Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: CNN, November 17, 2000
Source URL: http://www.cnn.com/2000/books/news/11/17/anthropology.outrage.ap/index.html


Controversial book creates stir at anthropologists' convention

SAN FRANCISCO -- ``Darkness in El Dorado'' earned investigative journalist Patrick Tierney a National Book Award nomination -- and bitter criticism from some scientists.

The book alleges that revered geneticist James V. Neel committed acts of ethical misconduct, including starting a deadly epidemic among South America's Yanomami Indians in 1968 by inoculating villagers with a dangerous measles vaccine.

On Thursday, Tierney's appearance at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting drew hundreds of anthropologists. Many clutched copies of ``Darkness in El Dorado.''

``I understand the anger, and I do understand the grief people have,'' Tierney told the crowd. ``They feel I have destroyed the reputations of great scientists.''

Epidemiologists, a Venezuelan Indian and colleagues of Neel and other men Tierney has criticized were on hand to challenge his research.

``Tierney says he spent 11 years researching his book, and it took a matter of days to prove some of his claims were not true,'' said William Irons, an anthropologist who represented famed Yanomami ethnographer Napoleon Chagnon, whom Tierney also accuses of misconduct.

Susan Lindee, who wrote a study of Neel's field research with atomic bomb survivors, said, ``If you know anything about epidemiology, you know these things are hard to track.''

Neel, a University of Michigan professor who died in February, was not ``warm and fuzzy,'' Lindee said. ``But he had integrity, and he was a fair person.''

Yvonne Maldonado, who has worked as an epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said no proof exists that the vaccine Neel used could sicken anyone.

While Tierney isn't the first to accuse those anthropologists of misconduct in their research and relationships with the Yanomami, Tierney's work was given credibility when it was published by respected publishing house W.W. Norton and landed a finalist slot in the nonfiction category for a National Book Award, Irons said. The award went to another book.

During its annual meeting, the association is devoting four sessions to issues related to the book. The group also is proposing that its committees investigate the claims, consider new ethical guidelines for anthropologists and propose ways to preserve native cultures in South America.

Tierney held firm to his claims throughout what became a four-hour marathon debate Thursday. He did admit his concern that the controversy his book has generated among foreign governments may hamper efforts to help the very indigenous cultures he sought to preserve.

``And I wonder, why do they want our saliva, why do they want our skin when they don't want us?'' asked Noeli Pocaterra, a member of the Wayuu tribe of Venezuela.

Lindee agreed.

``The real issues are how have indigenous people been treated, and how can we gather technological knowledge in a way that does not exploit them,'' Lindee said.

The National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Santa Barbara all oppose the book. They say it lacks scientific proof to back its claims -- something they say Tierney could not adequately provide as a journalist despite his many pages of references.

``The citations are there,'' said Loring Brace, an anthropologist with the University of Michigan who worked with Neel and Chagnon. ``But Tierney doesn't actually use the information in them.''