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Internet Source: Post-Gazette, November 15, 2000
Source URL: http://www.post-gazette.com/magazine/20001115tierney2.asp


Pittsburgh author's charges stir up anthropologists Controversy of epidemic proportions

Anita Srikameswaran

Patrick Tierney isn't backing down. Even before an excerpt of the Pittsburgh author's book, "Darkness in El Dorado," was published in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker, anthropologists were in an uproar about its allegations.

Tierney said a well-known researcher named Napoleon Chagnon had misrepresented and even caused murderous behavior in a South American Indian tribe known as the Yanomami. He also said a revered geneticist named James Neel either carelessly or callously carried out experiments on the Yanomami to test his own theories of genetically based superiority, triggering numerous deaths from measles.

Many scientists have disputed those contentions and the framework used to support them. In the words of one, the claims are "a massive tangle of fun-house falsity."

Tomorrow's release of Tierney's book by W.W. Norton and Co. will coincide with the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, where two sessions will be devoted to it. Tierney has been invited to participate and will attend.

Galleys of the book already have traveled far and wide and, on that basis, it was named one of five finalists this year for a National Book Award.

Now that "Darkness in El Dorado" is about to be released, Tierney's publishers are letting him respond to his many critics.

"This has been the most stressful period I've been through since" the time he was in the Amazon region, "being in the clandestine gold camps, being robbed at gunpoint and getting malaria," Tierney said last week. "I'm just trying to tell the story that I found. I'm not trying to judge the individuals, but I do feel there should be a discussion about reform and change" in the treatment of tribal groups.

International upbringing

Tierney, 46, splits his time among South America, Pittsburgh and New York. He was born in Indiana. His family moved to Chile when his father, John Tierney, now an emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, went to teach there. They moved to Pittsburgh when Patrick Tierney was in the third grade, and his parents still live here.

In 1980, Tierney completed an undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. His first book, "The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice," is the basis for an upcoming National Geographic documentary about ancient religious rituals among the South American Indians.

He has been gathering material for "Darkness in El Dorado" for the past decade. As a visiting scholar at Pitt, he has been able to utilize the extensive resources of the Pitt libraries' Eduardo Lozano Latin American Collection. Although he is not formally trained as an anthropologist, Tierney has long had an interest in tribal culture and has researched aspects of it as a free-lance journalist.

A central focus of his new book is the activities of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who recently retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Chagnon's groundbreaking work with the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela and Brazil resulted in award-winning films and two books, including one called "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," which has been a primer for anthropology students for decades.

Chagnon described high levels of violent, warlike behavior among the Yanomami and published papers indicating that among the men of that tribe, those who killed more people had greater access to women and therefore a greater likelihood of fathering children.

In the first months of 1968, Chagnon and University of Michigan geneticist Dr. James Neel led a team into Yanomami territory to inoculate the Indians with a measles vaccine and conduct other research. At the same time, an epidemic of measles broke out among the Yanomami. The tribe had not been exposed to the infection before and an unknown number died from it.

It is Tierney's interpretation of that expedition that has drawn the most fire.

He said that Neel inexplicably chose a type of live measles vaccine, called the Edmonston B, that was already known to provoke dangerous reactions, such as unusually high fever, among vulnerable populations. Even that long ago, health authorities were recommending vaccination with a different live measles virus that had been altered more from its original, disease-causing state.

And, Tierney noted, the measles outbreak among the Yanomami corresponded with the movements of the research team.

Angry reaction

Many scientists have been infuriated by Tierney's implication that the researchers may have introduced measles into the highly susceptible tribe, whether through the vaccine itself, illness among the expedition team, or failure to treat and quarantine sick Yanomami.

Anthropologist John Tooby, Chagnon's colleague at the University of California and the critic who decried Tierney's book as "fun-house falsity," checked with infectious disease experts to rebut Tierney's argument in an article published in the Internet magazine Slate.

Vaccine experts "have never been able to document, in hundreds of millions of uses, a single case of a live-virus measles vaccine leading to contagious transmission from one human to another," he wrote. "If attenuated live virus does not jump from person to person, it cannot cause an epidemic. Nor can it be planned to cause an epidemic, as alleged in this case, if it never has caused one before."

Tooby questioned Dr. Samuel Katz, a co-developer of the Edmonston B vaccine and an emeritus professor at Duke University, and Dr. Mark Papania, who heads the measles eradication program at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the new book, Tierney cited the same people to leave the door open for the possibility of vaccine-related transmission.

"Experts I spoke to then had very different opinions than the ones they are expressing in public now," Tierney said. "There is a tremendous wall of orthodoxy around transmissibility. The actual scientific literature about transmissibility is far more ambiguous than the statements Sam Katz and Mark Papania are now making, which are very different than the statements they made on my tape-recorded tapes."

Katz and Papania have said that they were misquoted by Tierney and disagree with the scenarios put forth in the book.

The debate over whether Chagnon and Neel caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomami was far from the first time that Chagnon's work with them had come under fire.

