Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Bookpress, February 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.bookpress.com/

Anthropological Angst

John Stevens

It has been called "a firestorm of controversy," 1 "thoroughly dishonest," 2 and everything in between. Some scientists have asked people to not read the book because of its misrepresentations and lies, while others have called for investigations, proclaiming that the "charges cannot be lightly dismissed." 3 Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Destroyed the Amazon (W.W. Norton, 2000), which was reviewed in The Bookpress in the November issue and debated by Nick Nicastro and Terry Turner in the December issue (and the current one as well), has been called a lot of things in the past several months, and has certainly ignited a conflagration of recriminations, accusations, and proclamations in and out of anthropology. It is the hot topic on numerous web sites where ideological and interpretive battles rage over whether Tierney is right or wrong, anti-science or critical of science, a vindictive left-winger or a hard-nosed journalist, a charlatan or a human-rights champion.

While Nicastro and Turner have conveyed two of the prevailing positions on this controversy and its ramifications for the discipline of anthropology and social science in general, it may still be hard to make sense of the hullabaloo of interpersonal and interdisciplinary conflicts that the controversy has engendered. The real crisis is, sadly, not the issues contained in the controversy itself, but its implications for a number of organizations and academic interests, and while many have paid lip service to the Yanomami as victims, much more energy has been expended to use the controversy as a weapon against academic opponents.

Given that there is an excellent web site that contains the bulk of the written responses to this case, 4 I will focus on what happened at the recent Annual General Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in San Francisco last November 15-20. While some participants dismissed any need for investigation or change, others called for ethical realignments, self-examination, and other reforms or repentance that, while often genuine, sometimes dodged the need for a truly principled, pragmatic examination and revision of anthropological practice. Anthropologists have agonized over the effects of their work on their subjects since the inception of the discipline; the question now is, what should be done about it in light of this controversy?

AAA president Louise Lamphere devoted two evenings of the Association’s program to Tierney’s work. The first was a panel of experts commenting on the accusations, the second an open forum. 5 The ballroom where the first meeting took place had to be expanded (via moving walls) to twice its size, and the huge crowd (which included a number of TV cameras) filled every available space in the room, prompting a stern lecture from fire safety officials and the relocation of the next meeting to an even larger ballroom.

The panel of experts included Susan Lindee, a historian of science who has written on the career of Dr. James Neel; Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiologist; Noeli Pocatierra, a representative of Venezuelan indigenous peoples (and now chair of a special investigative committee on the controversy in Venezuela); a representative of IDIC XXXX, the leading Venezuelan research institution; Dr. Sharon Kaufman, an ethics expert from UC San Francisco; and Dr. William Irons, an evolutionary biologist and long-time ally of Napoleon Chagnon. Patrick Tierney was also on the panel to provide a response to the presentations and make a general statement about his book.

Most of the presentations focused on the 1968 measles epidemic, an episode detailed in one of Tierney’s 18 chapters and briefly referred to in regard to Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon’s film The Feast which was made at the same time the epidemic was taking place. These presentations, which were based on either the galley proofs of the book or Internet traffic, generally condemned Tierney’s entire book as "anti-science" based on Tierney’s interpretation of how Neel’s team reacted to——and possibly exacerbated——the effects of the epidemic. Susan Lindee labeled his charges "unsupported insinuation" that could damage international health efforts. This idea was echoed by Dr. Maldonado, who stated that her comments were not based on the book, but on epidemiology, and that the vaccine used, Edmonston B, did sometimes cause severe reactions, but could not transmit measles between patients. Dr. Kaufman discussed the idea of informed consent and stated that in essence the idea did not exist before 1974, implying that despite recent criticism of other Atomic Energy Commission researchers of the period, in this case there were "complexities" that had to be taken into account.

The representative of the IDIC reported that while many Yanomami did react to the vaccine with measles-like symptoms, Neel could not be blamed for not having obtained informed consent because many other researchers did the same thing at that time. Another presentation on the epidemiology of South American Indians maintained that, while Indians are generally still in poor health after 40 years of study, scientific research could still "save" the Indians. Noeli Pocatierra called for a complete investigation of all the charges in the book, because it was crucial to determine what had been done to the Yanomami. 6 She thanked the gathered anthropologists for their past support of indigenous peoples, and urged them to cooperate with the AAA investigation to guarantee that incidents such as those described in Tierney’s book would never happen again.

