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The Left Hand of Darkness

DARKNESS IN EL DORADO How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon By Patrick Tierney; W.W. Norton: 416 pp., 27.95

YANOMAMO The Fierce People By Napoleon Chagnon; Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston 142 pp., out of print

YANOMAMO Last Days of Eden By Napoleon Chagnon; Harcourt Brace: 310 pp., $18 paper

MARGARET MEAD AND SAMOA The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth By Derek Freeman; Harvard University Press: 380 pp., out of print

YANOAMA The Story of Helena Valero, a Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians By Helena Valero As told to Ettore Biocca; Kodansha: tk pp., $16

November 12, 2000|DAVID RAINS WALLACE | David Rains Wallace is the author of "The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America." His latest book is "The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age."

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Anthropology is a problematic science. The systematic study of human beings, often from different cultures than the investigator's, raises troubling questions about the relationship of science and humanity. "Why do they want to study us so much?" asks an acculturated Yanomami Indian named Pablo Mejilla in Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado." "Nabah [foreigners] have a brain; Yanomami have a brain; Nabah have two eyes; Yanomami have two eyes. . . . Why are they so interested in studying us?"

Anthropologists traditionally have replied that they want to study people like the Yanomami, a remote South American tribe, to learn basic truths about humanity and to preserve their subjects' cultural heritage and help them survive. Most anthropologists doubtless subscribe to these straightforward agendas. Yet because they are also scientists, they have theoretical or ideological biases that may color their observations. They construct and test hypotheses, a process which--in science generally--includes experimentation. They need money and institutional support for activities whose prestige increases in proportion to their cost. These more equivocal agendas may push anthropologists past altruistic observation and advocacy toward self-interested manipulation, exploitation and fabrication. At the least, they make them vulnerable to accusations of such conduct.

Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman's 1983 book, "Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth," contained the most publicized accusations until this year. Freeman accused the venerated Mead not only of being wrong in her observations of Polynesian folkways, published in "Coming of Age in Samoa," but also of using them to promote her own "cultural determinist" ideology against the "genetic determinism" that had prevailed. (Mead thought Samoan adolescents were sexually "liberated" compared to America's neurotic teenagers, which seemed to show that sexual behavior is culturally, not genetically, determined.) Because Mead's work was fundamental to the "cultural anthropology" prevalent since the 1930s, Freeman's accusations gratified a new breed of sociobiological genetic determinists. The two factions started fighting about his book two months before it was published and are still fighting about it.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 2000 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Nov. 12 review of "Darkness in El Dorado," the name of the publisher of "Yanomamo: The Fierce People" by Napoleon Chagnon was misspelled. The out-of-print book was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado," a tale of self-interested agendas carried to such extremes as to seem an anthropological "Heart of Darkness," has given anthropologists something else to fight about, and they've been doing so since September, when two cultural anthropologists, Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, informed the American Anthropological Assn. of the book's unpublished contents by e-mail. Tierney accuses some of the most eminent scientists who have worked with the Yanomami in the last four decades of having effects on them similar to the "Spanish conquistadors." The term "anthro," he writes, has entered their vocabulary as an "attack word" referring to "a powerful nonhuman with deeply disturbed tendencies and wild eccentricities--an Olympian in a funk." He further quotes Mejilla: "These anthros come, they take pictures . . . sell them, and make money. . . . And we get nothing. We have to stop this study of the Yanomami. They are like miners, and we are like their gold."

Tierney's assault on the scientists in question makes Freeman's critique of Mead seem almost a love tap, and its comparative virulence brings to mind other significant differences between them. Freeman has worked as a professional anthropologist in Polynesia since the 1940s, and he documents in clear and deliberate detail his charge that the ideas about Samoan culture Mead drew from her nine-month field study were mistaken. He shows at length that Samoans and Samoa experts failed to recognize Mead's account, although it had been "received with something akin to rapture by the behavioristically oriented generation of the late 1920s." Although it hasn't shifted American anthropology's deep-seated cultural determinism, Freeman's book is acknowledged to have sparked one of anthropology's most important controversies. Tierney, on the other hand, is a journalist and human-rights activist who has published one previous book, on ritual murder in the Andes, and who writes less clearly and authoritatively than Freeman. He has an infectious passion for his subject, and "Darkness" often is exciting and convincing, but it sometimes descends to sarcasm and smear tactics. Given its pre-publication notoriety, it may become a bestseller, and it was nominated last month as a finalist in nonfiction for a National Book Award, but it remains to be seen if it will have the lasting intellectual significance Freeman's book has.

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