question). In Borofsky’s opinion, these ethical breaches are attested to in Chagnon’s own works and hence beyond dispute. In reality, though, whether Chagnon’s techniques amount to ethical violations (by any day’s standards) is very much in dispute, as we see clearly in the second half of the book. (Yanomamö was Chagnon’s original spelling, but his detractors can’t bring themselves to spell it the same way—hence Yanomami.)

Borofsky is of course free to write about his issues with Chagnon’s methods, but inserting his own argument into a book he’s promoting as an open and fair exchange between experts on both sides of the debate, especially when he’s responding to the others’ contributions after the fact, is a dubious sort of bait and switch. The second half of the book is already lopsided, with Bruce Albert, Leda Martins, and Terence Turner attacking Neel’s and Chagnon’s reputations, while Raymond Hames and Kim Hill argue for the defense. (The sixth contributor, John Peters, doesn’t come down clearly on either side.) When you factor in Borofsky’s own arguments, you’ve got four against two—and if you go by page count the imbalance is quite a bit worse; indeed, the inclusion of the two Chagnon defenders in the forum starts to look more like a ploy to gain a modicum of credibility for what’s best characterized as just another anti-Chagnon screed by a few of his most outspoken detractors.

Notably absent from the list of contributors is Chagnon himself, who probably reasoned that lending his name to the title page would give the book an undeserved air of legitimacy. Given the unmasked contempt that Albert, Martins, and Turner evince toward him in their essays, Chagnon was wise not to go anywhere near the project. It’s also far from irrelevant—though it goes unmentioned by Borofsky—that Martins and Tierney were friends at the time he was writing his book; on his acknowledgements page, Tierney writes,

I am especially indebted to Leda Martins, who is finishing her Ph.D. at Cornell University, for her support throughout this long project and for her and her family’s hospitality in Boa Vista, Brazil. Leda’s dossier on Napoleon Chagnon was an important resource for my research. (XVII)

(Martins later denied, in an interview given to ethicist and science historian Alice Dreger, that she was the source of the dossier Tierney mentions.) Equally relevant is that one of the professors at Cornell where Martins was finishing her Ph.D. was none other than Terence Turner, whom Tierney also thanks in his acknowledgements. To be fair, Hames is a former student of Chagnon’s, and Hill also knows Chagnon well. But the earlier collaboration with Tierney of at least two contributors to Borofsky’s book is suspicious to say the least.   

Confronted with the book’s inquisitorial layout and tone, I believe undecided readers are going to wonder whether it’s fair to focus a whole book on the charges laid out in another book that’s been so thoroughly discredited. Borofsky does provide an answer of sorts to this objection: The Fierce Controversy is not about Tierney’s book; it’s about anthropology as a discipline. He writes that
beyond the accusations surrounding Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, there are critical—indeed, from my perspective, far more critical—issues that need to be addressed in the controversy: those involving relations with informants as well as professional integrity and competence. Given how central these issues are to anthropology, readers can understand, perhaps, why many in the discipline have sought to sidestep the controversy. (17)

With that rhetorical flourish, Borofsky makes any concern about Tierney’s credibility, along with any concern for treating the accused fairly, seem like an unwillingness to answer difficult questions. But, in reality, the stated goals of the book raise yet another important ethical question: is it right for a group of scholars to savage their colleagues’ reputations in furtherance of their reform agenda for the discipline? How do they justify their complete disregard for the principle of presumed innocence?   
Terence Turner
What’s going on here is that Borofsky and his fellow postmodernists really needed The Fierce Controversy to be about the dramatis personae featured in Tierney’s book, because Tierney’s book is what got the whole discipline’s attention, along with the attention of countless people outside of anthropology. The postmodernists, in other words, are riding the scandal’s coattails. Turner had been making many of the allegations that later ended up in Tierney’s book for years, but he couldn’t get anyone to take him seriously. Now that headlines about anthropologists colluding in eugenic experiments were showing up in newspapers around the world, Turner and the other members of the anti-Chagnon campaign finally got their chance to be heard. Naturally enough, even after Tierney’s book was exposed as mostly a work of fiction, they still really wanted to discuss how terribly Chagnon and other anthropologists of his ilk behaved in the field so they could take control of the larger debate over what anthropology is and what anthropological fieldwork should consist of. This is why even as Borofsky insists the debate isn’t about the people at the center of the controversy, he has no qualms about arranging his book as a trial:

We can address this problem within the discipline by applying the model of a jury trial. In such a trial, jury members—like many readers—do not know all the ins and outs of a case. But by listening to people who do know these details argue back and forth, they are able to form a reasonable judgment regarding the case. (73)

But, if the book isn’t about Neel, Chagnon, and Tierney, then who exactly is being tried? Borofsky is essentially saying, we’re going to try these men in abstentia (Neel died before Darkness in El Dorado was published) with no regard whatsoever for the effect repeating the likely bogus charges against them ad nauseam will have on their reputations, because it’s politically convenient for us to do so, since we hope it will help us achieve our agenda of discipline-wide reform, for which there’s currently either too little interest or too much resistance.

