Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Science Magazine, Volume 289, Number 5488, Issue of 29 Sep 2000, pp. 2251-2253

Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/289/5488/2251

Anthropology: Misconduct Alleged in Yanomamo Studies

Charles C. Mann

E-mail has been ricocheting among anthropologists as they nervously await the publication of a new book that charges some prominent researchers with professional misconduct--and much worse--in their studies of the Yanomamo, a native people in the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazon. Written by journalist Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado (W. W. Norton)--an excerpt of which is scheduled for publication in The New Yorker next month--accuses anthropologists of creating a false picture of the Yanomami, manufacturing evidence, and perhaps setting off a fatal measles epidemic. "This is the Watergate of anthropology," says Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, Manoa. "If even some of the charges are true, it will be the biggest scandal ever to hit the field."

Although few anthropologists have actually read the book, which will not be published until mid-November, it has already stimulated an enormous reaction. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) has promised to hold a session on the book at its upcoming annual meeting. Napoleon Chagnon, a prominent Yanomamo specialist now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose research is challenged by Tierney, has already refused to participate in what he calls "a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait." (Instead, he is consulting libel lawyers.) Meanwhile, other researchers are recruiting statements to defend the late James V. Neel, a University of Michigan geneticist whom Tierney charges with distributing a measles vaccine in 1968 that may have worsened or even caused an epidemic that led to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of deaths, say those who have read galleys of the book.

"Yanomamo anthropology has been a battleground for years," says one anthropologist with extensive experience in the area. "But the scale of these allegations is far beyond anything I've ever heard of before." The researcher, who requested anonymity for fear of being drawn into litigation, adds, "The prime rule for anthropology is not to harm the people you're working with. ... This book is apparently saying that researchers have grotesquely violated those standards for 30 years."

The debate over Darkness in El Dorado is the latest, biggest skirmish in a decades-long battle over the Yanomamo. Living in more than 200 small villages near the headwaters of the Orinoco River, the 24,000 Yanomami are among the least Europeanized people on Earth. Although missionaries contacted them in the 1950s, the first long-term anthropological study of the Yanomami was not published until 1968, when Chagnon published Yanomamo: The Fierce People . Based on his University of Michigan dissertation, the book was quickly acclaimed as a classic, selling almost a million copies and becoming fodder for introductory anthropology courses across the globe. Meanwhile, Chagnon entered into collaborations with Neel, who was beginning a long-term study of Yanomamo genetics, and Tim Asch, a documentary filmmaker. (They eventually made 39 films, several of which won awards.) Both collaborations dissolved in the 1970s, partly over Chagnon's belief that his work was not receiving proper credit. Asch died in 1994, Neel early this year.

Even as Chagnon continued his research, other researchers began to question his description of the Yanomamo as aggressive and "liv[ing] in a state of chronic warfare." The dispute grew heated in 1988, when Chagnon published an article (Science , 26 February 1988, p. 985) dismissing the common view that groups like the Yanomamo fight over scarce natural resources. Instead, he said, Yanomamo battles are mostly about women. Moreover, the killers--unokai, in the language--end up with dominant social positions that entitle them to more female partners, who provide them with more offspring, suggesting a genetic payoff for violence. At least three books attacked this sociobiological conclusion.

Among other points, Darkness argues that Chagnon's picture of the Yanomamo is not only wrong, but that some evidence for it was manipulated. Tierney--who spent more than a decade researching the book, including 15 months in the field--alleges that the anthropologist staged many of the fights recorded in his films with Asch. Worse, Tierney claims, some of these phony wars turned into real wars, as Chagnon introduced steel goods that led to deadly violence.

"There is no credible evidence to support Tierney's fantastic claims. ...," responds Chagnon, who rejected The New Yorker 's offer to "submit to an interview." "Intelligent people base their judgements on evidence. Only believers in conspiracy theories and a large number of cultural anthropologists from the academic left leap to conclusions that are not only not supported by the available scientific evidence but contradicts and thoroughly refutes them."

Tierney's investigation of a 1968 measles epidemic has drawn the most attention. In a research trip to the area early that year, Neel, Chagnon, Asch, and the other members of the University of Michigan team vaccinated many Indians with Edmonston B measles vaccine, which was discontinued in 1975 and was already being replaced by vaccines with fewer side effects. Because the epidemic seems to have started at the places the research team vaccinated, Tierney suggests that the vaccine may have contributed to what became a terrible epidemic. Afterward, Neel apparently gave contradictory accounts about the way the epidemic started and did not explain why hed used an older vaccine than the one used elsewhere in Venezuela.

In an e-mail to AAA officers that was leaked to the news media last week, Sponsel and Cornell University anthropologist Terence Turner--who are among the few anthropologists who have read the book--even speculate that Neel may have used the risky vaccine to test what they call his "fascistic eugenics" theory that dominant males like unokai could better survive catastrophes and pass on their genes.

Angered by these allegations, Neel's colleagues are lining up rebuttals. Samuel L. Katz, a measles specialist at Duke University, says the vaccine simply is not deadly, even to people without prior exposure. Doctors have "given hundreds of thousands of doses to malnourished infants in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Nigeria with no severe consequences," he argues in an e-mail passed on to Science . "Indeed, in the history of Edmonston B (a licensed U.S. product), I know of only two fatalities--two Boston children with acute leukemia under heavy chemotherapy."

The contretemps is not likely to end soon, although it may get better informed. Because Tierney is being kept mum by his publishers until the book appears, he cannot defend it. And some of his critics concede the oddity of attacking a work that they have not read. But even when both sides can fully argue their cases, in Sponsel's view, the debate will last a long time. "There's an incredible amount in the book," he says. "People are going to be working at it for years to come."