Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/11/16/MN88815.DTL&type=science

Anthropology Community Upset Over Ethics Scandal Isolated Indians were corrupted, writer says

David Perlman

The world of anthropology is in a furious clash over charges by a freelance journalist that the long-isolated Yanomami people of Venezuela were victimized by a noted University of California anthropologist and an equally famed medical geneticist.

In what has been called an unparalleled violation of scientific ethics, the anthropologist is accused of giving the Indians weapons to provoke them into violent warfare, and both are charged with unleashing a deadly epidemic of measles by giving the Indians a dangerous and untested vaccine.

Now, three detailed examinations of the charges say journalist Patrick Tierney has committed major errors, falsified his evidence and ignored relevant documents that did not support his charges.

The big flap will be aired in San Francisco today at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association, where more than 5,000 anthropologists will be talking about little else.

The charges involve two of the most widely known figures in their fields -- Napoleon Chagnon, 62, a recently retired anthropologist from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel of the University of Michigan, a noted physician and geneticist and much honored member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chagnon is best known for his own book, "Yanomamo, The Fierce People," his account of many years investigating the long-isolated and primitive Yanomami, who still inhabit the remote jungles of the upper Orinoco River in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil.

Both Chagnon and Neel began studying the Yanomami in their tiny villages in 1968. Chagnon believed that like many other human groups, the Yanomami were endowed through nature and evolution with unbridled savagery and incessant dedication to intratribal warfare.

Charges began circulating against the two men more than five years ago and are now raised in a sensational book by Tierney published this week called "Darkness in El Dorado." An excerpt was also published in the New Yorker magazine last month.

Among the charges are that the two scientists misused a dangerous measles vaccine to spread -- if not cause -- a deadly epidemic that moved from tribal village to village and killed at least 30 Yanomami people more than 20 years ago.


Further, Tierney's book details scores of episodes of alleged scientific misconduct, including claims that Chagnon deliberately incited warfare among the Indians he was studying by distributing machetes to them so he could observe and record their battles.

Tierney, who has been supported by at least two well-known anthropologists, will defend himself this evening on a panel of scientists at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco at the Hilton Hotel.

John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and a former colleague of Chagnon's, has blasted Tierney's book as a virtual hoax filled with falsehoods, deliberate misquotations and "a massive tangle of fun-house falsity."

More serious is an analysis of the book and its supporters by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, who marshaled academy scientists to rebut many of Tierney's points and who declared that several statements in it are at least "misleading or demonstrably false."

There is no doubt that Neel was, as some of his colleagues agree, a "Cold Warrior deluxe and an elitist" who ranked races, sexes and civilizations by their degree of development. But Tierney's book claims that Neel has advocated forced abortions of defective fetuses to prevent the degrading of the human gene pool.

Said Alberts on behalf of the National Academy: "Any contention that James Neel held eugenic principles is flatly and demonstrably wrong; on the contrary, his most substantial professional contribution was wresting the control of human genetics away from the eugenic pseudo-scientists."

In an interview yesterday, Tierney dismissed the National Academy report because, he insisted, "it found only two minor errors" and, in fact, misquoted what he wrote in his heavily documented 417-page book.

Tierney said he made six trips to the Yanomami villages of southern Venezuela during the 11 years he spent interviewing local missionaries, government health workers and scores of villagers. He said they described how Chagnon and his cameraman faked filmed conflicts, handed out machetes and corrupted the primitive people they were supposedly observing.


One of Tierney's most serious charges relates to an outbreak of measles that struck several of the Yanomami villages. According to Tierney, Chagnon and Neel obtained supplies of a dangerous measles vaccine made from a viral strain known as Edmonston B and used it without permission from Venezuelan medical authorities.

The result -- if not actually genocide -- was to kill hundreds if not thousands of the Yanomami by administering the vaccine to the unwitting victims, according to Terence Turner, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and Leslie Sponsel, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii.

In support of Tierney, it was they who first alerted officials of the American Anthropological Association about the "scandal" in an e-mail message last September and thereby touched off the crisis that will consume much of this week's San Francisco meeting.

"In its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption, (the vaccine episode) is unparalleled in the history of anthropology," Turner and Sponsel declared in their e-mail.

But according to detailed studies of the book by physicians, anthropologists and other researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan, the Edmonston B vaccine had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the World Health Organization. Venezuelan medical officials had approved its use by Neel and Chagnon, and the measles outbreak had hit the Yanomami villages at least a year before Neel began administering it, according to the University of Michigan analysis.

Dr. Samuel L. Katz of Duke University, co-developer of the vaccine in 1958, stated in an e-mail message to a UC Santa Barbara committee that Tierney misquoted him on the nature of the Edmonston B vaccine. In fact, Katz said, the same vaccine had been given to at least 18 million children with nothing worse than brief fever reactions, except for three deaths -- one a patient with AIDS and two with immune systems damaged by leukemia.

"The use of Edmonston B vaccine in an attempt to halt an epidemic was a justifiable, proven and valid approach," Katz said. "In no way could it initiate or exacerbate an epidemic."


Tierney insists, however, that the vaccine was dangerous and already out-of- date. He says Neel and Chagnon engaged in a "reckless and sloppy vaccination effort" and then acted "inhumanely" by doing nothing to reduce the number of deaths.

According to Susan Lindee, a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania who said she read all of Neel's field notes on the vaccination effort, Tierney is wrong.

"Neel provided penicillin and terramycin not only to those affected in the villages he visited," she said. "There is no evidence that he attempted to discourage anyone from providing treatment, and indeed for about two weeks he spent much of his own time administering vaccines and antibiotics."

There is an undercurrent of scientific politics running through this unparalleled welter of charges and countercharges. It concerns the long- standing academic controversy over sociobiology, a version of the old nature- versus-nurture debate.

Chagnon, as he says, is a strong believer in sociobiology -- the theory that much of human culture, human drives and behavior stems from human biology.

Opponents insist that humans are born with largely equal genetic inheritances, that their behavior is due primarily to the society and culture in which they are raised.

To some in academia, the debate has political connotations, with sociobiologists on the right and their opponents, who insist that even anthropologists studying primitive societies must actively help improve them and not merely observe them, on the left.

Chagnon will not be at the panel on Tierney's accusations this evening, as he is not coming to the meeting at all.

"I'm not going to be a part of that feeding frenzy," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Traverse City, Mich. But he will have a colleague there to defend him, William Irons of Northwestern University. Several experts will discuss technical aspects of the controversy, and an official representative of Venezuela's Commission on Indigenous Peoples will present the Yanomami point of view.

The Yanomami

Who: A people of hunters and farmers who live in the Amazon rain forest on the border separating Brazil and Venezuela.

Where: They live in about 300 villages spread over 70,000 square miles, a territory about the size as Portugal. The remoteness of the region allowed them to develop in almost complete isolation from the outside world.

Population: With a population of 22,000, the Yanomami are the largest Indian group in South America that still lives mainly in a traditional manner.

Threats: Since the discovery of gold in the 1970s, thousands of miners have streamed into Yanomami territory, decimating native populations with diseases such as measles, influenza and tuberculosis.

Source: American Anthropological Association