As misbegotten, duplicitous, and morally dubious as its goals and premises are, there’s a still more fatal shortcoming to The Fierce Controversy, and that’s the stance its editor, moderator, and chief contributor takes toward the role of evidence. Here again, it’s important to bear in mind the context out of which the scandal surrounding Darkness in El Dorado erupted. The reason so many of Chagnon’s colleagues responded somewhat gleefully to the lurid and appalling charges leveled against him by Tierney is that Chagnon stands as a prominent figure in the debate over whether anthropology should rightly be conceived of and conducted as a science. The rival view is that science is an arbitrary label used to give the appearance of authority. As Borofsky argues,

the issue is not whether a particular anthropologist’s work is scientific. It is whether that anthropologist’s work is credible. Calling particular research scientific in anthropology is often an attempt to establish credibility by name-dropping. (96)

What he’s referring to here as name-dropping the scientific anthropologists would probably describe as attempts at tying their observations to existing theories, as when Chagnon interprets aspects of Yanomamö culture in light of inclusive fitness theory, with reference to works by evolutionary biologists like W.D. Hamilton and G.C. Williams. But Borofsky’s characterization of how an anthropologist might collect and present data is even more cynical than his attitude toward citations of other scientists’ work. He writes of Chagnon’s descriptions of his field methods,  

To make sure readers understand that he was seriously at work during this time—because he could conceivably have spent much of his time lounging around taking in the sights—he reinforces his expertise with personal anecdotes, statistics, and photos. In Studying the Yanomamö, Chagnon presents interviews, detailed genealogies, computer printouts, photographs, and tables. All these data convey an important message: Chagnon knows what he’s talking about. (57-8)

Borofsky is either confused about or skeptical of the role evidence plays in science—or, more likely, a little of both. Anthropologists in the field could relay any number of vague impressions in their writings, as most of them do. Or those same anthropologists could measure and record details uncovered through systematic investigation. Analyzing the data collected in all those tables and graphs of demographic information could lead to the discovery of facts, trends, and correlations no amount of casual observation would reveal. Borofsky himself drops the names of some postmodern theorists in support of his cynical stance toward science—but it’s hard not to wonder if perhaps his dismissal of even the possibility of data leading to new discoveries has as much to do with him simply not liking the discoveries Chagnon actually made.

            One of the central tenets of postmodernism is that any cultural artifact, including any scientific text, is less a reflection of facts about the real world than a product of, and an attempt to perpetuate, power disparities in the political environment which produces it. From the postmodern perspective, in other words, science is nothing but disguised political rhetoric—and its message is always reactionary. This is why Borofsky is so eager to open the debate to more voices; he believes scientific credentials are really just markers of hegemonic authority, and he further believes that creating a more just society would demand a commitment that no one be excluded from the debate for a lack of expertise.

As immediately apparent as the problems with this perspective are, the really scary thing is that The Fierce Controversy applies this conception of evidence not only to Chagnon’s anthropological field work, but to his and Neel’s culpability as well. And this is where it’s easiest to see how disastrous postmodern ideas would be if they were used as legal or governing principles. Borofsky writes,

in the jury trial model followed in part 2, it is not necessary to recognize (or remember) each and every citation, each and every detail, but rather to note how participants reply to one another’s criticisms [sic]. The six participants, as noted, must respond to critiques of their positions. Readers may not be able to assess—simply by reading certain statements—which assertions are closer to what we might term “the truth.” But readers can evaluate how well a particular participant responds to another’s criticisms as a way of assessing the credibility of that person’s argument. (110)

These instructions betray a frightening obliviousness of the dangers of moral panics and witch hunts. It’s all well and good to put the truth in scare quotes—until you stand falsely accused of some horrible offense and the exculpatory evidence is deemed inadmissible. Imagine if our legal system were set up this way; if you wanted to have someone convicted of a crime, all you’d have to do is stage a successful campaign against this person. Imagine if other prominent social issues were handled this way: climate change, early childhood vaccination, genetically modified foods.
Kim Hill

            By essentially coaching readers to attend only to the contributors’ rhetoric and not to worry about the evidence they cite, Borofsky could reasonably be understood as conceding that the evidence simply doesn’t support the case he’s trying to make with the book. But the members of the anti-Chagnon camp seem to believe that the “issues” they want to discuss are completely separable from the question of whether the accusations against Chagnon are true. Kim Hill does a good job of highlighting just how insane this position is, writing,

