Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2009

Yanomami science wars, part 2

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The Cast of Characters

As I read through the mind-blowing account of the principal characters in the Yanomami dispute in Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, it began at first to remind me of Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, with Napoleon Chagnon as a stand in for Marlin Brando. But then I realized that it bore a more striking resemblance to Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, another tale of madness in the Amazon rainforest that some critics cite as a major influence on Coppola’s movie.

Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, is a conquistador who leads his soldiers deeper into the jungle trying to find El Dorado, the lost city of gold. At the end, monkeys surround him as he hacks through the underbrush in a futile quest. Chagnon was not looking for gold, but Indian behavior that would validate his Hobbesian thesis about the cruelty of primitive society. In the end, Chagnon was just as isolated as Aguirre, relying on the support of his acolytes in the academy.

In this post I want to introduce you to the cast of characters that figure in this bizarre drama, starting with Napoleon Chagnon. In subsequent posts, having a firm idea of the players will help you navigate through what will be unchartered territory for most of you, just as it was for me before starting this research project.

The Chagnon camp

1. Napoleon Chagnon

Born in 1938, Chagnon was a 26-year-old undergraduate at the University of Michigan who was approached by a professor named James Neel, a long-time expert in the field of genetics, to collect blood samples from Indians living in the Amazon rainforest. Neel would fund the anthropology student’s research while he collected blood.

His research turned into a dissertation titled “Yanomamö Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances” that made all the points he would become famous for. Although one cannot assume that his research was in some way directly related to the divisions in American society over the Vietnam war, it could not help but be influenced by the protests occurring everywhere, including the U. of Michigan.

In 1984, a graduate student asked Chagnon if there were any pacifist Yanomami. He replied, “You mean cowards? I don’t go to the Amazon to study cowards”. During the 1960s when so many left-leaning students were struggling to create a society based on peace and equality, Chagnon’s research could only serve to reinforce the idea that society was hierarchically structured and violent by nature.  The Yanomami wars over women were a case in point. To the victors belonged the spoils, namely the successful spread of one’s genes.

In 1976, when Chagnon was at the pinnacle of his fame and power, he received a $260,000 grant (equivalent to one million today) from the National Science Foundation to study mortality and divorce in Yanomami-land.  He hired a graduate student named Kenneth Good, who would become an authority on the Indians in his own right in the future. The two men soon became drinking buddies even though Chagnon made him uncomfortable. Tierney writes:

One of the graduate students was Kenneth Good. Until then, Good had been a good friend and protégé of Chagnon’s. They got to know each other at Penn State University, where Good was Chagnon’s drinking buddy. “We used to go down to bars and drink together,” Good recalled. “It was an embarrassment, but I did it because he was going to be my chair. He was the type of guy who had German shepherd attack dogs, and he’d have people come over to his house in the afternoon and he’d have the students dress up in padded suits and have the dogs attack them. Oh, yes. They’d have to put out an arm or a leg and the dog would attack. Students could get injured. And he used to like taking the attack dogs—whose names were Gus and Parma—into bars so he could corner big, 200-pound-plus weightlifter types.

To prepare his students to deal with the Yanomami’s supposed extreme violence, Chagnon obtained extra-strength chemical mace from the Pittsburgh Police Department (which Good re-labeled “Center County Dog Repellent” in order to pass customs). Chagnon also armed Good with a double-barreled Winchester shotgun.

Apparently Chagnon brought his machismo ways with him into the rainforest, which he thought crucial to showing the warlike Indians who was boss. He made a prominent display of the shotguns he brought with him and occasionally fired a pistol in the air to cow the supposedly bellicose Indians.

He also sought to become a dominant figure within their society by adopting their clothing (or lack of) and rituals. Pablo Mejìa, a Yanomami fluent in Spanish, first met Chagnon when he was 12 years old. This is how he described Chagnon to Tierney:

