Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Note: From the author, "A greatly shortened version was published in the Counterpoint section of the Chronicle, but the full text is much longer, almost 5,000 words". This is the full text of the article.


Reply to Gregor and Gross: Setting the record straight on the Yanomami controversy

Leslie Sponsel, University of Hawaii
Terence Turner, Cornell University

Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross make untrue statements and seriously misrepresent the issues in their letter on the Final Report of the Task Force on allegations of unethical conduct by anthropologists , other scientists and journalists among the Yanomami Indians ("Anthropology and the search for the enemy within", Chronicle, July 17, 2002). The report presents the results of an inquiry commissioned by the American Anthropological Association on charges by Patrick Tierney in his book, Darkness in El Dorado. Gregor’s and Gross’s many misstatements, misinterpretations , errors of fact and strategic omissions serve their purpose of defending the anthropologist against whom most of Tierney’s allegations are directed, Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, and to a lesser extent the human geneticist, James Neel. In this attempt they not only misrepresent Tierney’s original allegations and the Task force’s findings, but also make false accusations against the authors of this letter in connection with a memo we sent to the leaders of the AAA after reading galleys of Tierney’s book. In the memo we sought to warn of the scandal Tierney’s book would cause (we were proved right by events) and urge the leaders to launch investigations by appropriate AAA committees.

We urge educators and researchers who are genuinely interested in this controversy and the issues of professional ethics it raises to read the Final Report for themselves on the AAA web site and compare it to the statements of Gregor and Gross (http://wwwaaanet.org). A wealth of additional background on all sides of the controversy is provided by the websites of Douglas Hume (http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume) and Robert Borofsky (http://www.publicanthropology.org) which contain links to other websites as well.

Gregor and Gross begin their letter by claiming that the AAA Task Force investigated "charges of abuse of the Yanomami Indians...brought by its own members against their colleagues Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel". This is not true. The "charges" in question were brought by Patrick Tierney, who is not an anthropologist or a member of the AAA. Gregor and Gross may mean to imply that we brought the charges In our memo reporting Tierney’s allegations, but if so they misstate the case. It is quite clear from the text of our memo that we were reporting Tierney’s allegations, not making them ourselves. For example, we state that Tierney’s most shocking allegation, that the vaccine used by Neel either caused or exacerbated the epidemic of measles that killed many Yanomami in 1968, and that this may have been deliberately done for experimental purposes, "appears" to be "strongly supported by Tierney’s account in its entirety", but "remains only an inference in the present state of our knowledge--there is no smoking gun." Here as throughout our memo we attempt to describe (and qualify) Tierney’s allegations, and to clarify their implications as we understood them, not make allegations of our own.

Gregor and Gross inaccurately describe Tierney’s allegations that the vaccine might have caused the fatal measles epidemic as a charge of "genocide", and describe it as having been brought against Chagnon as well as Neel (their most important claim in their letter is that the Task Force found Chagnon not guilty "the most serious charge" of genocide--elsewhere stated as "capital murder"). Neither Tierney nor anyone else of whom we are aware among Neel’s and Chagnon’s critics has ever applied the term "genocide" to the actions of Neel and the other members of his expedition. "Genocide" (an attempt to annihilate or eliminate a whole people or ethnic group) was never in question. Tierney at worst implied that Neel (not Chagnon) deliberately risked the lives of some Yanomami in a medical experiment to test their response either to wild measles or a measles vaccine known to cause extreme reactions among isolated AmerIndian populations. Tierney implied that a fatal epidemic might well have resulted from the experiment in which as many as 1,000 Yanomami, one-tenth of the Venezuelan Yanomami population, died. He never suggested that Neel was motivated by any genocidal purpose of annihilating the Yanomami as a people. Neither did Tierney (or ourselves in our memo) suggest that Chagnon (who was then a young assistant fresh from his Ph.D.) bore responsibility for the vaccination campaign or perpetrating any of its possible medical effects. Tierney’s allegations about the effects of the vaccine in causing the epidemic and the resulting deaths were directed specifically against Neel, not Chagnon.

