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Internet Source: Public Comments on Research Ethics and the Yanomami
Source URL: http://www.gettysburg.edu/~choward/yanomami-response/sponsel-6.html


Dr. Leslie Sponsel, Professor
University of Hawai`i
5/26/2002

A RESPONSE TO KENT V. FLANNERY AND OTHER PARTISANS

Kent V. Flannery (May 2002 AN) imagines that most anthropologists are tired of controversies surrounding Napoleon Chagnon. Yes indeed, scandals and controversies have been erupting periodically around Chagnon for three decades now, even though the Pandora's Box opened by Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado in late 2000 is by far the worst (e.g., Salamone 1997, also see Sponsel 1998:114). However, also tiring are partisans like Flannery, who make personal attacks on Chagnon's critics, rather than seriously assessing their criticisms and contributing to constructive discussion and debate to improve their profession and its relationships with the people who host research. Even more tiring are partisans like Flannery, who spread selective information, misinformation, and disinformation apparently as part of a defensive tactic of obfuscation. Who's hypocritical? Who's the unreliable or false witness? Who's making ad hominem attacks? Who's lobbying? Who's the spin doctor?

Flannery is wrong in accusing me of steering reporters toward sources critical of Chagnon and away from anyone who might refute them. As the author of the memo in question of October 18, 2000, I know exactly why it was written and what it contained. I had the email addresses of all of the journalists because they approached me first. Instead of repeating contact information to each journalist individually, I replied collectively to save time. To be fair I listed as contacts every individual I could think of at the moment on all sides of the controversy, about a dozen critical of Chagnon and about a dozen of his partisans. I also listed contact information for several key officials of the AAA, and this even though I did not know at the time whether each of them was a critic or defender of Chagnon. Also I listed the addresses of the web sites of the AAA, Anthropology in the News, Chagnon at UCSB, Douglas Hume, Pro-Yanomami Commission, and Survival International. How could providing sources on all sides be an attempt to bias press coverage? If I wanted to steer reporters away from Chagnon's partisans, then why would I have even bothered to mention their names and addresses? Yes, I did state that most commentators on Tierney's book had not yet read the book. That was true at the time, although I underestimated just how many times the galley copies distributed by the publisher to a few individuals had been illegally xeroxed and circulated without the publisher's permission in violation of copyright. In short, Flannery doesn't know what he is talking about in this case. Flannery's ignorance and prejudice are obvious. He is not exhibiting objective science, sound scholarship, or responsible professionalism. The same applies to Kim Hill (2000) in a much earlier but similarly hyperbolic and libelous public statement. In short, when Flannery asserts that my memo of October 18th was a "smoking gun" his attempt at stigmatization is groundless. That memo was simply an exercise in freedom of speech in response to inquiries from a free press in a democratic society. It was also following professional ethics, something Flannery and other partisans might consider doing as well (e.g., June 1998 Code of Ethics of the AAA, III C. Responsibility to the Public).

Flannery's own hypocrisy is demonstrated in his apparent lack of any concern for the various attempts by William Irons and others to censor Tierney's book and publisher. Such censorship is antithetical to science, scholarship, and democracy which have in common, among other things, access to information for open and critical minds. (See, for example, Irons 2000. Also see Kim Hill's review on Amazon.com).

Flannery is also wrong when he asserts that I hate biological models. My undergraduate degree is in geology with a specialization in paleontology and stratigraphy. This education included a hard science approach and acceptance of evolution. My graduate training was primarily as a biological anthropologist at Indiana University and Cornell University, the latter in the Human Biology Program on a National Institutes of Health Traineeship in Physical Anthropology. Among the courses I took as a graduate student were physical anthropology, human evolution, human osteology, comparative primate anatomy, primate behavior and ecology, animal ecology, and vertebrate ethology. In addition, I was a graduate student in the New York University Summer Field School on Primatology in Awash, Ethiopia, directed by Clifford Jolly.