William Irons then arose to defend Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon declined to attend the AAA meeting because he was "disgusted" with the whole issue. Irons said that a number of investigations were being carried out by the National Academy of Sciences (of which Neel was a distinguished member), the University of California at Santa Barbara (where Chagnon had taught for a number of years) and the Human Behavior & Evolution Society, an academic group of which Chagnon had been the first president and to which he still belongs. Irons declared that it had taken only days to prove Tierney’s years of research wrong and his allegations untrue. He accused Tierney of being an "advocate," and proclaimed that "if Tierney says it, it’s probably not true." He said that no one could refute Chagnon’s data and that he was being persecuted because people did not like Chagnon’s "neo-Darwinian: views which "cast doubt on the ‘noble savage.’" He ended by suggesting that the book not be read, and compared Tierney’s journalism to the National Enquirer .

Patrick Tierney, the final speaker, gave a relatively gentle rejoinder to the panel presentations. The issues raised in his book stimulated strong emotions, he realized, but he insisted that people read the book itself carefully. He pointed out that the measles epidemic was only a single incident in the book and that it was being distorted by detractors. He understood the pain the book caused some people, but he had also seen the suffering of the people who were studied which was ongoing. He asked people to fact-check not only his work, but also Chagnon’s, and he denied that he was anti-science or that he was against contacting isolated groups. "To leave them alone is to condemn them to death," he stated, but he believed that it needed to be done differently.

For the open forum on the second evening, a microphone was set up at the head of the room and speakers were encouraged to line up and express their views to the audience. Defending the composition of the previous evening’s panel, Louise Lamphere declared that the board and the AAA Committee on Human Rights had been consulted, but that several participants had been added at the last minute. She said that the focus on the measles epidemic was in response to the Turner/Sponsel e-mail and "people’s interest." Lamphere had invited the Association of Brazilian Anthropologists to send a representative, but they could only send a written statement, which was read by Dr. Darcy Ribiero. This statement (available on the Web 7 ) is a searing indictment of Chagnon’s work. The ABA had warned the AAA in the past about Chagnon’s activities, but nothing had been done. Now, they hoped that the recent allegations would stimulate action on the part of the AAA and that there would be increased dialogue on these issues. A statement was also read from the Venezuelan Office of Indigenous Affairs, pledging a "fair and impartial analysis" of Tierney’s charges and cooperation with the AAA investigation. The rights of the Yanomami, they asserted, should be of primary concern. A different view was offered in a statement from the National School of Public Health in Rio de Janiero, which conceded that misconduct had to be investigated, but objected to the "vicious, twisted logic" of Tierney’s book implying that he had smeared Dr. Francisco Salzano, a prominent Brazilian biologist.

The floor was then opened for comments, and over the course of about ninety minutes, over two dozen audience members spoke, including Terry Turner, Leslie Sponsel, and individual members of the AAA Committee on Human Rights. The range of comments was quite varied, from another diatribe by William Irons to a plea from an undergraduate anthropology student to carefully investigate not just anthropologists but also missionaries who had an impact on the Yanomami. More support was expressed for Tierney’s book than had been on the previous evening. Several people refuted the "anti-science" charge against Tierney, calling it a propagandistic label that arose solely from the measles epidemic controversy.

A number of speakers, including Dr. Linda Rabben, a Yanomami expert formerly with Amnesty International, 8 asserted that ethics had to be paramount in anthropological practice and that dubious actions of the past could not be excused. Other speakers linked this to concerns for the Yanomami as well as those of the anthropologists who study them. In this regard, Leslie Sponsel quoted from the AAA Code of Ethics that "[a]nthropologists must do everything in their power. . . to act responsibly for their subjects." 9

A specialist in radiation experimentation called for full discussion of the need for informaed consent from the subjects of anthropological studies. John Solomon, tribal anthropologist for the Karuk Tribe of California, pointed out that ethics in the social sciences had been debated as long ago as the 1960s, and asked why it had taken so long for such problems to finally become public. Caroline Fleur-Lobyn, the drafter of the original AAA ethics policy, pointed out that the message of this policy was "do no harm," but it appeared that, through deception, harm had indeed been done to the Yanomami. She also brought up the issue of intellectual property rights of the Yanomami. Have they any claim to their cultural knowledge and biographical materials, and if so, how should they benefit?

