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 III

What can we conclude from all of this debate? On the positive side, we anthropologists are having to look within ourselves and address ethical issues more than most of us chose to three months ago. On the negative side, the fault lines within anthropology appear clearer than ever.

My impression is that biological anthropologists and others who see anthropology as a science have tended to side against Tierney, even when they admit that Chagnon is far from perfect, while many ethnographers who see indigenous activism as their primary role support him, even when they admit that he made some factual errors. This rough balance was evident in public reaction to the speakers: Those who urged condemnation of Chagnon, celebration of Tierney, or even just further investigation of the charges received more applause than those who carefully detailed the factual errors in Darkness .

To my mind, however laudable Tierney's motives may be, they do not excuse blatant factual errors. In his marginal defense, it appears that some of the worst errors have been changed in between the initial draft, the New Yorker essay, and the finished book. Turner and Sponsel must take a portion of the blame for exaggerating the seriousness of some charges in their letter .

I s this debate indicative of widespread problems within anthropology? One colleague told me that the important question we should ask about a fieldworker is how his or her subjects had benefited from the fieldwork. With my own training in archaeology and bianthropology, that question never came up, and I certainly think the first question we should ask is whether someone's research is any good academically speaking.

But the activists do have a point. Many anthropologists have made their personal careers by studying people who gained nothing from the experience. Even if an indigenous group grants you permission to study them, is it possible for them to make such a decision freely when such a great difference in power and wealth yawns between you? Is the knowledge you gain of their traditional culture their own intellectual property?

Many anthropologists have exploited the people they study, although perhaps not to the degree alleged by Tierney. It is clear that Chagnon used some questionable methods in his fieldwork, including outright deceit. I myself have shown his classic film, A Man Called Bee , to my classes and asked them to discuss whether it was really a film about the Yanomama or about Chagnon, who fills the screen at every available opportunity. It is equally clear that Tierney and his allies are not completely blameless in that regard either. Hill points out that Tierney engaged in many of the same activities as Chagnon.

At the same time, many of Tierney's fiercest critics have done far more than he has to provide direct assistance, both medical and other, to different indigenous groups. Medical anthropologists and human biologists are doing their best to understand the lamentable medical situation into which the Yanomama and other indigenous groups have fallen through no fault of their own. If Tierney's accusations about the Edmonston B measles vaccine make it more difficult for such researchers to vaccinate the people they study, a great tragedy will have been done. And hearkening back to the statement of the ABA, if people do use his book in that way, it is his moral duty to speak out against them.

T o quote Susan Lindee, "Under the imprudent use of evidence and the easily ridiculed tone of innuendo in Tierney’s book-- under the things that make this such a sad text-- there is a real sadness, an honest sadness. It’s a structural sadness, reflecting not individual pathology (even if that might have been present in some cases) but the fundamental reward structure of both modern science and modern publication practices. My comments are intended to challenge Tierney’s use of evidence, but they are not meant to absolve science or scientists, and they are certainly not meant to turn attention away from the people who have been exploited, not only by Neel and others who studied them, but also by Patrick Tierney."

Another quote, from an interview Janet Chernela conducted with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami:

"What needs do you have?"

"Vaccinations. We need vaccinations to protect our blood, vaccinations against influenza. This is foremost"

I hope that the Yanomama get those vaccinations as soon possible. In the long run, I hope that they benefit even more substantially from all of this attention. In the short run, it seems likely that governments and academics will form lots of committees, and Tierney and his publishers will make good money off the book.

--Alec Christensen