Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Chronicle for Higher Education, Monday, December 3, 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://chronicle.merit.edu/free/2001/12/2001120303n.htm

Anthropologists Criticize Release of Preliminary Report on Controversy Over Research on the Yanomami

By D.W. Miller


The American Anthropological Association's preliminary report on Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon received its first public hearing Friday -- and its contents proved less controversial than the fact that it was released at all. Two of the six members of the panel that is studying the controversy said they have not endorsed the report, and one asked that it be withdrawn.

Since the "El Dorado Task Force Preliminary Report" was published on the association's Web site, just before Thanksgiving, both defenders and critics of the scholars named in the book by the journalist Patrick Tierney have faulted the report for mistakes and omissions. But at the association's annual business meeting here, many anthropologists, including the two ostensible authors who have not endorsed the report, said that the association had erred in releasing an incomplete inquiry into the book's allegations.

In Darkness in El Dorado, published a year ago by W.W. Norton, Mr. Tierney accused various scholars of adding to the suffering of the Yanomami, an isolated and beleaguered indigenous tribe inhabiting the rain forests of Brazil and Venezuela. In response, the association appointed a committee, the El Dorado Task Force, to investigate Mr. Tierney's claims and examine their implications for the discipline's ethical standards.

Before summarizing the report and inviting the audience at the business meeting to ask questions, association officials and committee members emphasized that the report is a work in progress. "The language of what's here is not final. Language might be deleted or revised," said Louise Lamphere, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and the departing president of the association.

Some key allegations against scholars are not discussed in the report, she said, because the panel is waiting for more information from South America that may shed light on the book's allegations. The report contains little information about the current human-rights situation of the Yanomami, she said, because the association has only recently had an opportunity to discuss the issue with the Yanomami people themselves. And for the first time, the association acknowledged that two of the committee's six members -- Fernando Coronil, of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Janet M. Chernela, of Florida International University -- did not write or endorse the preliminary report because they were out of the country when it was drafted.

Despite those caveats, several scholars faulted the investigative committee for overlooking other allegations in Mr. Tierney's book. One speaker noted that the report said nothing about the circumstances of radiation research among the Yanomami in the 1960s sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission.

The decision to release a preliminary report at all drew more criticism than anything it included or omitted. "Even with a provisional report, all members [of the panel] should have been able to approve of the report before it was published," said Jean Jackson, an anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On behalf of the Society for Latin American Anthropology, which had discussed the report earlier in the week, she urged "that the report be withdrawn from circulation until a consensus report is signed."

Marshall D. Sahlins, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, called the inquiry "a highly selective set of reported allegations." He complained that the report had not dealt with charges that Napoleon A. Chagnon, an anthropologist now retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara and a chief target of Mr. Tierney's, had sown antagonism through his distribution of trade goods among Yanomami villages and had participated in a controversial effort in the late 1980s to create a reserve for the tribe.

"The specific things are probably not as important as what we do about them," said Jane Hill, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona and the chairwoman of the investigative committee. But she added that she and her colleagues intended to look into all those issues.

"Then it's totally irrepsonsible to issue the report," replied Mr. Sahlins. "I would like to second the motion that the report be suppressed until a final report is made." His comment drew applause and murmurs of approval.

"There were charges of secretiveness and a lack of openness against the task force," said Ms. Hill in defense of the decision. But her position was undermined by Mr. Coronil.

"I support the resolution of the Society for Latin American Anthropology," said Mr. Coronil, who, along with Ms. Chernela, had been attending a conference in Venezuela when the report was drafted. "The report should be withdrawn from the Web site." Regardless of all the caveats, he continued, "it's a statement. It carries the authority of the association."

He urged his colleagues to refashion the report as a series of working papers credited to the individuals who had done research on each issue. "As far as I'm concerned, the report was not discussed," he concluded, to another round of sustained applause.

After Mr. Coronil had finished speaking, Ms. Lamphere stepped forward to defend the committee and acknowledge that it had written the report at her urging. "I thought more information was better than less." With a hint of exasperation, she added: "This is just a piece of paper with some ideas on it." With the association's annual meeting looming, she said, "we wanted something for people to respond to. We expect the final report to be twice as long."

Later, Mr. Coronil and Ms. Chernela told The Chronicle that they both felt that the panel had acted prematurely. "The report doesn't take a hard look at our work as anthropologists," Mr. Coronil said. "The report is highly selective, partial, and doesn't address the fundamental questions that would have been addressed if [the investigative panel] had met as a whole." Such questions, said Ms. Chernela, include minimizing the effects that anthropological research has on the communities under study and communicating with subjects about what anthropology does.

Those members of the audience who chose to speak had few specific comments on the contents of the report -- a reflection, perhaps, of how few had actually read it. When asked for a show of hands, several dozen of the more than 200 people present indicated they had seen the document, which had been available on the association's Web site for a little more than a week.

In its inquiry, the report essentially exonerated the late James V. Neel, a geneticist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, of Mr. Tierney's charges that he had exacerbated a deadly measles epidemic in 1968 and withheld treatment from sick Yanomami in order to further a research experiment. And the report concurred with Mr. Tierney's criticism of a French anthropologist long thought to have engaged in improper sexual relationships with Yanomami boys.

But Mr. Tierney had spent several chapters describing the alleged trangressions of Mr. Chagnon. In its investigation of these charges, the committee has so far cleared Mr. Chagnon of a few of the most serious charges, criticized him for a few relatively minor lapses in judgment, and left other allegations unaddressed.

Several of the most visible partisans from last year's debate over Darkness in El Dorado were in the audience but chose not to speak publicly. In interviews with The Chronicle, however, neither critics nor defenders of researchers' treatment of the Yanomami expressed much satisfaction with the investigative panel's findings. William Irons, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University and one of Mr. Chagnon's staunchest public advocates, said before the meeting that he thought the report unfairly left a cloud hanging over Mr. Chagnon's career.

On the other hand, one of Mr. Chagnon's most persistent critics said he thought the report didn't go far enough. Terence S. Turner, an anthropologist at Cornell University and the co-author of a widely circulated e-mail message that heralded Mr. Tierney's book before its publication, said after the meeting that the committee had overlooked many instances in which Mr. Chagnon's actions, if described accurately in Mr. Tierney's book, would be violations of the association's code of ethics. Mr. Turner handed a reporter a 67-page spiral-bound briefing paper with such examples.

Neither Mr. Tierney nor Mr. Chagnon attended the meeting. Mr. Tierney reportedly is out of the country, and Mr. Chagnon has kept a low public profile during the controversy, although he has quietly helped his supporters rebut the allegations.

At the same meeting, Robert Borofsky, an anthropologist at Hawaii Pacific University, offered three resolutions. One of the measures would have obliged the committee to release a bibliography of all the documents it ultimately consults in its inquiry; another commits the association to encouraging graduate programs to include a "substantive course in ethics prior to fieldwork."

All three measures earned the vote of a majority of association members in attendance. Because the audience never reached the quorum of 250, however, the association's executive board will treat the measures as advisory.