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Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Hill1.htm

Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's
Darkness in El Dorado

Kim Hill
University of New Mexico

The Tierney book raises a myriad of ethical issues concerning the behavior of anthropologists as well as that of Tierney and his collaborators. Because of space limitations I treat only the most serious of these here. But it is worth noting that the book also raises questions about poor judgement that are not strictly ethical. For example: Is it tacky to produce films which seem primarily designed for career self promotion rather than anthropological education? Such documentaries are common in anthropology, they are facilitated by the strong encouragement of the media and they often make money and win prizes. They are often blatant productions of self promotion, but not unethical. Finally, the book should also lead to an examination of the hypocrisy displayed in many attacks across ideological camps in anthropology. The wise philosophy of not casting stones unless one is perfect should be reflected on by all anthropologists who seek to discredit others in the profession. In this light, Tierney could easily have damaged the reputations of the Salesian missionaries and several of the key "witnesses" in his book. Why he chose to only go after Chagnon and Neel are part of the story of this book, and Tierney leaves little to the imagination on that count. His flaming denunciations of sociobiology and Chagnon's evolutionary views of Yanomamo violence suggest that he was prepared to print anything that would undermine his ideological enemies. This includes not only unverified quotes from personal conversations that are reported by Chagnon enemies, but comments on Chagnon's appearance (his "beer belly"), speculations on his politics (incorrectly implying that he is far right wing), and unsubstantiated behavioral allegations that have no basis whatsoever (eg. claims that he asked for sexual favors from Yanamamo girls). This sleazy journalism is pathetic and has no place whatsoever in ethical anthropology.

First and foremost, anthropologists should be aware that we while have multiple intellectual goals we should share a single priority. Our goals are to study issues of academic interest, but the health and welfare of the study population must always take precedence over any academic goal. Tierney's most notable charges, if true would indeed constitute major ethical violations. However, we now have enough information to conclude that the most serious of those charges are false. Neel and colleagues did NOT intentionally infect the Yanomamo with measles using a dangerous vaccine in order test certain scientific theories. Tierney claimed in the first draft of the book that "these zealots of biological determinism sacrificed everything-- including the lives of their subjects-- to spread their gospel" (page 17). Since no such thing ever happened we must wonder why Tierney was so prepared to try to make such a case with so little evidence. What is his gospel? Indeed the entire case presented in the book is based on leaping to unwarranted conclusions based on insufficient scientific background, assuming the worst about the actors, and backing unwarranted speculations with distorted information. The seriousness of such a charge should have demanded impeccable evidence, and the evidence in the book does not begin to rise to that level. Indeed a good fraction of the footnotes in the book provide no support whatsoever for the assertions in the text. The attempt to ascribe an evil motive (allegedly tied to a scientific viewpoint unpalatable to Tierney) to an event that never happened suggests that Tierney was engaging in ideological warfare and was prepared to misrepresent the truth as one of his tactics. Such behavior is clearly unethical.

Likewise, Tierney and some of his supporters have sought to "prove" that the measles vaccination program was mainly an experiment rather than a medical procedure designed to save lives. In their simple view of science it must be either one or the other. Published and unpublished documents however, clearly show that Neel intended to BOTH vaccinate the Yanomamo and research aspects of the Yanomamo reaction to vaccine. This combination of treatment and research is not remotely unethical and is standard practice in all of modern medicine. In fact, it would have been highly irresponsible of Neel not to collect data about the vaccination program which could be later used in understanding epidemics among other indigenous populations. Neel acquired and delivered the vaccines at a considerable cost to himself (something that government agencies and missionaries failed to do) because prior blood sampling had shown that the Yanomamo had not been exposed to measles (Tierney also alleges that those blood collections were unethical, but, in fact they were critical to saving Yanamamo lives). Ample evidence (especially his own field notes) shows that Neel behaved ethically and tried to get information of scientific value. Because of the urgency and chaos of the field situation, however, the vaccination of threatened villages took precedence over any research design. He gave vaccinations in some villages to which he never returned, and gave vaccinations to many people whose names were never recorded. Since research on the vaccine required measuring antibody titres of vaccinated individuals at a later time clearly this could not have possibly been part of any research protocol. Again, however, the effort by Tierney to vilify Neel's behavior suggests that there were prior motives that directed his interpretation of events. Tierney leaves little doubt in his development of his case against Neel (including irrelevant attempts to connect him to alleged actions of the Atomic Energy Commission) that his smear is motivated by (what Tierney believed to be) Neel's theoretical views on issues that Tierney feels strongly about. This is ideological terrorism pure and simple. Tierney shows the willingness to use any means necessary, including misrepresentation, in order to discredit an academic viewpoint that is disagreeable to him. Such behavior has no place in the free market of ideas that is modern academia.