Gregor and Gross, in short, concoct a multiple misrepresentation of the most serious allegations in Tierney’s book. Their triumphant proclamation of Chagnon’s "acquittal" of the non-existent charge of genocide is spurious. There was no "acquittal" from a non-charge that was never "brought" either by Tierney or either of us. Gregor and Gross’s fabrication appears to be intended to distract attention from the genuinely serious, though quite different allegations against him made by Tierney and confirmed by the Report.

It is relevant to mention that Gregor began charging us with alleging that Neel committed "genocide" against the Yanomami at the Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November 2000, in the session dedicated to Tierney’s book. Turner answered him in the same session, publicly rebutting the charge. On the same occasion, Sponsel had a talk with Gregor (his ex-student) to clarify our understanding of Neel’s (non-genocidal) actions. Gregor has nevertheless renewed the genocide charge, in the same terms, in other venues, and now again in the Chronicle. There is no excuse for him to be making the same reckless and unfounded charge in the same way almost two years later, after we have both fully rebutted it and he has been made aware that it is false. "Genocide" is not a term to be thrown around carelessly for some presumed rhetorical advantage.

Tierney’s suggestion that the vaccine that Neel employed could have caused the epidemic was quickly discredited by independent investigators, who included one of us (Turner) within a month after the first circulation of Tierney’s allegations. It was not necessary to wait for the Final Report of the Task Force to resolve this point. Turner consulted medical anthropologists who had worked with the Yanomami and other tribal peoples about the measles vaccine Neel had used. As it turned out, one of these had used the same vaccine that Neel had employed among the Yanomami, and assured us that it could not cause contagious or fatal cases of the disease. Turner immediately made this result public in a letter to Dr. Samuel Katz, the developer of the vaccine. Obviously if the vaccine was unable to cause fatal cases of the disease, its use for "genocide" was out of the question. This letter was widely publicized by Chagnon’s supporters, and must therefore be well known to Gregor and Gross. Gregor and Gross fail to mention this letter, or indeed any of the other voluminous research we have both conducted, and published, on the controversy since that time. This research has carried us far beyond the initial understandings we derived from the galleys of Tierney’s book. It has brought to light much new material on many aspects of the Yanomami tragedy, both reinforcing to many of Tierney’s original allegations and adding new ones. Our joint bibliography on the subject now totals over two dozen entries, several of article or monograph length. It is thus ridiculous that Gregor and Gross go back to our initial memo as if it represented our whole, unchanged position on the allegations against Chagnon and Neel.

Gregor and Gross claim that after the supposed charge of "genocide" was refuted, there remained in Tierney’s book only trivial allegations which "did not rise to a level that warranted an investigation by the Association." They assert that the Association was led to pursue the inquiry into Tierney’s allegations, despite the lack of significant charges, solely because it was "swept away by a riptide of political righteousness". This is a travesty. In fact, the Association proceeded in a cautious and circumspect manner in reaching its decision to launch an inquiry into the charges. A special provisional task force was appointed, headed by an ex-President of the Association, James Peacock, to consider whether Tierney’s allegations appeared to be serious and well-founded enough to call for a full investigation. This task force found that there were "numerous ...significant" allegations which called for the launching of a full inquiry by a different Task Force specifically appointed for the purpose. This is the one that has just released its Final Report. The report agrees that many of Tierney’s allegations against Chagnon do indeed constitute serious violations of professional ethics. In the preface of the report, moreover, members of the Task Force apologize for the incompleteness of their report, explaining that even the shortened list of the "most significant" allegations passed on to them by the Peacock task force was too numerous for them to be able to inquire into all of them.

