Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Chronicle, July 26, 2002
Source URL (Archive.org): http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/07/2002071705n.htm

Anthropology and the Search for the Enemy Within

By Thomas A. Gregor and Daniel R. Gross

The American Anthropological Association has just published the results of an extensive investigation into charges of abuse of the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil that had been brought by its own members against their colleagues Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel. The AAA report is a 325-page document, dense with opinion papers, ethical pronouncements, vast but unbalanced background materials, even the panelists' resumes. When those materials are stripped away, what remains is a verdict of not guilty on the truly serious charge -- genocide -- and guilty on some comparatively minor issues related to publications and fieldwork. As one anthropologist said in an interview with The Chronicle, "Chagnon was accused of capital murder, and it appears that he's now been convicted of a parking violation." What galls many anthropologists is a shamefully conducted investigation that should never have happened in the first place.

Readers may recall the initial charges, which appeared in the press in the summer of 2000. Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, anthropologists at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii, respectively, had sent a memo to the association warning of the supposed crimes of the late James Neel (a geneticist and member of the National Academy of Sciences) and Napoleon Chagnon (an anthropologist and author of The Yanomamo, a best-selling ethnography.) The memo alerted the association to charges that were about to be made in Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton).

"We write to inform you of an impending scandal," warned Sponsel and Turner, that "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption ... is unparalleled in the history of anthropology." Going beyond Tierney's forthcoming allegations, the two professors charged Neel and Chagnon with having started a lethal epidemic of measles among the Yanomami. The memo even compared the scientists to Josef Mengele. Neel and Chagnon, it said, used a "virulent vaccine" to infect the Yanomami with measles in a purported test of a eugenic theory, to see if tribal leaders were more resistant than others.

Had those grave allegations withstood early scrutiny, the anthropology association would have been obliged to investigate them. But the Turner-Sponsel memo, with its wild accusations and intemperate language, was quickly discredited by medical authorities, including Samuel Katz, a developer of the measles vaccine. Tierney's book fared little better. According to the report, "the book contains numerous unfounded, misrepresented, and sensationalistic accusations. ... These misrepresentations fail to live up to the ethics of responsible journalism even as they pretend to question the ethical conduct of anthropology."

By the fall of 2000, the charges of murder and genocide against Chagnon and Neel had collapsed. Preliminary investigations established that far from conducting cruel experiments on humans, they had safely vaccinated the Yanomami and saved countless lives. In a normal world, that truth would have punctured the balloon of allegations and left the accusers deflated and apologetic. But there remained lesser charges in Tierney's book, like Chagnon's focus on Yanomami aggression and his link to a Venezuelan foundation associated with self-serving politicians. Those claims, which were not new, did not rise to a level that warranted an investigation by the association.

The association does not normally investigate its members. Its ethics policies "have no legal standing and appear to be on weak moral footing" in their capacity to bind members, it acknowledges. What's more, the organization is ill-equipped to manage an adjudication. It has neither specific rules nor case law governing the practice of its members, and no means of ensuring due process for the accused.

Recognizing those issues, and with a history of contentious cases in the past, the group's executive board determined in 1995 that "the AAA no longer adjudicates claims of unethical behavior," because of its "inability to carry out a fair and legally defensible adjudication." Indeed, "no ethics case has ever reached the final hearing stage ... and no sanctions have ever been levied."

How, then, did the association, in violation of its own rules, become the lead prosecutor in an investigation of what it eventually found were "sensationalistic" charges leveled by a "deeply flawed" and journalistically "unethical" book? Our answer is that the leadership was swept away by a riptide of political righteousness so powerful that not even the association's established policies and the demolition of the most scurrilous charges could withstand its force.

Under what circumstances should a scholarly association investigate its members? Our view is that such a step is appropriate when the integrity of the profession as a whole is at stake or when a group licenses its members for professional practice -- as in a medical society or bar association -- and then only when it has the political stability and the institutional capacity to ensure due process. In the case at hand, the most serious allegations against Chagnon and Neel had been disproved; the anthropology association does not license its members to practice; and it is among the most politicized of associations. Its multiple fault lines include residual political schisms of the 1960s and '70s, and a confusion of the discipline's intellectual goals with advocacy.

To this must be added the postmodern worldview, much current in anthropology, with its penchant for stripping away appearances -- in this case that of a disinterested science in search of the truth -- to discover an evil within, or, at minimum, complicity with powerful elites. In different guises, these battles roil all of academe. Literary criticism and other branches of the humanities lie in tatters after internecine warfare pitted postmodernists against defenders of traditional scholarship.

Such a civil war now threatens anthropology, which is riven with divisions between scientifically oriented, data-driven research and interpretative approaches. What makes the discipline uniquely vulnerable to political turmoil is the worldwide tragedy of beleaguered indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, and the guilt that their suffering evokes. Although the poverty and the oppression are real, academic adversaries may misuse them as swords and shields in their battles. To win a skirmish, one often need do no more than to claim that one's opponents' fieldwork, publications, ideas, or even language damages or demeans native peoples.

In the association's report, this exquisite sensitivity extends even to the thoroughly postmodern demand that anthropologists surrender to their subjects the task of defining the topics to be investigated. "Informed consent" is not sufficient, says the report. Theoretically significant topics "may have to be set aside" if they are not of equal interest to research subjects. This model is "the future of anthropology among indigenous peoples."