I was in Momaribowei-teri. That’s the first village where Chagnon arrived after he established himself at Bisaasi-teri. He thought he would become a sorcerer [brujo]. In order to be a sorcerer, he asked the other brujos to teach him. When he arrived at the village, he had his bird feathers adorning his arms. He had red onoto dye paint all over his body. He used a loincloth like the Yanomami. He sang with the chant of his shamanism and took yopo [a powerful hallucinogen used by Yanomami shamans that alters vision and self-awareness]. He took a lot of yopo. I was terrified of him. He always fired off his pistol when he entered the village, to prove that he was fiercer than the Yanomami. Everybody was afraid of him because no one had ever seen a nabah [white man, outsider] acting as a shaman. He would, say, ask, ‘Who was your dead father?’ He said to my brother Samuel, who was the headman, ‘What is your mother’s name?’ My brother answered, ‘I don’t want to say her name. We Yanomami do not speak our names.’ Shaki [Chagnon] answered, ‘It doesn’t matter. If you tell me, I’ll pay you.’ So, although they didn’t want to, people sold their names. Everyone cried, but they spoke them. It was very sad. I remember well because I was about ten or twelve years old. That’s how things were with Shaki. He said, ‘I want to be a shaman who works only for your village. Go ahead and teach me.’ He would say this to the old ones, the shamans. But they were afraid. Later he went to Mishimishi, where they taught him. Shaki had his own shaman circuit. He would say, ‘I am the cacique of all the Yanomami.’ He played everything, risked everything. I’m not the only one who heard—everyone heard him. He can’t deny it. When he would come to our village, all the children would run into the forest screaming with fear. I’ve never seen anything like it.

2. James Neel

Beginning with his research into the effects of radiation on its victims in Hiroshima  and Nagasaki, Neel made a career out of the study of genes. He died at the age of 85 in 2000, just before he got dragged into the controversy over the Yanomami.

Neel had become fixated on the Yanomami who because of their isolation from other gene pools were seen as ideal specimens. He believed that they enjoyed a high standard of living by world standards, especially caloric intake. Hence, their proclivity for war making could not be explained in terms of resource scarcity, a traditional cause of war in indigenous societies.

Neel’s interest in genetics was not just academic. He was a latter-day adherent to  eugenics, a racist “science” that took social Darwinism—the precursor to sociobiology—to its extreme. Tierney writes:

Neel was obviously not afraid of being called a eugenicist; the title of his autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool, is a good definition of one. Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, founded eugenics in the 1880s. It became a political-scientific movement to weed out undesirable traits from the gene pool, and encourage desirable ones. Eugenicists led campaigns for mass sterilization of the unfit. Neel had a career-changing moment when he visited the Eugenics Records Office in New York in 1942 and realized how much work it would take him to make eugenics a true science.

In Michigan, Neel campaigned for statewide screening of defective fetuses and did a cost-benefit analysis showing how much money each abortion would save the state ($75,000). Where Neel differed from most people, and most scientists, was his belief that fetuses with some easily curable defects should be aborted—because they would ultimately run down the gene pool by passing on the undesirable trait. Like Galton, Neel stood in self-confessed “awe” of the process of evolution, and horror of modern society’s attenuation of competition. Galton preached a crusade to promote Social Darwinism and went as far as suggesting that “a missionary society” be founded “with an enthusiasm to improve the race.” In some respects Neel’s Department of Human Genetics became this missionary society.

But while European eugenicists saw northern blonds as the pinnacle of creation, Neel felt a romantic attraction to tribal societies. By 1957, he had begun speculating that primitive tribes optimized selective breeding. In 1962, he visited Brazil’s Xavante tribe, where he had an almost conversion experience while hearing their shamans chant around night fires. “Suddenly the thought came to me that I was witness to a scene which, in one variation or another, had characterized our ancestors for the past several million years. The sudden realization of this contact with the thread of evolution resulted in another of those very emotional professional moments; this time I could feel the hair on the nape of my neck stirring. . . .”

In Neel’s world, as opposed to the racists who would tend to put indigenous peoples at the bottom of the totem pole, the Yanomami were superior because they lived by stricter Darwinian laws than the more effete modern societies that did not fully exploit the “genetic potential” of each citizen. In an article titled “On Being Headman”, Neel wrote:

I believe we will agree that there is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure– small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future. The first is an increasing concern with the provision of genetic services designed to decrease the transmission of genes causing disease…The second eugenic measure which geneticists can facilitate is a concern with measures which influence human mutation rates…

3. Charles Brewer-Carìas

As hard as it may be to believe, Brewer-Carìas is even more outlandish than Chagnon. In a movie, Dennis Hopper could play Brewer-Carìas while Gary Busey would be a good Chagnon before the actor suffered brain damage from a motorcycle accident.. Who knows. Maybe the brain damage would have helped the performance.

As an amateur botanist and explorer, a member of a wealthy Venezuelan family, and a government official from 1979 to 1982, he was uniquely positioned to facilitate Chagnon’s forays into the Amazon. Charlie Brewer, as he was better known, was profiled in an August 28, 2006 NY Times article that stated:

His English grandfather, Mathias Brewer, came to Venezuela by way of St. Thomas, then a Danish possession, and served for decades as Britain’s vice consul in La Guaira, a port near Caracas. His mother’s family descends from a Spanish general dispatched by Madrid in the early 19th century in an effort to reassert control over Simón Bolívar’s rebels.

