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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: U.S. News & World Report, SCIENCE & IDEAS; ANTHROPOLOGY; Vol. 129 , No. 13, October 2, 2000
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U.S. News & World Report

October 2, 2000

An ethics firestorm in the Amazon

By Karen Olsson

Did scientists cause a measles epidemic?

This much is certain: In 1968, in a remote region of southern Venezuela, a research team led by American geneticist James Neel administered thousands of doses of Edmonston B, a measles vaccine, to Yanomami Indians.

Beyond that fact, everything is disputed. Neel, who died in February, may have been one of the most rigorous and compassionate investigators of his time, as some colleagues remember him. Or, as reportedly claimed in the forthcoming book Darkness in El Dorado by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, the University of Michigan scientist may have wrongly administered a vaccine that devastated the isolated tribe. "The book does clearly establish that the way the vaccine was given was producing, in some instances, symptoms of measles," says Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers anthropologist. The book, he says, suggests that Neel should never have used the Edmonston B vaccine. (The publisher, W. W. Norton, is no longer distributing early copies of the book, nor is the author talking. The American Anthropological Association acknowledges that the book makes serious charges about both genetic and anthropological researchers.)

Some scholars defend Neel's use of the vaccine. According to Allen Lichter, dean of the University of Michigan Medical School: "This vaccine has been given to millions of people. It does not cause death. It confers immunity against measles. If you were a compassionate physician and had access to this vaccine, it is something that you would want to do."

Although Darkness in El Dorado has yet to arrive in stores, it has already caused a firestorm, incited by a description of the book that has gone rocketing around cyberspace over the past few weeks. After reading advance copies, professors Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii-Manoa and Terence Turner of Cornell University wrote an E-mail message to officers of the AAA, characterizing the book's revelations as a scandal that "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption . . . is unparalleled in the history of anthropology." Sponsel maintains that Tierney's narrative imperils the reputation of the anthropological profession as a whole.

Swashbuckler. In addition to the questions it raises about the propriety of using the measles vaccine, Tierney's book reportedly challenges the methods and results of anthropologists, in particular Napoleon Chagnon, professor emeritus at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Chagnon has had his share of detractors for years, Sponsel and Turner among them. He's been portrayed as an obstinate swashbuckler and has been accused of manipulating his data. His 1968 book, Yanomamo: The Fierce People, has sold nearly a million copies, in large part because the book was widely assigned to undergraduate anthropology students. In that account of his 1964 fieldwork with the Yanomami, he vividly describes the "burly, naked, filthy, hideous men" who greeted him with "immense wads of green tobacco" behind their lips and "strands of dark-green slime" dripping from their noses. As his title suggests, Chagnon characterized Yanomami culture as one of endemic warfare.

Many anthropologists have rejected Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomami. Indeed, at an AAA meeting in 1994, Turner condemned Chagnon as a "sociopath" whose "lies damage the Yanomami." In recent years, the anti-Chagnon camp has included Venezuelan government officials, who have denied him a permit to continue research among the Yanomami. Chagnon contends that these officials have been unfairly swayed by his detractors.

According to University of Nebraska anthropologist Raymond Hames, who has worked with Chagnon in the past, critics simply don't care for his portrayal of the Yanomami as warlike and take issue with his contention that this trait is rooted in genetics.

The one issue on which almost everybody seems to agree is the need for public airing and independent assessment of Tierney's claims. The AAA plans to hold an open forum to discuss the book at its annual meeting in November. Beyond that, says AAA President Louise Lamphere, "It's going to take a really long time for people to sort this out."