Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New York Times, November 18, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/18/science/18ANTH.html

Book Leads Anthropologists to Look Inward


SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 17 — Rocked by accusations of unethical practices by researchers studying the primitive Yanomami people in Venezuela, anthropologists have taken the first step to re-examine their own culture, the way they delve into the mores of other cultures.

At its annual meeting here this week, leaders of the American Anthropological Association directed the group's president, Dr. Louise Lamphere of the University of New Mexico, to appoint a task force to explore if and how they should investigate contentions by Patrick Tierney, a journalist, in "Darkness in El Dorado" (W. W. Norton), which was published this month.

The association also asked its ethics committee to draft guidelines on field work. The guidelines would examine issues like anthropologists' responsibility to provide assistance when their study subjects experience health emergencies; what is "appropriate and fair" remuneration to the subjects; and what constitutes "valid and appropriate informed consent" by subjects.

Another panel is to examine the "precarious state of native populations," particularly in South America, and ways that anthropologists could help preserve them.

It was the association's first official response to the furor touched off by Mr. Tierney's book, which was topic No. 1 among the 5,000 anthropologists at the convention.

In his book, Mr. Tierney made assertions or strongly implied that in 1968, a prominent anthropologist and a respected medical geneticist inoculated the long-isolated Yanomami Indians with a measles vaccine, contributing to the spread of a deadly epidemic. Mr. Tierney also said the two gathered blood samples from the Yanomami without their consent for research financed by the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

Mr. Tierney further asserted that the anthropologist gave the Indians weapons to provoke them to warfare, to support his theory that primitive people were naturally aggressive.

Not since accusations two decades ago about Margaret Mead's interpretation of Samoan sexual practices, anthropologists say, has the profession been thrown into such turmoil. "This is an issue where people have strong emotional and intellectual interests," Dr. Lamphere said.

The geneticist whose work Mr. Tierney attacked was Dr. James V. Neel of the University of Michigan, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who died in February. The anthropologist is Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, a recently retired professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of a book on the Yanomami that is widely used in college anthropology courses.

Dr. Chagnon, who has denied the accusations, declined an invitation to defend himself at the meeting, saying he would not participate "in a feeding frenzy where I am the bait."

But Mr. Tierney bore the brunt of attack when appearing on a panel on Thursday and at a news conference afterward. He conceded he may have made a few mistakes in the book but generally stood his ground.

"It's been a very wild and rough ride," Mr. Tierney said today.

Colleagues of both scientists defended them vigorously. Defending Dr. Neel in particular, the National Academy of Sciences issued a statement last week by its president, Dr. Bruce Alberts, who rebutted several of Mr. Tierney's assertions.

"In many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites," Dr. Alberts said. "The factual errors and innuendoes in his book do a grave disservice to a great scientist and to science itself."

Much criticism centered on Mr. Tierney's accusation that Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon contributed to a measles epidemic by giving the Yanomami what he called the inferior Edmonston B vaccine, which had been replaced by an improved strain.

Dr. Samuel L. Katz of Duke University, a developer of the vaccine, has said his comments in the book were misquoted and misinterpreted. The vaccine, Dr. Katz said, was not dangerous and its use in combatting an epidemic was "a justifiable, proven and valid approach."

Other critics have supported the claims of Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon that the measles outbreak had already reached the Yanomami and that they were using the vaccine to control the disease.

Mr. Tierney said today that much of the criticism of him was "riddled with factual errors and things taken out of context." The focus on the measles episode, he said, had deflected attention from other issues, including what he called staged filming of Yanomami warfare and improper gifts traded for information.

Some of the loudest applause came for Noeli Pocaterra, a Venezuelan legislator. As leader of Venezuela's commission on protection of indigenous people, she will head that country's investigation of the charges. "If any of Mr. Tierney's accusations are true," she said, "then such violations of human rights against indigenous people all over the world must never take place again."