“We were counterrevolutionaries, of course,” said Mr. Brewer-Carías, who speaks English with a slight Spanish accent. “I am for an oligarchy, an oligarchy of the well prepared.”

His brother Allan R. Brewer-Carías, a noted legal scholar according to the Times, went into exile in 2005, accused of helping to draft the decree used to overthrow Hugo Chávez in April 2002. He was seen in “The Revolution Will not be Televised” explaining why the Venezuelan constitution was no longer valid.   Perhaps he was called in as an outside consultant to advise the Honduran military. He is now an adjunct professor in the law school at Columbia University of all places.

Allan’s brother Charlie also had a thing about overthrowing governments. At one point he organized a paramilitary that he led in an incursion into Guyana. After Guyana put its army on alert, the invaders withdrew and Brewer got fired from his ministry of youth job. He sent videotape to the Pentagon trying to make the case that Guyana was infested with Marxists.

Charlie Brewer was as macho as Chagnon, even more so possibly. He was the inventor of a “Survival Knife” that can be purchased on the Internet in various places and used to carry a handgun with him to the gym. His explanation: “Everyone out there wants to kill me.” While Chagnon was into attack dogs, Brewer kept hawks in a cage at his house and liked to feed them chickens in order to impress houseguests. When Chagnon got together with Brewer, it was a match made in heaven.

But the biggest controversy surrounding Brewer had to do with his encroachment into Indian territories in order to mine for gold and tin. While trying to develop the image of a friend of the Indian, he was working overtime to poison their rivers. At the very time the plight of the Indians was becoming a cause célèbre of human rights groups around the world Brewer was using his influence in the upper rungs of Venezuelan society and the state to pursue his dirty profits.

Brewer set up a strip mining operation near Pemon Indian land in Venezuela that left their waters polluted and their hillsides stripped of trees. Not only was it against the law, it was contrary to Brewer’s claim that he was a conservationist. Apparently the only thing he was interested in conserving was profits.

Just around the time that Brewer began his mining operations, legislation was proposed to grant the Yanomami some kind of autonomy that would have prevented their lands from suffering the same fate as the Pemon. Brewer denounced the plans bitterly which he described as the results of a conspiracy involving a sociologist named Estaban Monsoyi and Muhammed Gadhafi.

All the while that Brewer was undermining Indian sovereignty, he was cultivating important international scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, and the Royal Geographic Society, flying in their staff members to give them guided tours of the rainforest. Tierney writes:

Meanwhile he kept expanding his gold-mining ventures relentlessly. In 1984 the Venezuelan National Guard caught Brewer mining along the Lower Ventauri River in an area where commercial activity was banned. El Diario de Caracas reported that “the ex-minister…was arrested together with other people by the National Guard troops at Kanaripò, because he didn’t have the necessary permits to travel in that area, where—in addition to gold—he was also commercializing and exporting fauna and other species without authorization.”

Well, Brewer was being honest when he told the NY Times that “we were counterrevolutionaries”.

The anti-Chagnon camp

1. Jacques Lizot

Lizot (l) and Chagnon (r) before their split

If some anthropologists liken the Yanomami to chimpanzees fighting with each other to achieve dominance over females, then at least one might have saw them as a much more peaceful and even sexually egalitarian society that was consistent with the Bonobo chimps. Among the Bonobos, tensions are released through sex, including homosexual practices. Although he never likened the Yanomami to Bonobos, this was implicitly the view of Jacques Lizot, a gay anthropologist from France and student of Claude Lévi-Strauss who became Chagnon’s greatest professional adversary in the science wars.

Like many other scientists, Claude Lévi-Strauss was attracted to the Amazon rainforest since it provided an ideal laboratory setting to test out his theory. He thought that the indigenous peoples could illustrate universal social structures that would crop up in more advanced societies.

He recruited Jacques Lizot to study the Yanomami as part of a large expedition in 1968. He arrived on the same cargo-laden airplane as Napoleon Chagnon and Timothy Asch, a documentary film-maker whose collaborations with Chagnon have been viewed by legions of anthropology students (this is the topic of my next post.)

Lizot was so bisexually predatory, exchanging trade goods like machetes for sex, that he got the nickname Bosinawarewa from the Indians, a word meaning anus/vagina devourer. Eventually he settled into a homosexual routine that made the Indians wary. But with his access to trade goods, Lizot was eventually able to become the master of a village in the same fashion as Chagnon. Both Chagnon and Lizot viewed the Salesian missionaries who were also trying to establish a beachhead in the rainforest as rivals.

