Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: USA TODAY, Oct. 2, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.usatoday.com/life/health/books/lhbook005.htm

'Darkness' shadows pursuit of anthropology

Dan Vergano

The last time rain-forest science caused this much excitement, Indiana Jones was fleeing boulders and blowguns on the big screen.

But the real face of anthropology stands riddled with charges that its practitioners engaged in genocide, criminality and scientific misconduct.

"It's not a good time for anthropology," says anthropologist Terry Turner of Cornell University.

The immediate crisis is the November publication of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado (W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95), excerpted today in The New Yorker.

The book focuses on the Yanomami tribe of Brazil and Venezuela, a group of fewer than 30,000 people native to the Amazon rain forest, and studies of them undertaken by anthropologists during the 1960s.

In the book's most attention-getting charge, Tierney draws connections between a measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomami and an anthropology team that was vaccinating the South American tribe against the disease. But part of the storm comes from a memo by other anthropologists with their interpretation of the book's data.

The book reportedly also charges that:

French anthropologist Jacques Lizot sexually exploited Yanomami boys and girls. In published reports, Lizot has dismissed the charges against him, suggesting that any sexual relationships he had in South America were consensual and adult.

University of California, Santa Barbara, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon fundamentally mischaracterized the Yanomami as warlike, staged fights, and cooked his data to support those theories. A later book by Chagnon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People, made the rain forest dwellers famous examples of primitives leading nasty, brutish, short lives.

The charges prompted the American Anthropological Association to declare itself "extremely concerned." It plans to meet in November to examine the book's conclusions.

Through representatives, Tierney first agreed, then declined to be interviewed about the piece. The New Yorker article says Chagnon took the same tack when he was asked for an interview.

The disputed measles vaccination program was led by late University of Michigan geneticist James Neel.

Some facts seem clear in the dispute. Both Neel and Chagnon, hearing of measles among Brazilian Yanomami, participated in a vaccination program in 1968 that coincided with a measles outbreak among Venezuelan members of the tribe. What caused the disease, which killed perhaps hundreds of natives, is the crux of the disagreement.

Vaccines like the one used by Neel contain a live, weakened version of a virus. They give people immunity by, in effect, training the system to respond to a defanged version of an illness. The Edmonston B vaccine used by Neel was common in the USA until the 1970s. Tierney suggests that medical experts knew the vaccine would trigger a serious reaction among the Yanomami tribe.

A leaked memo, written by Turner and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, suggested that Chagnon and Neel may have intentionally vaccinated the Yanomami "as an experiment" to see whether the tribe's leaders were somehow more genetically resistant to new diseases. Based on a reading of Tierney's book, they suggest the vaccinations intentionally caused measles instead of preventing it.

Turner now backs away from that "inference," suggesting instead that the researchers only intended to observe non-fatal reactions to the vaccine — something he calls "still horrifying."

But pediatrician Samuel Katz of Duke University in Durham, N.C., co-developer of the Edmonston B vaccine, says it was "a justifiable, proven and valid approach" to stopping the 1968 epidemic. The vaccine's weakened virus "has never been transmitted" during its use worldwide, including the USA, he says, calling the notion that people inoculated with the vaccine could pass along measles "absurd."

Further, science historian Susan Lindee of the University of Pennsylvania dismissed the vaccine-experiment suggestion after a review of Neel's papers.

Charges that Chagnon and Neel mischaracterized the Yanomami as warlike savages reignite a long-standing debate. In 1988, Chagnon released a study in Science that suggested Yanomami murderers possessed, on average, twice as many wives and three times as many children as other Yanomami men, providing a genetic motive, one long supported by Neel, for their famed fierceness. In other words, the meanest were most likely to propagate.

Critics such as cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris of the University of Florida in Gainesville countered that violence among hunter/gatherers takes place only in flare-ups driven by imbalances in population and food supply. Changes in Yanomami culture driven by the intrusion of outside medicine, food and people perhaps threw their culture out of balance, sparking a surge in violence, he and others suggested.

Tierney adds the accusation, based on visits to various villages, that Chagnon faked his Yanomami murderer findings and provided machetes and other trade goods that sparked the conflict that took place.

On his Web page, Chagnon calls such claims "accusations that have no factual foundation." In an e-mail to USA TODAY, he calls Turner and Sponsel "failed academics who must resort to schemes to denigrate their more successful peers in order to conceal their own shortcomings." Tierney, he adds, is their "confederate" and hopes to sell books through controversy.

Some anthropologists privately note that Sponsel praised Darkness in El Dorado in an editorial review of the book, and Turner famously engaged Chagnon in a shouting match at a 1994 American Anthropological Association meeting.

A reading of the New Yorker article yields some questions about Tierney's argument:

"According to Neel and Chagnon, cases of 'moderately severe' measles appeared among the vaccinated Yanomami six days after they were inoculated," says Tierney, hinting that the vaccine triggered measles among those vaccinated. In fact, the two wrote that a "few reactions were indistinguishable from moderately severe measles" among a group of 47 people who were the only ones to receive a vaccination without a fever-reducing medication. And that vaccination came from different researchers, according to Lindee.

"Today, scientists still do not know whether people who have been vaccinated with Edmonston B can transmit measles," Tierney writes. In fact, "it is very unlikely the vaccine can transmit; (that's) hard to support from what we know about measles vaccines," says Fernando Polack of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Tierney suggests that the Yanomami somehow suffered from weakened immune systems. Katz and other immunologists, however, note that reactions to the vaccine are actually a sign of a strong immune system. The anthropologists reported reactions in about half the inoculations, compared with a third of people in developed nations.

Most anthropologists seem inclined to wait for the November meeting of the anthropological association to decide their views. "I'm on the 50-yard line on this thing," says anthropologist Thomas Headland of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas.

It's clear that controversy and anthropology attract each other. Last week, the federal government announced a decision to return the 9,000-year-old bones of Kennewick Man to five Native American tribes. The remains are the subject of a long legal battle between the tribes and a group of anthropologists. Reportedly, the FBI is investigating the disappearance of some of the bones.

Last month, the subject of cannibalism among Native American tribes, a topic of long debate and disagreement among both anthropologists and tribal descendants, returned to the news. In the journal Nature, researchers reported signs of cannibalized remains among Anasazi ruins at a Colorado archaeological dig.

Disputes in anthropology often encompass larger battles over essential human nature, Headland says. A desire to criticize Western child-rearing practices played a role in famed anthropologist Margaret Mead's characterization of Samoans, critics have long charged. And the just-released book In the Arms of Africa by anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., charges that another anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, mischaracterized central African Pygmies as peaceful and egalitarian as a criticism of Western mores.

"I think there are some ideological disputes" in the Yanomami furor, Headland says. Some conservatives have argued that the tribe's alleged warlike nature supports a view of man as inherently brutal. Others have painted a picture of them as noble savages tainted by contacts with civilization. "The public should know anthropology is never an innocent activity," Grinker says. "It can be messy, emotional and political."