Other charges of unethical behavior by Neel and Venezuelan scientists are based on faulty logic. Tierney asserts that all research done on indigenous populations that is not designed to help those same populations is unethical. I strongly disagree. Research done on native peoples that can be used to help the world community at large (as in the case of basic medical research) or other indigenous populations (as in the case of Neel's studies on virgin soil epidemics) is absolutely ethical as long as: 1) there is informed consent by the study subjects as to the dangers of the data collection procedures; 2) the subjects clearly understand that the research is not being carried out just to help them; 3) there is fair renumeration for the subject's cooperation; and 4) the procedures are not potentially dangerous. Thus, for example I see nothing unethical about using the Yanomamo as study subjects to research childhood asthma which is a major killer in the US but not present among the Yanomamo. Indeed the lack of this medical problem among the Yanomamo is the very reason why they represent a good study population. Likewise, Marcel Roche's research on goiter with Yanomamo study subjects using small amounts of radioactive iodine was vigorously denounced by Tierney but was not unethical per se. It did however lack adequate informed consent and should not be repeated today under the same conditions. Roche's logic at the time was that much could be learned about goiter which would benefit numerous Venezuelan's with the disease, as well as indigenous populations and probably the Yanomamo themselves in the future. His research protocol was not dangerous, but was too complicated to be understood by the Yanomamo participants, and was thus not explained (the Yanomamo couldn't possibly understand radioactive tracers at that time). Such research should always be voluntary, informed, and appropriately rewarded. Roche's lack of informed consent was an error by today's standards but certainly did not represent the callous disregard for Yanomamo welfare that Tierney suggests. Indigenous peoples should not be indoctrinated to believe that all research done with them should only benefit them. Such a view is based on a racist double standard that assumes that native peoples are special in the world. They are not. They are members of a larger world community and they should cooperate with that community for the common good, just as they expect to receive the benefits from research done on other communities (all the modern medicine they receive is based on prior research with other groups). Most natives with whom I have discussed this issue are proud to be able to contribute to the world community in this way.

Tierney also makes numerous allegations against Napoleon Chagnon that constitute important ethical issues. Most important among these, he claims that Chagnon's portrayals of the Yanomamo have harmed them, that Chagnon's gifts caused conflict, that Chagnon falsified or misrepresented data to support certain hypotheses, that Chagnon used unethical methods to obtain data from the Yanomamo, that Chagnon allied himself with people who intended to harm the Yanomamo, and that Chagnon did little to help the Yanomamo during his many years working with them. These charges should cause all anthropologists to reflect on their own fieldwork, (even if the charges against Chagnon are false). First, it is true that anthropologists should show concern about the ways that information they publish could harm a study population or embarrass them. This is the case even if the portrayals are based on scientific data and are true. Such concern does not imply that we should falsify results to make study populations look flawless, but simply that we must be sensitive to potential damage that can come from some types of information. When M. Hurtado and I published a book about Ache demography we were careful not to overemphasize high infanticide rates and rampant promiscuity in Ache society even though such patterns were evident. We did not call the Ache "the baby killers" or "the love makers" on the jacket of our book, nor did we emphasize exotic behavioral patterns in the lay media. Instead we put the data in scientific papers and books where they belong and where they can be discussed by appropriately qualified scholars. In fact we were so concerned about the potential damage of our data that we met with several community leaders before publishing our book. The result of that meeting was an agreement that we would not publish our findings in Spanish. This meant that our work was unlikely to be cited by local media and made available to the close neighbors of the population who might use it against the Ache, but instead the information would be read primarily by a well-educated segment of the world population that was more likely to be sympathetic to the contingencies associated with these behaviors in the first place. This is an example of the type of compromise between scientific findings and image concern that should be a part of modern anthropology. The same common sense rule applies to embarrassing portrayals. Nobody wants photos published of them picking their nose, even if that is an actual behavior that they engage in from time to time. Drug induced dazes and filthy faces are not "cute" to the people being portrayed even if they are "good copy". Anthropologists have a responsibility to be sensitive to the feelings of their study population as well as being true to their research results. But fairness on this issue demands that we also reveal the hypocrisy of the Tierney exposé on this account. Tierney criticizes Chagnon for portraying the Yanomamo as excessively violent in print and in film, yet he published a book claiming that Andean Indian populations still practice child sacrifice! There are few other descriptions that could be more damming to the reputation of a native group. Unlike Chagnon's warlike portrayal of the Yanomamo which is backed up by a good deal of independent corroboration, Tierney's description is not supported by any responsible anthropological study.