Turner further observes that some people seem to feel that “if the critical allegations against Neel and Chagnon can be refuted on scientific grounds, then the ethical questions raised…about the effects of their actions on the Yanomami can be made to go away.” In fact, those of us who have criticized Tierney have refuted his allegations on factual and scientific grounds, and those allegations refuted are specifically about the actions of the two accused and their effects. There are no ethical issues to “dismiss” when the actions presented never took place and the effects on the Yanomamö were never experienced as described. Thus, the facts of the book are indeed central to some ethical discussions, and factual findings can indeed “obviate ethical issues” by rendering the discussions moot. But the discussion of facts reported by Tierney have been placed outside this forum of debate (we are to consider only ethical issues raised by the book, not evaluate each factual claim in the book). (180)

One wonders whether Hill knew that evaluations of factual claims would be out of bounds when he agreed to participate in the exchange. Turner, it should be noted, violates this proscription in the final round of the exchange when he takes advantage of his essays’ privileged place as the last contribution by listing the accusations in Tierney’s book he feels are independently supported. Reading this final essay, it’s hard not to think the debate is ending just where it ought to have begun. 

Raymond Hames
            Hill’s and Hames’s contributions in each round are sandwiched in between those of the three anti-Chagnon campaigners, but whatever value the book has as anything other than an illustration of how paranoid and bizarre postmodern rhetoric can be is to be found in their essays. These sections are like little pockets of sanity in a maelstrom of deranged moralizing. In scoring the back-and-forth, most readers will inevitably favor the side most closely aligned with their own convictions, but two moments really stand out as particularly embarrassing for the prosecution. One of them has Hames catching Martins doing some pretty egregious cherry-picking to give a misleading impression. He explains,

Martins in her second-round contribution cites a specific example of a highly visible and allegedly unflattering image of the Yanomamö created by Chagnon. In the much-discussed Veja interview (entitled “Indians Are Also People”), she notes that “When asked in Veja to define the ‘real Indians,’ Chagnon said, ‘The real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war.’” This quote is accurate. However, in the next sentence after that quote she cites, Chagnon states: “They are normal human beings. And that is sufficient reason for them to merit care and attention.” This tactic of partial quotation mirrors a technique used by Tierney. The context of the statement and most of the interview was Chagnon’s observation that some NGOs and missionaries characterized the Yanomamö as “angelic beings without faults.” His goal was to simply state that the Yanomamö and other native peoples are human beings and deserve our support and sympathy. He was concerned that false portrayals could harm native peoples when later they were discovered to be just like us. (236)

Such deliberate misrepresentations raise the question of whether postmodern thinking justifies, and even encourages, playing fast and loose with the truth—since all writing is just political rhetoric without any basis in reality anyway. What’s clear either way is that an ideology that scants the importance of evidence simply can’t support a moral framework that recognizes individual human rights, because it makes every individual vulnerable to being falsely maligned for the sake of some political cause.   

Leda Martins
            The other supremely embarrassing moment for the anti-Chagnon crowd comes in an exchange between Hill and Turner. Hill insists in his first essay that Tierney’s book and the ensuing controversy were borne of ideological opposition to sociobiology, the theoretical framework Chagnon uses to interpret his data on the Yanomamö. On first encountering phrases like “ideological terrorism” (127) and “holy war of ideology” (135), you can’t help thinking that Hill has succumbed to hyperbole, but Turner’s response lends a great deal of credence to Hill’s characterization. Turner’s defense is the logical equivalent of a dangerously underweight teenager saying, “I’m not anorexic—I just need to lose about fifteen pounds.” He first claims his campaign against Chagnon has nothing to do with sociobiology, but then he tries to explain sociobiology as an outgrowth of eugenics, even going so far as to suggest that the theoretical framework somehow inspires adherents to undermine indigenous activists. Even Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomamö as warlike, which the activists trying to paint a less unsavory picture of them take such issue with, is, according to Turner, more a requirement of sociobiological thinking than an observed reality. He writes,

“Fierceness” and the high level of violent conflict with which it is putatively associated are for Chagnon and like-minded sociobiologists the primary indexes of the evolutionary priority of the Yanomami as an earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society. Most of the critics of Chagnon’s fixation on “fierceness” have had little idea of this integral connection of “fierceness” as a Yanomami trait and the deep structure of sociobiological-selectionist theory. (202)
Turner isn’t by any stretch making a good faith effort to explain the theory and its origins according to how it’s explicitly discussed in the relevant literature. He’s reading between the lines in precisely the way prescribed by his postmodernism, treating the theory as a covert effort at justifying the lower status of indigenous peoples. But his analysis is so far off-base that it not only casts doubt on his credibility on the topic of sociobiology; it calls into question his credibility as a scholarly researcher in general. As Hames points out,

