Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: December 12, 2000
Source URL: http://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/darkness01.htm

jeanne's imaginary of William Holman Hunt's Scapegoat at the AAA

I write these notes while recovering from the flu. I wanted so much to have some information up on Tierney's book that I thought it would be better to start this read along essay, even though I've not been able to read under ideal circumstances. Please feel free to note mistakes so I can correct them. jeanne, December 12, 2000.

Copyright, December 2000: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata. "Fair Use" encouraged. Wecome to quote.

It is particularly gratifying for me to read Patrick Tierney's book. Especially after Dr. Irons' suggestion at the AAA meetings that no anthropologist buy the book, it is a pleasure to linger over the restraint in Tierney's language:

"Neel had no reason to think the Edmonston B could become transmissible. The outbreak took him by surprise. Still, he wanted to collect data even in the midst of disaster. I believe Neel's desires were divided---like the Yanomami community at Ocama, half of which were vaccinated and half of which was not. . . .the Yanomami's demonstrated vulnerability was probably one of Neel's motives in wanting to vaccinate the Venezuelan Yanomami. . . ." ( At. p. 82.)

This is very different from accusing Neel of vaccinating the Yanomami with no concern for their health. It seems to me that Tierney is raising the issue of conflict of interest more than of intent to harm. And that he is raising the issue in the sense of self-reflexivity, of asking us to think about the consequences when we extrapolate them long term. Imperialism and domination are not always as obvious as they seem to us in hindsight, as Tierney himself notes.

For the crucial scenes in the measles episode, read through pp. 71-82. Here Tierney is describing decisions that had to be made on the spot, in a developing crisis. There were indigenous people ill, but there was also Neel's belief that they would be genetically superior because of natural genetic selection, meaning that they were in no immediate danger from the vaccination. There was filming that had to be done - one of the immediate goals of their fieldwork, for which they were funded. And there was the AEC goal of blood collection for basic research.

Neel's belief about the non-danger to the ill Yanomami seems to have proven wrong. But he would not have been likely to have recognized that at the time these decisions had to be made. Thus, there were at least three agendas with conflicting needs, in a remote location. Tierney describes this so that we can get a grasp of what the situation was like. Yes, Tierney thinks the decisions made were wrong ones. But the likelihood of the need to make such conflicting decisions in the field is one of his points. Priorities need to be thought out well ahead of time in ethics committees, and discussed for their practical implications.

To continue expedition tasks that may further endanger human lives, such as the taking of doctors and nurses, and leaving the Yanomami without access to medical care, on the assumption that emergency care would arrive, suggests at best a fuzziness of priorities. (At pp. 76 ff.) I am not an anthropologist. I do not have access to field notes and data. Neither, in a very real sense, did Tierney. But, as a sociologist committed to peace and justice, including human rights, I would like to hear some clear and well-documented discussions, by those who do have access to all the data. Because I would like to know how we can avoid such wrong decisions in the future.

As I have a chance to go back over each of Tierney's footnotes, and there are many, I would like to better understand the sequencing of events. Not for the placing of blame, but for the understanding of just how easy it is to allow one goal to displace another in the immediacy of praxis.

More later . . . jeanne, December 12, 2000