Another important issue raised by the Tierney book is the extent to which gifts from anthropologists cause conflicts in the study population. I agree that all anthropologists should be aware of potential problems caused by their gifts, but I do not believe there is much empirical support for the notion that Chagnon's gift giving caused any more conflict among the Yanomamo than that of the missionaries, the witnesses against Chagnon in this book, or even Tierney himself. All anthropologists must be willing to reward the cooperation of the study population. Chagnon's gifts were typical and not particularly excessive given the rewards that he gained from his research (it would be unethical not to share such economic success). While it is possible to exercise bad judgement in this realm, and induce social conflict, (for example giving massive support to one faction in a village and nothing to others), Tierney provides no serious evidence that Chagnon made such errors. The solution that Tierney appears to advocate-- that anthropologists should provide no material goods to study population-- is paternalistic and would surely be opposed by all native groups. And again, why was Chagnon singled out for criticism when the Salesian missionaries who hosted Tierney have provided orders of magnitude higher quantities of the same trade goods?

Tierney claims that Chagnon falsified data or engaged in misleading data analyses in order to obtain a desired result from scientific study. The scientific issue concerns levels of Yanomamo warfare and whether men who have killed have higher reproductive success. The claim of data falsification is clearly a serious ethical issue, but no credible evidence is presented to back this claim. Whether Chagnon's data collection methods, sampling procedures, data analytical methods and conclusions are valid is a proper and important topic for scientific discussion but has no ethical ramifications. If Chagnon's work includes methodological problems we should point that out in order to improve future anthropological study, but such errors are not "unethical". I and other sociobiologists have identified some weaknesses in the oft-cited Science study, as have many Chagnon opponents. A strong demonstration that killing raises male fitness would require a random sample of men from some time cohort, an analyses of the impact of "having killed" on both fertility and mortality of those men, a multivariate design that would eliminate age effects and other possible covariates of both killer status and fitness, and the coding of killing as a time-variant covariate in order to establish that killing per se caused the observed demographic effects. Chagnon's study is preliminary and suggestive and should be treated as such. It is an important result that suggests that in societies where most men go on raids, those men who are successful and survive have more wives. This may partially explain why the willingness to use violence under some conditions is part of the male human psche. The precise cause of the association, however, is not possible to determine from the data presented and there are many possible interpretations including ones that do not imply that men gain wives directly by killing. But such discussions should remain in the scholarly realm of those who understand them and care about getting the true answer (something not characteristic of many Chagnon opponents). The only ethical issue I see in this debate is whether data are intentionally misrepresented in order to win a scientific argument. In this light Tierney's views are both scientifically unqualified and blatantly biased. In his treatment of this topic, evidence is selectively presented and counter evidence available in the same cited sources remains conspicuously unmentioned. While this may not be techically unethical it is certainly bad science. It is typical of a lawyerly style (to present only the evidence supporting one side) rather than scientific discourse (which includes putting an idea at risk by examining all evidence, pro and con).