Anyone who has basic knowledge of the origins of sociobiology in anthropology will quickly realize that Turner’s attempt to show a connection between Neel’s allegedly eugenic ideas and Chagnon’s analysis of the Yanomamö to be far-fetched. (238)

            Turner’s method of uncovering secret threads supposedly connecting scientific theories to abhorrent political philosophies is closer to the practices of internet conspiracy theorists than to those of academic researchers. He constructs a scary story with some prominent villains, and then he retrofits the facts to support it. The only problem is that anyone familiar with the theories and the people in the story he tells will recognize it as pure fantasy. As Hames attests,

I don’t know of any “sociobiologists” who regard the Yanomamö as any more or less representative of an “earlier, and supposedly therefore more violent, phase of the development of human society” than any other relatively isolated indigenous society. Some sociobiologists are interested in indigenous populations because they live under social and technological conditions that more closely resemble humanity for most of its history as a species than conditions found in urban population centers. (238)

And Hill, after pointing out how Turner rejects the claim that his campaign against Chagnon is motivated by his paranoid opposition to sociobiology only to turn around and try to explain why attacking the reputations of sociobiologists is justified, takes on the charge that sociobiology somehow prohibits working with indigenous activists, writing,

Indeed he concludes by suggesting that sociobiological theory leads its adherents to reject legitimate modern indigenous leaders. This suggestion is malicious slander that has no basis in reality (where most sociobiologists not only accept modern indigenous leaders but work together with them to help solve modern indigenous problems). (250)

These are people Hill happens to work with and know personally. Unfortunately, Turner himself has yet to be put on trial for these arrant misrepresentations the way he and Borofsky put Chagnon on trial for the charges they’ve so clearly played a role in trumping up.

Alice Dreger
            In explaining why a book like The Fierce Controversy is necessary, Borofsky repeatedly accuses the American Anthropological Association of using a few examples of sloppy reporting on Tierney’s part as an excuse to “sidestep” the ethical issues raised by Darkness in El Dorado. As we’ve seen, however, Tierney’s misrepresentations are far too extensive, and far too conveniently selective, to have resulted from anything but an intentional effort to deceive readers. In Borofsky’s telling, the issues Tierney raises were so important that pressure from several AAA members, along with hundreds of students who commented on the organization’s website, forced the leadership to commission the El Dorado Task Force to investigate. It turns out, though, that on this critical element of the story too Borofsky is completely mistaken. The Task Force wasn’t responding to pressure from inside its own ranks; its members were instead concerned about the reputation of American anthropologists, whose ability to do future work in Latin American was threatened by the scandal. In a 2002 email uncovered by Alice Dreger, the Chair of the Task Force, former AAA President Jane Hill, wrote of Darkness in El Dorado,

Burn this message. The book is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America—with a high potential to do good—was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.

Far from the overdue examination of anthropological ethics he wants his book to be seen as, all Borofsky has offered us with The Fierce Controversy is another piece of sleaze, a sequel of sorts meant to rescue the original from its fatal, and highly unethical, distortions and wholesale fabrications. What Borofsky’s book is more than anything else, though, is a portrait of postmodernism’s powers of moral perversion. As such, and only as such, it is of some historical value.

            In a debate over teaching intelligent design in public schools, Richard Dawkins once called attention to what should have been an obvious truth. “When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity,” he said, “the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.” This line came to mind again and again as I read The Fierce Controversy. If we take presumption of innocence at all seriously, we can’t avoid concluding that the case brought by the anti-Chagnon crowd is simply wrong. The entire scandal began with a campaign of character assassination, which then blew up into a media frenzy, which subsequently induced a moral panic. It seems even some of Chagnon’s old enemies were taken aback by the mushrooming scale of the allegations. And yet many of the participants whose unscrupulous or outright dishonest scholarship and reporting originally caused the hysteria saw fit years later to continue stoking the controversy. Since they don’t appear to feel any shame, all we can do is agree that they’ve forfeited any right to be heard on the topic of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomamö. 

            Still, the inquisitorial zealotry of the anti-Chagnon contributors notwithstanding, the most repugnant thing about Borofsky’s book is how the proclamations of concern first and foremost for the Yanomamö begin to seem pro forma through repetition, as each side tries to paint itself as more focused on the well-being of indigenous peoples than the other. You know a book that’s supposed to address ethical issues has gone terribly awry when references to an endangered people start to seem like mere rhetorical maneuvers. 

Other popular posts like this:

The Idiocy of Outrage: Sam Harris's Run-ins with Ben Affleck and Noam Chomsky

You can also watch "Secrets of the Tribe," Jose Padiha's documentary about the controversy, online.