All of those issues resonated with the Tierney-Turner-Sponsel allegations. Chagnon's work was sociobiological in orientation, which is anathema to many cultural anthropologists, some of whom find it inherently racist. Chagnon may also have stimulated professional jealousy with his financially successful publications while infuriating opponents with his confrontational style, occasionally profane language, and pattern of denigrating critics as "left wingers." The publication of Darkness in El Dorado therefore ignited an explosion in a long-smoldering academic vendetta.

The anthropology association appears uncomfortable with the obvious political overtones of its investigation, so much so that it even denied that it had conducted one: "In no sense did we consider our work to be an 'investigation,'" reads the report; "nor did we consider the materials that we developed to be 'evidence.'" Moreover, the reader is told that "the greatest value of this report is not to find fault with or to defend the past actions of specific anthropologists," and that "the most important finding in the report relates to the urgent health condition of the Yanomami Indians."

The association would therefore have us believe that the investigation was mainly about public health and represents a benevolent act of concern for the Yanomami. That is pitifully disingenuous. In the report's 325 pages, there is virtually no discussion of the present health status of the Yanomami, other than when the topic happens to intersect with the various allegations.

Had the welfare of the Yanomami truly been of concern, the report would have focused on the danger to immunization campaigns posed by the accusers' claims of genocide by vaccination. Had a study of the ethics of fieldwork been the goal (as was also claimed), the report would have examined a variety of cases. In fact, the report is built around investigative chapters ("Some Major Allegations Against Napoleon Chagnon"; "Informed Consent and the Work of James V. Neel"). They consist of witness testimony, evidence, and judicial conclusions about the culpability of Neel and Chagnon. No matter the disclaimers, the report is a judicial investigation and must be held to that high standard of integrity.

The investigation itself was a model of ineptitude. Two of the members appointed to the investigatory panel were tainted by close association with the principals, including one member who was both a former doctoral student and a friend of Terence Turner, one of the accusers.

The investigators published prejudicial remarks as to Chagnon and Neel's culpability in the midst of the investigation. The panel confined its field interviews to a few native witnesses who were children at the time of the Chagnon-Neel research, and who were closely linked to Tierney, Turner, and other accusers. The interviewer admitted that her interviewees were unrepresentative of the Yanomami, and that she did not speak their language. No one represented Chagnon or Neel before the panel. Neel was deceased. Chagnon would not participate, saying early in the process that he refused to take part "in a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait."

The results were predictable. The report concludes that the Yanomami experienced "psychological suffering" caused by Chagnon and Neel's work, without presenting any evidence for that claim beyond the testimony of unrepresentative witnesses. It finds that Chagnon gave comfort to the enemies of the Yanomami by depicting the tribe as violent, but the panel did not seriously contest the accuracy of his portrayals or demonstrate any material damage that the villagers might have suffered from them. It claims that Chagnon was associated with persons engaged in an aborted scheme to create a bioreserve that was supposedly a cover for a mining operation. However, the linkages are largely conjectural and based on guilt by association.

Finally, the panel attacks Chagnon and Neel's blood-sampling procedures in the 1960s but acknowledges that their methods were in accord with common practice at the time. That complaint is ironic, given the association's stated interest in Yanomami public health, since Neel's analysis of the samples led him to vaccinate 2,000 of the villagers on a subsequent research trip to Venezuela. In all this, the investigatory panel simultaneously assumed the roles of lawgiver, prosecutor, judge, and jury, and, not surprisingly, hanged the defendants, all under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association.

In Venezuela and Brazil, as we write, the Yanomami are dying from malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. In the face of this tragedy, the association has squandered its moral capital and its civility on an ad hominem attack on Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel. While the Yanomami die, the association debates whether Neel's lifesaving research and immunization campaign in 1968 met standards of informed consent.

In the search for the enemy within, there is more than a measure of perverse grandiosity. Accusers and investigators seem to attribute as much importance to their prosecutorial venture as to the continuing decimation of the Yanomami. For it was not Napoleon Chagnon's words or James Neel's research that savaged the Yanomami. It was the lawless gold prospectors who had invaded their lands, who brought with them infectious diseases, who degraded the environment, and who brutalized the villagers -- all without adequate response from the Venezuelan and Brazilian authorities. The association's investigation draws attention away from the real risks faced by the Yanomami and other indigenous people.

Darkness in El Dorado and its misguided investigative spinoff could not have come at a worse time for anthropology. As politically volatile as any field, the discipline is less cohesive than most. Subdivided into archaeology, linguistics, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology, it is so broad that it lacks an intellectual core to contain its centrifugal elements. A rich tradition of fieldwork and common purpose is badly frayed.

The association is fertile ground for new allegations and further rending of the fabric of civility that holds the profession together. Ominously, the report calls for the creation of new task forces to pursue additional miscreants. But even in the absence of further investigations, there is no way to undo the damage to due process, open inquiry, and the individuals concerned. Without self-reflection and principled leadership in this politically immature association, the shadow of darkness over the profession may become a long night.

Thomas A. Gregor is a professor and chair of the anthropology department at Vanderbilt University. His latest book, edited with Donald F. Tuzin, is Gender in Amazonia and Melanesia: An Exploration in the Comparative Method (University of California Press, 2001). Daniel R. Gross is lead anthropologist at the World Bank and the author of many papers and publications on the native people of Amazonia.