Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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You may wish to put on your site an article I wrote for the 'Times Higher Educational Supplement' (THES) concerning the Neel-Yanomamo controversy. The article was published in the THES last Friday (October 6th, p.16). It had been rather heavily edited, and in the process - without my knowledge - they confused Chagnon with Neel! Apart from that howling error, the rest of the argument came through pretty well unscathed. I'm attaching my original text.


Tim Ingold
Professor of Social Anthropology
University of Aberdeen


Scientist ‘killed Amazon Indians to test race theory’, screamed the headlines in last Saturday’s Guardian . There is no doubt that the discipline of anthropology is heading for a nasty bout of naming and shaming that could severely damage its ethical and scholarly credibility. The facts are simply that at least one prominent American anthropologist, who has long enjoyed a considerable if controversial reputation and whose work is regularly cited in introductory courses and textbooks, stands accused of colluding in a project of research in which a community of Amazonian Indians were treated with a vaccine known to cause potentially lethal symptoms similar to measles, in order to test the effects of natural selection on a small, isolated breeding population. The theory behind this dreadful ‘experiment’, it is alleged, was that selection in such populations would favour ‘genes for leadership’, as the most prominent males would gain access to a disproportionate number of females.

Either way, the story is appalling. If the charges are true, then the whole of anthropology stands in the dock for allowing a heinous crime against humanity to proceed unchecked. If, on the other hand, the charges are false, then we can only be ashamed at the lengths to which some anthropologists will go to discredit others with whose views they happen to disagree. I am not going to take sides on the issue, since like almost everyone else, I do no have access to the facts that would allow me to do so. But I am immensely saddened that a discipline that has done more than any other branch of scholarship to champion on behalf of those millions of people who have become the victims of Western arrogance – whether in the form of economic exploitation, political oppression or scientific manipulation – should be dragged down in this way.

The image the story conjures up, of a world in whose darkest recesses there live ‘primitive tribes’, untouched since the Stone Age until brought to light by anthropologists (who may be construed as heroes or villains, depending on which way you look at it), strikes a deep chord in Western popular consciousness. It conforms with a view of history, as a one-way march from savagery to civilisation, that continues to exercise a powerful hold on the imagination, despite the horrors that, throughout the last few centuries, supposedly ‘civilised’ peoples have inflicted upon one another and the rest of humanity. And it seems to provide some justification for the idea that by seeking out the ‘primitive’ in remote places we might be afforded a window on the past, to see what human beings were like before history began, perhaps even still to see at work those evolutionary processes that are supposed to have made our common human nature what it is.

Against this view, anthropologists have been long and loud in protest. Almost the first thing that students of the subject are taught is to abandon their received beliefs in the existence of primitive tribes, and the ethnocentric idea of history that goes along with them. We teach that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, for example, though they lead very different lives from ours, inhabit the same world, and the same time, that we do. They are no more ancient than us, and we are no more modern than them. Tracking down primitive people, and peering at them as though they were relics of the past, is a million miles from what anthropologists actually do.

But we face an uphill struggle to get this message across. It is a struggle, because the idea of the primitive world as a laboratory for investigating the nature and evolution of mankind is deeply embedded within the institution of Western science itself, and is regularly reasserted to the accompaniment of much hype and fanfare (the recent surge of interest in so-called ‘evolutionary psychology’ is only the latest example). It is an idea that reaches its ultimate and most vicious expression in atrocities such as those that are alleged to have been committed in the jungles of the Amazon. Only if this idea is finally excised can we be sure that atrocities of this kind never happen again. How the blame is eventually apportioned for this particular incident, only time will tell. Anthropologists, however, should not hang their heads in shame, for that would be to admit defeat. They must continue with the struggle, not just with their own consciences but against the both the arrogance and the abuse of normal science.