The Task Force nevertheless concluded that a number of allegations of unethical conduct against Chagnon had validity. These included that he made damaging statements about the Yanomami and organizations that were working to help them that undermined the campaign to create the Brazilian Yanomami reserve, and failed to speak out against the use of these statements by Brazilian journalists, politicians and military officers to prevent the establishment of the reserve; that he gave false assurances that the taking of blood and other biological specimens by the expedition would yield medical benefits, to induce the Yanomami to allow the specimens to be taken; that he made damaging and ungrounded attacks on Yanomami leaders and spokespersons, threatening the political effectiveness of these leaders and thus endangering the interests of the Yanomami communities they represented in relations with non-indigenous elements; that he collaborated in the1990s with corrupt Venezuelan politicians engaged in criminal activities related to a scheme to set up of a much reduced Yanomami reserve in the Seapa Valley, which would have allowed illegal mining to go forward on Yanomami land excluded from the new reserve, and would have given him and his corrupt collaborator, Charles Brewer-Carias, exclusive control over the area and its inhabitants; and that he brought many outsiders into this area without the mandatory quarantine precautions, risking, and possibly causing, outbreaks of disease among previously uncontacted Yanomami. What Gregor and Gross stigmatize as mere charges of Chagnon’s "guilt by association" (referring to his activities in collaboration with Brewer Carias and Cecilia Matos in the Seapa valley affair) were made in concrete terms by the Venezuelan military pilots who eventually refused to fly Chagnon and his associates into Yanomami areas, on the grounds that they were illegally misusing public funds and military equipment and personnel for their private purposes as well as violating other national laws. Gregor and Gross avoid admitting or recognizing the significance of the fact that Chagnon’s associate, Cecilia Matos was tried and found guilty for crimes including her involvement in activities in which Chagnon participated.

The report further concludes that Chagnon has misrepresented Yanomami ethnographic and historical reality in ethically consequential ways. Contrary to Gregor and Gross’s claim that: "the panel [Task Force] did not seriously contest the accuracy of his [Chagnon's] portrayals or demonstrate any material damage that the villagers might have suffered from them," the Report does both. The section of the Report entitled "The Problem of Representation", criticizes Chagnon’s representations of the Yanomami as specimens of a prior stage of human evolutionary history, or in its terms the "denial of coevality", is fundamentally erroneous both in theoretical and empirical terms, and itself represents an ideological throwback to an earlier stage of anthropological development. This discredited interpretation is fundamental to Chagnon’s representations of the Yanomami as "fierce" savages, which are precisely those at the center of the allegations of his violations of anthropological ethics by making damaging statements that he knew would be used to oppose Yanomami struggles to retain their territorial rights, and failing to speak out against these misuses when they duly occurred. This point about "accuracy" is thus inseparable from the allegations about the unethical character of Chagnon’s statements and silences. The Media Advisory appended to the Final Report by the President and Executive Board, which is also posted on the AAA web site, includes this statement: "Chagnon's representation of Yanomami as ‘fierce people' conveyed a false image that was damaging, according to the Report. It regrets that Chagnon failed to publicly correct his erroneous depictions and support their human rights." On this topic, see also documentation by Leda Martins on the Public Anthropology web site and by Survival International on their web site or the Hume web site.

The Report lists still other instances of unethical conduct by Chagnon. It also presents considerable documentation of another serious allegation, that Chagnon in various ways actually caused much of the fighting that he made the focus of his studies of the "fierce" Yanomami. This documentation includes charges by Yanomami that Chagnon actually paid them to go out on raids against other Yanomami. The Task Force failed to reach a conclusion on the validity of these charges because the member who had been responsible for this section resigned before completing his inquiry, so the question is left open in the Report. The Report also mentions numerous specific actions actually or potentially damaging to Yanomami social, cultural and/or physical well-being, such as ignoring quarantine precautions before teams enter indigenous communities vulnerable to outside diseases; damaging village housing and injuring villagers by landing helicopters in the central courtyards of shelters; carrying cans of chemical mace and other anti-personnel weapons for defense against members of host communities; facilitating a raid on an enemy village by providing motor boat transportation; manipulating children as informants; and repeatedly violating local customs and taboos. To this list must be added the well-attested charge, mentioned above, that he misinformed the Yanomami about the supposedly beneficial medical effects of biological sampling to secure their consent. Finally, the Report raises the issue of Chagnon’s failure to reciprocate to the Yanomami for the benefits he has derived from his research among them.

