Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Scientific American, November 21, 2000
Source URL: http://www.freerepublic.com/forum/a3a1af0874014.htm

Anthropology's Ugliest Debate: Controversies rage over a scandalous new book on the Yanomamö Indians

Two months after the first reports of the scandalous allegations made in a new book called Darkness in El Dorado circulated among anthropologists, reactions have reached a fevered pitch. At issue is whether two scholars really did start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö people of the Brazilian Amazon and cook their data in the name of science, as suggested by journalist author Patrick Tierney, or whether they stand wrongly accused, victims of an academic witch hunt. Over the past few weeks various organizations and individuals have issued formal position statements on the matter. Most recently, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Anthropologists (AAA) in San Francisco, hundreds of scholars gathered last Thursday night to discuss the inflammatory book at a four-hour-long forum.

That forum recapped a running controversy in the community, which first ignited when University of Hawaii anthropologist Leslie Sponsel and Cornell University anthropologist Terry Turner sent an e-mail to the AAA about the then-forthcoming book, which lists a series of heinous crimes said to have been committed against the Yanomamö by famed anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the late geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan. They described the story as "a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad" and declared that it would be seen as "putting the whole discipline on trial." Specifically, the book charges that Neel administered harmful measles vaccine into the previously unexposed Yanomamö people in an experiment designed to support his ideas about eugenics. Chagnon, on the other hand, is accused of causing violence among the Yanomamö in order to substantiate his ideas about human nature.

In recent weeks, however, critics have amassed considerable data to the contrary. Tierney, they insist, lacks evidence to support his claims. Indeed, UCSB anthropologist John Tooby and his colleagues have compiled a 74-page rebuttal to the accusations made in Darkness in El Dorado. Among the many counterpoints provided in that report, one stands out as particularly damning: Tierney alleges in the book that Neel’s team administered the Edmonston B measles vaccine to the Yanomamö, knowing it was dangerous and thus sparking an epidemic in which live virus from the vaccine spread from person to person. But when Tooby spoke with various investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he found out that Tierney’s measles argument was fundamentally flawed. Edmonston B, though no longer in use today, was considered appropriate at the time, and would have proved perfectly safe under those conditions. Moreover, researchers have never documented a single case of a live-virus measles vaccine leading to contagious transmission. According to Neel’s own account, he and his team were trying to quell an outbreak of the virus.

Apparently the arguments against Tierney’s measles scenario are so strong that even Turner, one of Tierney‘s strongest proponents, has revised his position on that particular aspect of the story. But others fear the damage has already been done. "Tierney’s claim that an immunization program can start an epidemic has been carried around the world in media reports," Tooby writes. "This myth could compromise the ability of health care workers to administer such programs, especially in poor countries, and people could die as a result."

Tooby and his team are not the only ones attacking the book. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to which Neel belonged when he was alive, has issued a statement correcting misinformation concerning both the academy and Neel. Like Tooby, the NAS discusses the safety of Edmonston B. Both reports further point out that news of a measles epidemic in Yanomamö territory was reported by missionaries prior to Neel’s arrival. The NAS also asserts that Neel did not subscribe to eugenic principles. "On the contrary," they note, "his most substantial professional contribution was wrestling the control of human genetics away from eugenic scientists."

Critics have flocked to Chagnon’s defense as well. In response to Tierney’s charge that Chagnon’s gifts to the Yanomamö of metal objects such as pots and machetes (given in exchange for being able to observe them) led to violence, the UCSB researchers point out that the missionaries and gold miners in the area provided many more metal tools to the Yanomamö than Chagnon did, as well as shotguns. These people would have also exposed the Yanomamö to disease, they say. Ironically, according to the UCSB report, Tierney’s key sources--other scientists who worked with the Yanomamö--are accusing Chagnon of the same types of misconduct that he had previously accused them of. The University of Michigan also dismissed the claim that Chagnon was responsible for warfare among the Yanomamö, noting that accounts of their behavior dating back to the mid-1800s, long before Chagnon’s arrival, describe them as warlike. What’s more, the University of Michigan report and others posit that the accusations made in Darkness in El Dorado stem largely from a long-standing academic feud between Chagnon and both Sponsel and Turner, rather than from Tierney’s own recent discoveries.

Although he faced numerous critics Thursday night at the AAA forum, Tierney apparently stood his ground. "I know it was a wrenching book to read, and for me to write," he said, according to a Reuters report. "I do appreciate how difficult it is to come to terms with some of these issues." Further investigations should reveal who is to be believed. But no matter the outcome, in the end, one group of researchers--and perhaps a reporter--will have tarnished anthropology’s reputation. They may have also jeopardized the survival of the Yanomamö and other indigenous peoples around the world. --Kate Wong