My earliest fieldwork and publications were on primate behavior and ecology. Articles appeared in the International Zoo Yearbook, Nature, and Oryx. Just this year I published a chapter on the subject which developed a biological model in a book series called "Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology" (Sponsel, et al., 2002a). (One of my co-authors in that publication is a biologist). An earlier chapter I wrote is a biological comparison of non-human and human primate populations in Amazonian ecosystems (Sponsel 1997). It was published in the series called "Evolutionary Foundations of Human Behavior." This is the same series that published a book co-edited by Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons (2000). Also for many years I have served on the Advisory Board of the Pacific Primate Sanctuary of Maui, Hawai`i.

My doctoral dissertation from Cornell University focused on the behavioral ecology of human predator-prey dynamics. The dissertation committee was composed of ethologist William Dilger, ecologist Harrison Ambrose III, biological anthropologist Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, and cultural anthropologists Thomas Gregor and John V. Murra. Part of the dissertation was based on field research with Sanema, a northern subgroup of Yanomami, in the Erebato River area of the Venezuelan Amazon (Sponsel 1981).

For three decades now I have taught, researched and published on ecological anthropology as well as various other subjects. Among the other biologically oriented courses I have taught are physical anthropology, human evolution, human paleontology, primate behavior and ecology, human ethology, and human adaptation to tropical forests. Also for many years I have been a faculty member in the Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Biology graduate program at the University of Hawai`i.

My first Fulbright Fellowship included field research on the UNESCO-Man and the Biosphere Project Number 1 in San Carlos de Rio Negro, Venezuela, this invited by the Center for Ecology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigations in Caracas. My last Fulbright Fellowship was invited by the Biology Section of the School of Science and Technology at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Thailand. I have received research grants from the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, National Science Foundation, UNESCO-MAB, and World Conservation Union, among other agencies. One of my most recent publications is an invited article in the Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (Sponsel 2001). Also I have reviewed article manuscripts for these biological journals: American Journal of Human Biology, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Human Ecology. Many of the AAA sessions I have organized and chaired since 1987 included participants who pursue biological approaches and models. For example, in a convention session I organized and chaired last year, one of the paper authors was Bruce Winterhalder, a pioneer in human evolutionary and behavioral ecology.

In short, as the above facts prove, when Flannery asserts that I hold some kind of antipathy toward biology, he doesn't know what he is talking about. Yet again, Flannery is displaying ignorance and prejudice. Yet again, he is not exhibiting scientific objectivity, sound scholarship, or responsible professionalism.

There is something I do hate, however, and that is egotism, careerism, scientism, biologism, and evolutionism pursued to such an extreme as to become pathological, resulting in distortions of Yanomami and anthropological reality. These extreme and distorted views also led to violations of the professional ethics of anthropology and human rights in the case of the Yanomami as alleged by Tierney (e.g., Martins 2001). The Final Report of the AAA Task Force on El Dorado should provide conclusions and recommendations from the investigation of these allegations.

One of the most disturbing examples of this sickness is the weaponry that Chagnon took to the field, including a commando knife and electric stun gun (Chagnon 1997:47, 191), and also cans of law-enforcement grade chemical mace for graduate students Eric Fredlund, Kenneth Good, and Raymond Hames who accompanied him (Good 1996:33). These three students were advised to use this chemical mace in an emergency as a deterrent if any Yanomami directed serious violence against them. The cans were obtained and carried illegally. The original labels on the cans were replaced to deceive any customs officials (Good 1991:33). This is another symptom of Chagnon's unrealistic obsession with the "fierceness" of the Yanomami, something which almost all other students of the Yanomami have criticized as a gross exaggeration and distortion (Sponsel 1998:101-105). Good (1991:33) quickly realized just how paranoic this attitude was once he experienced living with the Yanomami himself. Being armed with law-enforcement grade chemical mace and/or other weaponry for self-defense doesn't evidence good rapport with the people hosting one's research. However, it does typify a disturbingly hostile and exaggeratedly fearful attitude toward the Yanomami. In my opinion, such things are not simply abnormal, but pathological! By now many dozens of anthropologists and missionaries have worked with the Yanomami, including women. How many of them have required such weaponry for self-defense against physical assaults by the Yanomami?