In discussing Chagnon's methods Tierney also asserts that Chagnon was culturally insensitive in obtaining names and genealogies and often tricked informants into providing information, or exploited existing conflicts in order to get sensitive information from enemies about each other. These charges if true seem borderline unethical. But, many anthropologists use a variety of tricks to obtain desired sensitive information, and journalists are a thousand times worse (Tierney is alleged to have decieved many informants while gathering information for this book). Cultural anthropologists routinely ask for information from children or neighbors, and show no reluctance to delve into local gossip networks, opportunistically exploiting social divisions as a way of getting information that would not be obtained from certain individuals voluntarily. The ethics of such techniques should indeed be carefully considered by professional anthropologists. Is obtaining the dirt on an individual from their neighbors unethical? Is obtaining information on sexual activities through secret inquiry a legitimate activity? Does it matter whether the anthropologist has lived with the study population for one week or 20 years? Many anthropologists explicitly practice a moral double standard here. Any techniques are acceptable when exposing the activities of certain politically incorrect groups (oppressors, etc.) but the same methods are unethical ways to get information on politically correct groups (eg. the oppressed). This may seem like a reasonable moral position until we consider who decides which groups can acceptably be deceived. Should we conclude that feminist anthropologists can lie and deceive men (who they view as oppressors) to collect data, but the same tactics of collecting data on women are unethical? I can't judge Chagnon's actions in this realm without access to the Yanomamo that he worked with. One guideline might be that if you have angered the study population through your data collection methods you are doing something wrong. Tierney asserts that Chagnon infuriated the Yanomamo by obtaining the names of adults and dead people. But, Peters and Alberts also obtained names and genealogies of hundreds of living and dead Yanomamo, and all available evidence suggests that his study population was quite accepting of these activities. Thus, there is little doubt that there are appropriate ways to obtain such information and that Yanomamo names are not absolutely taboo as Tierney asserts. The question here is whether Chagnon used methods unacceptable to a large fraction of the study population. Certainly any data collection can potentially anger a small faction (usually those who want to hide certain truths). But anthropologists routinely collect information that has the potential of upsetting some individuals (often those in power who don't want some of their behaviors revealed). Anthropologists need to develop specific guidelines about what kinds of data collection are acceptable and how this changes depending on who is being studied and what the relationship is between the anthropologist and the study population.

Tierney also alleges that Chagnon allied himself with disreputable characters (Ceclia Matos and Charles Brewer) who intended harm to the Yanomamo. I too have voiced my own displeasure at these associations, but I think this charge consists of exercising bad judgment rather than a serious ethical shortfall. It is important to remember that both these individuals were "legitimate" Venezuelan government officials at the time. There was no evidence available to Chagnon at the time that either of these two intended to dispossess the Yanomamo of their land or carry out illegal mining on their lands. Had that been the case Chagnon's association with them would have clearly been harmful to his study population and thus unethical. But Tierney provides no convincing motive as to why Chagnon would support those who he believed intended to steal Yanomamo lands or engage in gold mining in those areas. Chagnon's only statements on these issues suggest that he has always favored titling Yanomamo lands to the Yanomamo themselves, and he has always opposed gold mining activities on Yanomamo land. Instead it appears that Chagnon simply associated with these characters because they were powerful Venezuelans who could help him gain access to the Yanomamo at a time when it was being denied. Associating with unsavory characters seems like unwise behavior by a scientist who very badly wanted to continue his research, but no obvious ethical violations are apparent.

