Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education , September 29, 2000, Research & Publishing; Pg. A16
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Allegations of Misconduct Roil Anthropologists


Anthropology has its own version of the Hippocratic oath. "Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power," reads the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, "to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work."

Now, however, some anthropologists fear that their discipline will be tarred by a forthcoming book that charges several prominent researchers with egregious misbehavior in their work with an Amazonian tribe. Some scholars are calling on the American Anthropological Association to respond to the charges, while one of those accused is insisting that The New Yorker publish his rebuttal alongside its planned excerpt from the book.

In Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which will be published by W. W. Norton within the next couple of months, an investigative journalist named Patrick Tierney accuses certain researchers of fomenting deadly disease and violence among the Yanomami, an indigenous people of the Amazon River basin. Some scholars are worried that the allegations will make it harder for all cultural anthropologists who do fieldwork to persuade the public that they are responsible, objective, and trustworthy.

But two anthropologists who have criticized Yanomami researchers in the past, and who assisted Mr. Tierney, wrote to the president and the president-elect of the American Anthropological Association, describing the book in detail and asking that the association respond to the charges.

In an e-mail message intended only for the officers, but obtained by The Chronicle, the scholars wrote that the "impending scandal" would damage the discipline's public image and "arouse intense indignation and calls for action" among members of the association. "In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption," the scandal "is unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Mr. Tierney, who did not respond to a phone message, is the author of two other books on South American indigenous culture, The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice (1989) and Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rain Forest (1994). He has said that he spent 11 years on Darkness in El Dorado, which criticizes scholars and journalists for abetting the suffering of the Yanomami, a remote tribe in the jungles of Venezuela and Brazil.

The Yanomami have attracted the intense interest of scholars since the 1960's, in part because they seemed relatively untouched by the influences of modern industrial society. Napoleon A. Chagnon's best-selling The Yanomamo: A Fierce People (1968), now in its fifth edition, described their violent practices and suggested that such belligerency is natural in premodern societies.

In Darkness in El Dorado, however, Mr. Tierney outlines his view that Mr. Chagnon and other scholars have been violating professional ethics in their research for the last 30 years -- to the detriment of the Yanomami, who have contracted deadly diseases to which they have no natural immunity and suffered death and dislocation from tribal wars.

Among Mr. Tierney's most troubling charges:

* That in 1968, a research team led by James V. Neel, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan, deliberately injected tribespeople with a controversial vaccine for measles. Among those who, like the Yanomami, lack any natural immunity to measles, the vaccine was known to cause measles-like symptoms, and it eventually proved deadly to hundreds, perhaps thousands of the tribal people. Even after the epidemic began, Mr. Neel, a pioneering researcher of the Yanomami who died in February, failed to provide medical treatment to the afflicted.

* That those scholars traded modern goods to Yanomami people in return for hundreds of blood samples, without telling them what the blood would be used for. They sought the samples at the behest of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which was interested in the effects of radiation on genes and thought that blood from genetically isolated humans would yield useful comparisons with other samples.

* That Mr. Chagnon encouraged conflict and falsified evidence in his studies to exaggerate the ferocity of the Yanomami. Mr. Chagnon, an anthropologist now retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, had encouraged Yanomami from different villages to stage fights against one another so that he could film them; these re-creations fostered bitterness that led to real violence long after the cameras had been packed up.

The Atomic Energy Commission has been folded into the U.S. Department of Energy, which confirms that the commission financed Mr. Neel's blood studies.

The authors of the e-mail message to the leaders of the anthropology association, Terence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie E. Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa, infer Mr. Neel's motives from Mr. Tierney's reporting. According to the scholars' e-mail message, Mr. Neel caused the measles epidemic in order to test his eugenic theories about the evolutionary utility of male domination.

In Mr. Neel's view, write the authors of the message, " 'natural' human society . . . consisted of small, genetically isolated groups, in which . . . dominant genes (specifically, a gene he believed existed for 'leadership' or 'innate ability') would have a selective advantage, because male carriers of this gene could gain access to a disproportionate share of the available females."

Mr. Turner, who was chairman of an anthropological commission on the Brazilian Yanomami, and Mr. Sponsel, who has edited several volumes on endangered indigenous cultures, speculate that Mr. Neel was hoping to prove, against the scientific consensus, that small, genetically isolated groups were not, in fact, more vulnerable to diseases spread by other populations.

Mr. Neel is not alive to respond to the book's allegations, but other researchers come in for criticism, too. When contacted for comment on the book, Mr. Chagnon declined to be interviewed, citing past coverage of his research in The Chronicle that he considers unfair. (An article published in 1994, which Mr. Tierney cites favorably, drew attention to widespread criticism of Mr. Chagnon's research.) But he has sent an e-mail message to colleagues, inviting them to help him defend himself.

In that message, he condemned Mr. Sponsel and Mr. Turner's "scandalous implications" and wrote that he was alerting former research collaborators whose reputations might also be harmed by the book.

Last week, Mr. Chagnon also posted a statement on the Web site of his former department at Santa Barbara. "I have not seen the text of the forthcoming book by Patrick Tierney," his statement reads, "so I cannot address what might be in it." But he adds that the e-mail message by Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel is "full of accusations that have no factual foundation."

