Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New Scientist (2005), 186:2497.
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Rumble in the Jungle: Adrian Barnett revels in a row about ethics

By Adrian Barnett

Yanomami: The fierce controversy and what we can learn from it by Robert Borofsky University of California Press £12.95/$19.95 0520244044

ARGUABLY the most famous ethnography ever, Napoleon Chagnon's Yanomami: The fierce people has been a course classic since it appeared in 1968, and has influenced thousands. It, and Changon's subsequent popular and academic books, put him squarely into the pantheon of anthropology's greats.

Then in 2000, investigative journalist Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado, accusing Chagnon of various misdemeanours during his 25 sojourns to the Yanomami's homeland on the Brazil-Venezuela border. The accusations included: fabricating data for a 1988 paper that purported to show the evolutionary basis for violence; increasing the people's levels of bellicosity through distribution of trade-goods; lying to informants to find out about on taboo issues such as the names of deceased relatives; staging sequences for a film; and more.

Tierney also accused geneticist James Neel of grave professional misconduct while gathering Yanomami blood and tissue samples. Both Neel and Chagnon stood accused of lacking objectivity and of manipulating a vulnerable people to advance their own careers and fatten their bank balances. In reply, Chagnon's many supporters accused Tierney of exactly the same crimes.

Five years on, academic anthropologist Borofsky summarises the resulting debates, the findings of the American Anthropological Association's Darkness in El Dorado task force, and the feeling in the discipline in general. It is wonderfully well done. Historical facts and context are placed against modern interpretations and developments, and five other professional anthropologists provide views. This is a model treatment of an ethically thorny and historically complex subject. As befits a discussion of a textbook case, Yanomami will be on anthropology course reading lists for many years. But it is also aimed at, and thoroughly merits, a wider audience.

The mixture of individual drive and institutional stodginess, of strong passions and weak governance, of careerism combined with compassion, of a belief in a just cause so strong that it justifies rule-bending — all of this has been played out many times in many other theatres of scientific endeavour.

But in the Yanomami case, because the subjects are humans and their whole society, the empathy is stronger and the moral and ethical questions and dilemmas are easily grasped. It is neither hard to imagine being a Yanomami dealing with strangers in your midst, nor difficult to put yourself in the field boots of the various outsiders involved.

So in a remarkable piece of reverse engineering, this book about ethical shenanigans surrounding the anthropology of a specific group of indigenous people ends up telling members of the science tribe in general a surprising (and not necessarily very comfortable) amount about themselves and their own cultural practices.

No hypocrite, Borofsky is donating profits from the book to aid medical care among the Yanomami. He has also set up www.publicanthropology.org as a website for public discussion of ethics in anthropological practices.