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The Sexual Life of Savants, or

Putting Hill’s Argument to Bed


Catherine V. Howard, Ph.D.

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Gettysburg College



On the surface, Jane Hill’s Working Paper 2.6 of the AAA El Dorado Task Force (2002) is an assessment of reports of sexual relations between anthropologists and the Yanomami, and, more broadly, a reflection on ethical issues surrounding sexual involvements with informants by anthropologists.   Yet upon deeper analysis of how the paper’s argument is constructed and how it fits into the entire set of working papers, it conveys the illusion that the Task Force is pursuing a thorough, sound, and unbiased review of Tierney’s accusations in Darkness in El Dorado (2000).   Since Hill’s paper is riddled with logical fallacies and false assertions about the prevailing sexual conduct and ethics of anthropologists at large, it deserves close scrutiny in itself.   Furthermore, analyzing its blatant errors is instructive as a step toward exposing the same faulty line of reasoning that, in a more insidious form, underlies W.P. 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 4.1, in which Hill, Hames, and Turner try to defend Chagnon and Neel.   Tierney’s book itself is full of empirical and logical problems, but unless anthropologists discussing his work make sure their own arguments are sound, our profession will make little progress in assessing his allegations, reflecting on what can be done for the Yanomami, and strengthening our research ethics.


The first set of allegations that Hill’s paper takes up concerns the French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, whom Tierney (2000:chap. 8) accuses of sexually exploiting Yanomami boys and youths for many years.   Lizot covered up these activities in his book Tales of the Yanomami (1985) by adopting the fiction of the omniscient narrator and portraying the Yanomami as inherently promiscuous with anyone, anything, any time.   Tierney found that the Yanomami were profoundly repulsed by and resentful of Lizot’s sexually predatory behavior and feared that other anthropologists might act likewise.


Hill reports that Task Force members found ample confirmation of these allegations from independent sources, leading them to condemn Lizot’s activities as unacceptable violations of anthropological codes of conduct as well as local norms, national laws, and international standards of human rights.   The Task Force is to be commended for this courageous stand.  However, Hill then proceeds to undermine the gravity of this conclusion by diverting attention towards others and linking people who ought to be distinguished.   For instance, she states that the Task Force members “are baffled that Venezuelan authorities and Salesian missionaries permitted [Lizot’s behavior] to continue over a very long period of time” (Hill, p. 1), when, in fact, the missionaries repeatedly confronted Lizot about his sexual abuses, even when he physically attacked them and threatened to burn down their mission (Tierney 2000:127-129).   The Salesians petitioned the Venezuelan government to expel Lizot—in vain, since officials allowed him to stay on after Chagnon wrote them a letter supporting Lizot’s right to stay in the field ( ibid , 129-130).   Since the Salesians had been critical of Chagnon’s research methods, he joined Lizot in campaigns to discredit them nationally and internationally.   These efforts eventually led to the eviction of the local missionary who was Lizot’s staunchest opponent ( ibid , p.130).


            Hill also invokes disproportionate comparisons that minimize Lizot’s misconduct.   She chides Tierney for focusing so much on Lizot and not discussing the “far more dangerous” sexual exploitation of Yanomami women by Brazilian soldiers around army bases, where sexually transmitted diseases are widespread (Hill, p.1).   However, we could also criticize Hill for not mentioning the even more massive prostitution of the Yanomami by Brazilian gold panners who periodically invade Yanomami territory, numbering as many as 45,000 at the height of the gold rush in 1988-89 (Bonalume 1991; Ramos 1995:235; Borges and Combrisson 1997; CCPY 2001) .   In the face of these threats to their survival, Chagnon used scientific and popular media to disseminate his most extreme sociobiological theories of Yanomami violence and to belittle Yanomami leaders and indigenous rights groups that spoke out against the gold rush.   His statements were picked up in Brazil and exploited by the anti-Yanomami, pro-mining lobby (Martins 2001a, 2001b; Albert 2001b; T.S. Turner 2002).


