Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
Home | Darkness in El Dorado | Contact

Internet Source: Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas, May 27th 2001
Source URL: http://www.publicanthropology.org/Journals/Engaging-Ideas/RT(YANO)/Hill2.htm

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


Kim Hill
University of New Mexico

I am happy to discover that all commentators made useful and valid observations in the first round of discussion. This is particularly important because some of us have taken very contradictory stances regarding the veracity of the Tierney book, and the tensions between scientifically oriented anthropologists and non-scientific or even anti-scientific anthropologists long ago reached destructive levels within the discipline. The debate on the Tierney book has to some extent been symptomatic of these much larger tensions in anthropology, which have in fact led to the division of several anthropology departments along "science" vs. "non-science" lines in recent years. If anthropology is to survive as a integrated discipline with multiple approaches and multiple areas of interest greater communication still must be fostered, and both camps must become more introspective concerning their own weaknesses. In this light, I note that two of the commentators focused entirely on alleged ethical misconduct by scientists (specifically biological and biomedical anthropologists) but appear to have drawn no lessons at all from the Tierney book concerning ethical issues that might apply to cultural anthropologists and various types of applied anthropologists. I find that double standard to be unfortunate. Only when each group turns the lens of introspection upon itself as well as others can there be a sincere exchange of ideas.

In general I agree with most ethical issues raised by Peters. In particular I agree that missionaries should be judged individually and according to their current activities and not by some stereotypical notions that are derived from the activities of a half century or more ago. I also believe that it is critical to recognize that many modern advocacy anthropologists are in fact missionaries themselves, with their own zeal for evangelization toward a set of values and behaviors that they think best for native groups. Very little differs between them and their missionary adversaries except the religion being preached. Indeed, in their zeal to condemn religious organizations, some such anthropologists have been actively involved in clearly unethical behavior, propagating false rumors about missionaries (e.g. claiming that they are agents of the CIA or mineral prospectors, etc.) as a tactic of territorial competition to gain exclusive access to native groups. I also believe that missionaries have at times been more courageous than anthropologists in their willingness to take a stance against destructive behaviors that characterizes some native populations. Anthropologists, still enamored with an ideal of pure cultural relativism, often seem prepared to ignore or even defend gross human rights violations when committed by members of small oppressed ethic minorities. Indeed they often encourage native groups to denounce human rights violations committed by others, but not to honestly inspect their own shortcomings (Was the recent Yanomamo denunciation of sexual abuse by the military reported by Albert an example? Did the Yanomamo at the December 2000 assembly take a hard look at their own culturally prevalent sexual and physical abuse of women?) Thankfully this position is changing among some modern anthropologists who are now prepared to tackle extremely complicated ethical dilemmas of human rights vs. rights of cultural expression. But missionaries, not anthropologists, have been at the forefront of moral cultural criticism.

However, I would also suggest to Peters that many anthropologists might be more favorably inclined toward religious organizations if members of those groups were more forthright in their own self criticism. Many mission organizations are extremely closed, with an "us vs. them" mentality toward all who are not members of their organization (including even other missionaries), and many have an explicit policy of prohibiting self criticism to any outside audience. This, in conjunction with the fact that they set up outposts in remote areas where there are no external controls over their behavior can lead to problems. I have seen and been informed by native peoples of enough missionary abuses in South America to cast a deep shadow of sadness upon my own view of human nature. I have seen missionaries lie and deceive in competition with each other and as a tactic to convert natives. I have seen them use blatant economic incentives as a strategy to obtain conversions. I have seen them economically exploit natives and heard of numerous cases of sexual abuse in native populations in several South American countries. Some missionaries take literally the idea that they are "commandos for Christ", treating native conversions as a military campaign (replete with military jargon and demeaning code names for the tribes they work with). Some are overtly racist, and many more are taught about their moral superiority in a way that breeds subtle racist attitudes. Almost all missionary groups seem strongly committed to a philosophy of territorial control and many would happily deny access by all outsiders to "their Indians" if it were within their capabilities.