"Those among us who do not base their judgments and conclusions on claims this implausible will question these accusations and ask for substantial evidence before making final judgments," the statement continues. And Mr. Chagnon calls allegations by Mr. Tierney, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Sponsel "a more elaborate extension of their long vendetta against me."

Last week, the association released a statement on Mr. Tierney's charges. "The A.A.A. is extremely concerned about these allegations," the statement reads. "If proven true, they would constitute a serious violation of Yanomami human rights and our code of ethics." But the association did not say how, when, or whether it would investigate the matter.

It is not clear that the association has the means to investigate or discipline any scholar found to have violated its code of ethics. For one thing, the association's committee on ethics no longer regards the investigation of alleged violations to be part of its job. The committee now serves mainly to educate association members about their ethical responsibilities.

In 1998, says Joe Watkins, an anthropologist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the head of the ethics committee, the association decided it would no longer "go out and censure anthropologists."

Mr. Watkins has yet to read the book, and doesn't claim to speak for the committee, which has not yet met to discuss the matter. But, he says, "if such allegations as I've heard about might be shown to be true, or at least indisputable, then I imagine the association might try to find a way to sanction an individual." That might mean censure, he says, or a request that the scholar resign from the organization.

"I think some sort of investigation is necessary," he says. "Anthropology has had some black eyes in the past decade, especially over treatment of native peoples."

Mr. Watkins also says that the association might consider asking another institution, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to adjudicate allegations of impropriety. In part that is because some of the charges in Mr. Tierney's book implicate fields beyond anthropology, such as epidemiology.

"If anthropology does not react and find out what basis in reality these allegations have," he adds, "then anthropology is going to suffer, because there's going to be lots of questions from foreign governments of anyone who tries to initiate fieldwork."

All the behavioral sciences, says Mr. Turner, are burdened by growing regulations on research on human beings. "This whole episode is obviously going to raise the temperature."

Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah and a professional acquaintance of Mr. Chagnon's, calls Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel's e-mail "inflammatory" and the book's charges "astonishing."

"It's horrifying to see this happen to someone I know for careful science," she says. "I find it completely unbelievable that he would participate in anything damaging to the Yanomami. He's not a genocidal guy."

Many of the book's sensational charges will strike anthropologists as familiar. "Nothing in this book is new," says Barbara Johnston, an anthropologist with the Center for Political Ecology, an independent research center in California, and the head of the anthropology association's committee on human rights.

"Allegations and rumors have been documented and spread in the past. The difference is the level of documentation in the book," she says. "The exhaustive strategy in the researching, and then pulling together all the relevant arguments and defensesand then deconstructing those defenses -- that's what places this book in a different category."

Raymond Hames, a professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who participated in field research under Mr. Chagnon as a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, laments what he sees as a partisan flavor to the controversy so far. "The people who are promoting the book are long-term enemies" of Mr. Chagnon, he says. "A book making extraordinary claims needs to have extraordinary proof. That's why we need an independent party to look into it."

He adds of one of the charges against Mr. Chagnon, "I have no reason to think that he would dishonestly set up the film."

It is true that Mr. Turner and Mr. Sponsel have not been bystanders in the debates over the Yanomami. Mr. Turner has long been a critic of Mr. Chagnon. In a blurb on the book jacket, Mr. Sponsel praised Mr. Tierney for debunking "the data, interpretations, and ethics of the anthropologists who constructed and publicized the fierce image of the Yanomami." And both men are thanked in the book's acknowledgments for their "comments and encouragement." But Mr. Turner says he is not inciting a rush to judgment. While he favors some sort of investigation, he says, "all this talk is premature until the book is actually published."

That won't be long. The controversy, which has been the subject of quiet debate among anthropologists, is about to find a mass audience. The New Yorker will publish an excerpt from Darkness in El Dorado in early October, and the book will reach bookstores soon after.

According to his e-mail message to colleagues, Mr. Chagnon is seeking assurance from the magazine's editors that the article does not libel him, and asking them to "publish my side of the story" in the same issue. Perry Dorset, a spokeswoman for The New Yorker, says the magazine "usually does not comment on articles before they are published."

Mr. Chagnon will likely get other opportunities to defend his reputation. Ms. Johnston is trying to organize a forum at the anthropologists' annual meeting in November. She has invited Mr. Chagnon to join Mr. Tierney and Patricia Marshall, a bioethicist at Loyola University of Chicago, on a panel to be moderated by a scholar with no stake in the field of Amazon tribal research.

So far, only Mr. Tierney has accepted. In his e-mail message to colleagues, Mr. Chagnon wrote that he has no interest in taking part in a "feeding frenzy in which I am the bait." Mr. Hames echoes his concern that the forum would be "a shouting match, a media circus."

Ms. Johnston insists the forum "is not an inquiry, not a court." And Mr. Turner agrees that such a hearing is a necessary prelude to further action by the committees on ethics and human rights. But he also hopes the debate to come will send a message to the broader public.

"One of the things that's going to become clear in the discussion of this is that Chagnon does not represent anthropology," he says. "In fact, he's in a minority position within the discipline, both in terms of his ideas and his procedures.

He says, however, that the threshold of evidence will be high. "To most anthropologists, that he might have done these alleged things is virtually unbelievable."