Yet sexually predatory acts against the Yanomami are just as heinous when committed by gold miners or soldiers as they are if committed by a lone anthropologist.   The scale of the consequences may be different, but the ethical principles are not—sexual exploitation committed by an individual is no less reprehensible if he acts alone or in concert with others.   Moreover, minimizing the severity of unethical behavior on the part of anthropologists by pointing the finger at worse behaviors by non-anthropologists is diversionary and logically irrelevant to the mandate given the Task Force by the AAA.  


If this were the only instance in the Task Force working papers where these problems occurred, we might allow it to pass this time as a reminder that the Yanomami are exploited on many fronts.   However, similar fallacies of relevance, diversion, and omission occur elsewhere in this paper and in those by other Task Force members—but in these cases, other researchers serve as the foil.   In the papers on informed consent in biomedical research (W.P. 2.2. and 4.1) and Yanomami names (W.P. 2.3), the authors repeatedly interrupt their assessments of Chagnon’s and Neel’s research methods by making false analogies with the methods used by other anthropologists.   For instance, Hames and Hill (W.P. 2.3) illicitly equate Chagnon’s standard tactics for identifying Yanomami individuals with those used by Albert and Gomez in medical emergencies (cf. Albert 2002).   Similarly, Trudy Turner (W.P. 2.2 and 4.1) diverts attention away from criticism of Chagnon’s and Neel’s tactics of evading informed consent standards by bartering trade goods for Yanomami blood when she argues that this was the typical—therefore acceptable—practice in the 1960s and ‘70s followed by researchers who worked among remote non-Western peoples.   However, as a Brazilian medical team (Lobo et al. 2001:6, 19) demonstrated in evidence submitted to the Task Force, such evasive practices violated several international codes of biomedical ethics already in effect at the time, even if most researchers routinely ignored them (see also Albert 2001a, 2001b).   Just because a questionable practice was normally followed did not make it normatively acceptable, then or now.


The paradigm for illicit syllogisms that lessen or exonerate certain researchers’ ethical breaches by comparing them with how everyone else supposedly behaves can be found yet again in Hill’s paper on sex in the field.   In the following passage, she makes some astonishing statements about the sexual conduct of all anthropologists:


In reflecting on the Lizot case, we observe that anthropologists, like other human beings, are sexual creatures.   Inevitably , sexual attraction and sexual relationships will develop between anthropologists and those they encounter during field work, including members of the populations under study.   [emphasis mine]   (Hill 2002:1)


Why does Hill conflate sexual attraction (a personal emotion) and sexual relationships (social acts that impact the lives of informants)?   The implications of this sweeping generalization, naturalist fallacy, and factual inaccuracy are so absurd (suggesting that anthropologists who do not pursue sexual relations in the field are either abnormal, unnatural, or liars) that I suggest that Hill would do well to use the conjunction “or” instead of “and” emphasized above.   To avoid giving the inaccurate impression that sexual intimacy in the field is bound to happen, I also urge her to reconsider her suggestion that “one of the early goals of ethnographic involvement perhaps should be to determine the sexual behavior appropriate to a person with a high reputation...with the goal of adopting that sort of behavior” ( ibid , pp. 2-3).   Unfortunately, most of her discussion consists of advice about managing one’s affairs in the field, such as how long one should wait before having sex (at least several months), who are appropriate partners (anyone but children), and how to handle appearances so that local people or government officials will not object or retaliate ( ibid , p. 2).   This attitude is reminiscent of the sexual colonialism that Alloula (1986), Pratt (1992:chap. 5), Lutz and Collins (1993:chap. 6), and others have examined in their critiques of travel writing.