A number of speakers took Tierney’s book to task. One, who acknowledged that he "reveres" James Neel, called the book a "witch-hunt." Others charged that Tierney’s interpretation of the measles epidemic was intentionally vindictive. Another speaker insinuated that, since all anthropologists use deception to some extent, Chagnon could not be faulted on this count.

Controversy is not new to anthropology, and in fact many of the accusations in Darkness in El Dorado are not unique or unknown within the anthropological community. Chagnon has often been taken to task in the past not merely for his political or theoretical ideas, but for his concrete actions and their effects on Yanomami communities. 10 As John Solomon and the ABA statement both pointed out, such accusations are old hat in anthropology, but despite copious hand-wringing they have not been adequately addressed.

What is different now is that these accusations have been brought out into the open after Darkness was nominated for the National Book Award; anthropologists must now deal with this in a very public way.

But in the overall debate on Tierney’s charges far more verbiage has been expended defending or attacking individuals, ideologies, and theoretical positions than in trying to get to the facts.

When John Tooby (a faculty member of the UC Santa Barbara Department of Anthropology and ally of Napoleon Chagnon) proclaims that this controversy will destroy the discipline of anthropology, 11 he is invoking a seminal fear of the discipline. He is also trying to deflect attention away from the fact that much of what Tierney says outside of the measles chapter may be right. 12 A recent article by former AAA President Jane Hill in the Anthropology Newsletter takes a different tack, by stating that the real opportunity in this controversy is its potential as a "teachable moment" and an "unforeseen opportunity to get the good word about anthropology and anthropologists." 13 "[E]very sneering op-ed piece or credulous bit of wire-service tripe can be seen as an opportunity for ‘spin.’"14 Many anthropologists believe that their work and discipline are grossly misunderstood, and if we can just get the world to see us as we really are (i.e., as we see ourselves) then the goodness and inherent value of anthropology will be evident. Hill implies (as a number of other anthropologists have done) that the real crimes are the accusations themselves because they demean the endeavors of anthropology. But Tierney’s allegations cannot be resolved by endless ideological debates. They must be addressed directly, both for the sake of the Yanomami and for the field of anthropology itself.


John Stevens is a doctoral candidate in the Cornell University Department of Anthropology, conducting research on the treatment of indigenous peoples by the United Nations human rights system. He is also researching the allegations in Patrick Tierney’s book with Terry Turner.


1 See W.W. Norton’s web site on the controversy (www.darknessineldorado.com), where a number of review highlights are available.

2 See the UCSB Preliminary Report, which can be accessed at http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/eldorado.

3 See Robert Proctor’s comments on the W.W. Norton web site (note 1 above)

4 See the comprehensive offerings at http://www.anth.uconn. edu/gradstudents/dhume/index4.htm overseen by UConn anthropology student Douglas Hume.

5 Interestingly enough, as an article in Science recently pointed out, "Surprisingly, the symposium. . . included no researchers who specialize in the Yanomamo." (See Charles Mann, "Scientific Community: Anthropological Warfare" in Science 2001 291: 416—421, also accessible at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/291/5503/416.

6 See a recent article by the San Francisco Gate , accessible electronically at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/ chronicle/archive/2001/01/07/MN102188.DTL.

7 This statement is available at Douglas Hume’s Web site (see note 4).

8 See her excellent book Unnatural Selection:The Yanomami, the Kayapo and the Onslaught of Civilization (1998, Washington: Pluto Press).

9 a copy of this code as available at http://www.ameranthassn.org/committees/ethics/ethics.htm.

10 See Rabben, op. cit., p. 35—37.

11 See "Witchcraft Accusations in Anthropology." Anthropology Newsletter 41(9), p. 8.

12 for more on Tooby’s perspective and his initially spirited defense of Chagnon and Neel, see the UCSB "preliminary report" on the controversy, which can be accessed at http://www.psych. ucsb.edu/research/cep/ eldorado. The initial onslaught of counter-accusations has at this point diminished to a trickle, and the report has not been updated for nearly two months.

13 "Getting Out the Real Story." Anthropology Newsletter 41(8), p. 5. For an official statement by the AAA, see the statement at http://www.aaanet.org/press/eldorado.htm.

14 Ibid.