Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, RESEARCH & PUBLISHING; Pg. A22, December 1, 2000
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Anthropologists Debate a Controversial Book and Their Own Research Ethics

D.W. Miller

Anthropologists have been agitated for weeks by sensational charges, contained in a new book, that researchers have long mistreated an isolated Amazon tribe. In mid-November, scholars attending the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association finally got a chance to face the book's author and hash out the controversy en masse. Although experts dismissed some of the book's claims, many scholars here nevertheless insisted that their discipline must become more self-critical and sensitive to the ways that their work can harm the cultures they study.

In two packed, emotional sessions, many speakers offered evidence to refute details of the book and to defend the scholars involved. But others said that an investigation of scholars' conduct in the Amazon was long overdue, and that the book underscores the need for such scrutiny. And a Venezuelan official at the meeting announced a moratorium on research in that nation's tribal homelands, pending the development of better safeguards for its indigenous people.

The controversy erupted in early October, when word first spread among scholars about Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, written by the journalist Patrick Tierney and published shortly before the meeting by W. W. Norton. In the book, Mr. Tierney suggests that the Yanomami, an indigenous people of the Amazon basin, have been seriously harmed by the conduct of various scientists since the 1960's.

Mr. Tierney's most explosive allegation is that well-known researchers may have started or exacerbated a deadly measles epidemic that killed hundreds or thousands of Yanomami in 1968. James V. Neel, an eminent geneticist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who died last February, administered a live vaccine to hundreds of Yanomami as an epidemic spread throughout that vulnerable population.

In addition, Mr. Tierney criticizes the conduct of Napoleon A. Chagnon, an anthropologist well-known for his Darwinian contention that Yanomami men commit murder and start wars with neighboring villages to accumulate wives and bear more children. According to Mr. Tierney, Mr. Chagnon's research methods and political activities fostered violence and suspicion among Yanomami villages and contributed to their cultural decimation.

Scholars have established several Web sites devoted to challenging the book's facts and conclusions. Departments at both the University of Michigan and the University of California at Santa Barbara, from which Mr. Chagnon recently retired, have issued reports criticizing the book.

In a panel discussion last month, that criticism continued. To hear seven invited speakers, including Mr. Tierney, association members filled up the auditorium's 800-plus seats, the aisles, and all the standing room at the back.

Louise A. Lamphere, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and the association's president, said at the outset that the organization's "primary responsibility is to the people we study." Most members of the panel, however, dealt not with the condition of the tribe but with the veracity of Mr. Tierney's charges, particularly those concerning the epidemic.

Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, said that the sort of vaccine Mr. Neel had used could not have produced any contagious cases and is known to have been fatal to only three people, all of them American patients with severely suppressed immune systems.

Magdalena Hurtado, a Venezuelan anthropologist, called Mr. Tierney's work "antiscience" for suggesting that the Yanomami would be better off if scholars had left them alone.

"The devastation was not produced by a geneticist, a sociobiologist, and a filmmaker in one tiny corner of the Amazon," she said. "It has been produced by hundreds of years of colonial neglect."

"I'm disgusted," said William Irons, an anthropologist and spokesman for Mr. Chagnon, who has been reluctant to play a public role in the controversy. "Tierney says he spent 11 years researching his book, and it took a matter of days to disprove parts of it."

Alone among the six speakers who preceded Mr. Tierney, Noeli Pocaterra urged the audience to keep an open mind about the book. A Venezuelan legislator and the head of that country's commission for the protection of indigenous rights, she said, "If any of Mr. Tierney's accusations are true, then such violations of human rights against indigenous people all over the world must never take place again."

Speaking through a translator, she said that she had recently interviewed some Yanomami herself and found evidence that anthropologists had acted unethically. And when she announced at the session that Venezuela would investigate the allegations in the book, she received an ovation from the audience. "You must be our friends," she said in closing, "or are you our enemies?"