His depiction of the Yanomami as bloodthirsty was accepted when he first presented it in the 1960s. His book and the film documentaries that he helped produce reinforced the unpleasant image.

"It fits, unfortunately, the stereotype of the jungle savage," noted Kathleen DeWalt, a Pitt anthropologist. "It was easy to believe. And the counternarratives have not been as well presented or as commonly presented."

Some anthropologists who followed in Chagnon's wake found that the Yanomami were not exceptionally fierce when compared to other tribal groups in the area.

They say Chagnon "very much overexaggerated the aggressiveness and the killing" among the Yanomami, DeWalt explained.

Long-running debate

Within the anthropological community, opinion has been divided about Chagnon and his research methods for some time, DeWalt said.

In the book, Tierney wrote that Chagnon tweaked his data to jibe with his preconceived theories about the Indians and manipulated the Yanomami by dispensing Western steel goods as payment for their cooperation, including occasions when he had them stage events for his films.

Tierney further argued that handing out coveted machetes and cooking pots shifted political balances between villages and triggered fighting between groups for Chagnon's favor.

As to geneticist Neel, who died in February, Tierney argued that the scientist expressed views supporting eugenics, the idea that humanity can be improved by eliminating undesirable genetic traits and encouraging favored ones.

But Neel's colleagues and students have rushed to his defense. They describe him as a longtime opponent of eugenics and an ethical researcher and physician.

In addition, prominent scientists also have questioned Tierney's overall research methods.

Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, to which Neel was elected in 1963, said that although the nearly 1,600 footnotes dotting the text of "Darkness in El Dorado" may give the impression of solid research, "in many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites."

Officials at the University of Michigan, where Neel spent much of his career, also have written a point-by-point denial of Tierney's claims, as they were depicted in a widely circulated e-mail written by anthropologists Terry Turner, of Cornell University, and Leslie Sponsel, of the University of Hawaii, to the president of the American Anthropological Association.

Both Turner and Sponsel have reputations as opponents of Chagnon and the conclusions he drew about the Yanomami, and Chagnon allies have called them Tierney's collaborators and even his inspiration.

"Terry [Turner] read a few of my chapters initially," Tierney said, when they met in 1995 at Pittsburgh International Airport. "But he didn't have advance access to the galleys. Really he didn't see this in any final form until, I guess, July of this year. He was described as a major source for the book ... but truly speaking, he's not."

Tierney said he has never met Sponsel.

Becoming an activist

He said he was compelled to start working on his book after seeing the damage done to the Yanomami by their contact with outsiders.

He had started researching the impact of gold mining in Yanomami territory, which stretches over an area bigger than the state of New York. The prospect of finding gold and other valued metals has led outsiders to covet Yanomami land and exploit them.

"I originally went there just documenting the mayhem that was going on," Tierney said, "and trying to understand what was happening and perhaps alert people as to what can be done to help them. But as that evolved, my own participation changed ... It just didn't seem to be an adequate response to document people's deaths in the middle of those kinds of circumstances."

So Tierney began working with human rights groups to bring indigenous leaders to the United States to speak about the plight of their people.

At first, Tierney had no intention at all of discussing Chagnon's activities in the region.

"Nobody in their right mind would want to get into a war with Napoleon Chagnon," he said. "I went into it with considerable trepidation."

Chagnon had been having difficulty getting permission to continue his research among the Yanomami and had made enemies when he wrote a paper tying the spread of disease to the presence of missionary outposts.

Tierney said that he began to examine Chagnon's work more closely. The last straw was the anthropologist's alliances with two controversial figures in Venezuela who had been accused of corruption, Tierney said.

"As I got into it further, it just seemed to be like lifting up a rock where there's this infinite swarming life underneath and there's no end to it," he said.

Chagnon has refused media requests for interviews about the allegations, but on a Web page of the University of California Santa Barbara anthropology department, he said, "Tierney, Turner and Sponsel have repeatedly accused me of some of these things in the past, both in print and verbally in public anthropology meetings. This is just a more elaborate extension of their long vendetta against me."

He does not plan to attend this week's meeting in San Francisco but intends to send a representative, said a spokesman for the anthropological association.

In other parts of his book, Tierney describes studies sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission that administered radioactive iodine to the Yanomami without their informed consent, French anthropologist Jacques Lizot's sexual relationships with young Yanomami boys and other questionable conduct by scientists and journalists.

"It wasn't the story I was looking for initially, but it's what I came up with," Tierney said. "And what seemed to me to be the real story is that these people have been used to fulfill fantasies, scientific paradigms and preconceptions. And they've been used in ways that have been extremely harmful to them."

Whatever may come of the charges made in the book, the furor around them emphasizes that researchers must always adhere to a code of ethics, said Pitt professor DeWalt, who is an elected officer of one of the anthropological association's committees.

"There's going to be a continual discussion of the ethical implications of every piece of research," she said. "The first principle is you will not harm the people with whom you work. That takes precedence over everything else, including career and publication."