Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: University of Michigan letter to the National Book Foundation
Source URL: http://www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/


May 29, 2001, update regarding "Darkness in Eldorado"

The University of Michigan pays serious attention to allegations of grave misconduct directed against our faculty. In response to the book "Darkness in El Dorado," by Patrick Tierney, published by W.W. Norton & Co., the Office of the Provost has produced a series of reports that have reflected our evolving understanding of the issues raised by this book. This latest update benefits from the important lectures and discussions at the University of Michigan during a three-part Colloquium Series, "Science, Ethics, Power," sponsored by this Office and organized by the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. These discussions as well as our current understanding of the allegations raised by Tierney's book have been informed by a careful evaluation of the large number of reports and reviews of the book produced in the United States, Venezuela and Brazil by scholars as well as by academic organizations and government commissions.

On the basis of this additional information, we can now confirm our original finding that there is no basis to the allegation that Dr. James Neel's research may have caused or intentionally intensified a measles epidemic among the Yanomami. Our original response to the allegation drew on the summary of the book provided by an e-mail written by professors Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel. At the colloquium organized by the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, Professor Turner explained that their understanding of the role of Dr. Neel's research in the measles epidemic was largely based on statements that had appeared in the galleys advance of Tierney's book but that were eliminated from its published version. Dr. Turner regretted the public dissemination of an e-mail they sent to alert officers of the American Anthropological Associations about this book as well as the harm its massive unauthorized diffusion had unwittingly caused. We are satisfied that there is now scholarly consensus that the measles epidemics had independent causes that were unrelated to Dr. Neel's research among the Yanomami.

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 the ethics, methods and effects of scientific research that require scholarly attention. These are complex questions that do not yield simple or definitive answers. Yet, as communities of scholarship, universities have appropriate means for examining these difficult issues, such as class discussions, interdisciplinary colloquia and academic publications. In addition, scholarly associations, through their ethics committees and special task forces, also provide mechanisms for investigating these questions. After a careful review of Tierney's book through an Ad Hoc Task Force, the American Anthropological Association decided to conduct a formal inquiry into the allegations of this book by creating a special commission, the El Dorado Task Force, whose findings will be presented to the Association next November. In Venezuela and Brazil similar task forces have been created, including a governmental commission formed by the Venezuelan government and a medical team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro which already produced a comprehensive report.

Given these considerations, the University of Michigan, as a major university with global responsibilities, can best respond to the issues raised by Tierney's book by promoting their discussion through regular academic channels. Our discussions at Michigan have helped place the examination of these controversial issues within a scholarly and constructive framework directed at evaluating the impact of research sponsored by U.S. universities among peoples anywhere in the world and ensuring that priority be given to their welfare.