Throughout the discussion, Mr. Tierney sat impassively on the stage, stirring only to clap as each speaker finished. A gaunt, bearded man with sunken eyes, he finally stood and responded, but offered few rebuttals to specific criticisms. Instead, he offered a general defense of his book.

He said that the cause of the measles epidemic was still an "open question," and acknowledged being "worried about the effect of the book on future vaccination efforts, as well as research projects." But the physical and cultural legacy of anthropological research in that region was plain to anyone who visited, he said, describing villages destroyed by the downdrafts of helicopters used by visiting researchers. And he recalled meeting women who told him their husbands had left their villages because of payments made to them by Mr. Chagnon and his fellow researchers.

After the session, he said he regretted that discussion of the epidemic has crowded out other critiques in the book. In his view, anthropologists need to confront other aspects of researchers' conduct towards the peoples of the Amazon, including a failure to obtain informed consent for the collection of blood samples and for other projects.

At a packed open forum the next night, many association members seemed to agree. Nearly one fifth of the meeting's 5,000 or so attendees crowded into a hotel ballroom to hear impassioned comments from the rank and file, forcing a hotel security guard to turn people away at the door.

Although no one offered a four-square endorsement of Mr. Tierney's facts or conclusions, many of the 20 or so speakers took the microphone to fault Mr. Chagnon in particular and anthropologists in general for questionable conduct in the field.

For example, Linda Rabben, an independent anthropologist and human-rights activist with Amnesty International, decried a 1988 article by Mr. Chagnon in Science that called the Yanomami incorrigibly violent. That characterization, she said, was then "used by Brazilian gold miners and others to justify genocide." She said that he should have publicly repudiated the gold miners' embrace of his findings.

Others rose to condemn Mr. Chagnon for using gifts and deception to overcome the Yanomami taboo against naming their ancestors, which was crucial to his efforts to understand people's genealogies.

The open forum also elicited some fresh evidence about the epidemic. Mr. Tierney's suspicions about Mr. Neel's culpability rest on the lack of any evidence that measles was prevalent before his arrival, vaccines in hand, in the Amazon region in early 1968. But Thomas N. Headland, an anthropological consultant with an adjunct appointment at the University of Texas at Arlington, read from two letters in which people testified otherwise. One, from a former missionary named Keith Wardlaw who had worked there in 1967, asserted that his infant daughter contracted measles that September and inadvertently infected a village of 150 to 200 people. According to Mr. Wardlaw's letter, 17 Yanomami died.

Most of the speakers, however, seemed less eager to argue the details of Mr. Tierney's charges than to debate the adequacy of their discipline's ethical safeguards. Some speakers questioned whether Mr. Chagnon's methods of extracting information really warranted "an academic lynching," in the words of William Vickers, of Florida International University. Others warned against using the standards of today to judge the conduct of scholars 30 years ago, when the concept of informed consent was embryonic.

But several speakers suggested that Mr. Tierney had performed a service to the profession by provoking scholars to clarify and strengthen their obligations to the people they study.

By far the most applause was reserved for those who urged the discipline to look past Mr. Tierney's book to consider how scholars can help the Yanomami today. The Yanomami, some noted, continue to suffer from disease, poverty, and high infant mortality, and suffer incursions by gold miners and other interlopers.

The controversy will not be resolved soon. During the conference, the association's executive board decided to appoint a committee that will decide by February whether Mr. Tierney's allegations merit a full investigation. It also pledged to revise the association's Code of Ethics to provide more guidance in the "common dilemmas" faced by anthropologists in the field.

The repercussions, however, have already rippled beyond the association. At the start of the second forum, Jesus Ignacio Cardozo, a scholar and official with the Office of Indigenous Affairs of Venezuela, announced that his agency was declaring a moratorium on permits for research in that nation's hinterland. The ban would last, he said, until the agency could revise regulations to ensure that scholars would secure informed consent from native peoples for all scientific study. Some audience members gasped, as if realizing for the first time that the conflict over anthropological ethics is hardly academic.