Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Associated Press State & Local Wire, November 17, 2000
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Controversial novel prompts anthropologists to look at profession



Hundreds of anthropologists crammed into a hotel conference room Thursday night, many clutching copies of "Darkness in El Dorado" - the now infamous book that has forced the profession to reassess its ethical standards.

The book has earned investigative journalist Patrick Tierney a National Book Award nomination and a reputation as a fraud in some circles.

Among other charges of ethical misconduct, Tierney alleges that revered geneticist James V. Neel deliberately started a deadly epidemic among South America's Yanomami Indians in 1968 by innoculating villagers with a dangerous measles vaccine.

"I understand the anger and I do understand the grief people have," Tierney calmly told the transfixed crowd at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting. "They feel I have destroyed the reputations of great scientists."

Tierney was right.

"Tierney says he spent 11 years researching his book and it took a matter of days to prove some of his claims were not true," proclaimed William Irons, an anthropologist who represented famed Yanomami ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon, whom Tierney also accuses of misconduct.

"I'm going to recommend that you don't buy the book," Irons said.

Louise Lamphere, president of the AAA, announced Thursday that the organization is creating a task force made of members of the Committees on Ethics and Human Rights to look into the claims and decide whether to proceed with an investigation.

The AAA ethics committee will also consider drafting new ethical guidelines for anthropologists in the field, and a third committee will review the status of native populations in South America and recommend better regulations to protect their cultures.

The debate sizzled as epidemiologists, an indigenous Venezuelan Indian and colleagues of Neel and other men Tierney accuses of unethical behavior spent more than an hour laying out a scientific case against his research.

"If you know anything about epidemiology, you know these things are hard to track," said Susan Lindee, who wrote a study of Neel's field research with atomic bomb survivors.

Neel, a University of Michigan professor who passed away in February was not "warm and fuzzy," Lindee said. "But he had integrity and he was a fair person."

Yvonne Maldonado, who has worked as an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, said there was no proof that the vaccine Neel used could sicken anyone.

Those opposed to the book - including the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Santa Barbara - say it lacks scientific proof to back its claims.

"The citations are there," said Professor Loring Brace, an anthropologist with the University of Michigan who worked with both Neel and Chagnon. "But Tierney doesn't actually use the information in them."

"You're not a physician, you're not an epidemiologist, and as far as I know, you're not a scientist," Maldonado told Tierney during a press conference Thursday evening.

The biological and cultural branches of anthropology sometimes foster irreconcilable perspectives. What constitutes meaningful research and what methods actually harm vulnerable cultures have been on-going debates for decades.

But with a split, "You lose the interchange that can take place, the full dimensions of health and vigor. It's going to weaken the field as a whole," Brace said.

Tierney held firm to his claims throughout what became a four-hour marathon debate, though he admitted his concern that the controversy his book has generated may hamper efforts to help the very indigenous cultures he sought to preserve.

Lindee agreed.

"The real issues are how have indigenous people been treated, and how can we gather technological knowledge in a way that does not exploit them," Lindee said.

Tierney isn't the first to accuse Chagnon, Neel and other anthropologists of misconduct in their research, films and relationships with the Yanomami. But the book landed a finalist slot in the nonfiction category for a National Book Award and was published by respected publishing house W.W. Norton, which gave it credibility, Irons said.

Though the American Anthropological Association passed on investigating earlier Chagnon complaints, the publicity surrounding the book made it necessary to act.

Four sessions, including one specifically for the group's 11,000 members to voice their opinions, were scheduled during the annual convention here.

Students in the audience said they view the debate as a good way to start talking about their future impact on society.

"It definitely brings to light things that should be addressed constantly," said Wendy Kubiak, a junior at University of California, Santa Cruz.