Hill even shifts attention away from unethical sexual conduct by anthropologists to members of the “study population” (a term that refers to statistical units, unlike the terms “peoples” or “cultures,” which imply human agency and values), as in the following:


The task force notes that sexual exploitation is not always imposed by the anthropologist on a member of the study population; there are cases in the literature of the opposite type, including violent rape (Moreno in Kulick and Wilson 1995).   There are also cases where members of study populations cynically exploit the attractions they hold for an anthropologist to gain access to perceived wealth or privilege.   Nonetheless, the task force points out that in most field situations, most of the power in a relationship with a member of the study population will reside with the anthropologist.   ( ibid )


Despite this passing nod to current understandings of the social and political dimensions of sexual relations, it is immediately undermined by Hill’s advice that a sexual relationship “should be undertaken only after the most careful reflection on this point, and with full attention to the dignity and autonomy of the potential partner” ( ibid ).   This view typifies bourgeois Western notions that sex can be reduced to a purely private matter between consenting adults, based on emotional desires that are kept within certain bounds through rational reflection and individual conscience.   However, researchers who behave in sexually exploitative ways can easily rationalize away their behavior to themselves and others.


Furthermore, Hill’s paper risks giving the public the false impression that anthropologists’ positions about the place of sexuality in fieldwork are evenly divided over a wide spectrum.   She portrays those who hold the position that sexual involvement with informants is inappropriate and unprofessional as extremists in this spectrum (but she admits this is the usual code in other disciplines), who contrast with the opposite extreme of those who hold that sexual relations with informants may be advisable or even demanded in some circumstances. The middle position, she claims, is represented by those who hold that sexual involvement in the field is appropriate, as long as it is not for the sake of gathering data ( ibid ).


Between the extremes of this false dichotomy, Hill proposes a compromise as a “solution,” which is to stay within the boundaries of the laws when engaging in sex—unless, she claims, those laws are unjust, in which case sexual involvement may serve a supposedly loftier purpose ( ibid , pp. 2-3).   But has Hill even presented a representative sample of the prevailing opinions in the discipline?   Upon checking her references, I found that authors who practiced or advocated any mixing of sex and fieldwork admitted that this was considered fringe, taboo, or a violation of professional ethics by the vast majority of anthropologists.   Moreover, just because we can find a diversity of positions about a particular issue does not mean we have to accept all of them as equally valid, nor must we work out a compromise among them that will serve as a “solution” (consider the analogous case of creationists who insist their beliefs be covered in school textbooks to “balance out” theories of evolution).   Some positions are poorly argued on logical or empirical grounds and thus should not be given the same weight as well argued ones.   Besides, moral reasoning does not proceed by taking a poll of everybody’s opinions and striking a balance among them that makes everyone happy.   Such an approach would make it impossible to ever develop guidelines for ethical conduct.   No wonder, then, that Hill’s conclusions about sex with the natives are that “it is difficult to prescribe absolutes about behavior” ( ibid ).   Since the notion of “prescribing absolutes” is a bugaboo in anthropology, I suggest using a less biased phrase, “devising standards.”   If we shy away from this task in our professional work, no one can be held responsible for ethical misconduct in the field.


In the final analysis, however, this nihilistic conclusion is merely the result of the fallacies of argumentation tarnishing Hill’s paper.   The same illogical line of reasoning appears in several other working papers, undermining the possibility of making any ethical assessment of the behavior of Yanomami researchers and thereby seeming to exonerate them.   Hill’s censure of Lizot and her “survey” of anthropological views about sex with informants seem to lend the Task Force report an aura of being a well rounded, objective, and impartial set of papers.   The brief papers criticizing Chagnon’s behavior in W.P. 2.4 and 2.5, and that condemning the NOVA film—but not Chagnon’s films—in W.P. 2.7, further advance this illusion.   However, if we make the mistake of ignoring the fallacies, inaccuracies, and oversights in the papers by Hill, Hames, and Turner, then ultimately any criticisms of Chagnon and Neel would be rendered meaningless.