So much for Gregor and Gross’s attempt to dismiss the gravity of the allegations against Chagnon and the Report’s findings as so many "parking violations". The statement quoted by Gregor and Gross that "Chagnon was accused of capital murder but has only been found guilty of parking violations" is doubly untrue. Not murder, but not just parking violations either. An itemized list of specific provisions of the AAA code of ethics violated by these actions may be found in Turner 2001 (36-39)

The Final Report does vindicate James Neel from any charge of deliberately or inadvertently causing death by his employment of the Edmonston B Vaccine or insufficient medical attention to those suffering severe reactions to the vaccine, but it also finds that he violated the long-established ethical principle of obtaining informed consent in taking blood and other samples, and that he and Chagnon never delivered on their promise to the Yanomami that the samples would be used to benefit their health. It is clear from interviews with Yanomami and other statements by Yanomami included in the Final Report that on the latter point many Yanomami themselves to have been betrayed and feel that a major injustice has been done to them. It is worth noting that Gregor and Gross tried to prevent the inclusion of these Yanomami statements in the Report on the specious grounds that they had not given specific informed consent for the publication of their statements in the Report! They threatened legal action against the Association if their demands to exclude the interviews were ignored. The Association refused to be intimidated by this attempt at legalistic bullying. The Yanomami interviews were duly included in the final text of the Report, and Gregor and Gross have brought no suit. May one infer from Gregor’s and Gross’s attempt to exclude indigenous voices from the Report that they believe that indigenes should be seen but not heard, and silenced by preventing the circulation of their statements if they try to comment on the actions of anthropologists, or if they demand fair reciprocity in exchange for the indispensable information, cooperation, and hospitality which they generously provide researchers? Anthropologists who take this line to protect one another from public disclosure of their ethically questionable actions may fairly qualify for Gregor and Gross’s accolade as "enemies within" anthropology--- those anthropologists who ignore professional ethics, indigenous concerns and needs, and human rights, and thereby jeopardize indigenous receptivity to future anthropological research as well as the indigenes themselves.

Ex-President Lamphere and Task force Chair Hill have been quoted as insisting that the AAA does not have the legal powers and procedures to "investigate", much less bring to trial members of the Association who violate national and international laws, including human rights conventions. In line with these declarations, the Task force insisted that it was not, and could not be "investigating" violations of its own code of professional ethics by the anthropologists named in Tierney’s book. It rather lamely insisted that it was only able to carry out an "inquiry" as distinct from an investigation. We think that these cautious assurances miss the essential point about the Association’s basic functions, powers and responsibilities in such cases, and do not correspond to the actual activities carried out by the Task Force as reflected in its Report. We would argue that by adopting a professional Code of Ethics the Association has minimally committed and entitled itself to determine whether actions or statements by members conform to the standards of the code, and publicly state its conclusions. This function is analogous to that of a "truth commission", and is logically independent of censure or trial. It is this minimal but vital function that the Task force has performed in its Report. Gregor and Gross themselves say, and we agree, that the AAA should investigate a member if the integrity of the profession as a whole is at stake, although we don't think this is the only reason for an investigation. Obviously the AAA leadership and Task Force also agreed. The Task Force certainly had the ability (and, we would argue, the obligation) to investigate and assess serious allegations of ethical misconduct by its members, and it has done so in this unprecedented case. It is worth mentioning in this connection that as of this writing independent investigations are now going forward or being contemplated in the United States, Brazil, and Venezuela that complement that of the AAA. (See the previously mentioned websites).

We agree with Gregor and Gross that ideological, political, and theoretical differences within the profession of anthropology are of great concern, as they have been throughout the history of the discipline. We disagree with Gregor and Gross, however, that this controversy and the AAA initiatives can be reduced to purely political terms. Genuine politics—issues of powers and rights--are indeed involved, but so are ethics and ethnographic accuracy. The Yanomami must have the power, and the right, in dealing with researchers, to give only fully informed consent, to collaborate in research and to benefit from it, all in ways that they deem meaningful. They should also have the right to challenge what they feel are ethnographic misrepresentations by anthropologists that they believe are damaging to their interests, and anthropologists should respect and attend to, if not necessarily follow, such indigenous criticisms. To do less is to revert to the academic colonialism of previous centuries. Acting in violation of these basic principles threatens the integrity of anthropology as a profession, not to mention access to communities for research.