Another ethical issue that I believe is one of the most important in the Tierney book concerns our responsibilities to provide long term assistance to study populations and what constitutes a fair redistribution of the economic gains that comes from our collaboration with anthropological study populations. When I visited the Yanomamo I heard complaints that Chagnon had made a great deal of money off the Yanomamo and had done next to nothing to help them or share his economic success with them. Unfortunately I must honestly report that I have heard the same comments expressed about me and my wife Magdlena Hurtado at our own long term field site, despite having provided nearly a quarter million dollars in economic aid for that population during the past 20 years and the time cost to both of us has been enormous. This included providing long term medical care, paying for emergency evacuation and hospital bills, building schools, clinics, housing, water and electrical facilities, working to obtain land titles, providing long term employment, and designing training programs for the study group. Chagnon himself should address this issue and explain what types of assistance he provided. It is rumored that he made a good deal of money from books and films about the Yanomamo and we must consider that his entire lifetime academic earnings can be directly tied to the Yanomamo since his scientific reputation was based soley on his Yanomamo work. Chagnon paid the Yanomamo for data when it was collected but apparently did not provide any other assistance to the tribe. Is this a fair distribution of the gains that came from the Chagnon-Yanomamo collaboration, or is it exploitation? I believe that this is an issue Chagnon should discuss directly with the Yanoamo who helped him through the years. Unfortunately, Chagnon's enemies made it impossible for him to return to the Yanomamo for many years so he couldn't possibly have helped them even if that were his top priority. Although Chagnon has been singled out here for criticism, this is an issue that applies to many anthropologists. I have seen dozens of field anthropologists over the years work in precisely the same way as Chagnon is alleged to have done. They provide a few gifts to informants and then never again return to share out any of the economic success that comes from a career that was built on that fieldwork. Very few anthropologists could withstand the scrutiny of careful investigation into their own activities on this front. Likewise Tierney claims no moral high ground on this account. He was asked directly by Magdlena Hurtado at a press conference at the 2000 AAA meetings in San Francisco if he intends to donate proceeds from his book to help the Yanomamo and he remained silent. In other interviews, when asked about his economic motives, he has insisted that he deserves an monetary reward for his years of hard work (how does that differ from Chagnon's claims on his income?). Peters donated all the proceeds from his 1998 book on the Yanomamo. Magdalena Hurtado and I donated all the proceeds from our two Ache books as well as all money we have made during the past 20 years from selling Ache photo and film rights. I would like to hear from the Tierney allies here. I personally observed some of the fiercest Chagnon critics (from the book) in the field. I saw no evidence of their assistance to the Yanomamo beyond the typical anthropological payment to informants. What exactly have they done that allows them to cast the first stone?

The Tierney book also raises some questions about the ethics of other visitors to the Yanomamo region. Two important examples are the behavior of the film crew of the Nova film "Warriors of the Amazon", and Jacques Lizot's alleged sexual predation on Yanomamo teenage boys. During the making of the Nova film four Yanomamo died in a village of 90 people, according to the filmaker's own accounts. Another woman was deathly ill, and was extensively filmed while suffering, but recovered without assistance from the filmakers. Although the film crew expended exorbitant resources on their production they did nothing of significance to save the Yanomamo lives slowly vanishing before their eyes. They did however fly in an extra camera from London and stick around long enough to film a climax to their project, the funeral pyre of a dead women who could have easily been saved by their intervention. This represents a callous prioritizing of career and monetary gain over the lives of the native population. In a less than life-and-death issue, Jacques Lizot's sexual escapades remain unverified but also raise ethical questions. Some information cited in the Tierney book suggests that rape, and prostitution are involved. If true these would be serious ethical issues. Sadly, the Salesian missionaries, who have known about Lizot's activities for years, cynically remark only that Tierney is bothered by these activities either because the sex is homosexual or the participants are Yanomamo. The lack of perception about the moral issues involved suggests that the Salesians have their own reasons for ignoring the rumors they have heard. The Salesians certainly have been vocal about the prostitution introduced by gold miners, why the silence on Lizot?