In conclusion, I urge Hill to stick to the assignment given the El Dorado Task Force by the AAA Executive Board, which is to consider the allegations against Yanomami specialists in Tierney’s book, and leave the work of devising general guidelines for sexual conduct in the field to the Committee on Ethics, where it was assigned (Watkins 2001).   I also encourage the El Dorado Task Force members to rework their arguments in their working papers to purge them of their faulty logical syllogisms so that the anthropological community can pursue a more productive discussion of the problems that have occurred in research among the Yanomami and, more broadly, of our professional conduct.



References Cited


AAA El Dorado Task Force.   2002.   “Working Papers of the American Anthropological Association El Dorado Task Force.”   http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/index.htm


Albert, Bruce.   2001a. “Reflections on Darkness in El Dorado : Questions on Bioethics and Health Care Among the Yanomami.”   Roundtable Forum on Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Round One .   Public Anthropology , ed. Rob Borofsky.    http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Albert1.htm


————.   2001b.   “Biomedical Research, Ethnic Labels, and Anthropological Responsibility:   Further Comments.”   Roundtable Forum on Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Round Two .   Public Anthropology , ed. Rob Borofsky.    http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Albert2.htm


————.   2002.   “Comment on Yanomami name collecting and other identification methods by N. A. Chagnon.”   Message board on AAA El Dorado Task Force Working Papers.   http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/edtfpr_comments_display0.cfm?cd=2.3


Alloula, Malek.   1986 [1981].   The Colonial Harem .   Trans. M. and W. Godzich.   Minneapolis:   University of Minnesota Press.

Bonalume, Ricardo. 1991. "AIDS in Yanomami?"  Nature 352: 272.

CCPY (Comissão Pró-Yanomami). 2001. "Saúde Yanomami no Brasil: As preocupações de Davi Kopenawa."  Pró-Yanomami Urgente , Bulletin #23 (December). http://www.proyanomami.org.br/action.asp?cat=16

Borges, Beto and Gilles Combrisson. 1997. "Still Waiting." Brazzil (March).  http://www.brazzil.com/index.htm

Lizot, Jacques.   1985 [1976].   Tales of the Yanomami:   Daily Life in the Venezuelan Forest.   Trans. Ernest Simon.   New York:   Cambridge University Press.


Lobo, Maria Stella de Castro, et al.   2001.   “Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado .”   Trans. C. V. Howard.   Documentos Yanomami no. 2 (December).   Brasília:   Pró-Yanomami Commission (CCPY).   Also see http://www.tamu.edu/anthropology/UFRJ-Final.html


Lutz, Catherine A. and Jane L. Collins.   1993.   Reading National Geographic .   Chicago:   University of Chicago Press.


Martins, Lêda Leitão.   2001a.   “The Swing of the Pendulum:   The Impact of Chagnon’s Work in Brazil.”   Roundtable Forum on Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Round One .   Public Anthropology , ed. Rob Borofsky.    http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Martins1.htm


Martins, Lêda Leitão.   2001b.   “On the Influence of Anthropological Work and Other Considerations on Ethics.”   Roundtable Forum on Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Round Two .   Public Anthropology , ed. Rob Borofsky.    http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Martins2.htm


Pratt, Mary Louise.   1992.   Imperial Eyes:   Travel Writing and Transculturation .   New York:   Routledge.


Ramos, Alcida.   1995.   Indigenism:   Ethnic Politics in Brazil .   Madison:   University of Wisconsin Press.


Tierney, Patrick.   2000.   Darkness in El Dorado:   How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon .   New York:   Norton.


Turner, Terence S.   2002.   “The Yanomami and the Ethics of Anthropological Practice.”   Latin American Studies Program Occasional Paper Series , vol. 6.   Ithaca:   Cornell University.


Watkins, Joe.   2001.   “Briefing Paper for Consideration of the Ethical Implications of Sexual Relationships between Anthropologists and Members of a Study Population.”   AAA Committee on Ethics.   http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/bp6.htm