If the intellectual goals and methods of any specific anthropological project conflict with any concerns of the communities hosting the research, then there is a serious problem to be resolved, and the onus is on the researchers to resolve it by making appropriate adjustments. If the community is seriously threatened or endangered in ways that researchers might help deal with, for example a lethal measles epidemic spreading like wildfire, then basic research must take second priority to emergency assistance. This is the issue about Neel’s priorities during the measles epidemic that was repeatedly raised, but not adequately answered in the Report. Yes, indeed, it is probable, although not proven, that James Neel did save many Yanomami lives by providing some medical treatment, including vaccinations. However, what if Neel and the other two medical doctors on his team had temporarily suspended research activities before the epidemic actually broke out in the villages where they planned to work, and instead devoted full time to treating Yanomami? No doubt many more lives would have been saved. Is this failure contrary to the Hippocratic Oath? The Task Force Report deals with all such questions with a mixture of avoidance, denial and misstatement of the issues. Its handling of the ethical problems of Neel’s conduct of the 1968 Orinoco exertion are where the Report most closely approaches whitewash. See the critique by Turner on *Turner on Turner, point by point by point") included as an appendix with the Final Report, which the Report itself makes no attempt to answer.(Turner 2002)

Gregor and other defenders of Chagnon would like to reduce this controversy to modernism versus postmodernism and other intellectual and political struggles within contemporary anthropology. It appears that, in the opinion of some of Chagnon's defenders, he can do no wrong, and all of the numerous and diverse critics for over three decades have all been wrong in their allegations of unethical conduct. However, in our opinion and that of many others, this is first and foremost a matter of Yanomami survival, welfare, and rights, and how these have been jeopardized by violations of professional ethics. To characterize this controversy as a personal vendetta or an academic civil war ignores the revealing fact that it extends far beyond our profession. Non-academics have also repeatedly criticized Chagnon's work, including government officials, military personnel, journalists, members of the public, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and the Yanomami and other indigenes in Venezuela. Diverse Brazilians have expressed concerns as well. These non-anthropologists could care less about modernism versus postmodernism and the like.

There may be honest disagreement on the extent to which a scientist or scholar can ever be apolitical and amoral, or as Gregor and Gross frame it--- pursue "disinterested science in search of truth." Sociobiology and cultural anthropology are not necessarily incompatible: after all, isn't Chagnon, among others, a cultural anthropologist who applies sociobiology? Rather than trying to dismiss critics of Chagnon as simply anti-biology, anti-science, left-wing, postmodernist, professionally jealous, politically correct fanatics, and so on, why not critically analyze and assess the substance of their actual criticisms and respond constructively as scientists and scholars? We ourselves have engaged in constructive debate and discussion of differences in our profession as our publications as well as comments on the AAA web site demonstrate. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore professional ethics and any allegations of serious violations thereof.

Gregor repeats in the Chronicle his recurrent allegation that the Turner-Sponsel memo and Tierney book somehow jeopardize legitimate vaccination campaigns. Where is his evidence for such a serious allegation? It must be assumed he has none, since in two years he has never produced any.

Gregor and Gross insinuate that one member of the commission (they are referring to Fernando Coronil ) was "tainted" by association with one of the "principals" in the investigation, meaning one of us (Turner), while another (presumably Raymond Hames) was tainted by close association with another principal (Napoleon Chagnon). They call Turner a principal because he is, in their terms, "one of the accusers", by which they seem to mean anybody who has anything critical to say about Chagnon. This is not accurate: merely being a critic does not make one a "principal" in the institutionally relevant sense. To imply, as they do, that Coronil is not an independent critic because he is a friend and former student of Turner is outrageous: it is offensive, unfounded and a professional insult to Coronil. Coronil is an independent and established scholar, long past his Ph.D., and with a research career focused on modern Venezuelan culture and politics. He has never concerned himself with the Yanomami or other indigenous peoples. Although Coronil is a former student of Turner, and Hames is a former student of Napoleon Chagnon, Hames’ relation to Chagnon is very different. A reader can compare the resumes of these two members in the Final Report, and find that Hames has had a long-term association with Chagnon as co-author, co-grantee, co-investigator, and supporter in controversy that has continued down to the present. Coronil has no such relation with Turner. It is shameful that the President of the Association knuckled under to pressure from Chagnon partisans to "balance" Coronil by an overtly biased ally of Chagnon, Raymond Haymes, thus creating exactly the situation that his appointment was supposed to "correct". The deception and dissimulation with which this appointment was actually carried out, in violation of explicit promises and guarantees to Coronil that the appointment was not an attempt to "balance"his alleged bias and lack of independent judgement, is disgraceful and is a blot on the history of the Task Force. Under heavy criticism for conflict of interest, Hames finally resigned from the Task Force, giving apparent conflict of interest as his reason.