This controversy, in my view, is not about "political correctness," as Flannery insinuates, but about what is right and what is wrong, professionally, ethically, and morally. Indeed, I have even written: "..whether one agrees with sociobiology or not, Chagnon deserves credit for his intellectual courage and stamina in persistently applying sociobiological analysis and interpretation to his data, since he is one of a very small minority of cultural anthropologists who do so" (Sponsel 1998:114). Nevertheless, I favor cultural explanations of human behavior over purely biological ones, although ultimately I prefer an integrated holistic approach instead of simplistic reductionism. However, that is an academic concern. What is far more important are Tierney's numerous and diverse allegations of violations of the professional ethics of anthropology and the human rights of the Yanomami by Chagnon and others. Contrary to Flannery and other partisans, these are serious allegations few of which have been refuted by Chagnon's partisans. The AAA Executive Board and Task Force on El Dorado and investigations in Brazil and Venezuela, among many others, have taken them seriously. 1

In my opinion, while this controversy is primarily about serious and repeated violations of professional ethics and human rights, also obviously involved are ideological, political, philosophical, theoretical, methodological, and personality differences. 2 These, however, are relatively minor in comparison to the issues of professional ethics and human rights. Nevertheless, the attempts by Chagnon, Flannery, and others to dismiss critics as no more than left-wing academics requires comment. If there are academics on the left politically, then aren't there also academics on the right politically? And where are Napoleon Chagnon, Kent Flannery, William Irons, and the like? Aren't their claims of being apolitical and amoral scientists either shockingly naive or disingenuous? Indeed, it has been convincingly demonstrated that Chagnon's characterization of the Yanomami as "the fierce people" had very serious political consequences in Brazil. They became part of the rationale employed by unscrupulous right-wing government officials, military, and miners against Yanomami land and resource rights, and consequently fed genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide (Martins 2001, Rabben 1998:34-41). Whether or not Chagnon approves or disapproves of this use of his data and interpretations is unknown. He did not publicly address the issue of his responsibility for these statements at the time, and has yet to do so since then, still another among numerous ethical problems. (For a more recent political use of Chagnon's work, this one in connection with September 11th, see Kealey 2001).

Flannery asserts that the critics of Chagnon are influenced by "jealousy born of laboring for years in Chagnon's shadow." If Flannery knew anything about my teaching, research, and publications, or even just the titles of some of the sessions I have organized at the annual conventions of the AAA almost every year since 1987, then he would know that the Yanomami are only one of my various interests and that I have a substantial record of achievements of my own. 3 That record includes some two dozen journal articles, three dozen book chapters, two dozen encyclopedia articles, and four books. Refereed journals in which I have published include Aggressive Behavior, American Anthropologist, Anthropology Today, Current Anthropology, Human Organization, Interciencia, International Zoo Yearbook, Journal of Environmental Education, Nature, Oryx, and Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion.

It is absurd to assert that anthropologists who criticize Chagnon are jealous, especially individuals of the stature of Bruce Albert, Nelly Arvelo-Jimenez, Timothy Asch, Gerald Berreman, Robert Borofsky, Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Brian Ferguson, Clifford Geertz, Walter Goldschmidt, Gale Goodwin Gomez, Kenneth Good, Thomas Greaves, Marvin Harris, David Maybury-Lewis, Laura Nader, Linda Rabben, Alcida Ramos, Marshall Sahlins, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Terence Turner. All have established their own substantial records of achievements which are widely recognized nationally and internationally. The only shadow Chagnon throws is over the Yanomami and his profession which is what Tierney attempted to document.

