Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Arts & Entertainment, Pg. G-8, March 18, 2001
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Study Denounces Decimation Of Yanomami Tribe

Rebecca Skloot

"Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon"
By Patrick Tierney.
Norton. $ 27.95.

The first time anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon came face to face with the Amazonian Yanomami Indians, they were staring at him through a hallucinogenic fog, arrows drawn, ready to fight. They were naked and sweaty, with green tobacco lodged in their mouths and dark green mucus dripping from their nostrils. He stood helpless, armed only with a notebook, but they did him no harm.

Now, decades later, with the recent publication of this controversial study by Pittsburgh resident Patrick Tierney, accusations are flying that Chagnon was actually the dangerous one, and that the Yanomami might have been better off if they'd fired those arrows.

Chagnon, who recently retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, immersed himself in Yanomami culture in the 1960s, embarking on what Tierney calls "the most comprehensive study of a tribal society ever undertaken."

He's best known for "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," a standard book in anthropology courses in which he portrays the Yanomami as violent, constantly fighting to win women from their rivals.

Now, after conducting 20 expeditions and writing two books and more than 30 articles on the tribe, Chagnon is being taken to task by Tierney, 46, a writer, activist and visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, where his father, John, is emeritus professor of engineering.

He suggests that Chagnon and his colleagues (including James Neel, who's credited with founding the science of genetics) destroyed Yanomami culture. He points fingers at researchers for starting a measles epidemic that devastated the Yanomami, filming the spread of the disease instead of helping victims, inciting wars and staging award-winning documentaries to create fiction presented as fact. (Tierney calls them "snuff films.")

Since an excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, controversy has exploded over "Darkness in El Dorado." Critics, especially colleagues of Chagnon and Neel, have found flaws in Tierney's interpretations, specifically in his charges about the measles epidemic, and at least one source claims to have been misquoted. Others praise Tierney for uncovering a fundamental historical injustice.

Regardless of his accuracy, Tierney has accomplished an impressive goal in demanding that Chagnon and others be held accountable for their research.

He writes that Chagnon, Neel and others performed experiments on the Yanomami (including injecting them with a measles vaccine known to cause reactions that paralleled measles) with no intention of helping them. According to Tierney and the Yanomami he quotes, the Indians had no idea they were being used for research purposes.

These experiments occurred after the creation of the Nuremberg Code, which requires that all subjects give informed consent before being used in research. From the looks of things, Chagnon and others may have violated this law.

According to Tierney, the Atomic Energy Commission, which has a tragic history of conducting research on humans without permission, financed their research.

"The Atomic Energy Commission had used the Yanomami as a control group," writes Tierney, "comparing their rate of genetic mutation with that of the survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ... To complete these unique studies, which helped the AEC set radiation standards in the United States, the AEC needed great amounts of Yanomami blood, all purchased with steel goods."

Tierney quotes a Yanomami leader saying, "Whenever we asked Shaki [Chagnon] why he wanted so much blood from us, he would say it was to help us, to find cures to our diseases."

Herein lies the most important finding of Tierney's book, and it's one that will be tough to prove inaccurate. Regardless of what Chagnon and others told the Yanomami, if the Indians did not understand what was being done to them, they couldn't have given informed consent.

In the final chapter, Tierney explores the history of radiation experiments done on unknowing subjects by the AEC. Though not well-connected to the rest of the book, the chapter gets at the heart of why "Darkness in El Dorado" is important. Throughout history, humans have been used in research; regulatory attention is usually focused on medical research, but Tierney makes a strong argument for oversight in anthropological research as well.

Though "Darkness in El Dorado" was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award, it isn't something to pick up for the joy of reading. Tierney's writing is dry, and his organization and repetition leave much to be desired. He didn't write a single scene that brought the Yanomami to life and showed readers what his findings mean for them.

However, the book raises essential questions about research involving human subjects. In response to his work, the American Anthropological Association announced that it's appointing a task force to decide how to investigate his claims, and they've asked their ethics committee to establish guidelines for fieldwork. This is Tierney's greatest achievement.

Rebecca Skloot is a free-lance science and medical writer based in Pittsburgh.