Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Public Comments on Research Ethics and the Yanomami - J.R.Villarías - Robles

Madrid, February 27, 2002

Although I am not an Amazonist, I am very interested in the social andpolitical history of anthropology and, therefore, am paying a fair amount of attention to the controversy caused by Patrick Tierney's book. I havewritten a review of Darkness in El Dorado for the Revista de Dialectología y Tradiciones Populares, Spain 's oldest journal of ethnology and folklore studies (RDTP , 2001, Vol. 56 (1), pp. 291-296). I congratulate the AAA forrapidly establishing a Task Force to inquire into Tierney's allegations and feel content with the magnitude of the concern, discussions and reflectionsthat the book has brought about, which can only benefit anthropology as a scientific, humanistic and self-critical discipline. Nevertheless, aftera perusal of the Task Force 's "Interim Report" and the currently available"Working Papers," I fear that the Task Force's conclusions and recommendations will disappoint all of us who believe that anthropologicalresearch should do no harm in any way to the people we study; on the contrary, such research ought to benefit them, if only out of self - interest: non - western cultures have taught us a great deal and can still do so.

In a recent review of past scandals in which American anthropologists were involved (The Nation , November 20, 2000), David Price has reminded us of the cover that the AAA gave in 1919 to Samuel Lothrop, Sylvanus Morley, Herbert Spinden and John Mason after being exposed by Franz Boas as spies for the U.S. Government in Central America in WWI. Price has also recalled the way in which the AAA, inthe early 1970s, handled the collusion of some American anthropologists with the dirty war in Vietnam: the AAA established an investigation committee, chaired by Margaret Mead, to look into the matter--only to attempt to exonerate those anthropologists of any wrongdoing, thereby triggering a scandal of its own.Reading the "Interim Report"and the "Background"of the Introduction to the El Dorado Task Force's "Working Papers," as well as the papers written by Jane Hill, chair of the Task Force, and Trudy Turner, Ray Hames and Joe Watkins has made me remember those and other previous scandals described by Price and made me sympathize with Franz Boas in 1919 and with those anthropologists who frustrated the intent of the Margaret Mead Committee in 1971. In the "Interim Report,"the third motion of the AAA Executive Board suggests the Task Force to "note earlier findings ... where [the T. F. members] feel that there is already sufficient evidence to refute[Tierney 's]allegations, unless new information or questions emerge." In the "Background" of the Introduction to the "Working Papers," it is stated thatTierney's book is "deeply flawed, but nevertheless [highlights] ethical issues that we must confront."I have taken these sentences as a subtle confession of bias against Tierney as a guiding principle--which is obviously unacceptable in any dispassionate inquiry.The subsequent discussion of the "Case studies" signed by Jane Hill, Trudy Turner, RayHames and Joe Watkins, as well as the piece entitled "Turner point by point,"written by Trudy Turner, have corroborated this impression left on my mind by those statements.The four authors take great pains to exonerate, and occasionally justify, the actions of James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon.They seem to succeed by trying to discredit the testimony of the Yanomami interviewed, which looks one-sided, and by focusing on the events surrounding the 1968 measles epidemic, which appears to be the most vulnerable part of Tierney's argument. However, agreeing with the author, or compounding his charges, doesn 't make one necessarily wrong;such person deserves as much attention as any other--even more, if he is Yanomami and witnessed and reflected on the actions exposed. Furthermore,Hill and the others pay little attention to the other allegations made by Tierney for the years before and after 1968, as regards Neel's and Chagnon's theoretical assumptions, research methods, production of ethnographic films, participation in dubious projects affecting the Yanomami and less than graceful conduct in the shabonos, all of which was well known to other anthropologists whom Tierney cites in his book. Especially, I wish Hill and the others had scrutinized more closely Neel's and Chagnon 's ideas concerning eugenics, the Cold War and social darwinism,which Tierney cogently argues are at the root of the problems brought to the Yanomami by the two scientists. I have found it intriguing that Hill,Hames, Watkins and Trudy Turner appear to accept Tierney's serious charges against Lizot and the film Warriors of the Amazon (which Lizot helpedproduce), while they reject or explain away Tierney 's allegations against Neel and his people and say little or nothing about films such as TheFeast, Magical Death or The Ax Fight, in which Chagnon was involved. With regard to the 1968 measles epidemic, the evidence appears to indicatethat this outbreak was not caused by Neel's vaccinations; nonetheless, Neel's actions and those of his associates at the time leave much to bedesired--to judge from Tierney 's narrative, particularly his data (not discussed by the Task Force, either) from the missions records as well asthe unedited film and sound recordings of the 1968 expedition. Notwithstanding the effort made by Trudy Turner to make the interestedreader think otherwise, I still believe that Neel considered such expedition as primarily a scientific project and secondarily a humanitarianundertaking. In addition to Tierney's evidence, Trudy Turner herself cites two letters by Neel of September and November, 1967 which I find damagingenough.In the first, addressed to Hingson, Neel wrote: "In addition to our scientific interests... we are impressed by the humanitarian opportunity here."In the second letter, addressed to Shaylor, Neel stated: "Although our orientation is primarily research, we also are quiteconcerned with the humanitarian implications..." Furthermore, Trudy Turner admits that "Neel did have an upper respiratory infection " as he went into Yanomami territory. Although she explains that "two months previously there had been respiratory infections among the Yanomami," this fact, if true, cannot diminish much Neel 's recklessness.

I have found the papers signed by Janet Chernela a refreshingly alternative representation to that of the majority of the Task Force. Her paper on the meaning and power of gift-giving has made me think that Marcel Mauss's Essai sur le don may no longer be mandatory reading in many U. S. colleges and universities, which would be a pity.Also, I agree with Chernela that informed consent ought to be understood as an ongoing process and,therefore, that the Yanomami still have a say about whatever was done with them and their bodies so many years ago. Finally, I look forward to theresults of the Venezuelan commission chaired by Jesús Ignacio Cardozo and to the input of Brazilian anthropologists. I hope that the AAA ExecutiveBoard will see to it that all these contributions enrich the final report and affect the important decisions that must be made with regard to thissorry affair.

Juan J.R.Villarías - Robles

Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC)
Department of Anthropology
Madrid, Spain


Departament of Anthropology
CSIC, Centro de Humanidades
Calle Duque de Medinaceli, 6
28014 Madrid, Spain