Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 20, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://chronicle.com/free/2000/09/2000092001n.htm

Scholars Fear That Alleged Misdeeds by Amazon Anthropologists Will Taint Entire Discipline

By D.W. Miller

Some anthropologists fear that their discipline faces a scandal because of the imminent publication of a book charging several prominent researchers with egregious misbehavior in their work with Amazon tribes. Some scholars are calling on the American Anthropological Association to investigate the charges, while one of those accused says he is trying to prevent The New Yorker from publishing an excerpt from the book without his reply.

In Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which will be published by W.W. Norton within the next couple of months, an investigative journalist named Patrick Tierney accuses certain researchers of fomenting deadly disease and violence among the Yanomami, an indigenous people of Venezuela. Some scholars are worried that the allegations will make it harder for all cultural anthropologists who do fieldwork to persuade their subjects and the public that they are responsible, objective, and trustworthy.

Some of those whose standards are under attack say the book's claims are inaccurate.

Advance copies of the book are hard to come by, because the publisher has run out of galley proofs and won't have more until the finished books are printed in the next month or so. Mr. Tierney was not available for comment. But two anthropologists who have read the proofs were moved to write to the president and the president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, describing the book in detail and asking that the association respond to the charges.

In an e-mail message intended only for the officers, but obtained by The Chronicle, the scholars write that "impending scandal" will damage the discipline's public image and "arouse intense indignation and calls for action" among members of the association. "In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption," the scandal "is unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Mr. Tierney spent 10 years on the book, which criticizes scholars and journalists for abetting the demise of the Yanomami, a remote tribe in the Amazon river basin. The Yanomami have attracted the intense interest of scholars since the 1960's, in part because they seemed relatively untouched by the influences of modern industrial society. In books such as Napoleon A. Chagnon's The Yanomamo, now in its fifth edition, scholars have documented the violent nature of that people and suggested that such behavior is natural in premodern societies.

According to the e-mail message, which has been circulating widely among anthropologists, Mr. Tierney outlines his view that scholars have been violating professional ethics in their research for the last 30 years -- to the detriment of the Yanomami.

One of his most explosive charges is that in 1968, James V. Neel, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan and a pioneering researcher of the Yanomami who died last February, deliberately injected tribespeople with a controversial vaccine for measles. Among those who, like the Yanomami, lacked any natural immunity to measles, the vaccine was known to cause measles-like symptoms and proved deadly to hundreds, perhaps thousands. Even after the epidemic began, according to the book, Mr. Neel prevented the afflicted from receiving medical treatment.

The authors of the e-mail message, Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie E. Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa, go on to infer Mr. Neel's motives from Mr. Tierney's reporting. According to the scholars' letter, Mr. Neel caused the measles epidemic in order to test his eugenic theories about the evolutionary utility of male domination. In Mr. Neel's view, write the e-mail's authors, "'natural' human society ... consisted of small, genetically isolated groups, in which ... dominant genes (specifically, a gene he believed existed for 'leadership' or 'innate ability') would have a selective advantage, because male carriers of this gene could gain access to a disproportionate share of the available females."

Mr. Turner, who was chairman of an anthropological commission on the Brazilian Yanomami, and Mr. Sponsel, who has edited several volumes on endangered indigenous cultures, speculate that Mr. Neel was hoping to prove, against the scientific consensus, that small, genetically isolated groups were not, in fact, more vulnerable to diseases spread by other populations.

Mr. Neel is not alive to respond to the book's allegations, but other researchers come in for criticism, too. For instance, the book offers new information for old charges that Mr. Chagnon falsified evidence in his studies. It claims that Mr. Chagnon, a retired anthropologist and former colleague of Mr. Neel's, had encouraged Yanomami villages to stage fights with each other so that he could film them, and that these re-creations fostered bitterness that led to real violence long after the cameras had been packed up. The book also says that Mr. Chagnon participated in Mr. Neel's vaccine project.

When contacted for comment on the book, Mr. Chagnon declined to be interviewed, citing past coverage of his research and its critics in The Chronicle that he considers unfair. But he has sent an e-mail message to colleagues, inviting them to help him defend himself.

In that message, he condemned Mr. Sponsel and Mr. Turner's "scandalous implications" and wrote that he was alerting former colleagues whose reputations might also be harmed by the book.

So far, the association has not responded publicly to the allegations. According to Glenn Baly, a spokesman for the association, officers will release a statement about the book today. Until then, the association will not say whether it will formally investigate the matter.

It is not clear that the association has the means to investigate or discipline any scholar found to have violated its code of ethics. For one thing, the association's committee on ethics no longer regards the investigation of alleged violations to be part of its job. Instead, the committee now serves mainly to educate association members about their ethical responsibilities.

In 1998, says Joe Watkins, an anthropologist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the head of the ethics committee, "the association decided it was no longer going to be a group that was going to go out and censure anthropologists."

Mr. Watkins hasn't yet read the book, and doesn't claim to speak for the committee, which has not yet met to discuss the matter. But, he says, "if such allegations as I've heard about might be shown to be true, or at least indisputable, then I imagine the association might try to find a way to sanction an individual." That might mean censure, he says, or a request that the scholar resign from the organization.

Mr. Watkins also says that the association might consider asking another, neutral institution, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to adjudicate allegations of impropriety. "I think some sort of investigation is necessary," he says. "Anthropology has had some black eyes in the past decade, especially over treatment of native peoples.

"If anthropology does not react and find out what basis in reality these allegations have," he adds, "then anthropology is going to suffer, because there's going to be lots of questions from foreign governments of anyone who tries to initiate fieldwork."

Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah and a professional acquaintance of Mr. Chagnon's, calls Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel's e-mail "inflammatory" and the book's charges "astonishing."

"It's horrifying to see this happen to someone I know for careful science," she says. "I find it completely unbelievable that he would participate in anything damaging to the Yanomami. He's not a genocidal guy."

The controversy, which has been the subject of quiet debate among anthropologists, is about to find a mass audience. The New Yorker will publish an excerpt of Darkness in El Dorado in early October, and the book will reach bookstores soon after.

According to his e-mail message to colleagues, Mr. Chagnon is discussing the article with the magazine's editors to ensure it does not libel him, and is considering an offer to "publish my side of the story" in the same issue. A spokeswoman for the magazine declined to comment.

That will surely not be Mr. Chagnon's only opportunity to defend his work. Barbara Johnston, the head of the anthropology association's committee on human rights, is trying to organize a forum at the anthropologists' annual meeting in November. Although Mr. Chagnon has been invited to join Mr. Tierney, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Sponsel on a panel there, he has already declined to be part of what he calls in his e-mail message a "feeding frenzy in which I am the bait."