Finally, this essay would be unbalanced if I didn't also comment on the unethical behavior of those who attempted to discredit Chagnon and Neel ONLY BECAUSE of theoretical disagreements with the type of work they were doing. For years Chagnon enemies have attempted to keep him from gaining access to the Yanomamo because they are displeased with the questions he asks and the results of his scientific research. Those critics engage in the "naturalistic fallacy" of Hume. They believe that "what is" in nature provides moral guidelines for "what should be". They are afraid that a particular scientific finding will undermine their own moral agenda for the world. Their holy war is misguided since Yanomamo behavioral patterns have no necessary implications for how people in modern society should behave, nor what types of behavior might be eliminated or promoted through appropriate social incentives. Whether Yanomamo violence levels are high and whether killers have high reproductive success in that group is irrelevant to any important modern social issue, yet some Chagnon opponents have reacted as if the future of modern society were at stake when assaulting this result. This has led to the manipulation of the Yanomamo themselves as pawns in a percieved political Armageddon. Chagnon was denied research permits for years because his work was offensive to some and because the Yanomamo supposedly didn't want him to come back. However, Chagnon opponents have incessantly coached a small number of Yanomamo spokesmen in order to legitimize their own ideological oppression. Tierney hides this fact although it is easily discovered. When I visited the upper Orinoco I heard the Yanomamo complain about Chagnon's films despite having never seen them. They told me that Chagnon wrote books about them calling them savage animals. When I asked how they knew about this they told me that Salesian missionaries and other anthropologists had told them. Indeed they even believed they knew what "sociobiology" was. According to them it was the portrayal of them as nothing more than animals (but implying that civilized people are not animals). In other words "sociobiology" was an explicitly racist philosophy that denigrated them vis a vis civilized people. This is a sad misrepresentation of an evolutionary view of human behavior, but it also illustrates an obvious fact. Somebody is maliciously coaching the Yanomamo--- no Yanomamo ever read anything about sociobiological theory. The Yanomamo have experienced a massive campaign of propaganda by anti-Chagnon/anti-sociobiology forces. Those same Chagnon enemies later use Yanomamo mouthpieces to insist that Chagnon is not welcome. In 1988 I witnessed a meeting at the Platanal mission in which a Salesian priest and two anthropologists discussed ways to keep Chagnon out of the upper Orinoco. That meeting included statements about Chagnon's alleged evil activities in front of several Yanomamo witnesses. I take seriously the fact that some Yanomamo are unhappy with Chagnon's work. But I also believe that the intentional distortion of an academic competitor's viewpoint in order to manipulate native peoples to oppose further research by that person is a blatant violation of professional ethics.

Most current cultural anthropologists are very poorly informed about different evolutionary views of human behavior. Some have engaged in a massive ideological hate campaign against such perspectives for many years based on their own ignorance of behavioral biology, and their own religious adherence to certain views about human uniqueness in the natural world. The ferocity of their hatred for the sociobiological threat to their worldview evokes memories of the religious reaction to Darwin in the 19th century. Despite the fact that serious scientific investigation into the relationship between biology and human behavior is now found on almost every major university campus in the US, and in most large anthropology departments, some theoretical "commandos" remain committed to their jihad against sociobiology. Tierney is a part of this terrorist band of self-righteous, shock troops against "incorrect" views of human nature. The furor of his attack in combination with his complete lack of criticism of the Salesian missionaries who hosted him (and certainly must have made mistakes of their own), and the religious writings in his previous book suggest that Tierney has his own very non-academic motive for writing this book. In the process he shows a complete disregard for the truth in order to attack his enemies. He suggested that sociobiological "zealots" sacrificed the lives of their study subjects to "spread their gospel". But he distorted and misrepresented information throughout his book to make a case against his villains that would have almost evaporated if backed with the truth. In his own zealousness to promote HIS world view he demonstrates that while he may not be willing to sacrifice the lives of his opponents in this battle, he has no qualms about sacrificing a lifetime of their work, and destroying their reputation. He is not bothered that James Neel's children and grandchildren must live with friends and neighbors who have heard false accusations that he engaged in genocidal experiments. Thus Tierney spreads HIS gospel--- with a philosophy that the ends justifies the means and "collateral damage" is acceptable in this holy war of ideology. He admits early on in the book that he has abandoned "traditional objective journalism" (p. XXIV) for a cause that he clearly considers more important than truth. Had Tierney stuck to the truth in this book it would have constituted an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of anthropological ethics. If he had identified the true causes of current Yanomamo suffering we could believe that he was mainly concerned with their welfare. But in this book the Yanomamo are just stage props in an ideological holy war. And that is sadly unethical.