It appears that Flannery may have been coached to parrot name-calling and other tactics which Chagnon (e.g., 1995, 1996) has commonly applied to his critics: "jealous," "anti-science," "anti-biology," "anti-sociobiology," "academic left," "Marxists," "academic McCarthyism," "postmodernists," "Rousseaueans," "liar," and so on. Indeed, had Chagnon taken criticisms seriously enough to either try to refute them by marshalling reasoned arguments and reliable evidence, or, where merited, revised his ideas and interpretations of data, then it is less likely that he would have embarrassed his profession by the current scandalous controversy. Unfortunately, in personally attacking critics, instead of seriously examining their criticisms, his defenders such as Flannery, James Boster, Lee Cronk, Raymond Hames, Kim Hill, William Irons, Thomas Gregor, Andrew Merriwether, John Tooby, and the like are making the same mistake. They do not seem to realize that science and scholarship advance through critical but constructive discussion and debate. They do not seem to comprehend that there are also very serious allegations of the violation of the professional ethics of anthropology and of the human rights of the Yanomami, most of which have been made by numerous and diverse individuals for over three decades before Tierney published. As far as I have seen, only Raymond Hames and Kim Hill have even begun to consider some of the ethical problems in their contributions to the Robert Borofsky Roundtable on Darkness in El Dorado. Do such partisans really believe that all of Chagnon's numerous and diverse critics for over three decades are completely wrong on every point, and only he is right about everything? These various critics have included not only anthropologists from Brazil, France, Germany, the United States, and Venezuela, but also government officials, military personnel, missionaries, and Yanomami from Brazil and Venezuela. These non-anthropologists could care less about science, sociobiology, academics, postmodernism, political correctness, professional jealousy, and the like. No other anthropologist in the entire 150-year history of the discipline has been repeatedly surrounded by controversies and scandals for decades the way Chagnon has. In that respect he certainly does cast a long shadow! (See Fluehr-Lobban 2000, 2002a,b,c).

Flannery mentions an article (Hare, et al., 1994) that I cited in my memo of October 18th, but he failed to provide the complete citation to allow any interested individuals to read and judge for themselves if it is of any relevance. Isn't this a true example of censorship? Is that ethical? (For those who may wish to pursue it I provide the full citation for that article below in the bibliography).

Something else that Flannery failed to admit is that he was a member of the fact-finding team for the University of Michigan that produced a statement on the controversy full of factual errors and false claims against the critics of Chagnon and James Neel. The Michigan supporters of Chagnon and Neel persuaded Provost Nancy Cantor of the University of Michigan to post this statement over her own name on the web page of the university on November 13, 2000. As Flannery also fails to mention, other members of the Michigan faculty presented Provost Cantor with evidence that many of the claims in this statement were false or unfounded, and thereby informed her that the statement was an embarrassment to the university. Provost Cantor accepted their views and on May 29, 2001, posted a much revised statement, deleting the many false charges of the previous statement (some of which Flannery nevertheless repeats in his recent AN letter). Is Flannery ignorant of this new statement, conveniently ignoring it, or what? Among other points in this new statement is this: "We also consider that there is now significant scholarly agreement that while Patrick Tierney's book has serious limitations, its examination of the work of researchers in the Amazon raises fundamental, general questions about ethics, methods and effects of scientific research that require scholarly attention." (See Cantor 2000, 2001).

It is irresponsible and reprehensible for Flannery and other partisans of Chagnon to spread selective information, misinformation, and disinformation, apparently as part of their smoke and mirror tactic to divert fact-finding investigations, colleagues, students, and the public away from the real questions and issues in this scandalous controversy, even as they represent themselves as scientists and scholars. Therein lies the real hypocrisy. Will Chagnon's partisans ever admit that he violated any professional ethics? Or, will they continue to conspire in the darkness cast by Chagnon's shadow and obfuscate rather than advance knowledge, understanding, ethics, and justice? So far the response of these partisans has been predominantly denial and spin! Worst of all, by continuing to deny or deflect the overwhelming evidence of Chagnon's many unethical acts and statements, and the damage these have caused to the Yanomami, they make themselves accomplices after the fact to that damage. Don't they care about professional ethics? Don't they care about what the Yanomami have suffered? Or, is defending the reputation of American researchers with whose views they apparently agree the only thing that matters to them?

As Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2000:3) writes:

"The present crisis is an opportunity to advance critical ethical discourse in anthropology. Passing resolutions to condemn unethical behavior is no substitute for sustained, vigorous dialogue and debate about ethics. We need to undertake a painful examination of a past anthropology that ignored or was uncritical of research driven by racism and the arrogance of Western power and privilege. We must also not forget the Yanomami. Any discussion raised by this case must consider their fundamental human rights."


Notes

1 Obviously many anthropologists do take professional ethics seriously, unlike Chagnon and many of his partisans. Fluehr-Lobban (2002b) could not find any discussion of professional ethics in Chagnon's writings, for example. The most substantial discussions on professional ethics stimulated by this controversy are: Albert 2001, AAA Committee on Ethics 2002, AAA Task Force 2002, Borofsky 2001, Coronil, et al., 2001, Fluehr-Lobban 2000, 2002a,b,c, Miller, et al., 2000, Rabben 1998, Ramos, et al., 2001, Sponsel 1998, 2002, Sponsel, et al., 2002b, and Turner 2001.

2 There is a substantial literature on such matters including: Brown 1999, Caplan 1978, Ferguson 2001, 2002, Gross and Levitt 1998, Ruse 2000, Segerstrale 2000, and Singer 2000.

3 For more detailed documentation see the following University of Hawai`i websites:

Department of Anthropology:
http://www2.soc.hawaii.edu/css/anth/faculty/sponsel/sponsel.htm);

Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation Biology Program:
http://www/hawaii.edu/eecb/eecb_faculty/fac_pages/lesliesponsel.html ;

Center for Southeast Asian Studies:
http://www.hawaii.edu/cseas/faculty/sponsel_leslie.html ; and

Courses (Anth 345, Anth 415, Anth 422, Anth 423):
http://www.blackboard.hawaii.edu .



References Cited


Albert, Bruce, ed., 2001, Research and Ethics: The Yanomami Case (Brazilian Contributions to the Darkness in El Dorado Controversy), Brasilia, Brasil: Pro-Yanomami Commission, http://www.proyanomami.org.br.

American Anthropological Association, 1998 (June), "Code of Ethics," http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm.

American Anthropological Association Committee on Ethics, 2002, "Briefing Papers," http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/bp.htm.

American Anthropological Association Task Force, 2002, Working Papers of the El Dorado Task Force, http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/index.htm.

Borofsky, Robert 2001, "Roundtable Forum: Discussion of the Ethical Issues Raised by the Yanomami Controversy," http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/T-of-C.htm.

Brown,, Andrew, 1999, The Darwin Wars: The Scientific Battle for the Soul of Man, New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Cantor, Nancy, 2000 (November 13), "News Release on Darkness in El Dorado," http://www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/Releases/2000/Nov00/rlll300a.html.

Cantor, Nancy, 2001 (May 29), "Update Regarding Darkness in El Dorado," http://www.umich.edu/~unrel/darknupd.html.

Caplan, Arthur, ed., 1978, The Sociobiology Debate: Readings on Ethical and Scientific Issues, New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Chagnon, Napoleon A., 1995, "The View from the President’s Window: The Academic Left and Threats to Scientific Anthropology," Human Behavior and Evolution Society Newsletter IV(1):1-3, http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/chagnon.htm.

Chagnon, Napoleon A., 1996, "Chronic Problems in Understanding Tribal Violence and Warfare," Genetics of Criminal and Anti-Social Behaviour, G.R. Bock and J.A. Goode, eds., New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, pp. 202-236.

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Cronk, Lee, Napoleon A, Chagnon, and William Irons, eds., 2000, Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

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Hill, Kim, 2000, "A Statement by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, one of the world's foremost authorities on Native tropical South Americans, on Patrick Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado," http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/Dark/darkness/0206.htm, or http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/eldorado/kimhill.html.

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Sponsel, Leslie E., 1997, "The Human Niche in Amazonia: Explorations in Ethnoprimatology," New World Primates: Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, Warren G. Kinzey, ed., New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 143-165.

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