Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: About.com, November 20, 2000
Source URL: http://anthropology.about.com/science/anthropology/library/weekly/aa112000a.htm


Fierce Anthropologists

Tierney at the AAAs, Part I

Two months ago, a furor erupted in anthropology so dramatically that the mainstream media actually paid attention to it. It was provoked by an e-mail sent by Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel to the president of the American Anthropological Association , in which they summarized the charges leveled in a yet-to-be-published book entitled Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney, a journalist, against Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist, and James Neel, a geneticist.

At that time, I outlined both the charges and the initial response. Simply put, they said that Tierney's book accused Chagnon of various forms of professional misconduct in the field and, most seriously, of collaborating with Neel on the creation and observation of a measles epidemic.

Since that time, critiques of Tierney's work have multiplied, with detailed refutations of many of his accusations published by the National Academy of Sciences , the University of Michigan , and the University of California at Santa Barbara . The last mentioned report runs 147 pages, and opens with the statement "this book appears to be deliberately fraudulent." At the same time, the controversy has received extensive media attention, and many book reviewers have found the work quite compelling.

T he book has now been published, and last week it was the main topic of conversation at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco. Two public sessions were held to discuss it, and innumerable conversations in the halls revolved around it.

Thursday evening, a group of speakers were invited by the AAA to participate in a panel presentation entitled "Ethical Issues in Field Research among the Yanomami." The ballroom was standing-room only; one colleague estimated that close to a thousand people were present. The panel was introduced by Paul G. Magnarella, a professor of law and anthropology at the University of Florida, and included several scholars who have publicly challenged Tierney's work, others who had not, and Tierney himself.

Susan Lindee , a historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first to speak . She has been working with James Neel's research notes, and challenged Tierney's assertions that Neel had intentionally introduced measles to the Yanomama . Not only did she present evidence for the presence of measles in the area before Neel and Chagnon arrived in January, 1968, she exhibited documents that directly contradicted many of Tierney's specific points about their actions, matching the two narratives day by day.

While Lindee spoke, Tierney set at the far end of the dais staring straight out into space, occasionally taking notes. Over the course of the evening, he relaxed, and appeared more engaged with subsequent speakers, but her presentation set the tone for most of those that followed. Yvonne Maldonado , a pediatrician and epidemiologist from Stanford University, outlined the history of measles vaccine. She emphasized that Edmonston B, the vaccine which Tierney accuses of causing the disease, is not capable of doing so and that contrary to his assertion it was the one recommended at the time by the World Health Organization.

Sharon Kaufman , a medical anthropologist from the University of California, San Francisco, addressed the development of scientific attitudes towards informed consent, from World War II through the 1970s. In particular, she made it clear that at the time Chagnon began his work, and when Neel was in Venezuela, there were no such broadly accepted standards for them to follow.

"The field of anthropology needs to denounce anti- science propaganda that attempts to convince indigenous people and Latin Americans to ban scientific research in their communities." -- Magdalena Hurtado

Magdalena Hurtado , an anthropologist from the University of New Mexico, titled her presentation "The Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases among South American Indians: A Call for Ethical Research Guidelines." In addition to her anthropological training, she has studied epidemiology, and grew up knowing Chagnon and Neel, who collaborated with and visited her mother in Venezuela.

Hurtado emphasized the danger posed to all uncontacted indigenous populations by first contact with disease-bearing outsiders, and argued "that the anti-science views that Patrick Tierney promotes in his new book have the potential to unjustly deny indigenous people of South America the right to combat health problems through scientific research and interventions." She pointed out that these lessons have still not been learned by fieldworkers, citing a 1995 National Geographic expedition to contact the Brazilian Korubo that did not include a single medical worker and may have inadvertently resulted in the decimation of that tribe. She also cited her own experience in Peru, where a local anthropologist refused her team permission to provide medicine to the Machiguenga because that would be "meddling."

"[Tierney believes that] scientists can't possibly both study and help Indians, therefore they are evil. Only survival groups, missionaries and left leaning anthropologists really care about Indians, all others should be denounced and be punished. " -- Kim Hill

Although not a speaker, Hurtado's husband, Kim Hill, also from the University of New Mexico, has also responded to Darkness . He collaborated with his wife in a long-term demographic study of the Ache of Paraguay, and has also spent time among the Yanomama. His critique is far more sternly worded than hers, calling the book a "massive exercise of embellishment and deceit," and concluding that "although the Tierney book raises important issues about anthropological fieldwork ethics, policies toward remote and isolated indigenous populations and the current state of native South Americans, the false accusations, ideological persecution, and sheer maliciousness of this book undermines much of the good that could have come from reporting about the Yanomamo situation."

The final speaker was William Irons, of Northwestern University, who represented Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon himself declined to attend what he considered a circus. While the other speakers concentrated on Tierney's charges against Neel, Irons also addressed his other allegations about Chagnon's later fieldwork. He argued that the many accusations against Chagnon over the years were primarily due to two causes: First, his opposition to the actions of Salesian missionaries, who he argues have been responsible for introducing diseases themselves, and second, the survival among some scholars of the "noble savage" myth. He concluded that "Tierney spent eleven years researching his book, but its major claims have been proven false in a matter of weeks after its appearance. Is it really necessary to spend your money and time on a book that is so obviously fallacious?"