In the light of this disgraceful episode, it is incredible that Gregor and Gross can write that "No one represented Chagnon or Neel on the panel [Task Force]." Chagnon was represented by Hames and his input, which persists even in the Final Report long after his voluntary resignation (although he attempted to cover his tracks by asking that his name be removed from the numerous sections that he had authored or helped to author (this request was properly refused). Chagnon was invited to speak with the Task Force, but refused. Neel was represented by Trudy Turner (no relation to Terence Turner), as demonstrated by her report.

Gregor and Gross write that: "the panel [Task Force] did not seriously contest the accuracy of his [Chagnon's] portrayals or demonstrate any material damage that the villagers might have suffered from them." Not so: the Media Advisory on the Final Report, which is also posted on the AAA web site, includes this statement: "Chagnon's representation of Yanomami as `fierce people' conveyed a false image that was damaging, according to the Report. It regrets that Chagnon failed to publicly correct his erroneous depictions and support their human rights." (Also see documentation by Leda Martins on the Public Anthropology web site and by Survival International on their web site or the Hume web site).

The Final Report does address some issues of Yanomami health, Gregor and Gross to the contrary. It is also relevant to take into account that in November 2000, when the AAA established the Task Force, it also established a separate Commission on the Status of Indigenous Peoples in South America to investigate problems and issues of health and other matters. Of course the primary purpose of the Task Force’s investigation was to scrutinize the allegations made by Tierney and reflect on their ethical and other implications for the profession and its relationship with the people who host research.

The blood samples taken by Neel and others are under investigation by governmental and other authorities in both Venezuela and Brazil, and if merited, will be handled in appropriate legal proceedings, possibly for reparations. According to the Preface of the Final Report, the AAA will help facilitate discussions between the aggrieved Yanomami and scientists retaining the samples.

We agree with Gregor and Gross that the Yanomami situation remains grave and urgent. However, that is another matter which for decades some members and officials of the AAA, including ourselves, have been concerned with and acted on within the AAA and other contexts, for example, Turner as Chair of the Yanomami Commission and Sponsel as Chair of the Committee on Human Rights. Our involvement in such advocacy anthropology is partially documented in the Final Report. Concern about and investigation of the allegations made by Tierney on the one hand, and the ongoing crisis of the Yanomami on the other, are certainly interrelated rather than mutually exclusive, but they are also analytically and operationally separable. We would argue that an ethical anthropologist is necessarily concerned with the welfare of the community hosting the research, and that, indeed, is what the AAA Code of Ethics has consistently stated for decades through its various revisions. (See the AAA web site under Committee on Ethics).

Likewise, the gold prospectors are an extremely serious threat to the Yanomami, as Gregor and Gross assert. This is news to nobody, least of all ourselves, who have written reports and supported NGO actions to defend Yanomami areas against invasion and massacre for over ten years. However, that is also a separate issue analytically and operationally, even though it overlaps on some points related to allegations by Tierney, such as the gold mining activities of Chagnon's associate Charles Brewer-Carias, which have been exposed in Venezuelan newspapers.

The Final Report, including the Preface, contains several positive and constructive recommendations. Beyond that, we suggest that the next edition of the books by Chagnon and Tierney be thoroughly revised to adequately respond to the discussion and debate since the fall of 2000. Furthermore, any future statements about this controversy should try to keep the Yanomami and other people who host research, their human rights and professional ethics foremost in mind.

Leslie E. Sponsel is a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii`i. One of his most recent publications is "Advocacy in Anthropology" in the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences (Elsevier, 2001).

Terence Turner is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. One of his most recent publications is The Yanomami and the Ethics of Anthropological Practice (Cornell University Latin American Studies Program Occasional Papers Series, 2001).