Tierney quotes anthropologist Kenneth Good, who had no use for either Chagnon or Lizot, on how Lizot held sway in the village of Tayari-teri that he ruled like a scene out of “Heart of Darkness”. He had a retinue of young men who attended to his every need in exchange for spaghetti dinners, a welcome break one supposes from the steady diet of plantains they grew in nearby gardens. They were also paid in cigarettes which Lizot kept in a 30 gallon waterproof drum.

If Chagnon projected his own ideas about aggressiveness on the Yanomami, Lizot tended to find evidence of sexual hunger everywhere he looked. In “Tales of the Yanomami”, Lizot claims that they were ingenious masturbators using everything from holes in the ground to dead animals. He also states that the Indians believe that it is “scandalous” for a boy to perform fellatio on his sister, but there is no shame in “eating the anus” of one’s brother. Missing, of course, from both Chagnon and Lizot’s studies is the independent voice of the Indians themselves. We have to take their word for what goes on in an Indian village. Patrick Tierney offered a contrary view from another scientist:

Alcida Ramos, a Yanomami specialist at the University of Brasilia who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, was the first to politely argue that Lizot’s erotic Yanomami were a projection of his own personality. “Discretion and naturality…are overridden by Lizot’s voyeurism…Having the ever-present narrator hovering over them has the effect of lending the Yanomamo an unreal quality, as if they were characters in a play…” Ramos also ventured that Lizot’s unfettered love stories would elicit “a chuckle of disbelief” from the Yanomami—particularly the passages about achieving orgasm in broad daylight inside the communal shabono [house].

Eventually Chagnon and Lizot would have a confrontation that involved their respective fiefdoms in the Yanomami world. More about that in a subsequent post. There is also an article by Lizot that is a pretty convincing rebuttal to Chagnon’s claims about Yanomami fierceness that I will report on down the road.

2. Patrick Tierney

Despite my political and intellectual animosity toward Jared Diamond, I doubt that I could ever summon up the visceral energy that allowed Tierney to spend 11 years researching a book intended to destroy Napoleon Chagnon’s reputation. It was almost an exercise out of Moby Dick.

If Tierney’s book is intended to debunk the idea that Indians in the Amazon were warlike, his initial scholarly efforts would suggest a similar kind of bias directed against the Aztecs. He was the author of “The Highest Altar: the story of Human Sacrifice”, which he described as a “Chagnonian book”. For those who follow anti-Indian scholarship, the business of Aztec sacrifices is dredged up constantly to make the European invaders less evil by comparison. It is similar to pointed out the alleged destruction of the woolly mammoth by paleo-Indians. Why make a big deal out of the white man’s destruction of the bison in the late 1880s if Indians had done the same thing themselves?

Tierney, a journalist by training, decided to write a book about the gold rush in the Amazon rainforest in the late 1980s. The more he studied the topic, the more disgusted he became with the miners. Eventually he became an activist and helped organized a speaking tour for Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader whom Chagnon labeled a “parrot” of Survival International, the group accused by LM magazine of trying to keep Yanomamis in a zoo.

Shortly after Tierney wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times in 1995 attacking gold mining operations in the rainforest, identifying Charlie Brewer as a prime offender, his ideas about Chagnon were solidifying, eventually leading him to the conclusion that Chagnon should be banned from the territory.

He made an attempt to interview Chagnon at the U. of California Santa Barbara, but Chagnon brushed him off. Eventually he sat down with Tierney and defended his association with Brewer and everything else he was up to but not without displaying a certain “victim” mentality—stating “I’m tired of being a scapegoat.” When “Darkness in El Dorado” appeared in print 5 years later, that would be the beginning of Chagnon’s real woes.

As much of a public service as Tierney’s book is, it has to be stated that it is marred by serious flaws that allowed Chagnon’s defenders to use reverse jiu-jitsu on him. I will take up these flaws in a later post.


  1. Louis, I waded into this controversy a bit in background research for a talk I gave at the Socialism 2009 conference in Chicago, although you’ve obviously gone much deeper. This is absolutely fascinating–looking forward to the next part in the series.

    Comment by Shaun Joseph — July 20, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  2. Yes, thanks for doing this, Louis. Keep ’em coming.

    One day I’d like to hear your views on the ‘Marxism of the Marxist anthropologists’ – someone like Kathleen Gough, for example, who defied redbaiting and Mcarthyism but was herself far too sympathetic to the Stalinist regimes. . .

    Comment by Dr. X — July 21, 2009 @ 9:41 am

  3. Louis,

    Great stuff. Thanks again for taking this on.


    Comment by David McDonald — July 24, 2009 @ 4:40 am

  4. Interesting cast we have here. Lots of talent! Best of luck in the future.

    Comment by Paul — July 29, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

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