A common trend in the world has been for native groups to evict missionaries from their settlements between 15 and 50 years after first contact with them. Indeed one high official of a large missionary organization in a Latin American country admitted to me that his operating plan with a particular tribe was to make several key converts among the Indians before the missionaries were kicked out, so that those Indians could then carry on the evangelization work after the missionaries were evicted. Some missionaries want to be viewed as saints, and send back glowing reports of their sacrifices and successes to help in fund raising. They are less candid about admitting that they often fail, that many "conversions" do not constitute any serious incorporation of Christian ideals, and that their work is in fact a "job" that includes economic rewards and that they often lack any other practical skills that would make them marketable back home. In short, both their sacrifices and successes are often overstated. I agree with Peters that there should be an anthropology of anthropology but I would also suggest to my missionary friends that there should be a missionary study of missionary work. Why do so many native populations reject missionary ideas and missionary presence in their communities and what factors led to missionary success or failure?

I am also highly sympathetic to the frustration expressed by Martins. She is clearly a deeply dedicated individual who has expended a great deal of effort trying to combat some of the forces of Yanomamo oppression and suffering. She must feel a sense of professional betrayal to discover that a fellow anthropologist, through his ethnographic writing, seems to be supporting the very foes that she battles on a daily basis. But my reaction to her analyses is essentially the same as that expressed by Hames in the first round of discussion (and the same position that was taken by Skip Rappaport when he was president of the AAA). Chagnon cannot be held accountable for all imaginable misuses of his work, and there is actually little evidence that his work affected Brazilian policy. Brazilian politicians, if they read anything before taking action, read only the essays produced by Brazilian journalists. Most of us learn the hard way that we have no control over what journalists say about our work or how they use it to forward their own agendas. Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomamo as a society in which small scale raiding (and the potential for being attacked) is an important part of life is congruent with the view that emerges in many other Yanomamo ethnographic works. But Brazilian opinions about Yanamamo warfare are probably more influenced by actual events in which local Brazilian were witnesses than anything published in stuffy academic journals. There were numerous Yanomamo attacks on Brazilian settlers during the 20th century (Peters documents a few of these in his recent book) and almost certainly the Brazilian population’s image of the Yanomamo was more influenced by these actual instances of violence than by the paper account of an American who never even worked in Brazil. Thus, I doubt that Chagnon’s accounts played much of a role in the attitudes of Brazilian politicians, or the local population. But, all this said, I must also agree with Martins that we should expect Chagnon to engage highly visible and energetic attempts to counter the misuse of his work if he were to discover that it was taking place. The press always has an advantage in these situation because they alone monopolize access to a large audience. But despite these odds we should do what we can to counter their abuses. For example, recently John Leo used some of my criticism of the Tierney book in an nationally syndicated editorial column in a way that seemed to imply I thought cultural anthropology was a useless enterprise. Although, I myself could not possibly reach all the readers that were exposed to Leo’s editorial I did write a strong letter of protest to the faculty in my department disassociating myself from Leo’s views. Ideas in that letter, were later extracted by Louise Lamphere, president of the AAA, for use in her Albuquerque Journal editorial rebuttal of Leo. Sometimes we can do little to counter the journalistic misuse of our work, but I agree with Martins that we must at least make a concerted effort, particularly if our study population is being harmed through the misuse of our own words.

I also agree with almost all that Hames wrote in the first round discussion. Most specifically I agree with his position that credibility is absolutely essential in order to be successful in any human rights battle. It has been disturbing to see some anthropologists get carried away in the spirit of well meaning action and exaggerate or distort the truth about indigenous rights issues in order to hopefully stimulate more public support for their cause. I believe that such tactics are always doomed to backfire. In the 1980s I was extremely distressed to be forced to contradict reports about genocide in Paraguay because they contained blatant misinformation and flat out fabrications. Photos of Ache children swimming in a river were published in Germany with a caption claiming that they were floating corpses from a massacre. A photo of an Ache man with traditional charcoal and feather adornments was published with a caption claiming that it showed the torture of an Ache chief. Both these cases involved intentional deception by well-meaning anthropologists. My demographic research at that time revealed that earlier reports of Ache genocide were based on gross errors of fact. When I published accurate accounts of the Ache situation I was visited by the director of an indigenous rights organization who implored me to retract my data analyses, and then later threatened that I might be sued if I did not. He stated to my face that the issue was not indigenous rights so much as the important campaign to destabilize the Stroessner military dictatorship that ruled Paraguay at the time. Here again the Indians were just props in a larger political battle. He told me that my insistence on publishing the truth was the stance of an innocent fool and that there was in fact no such thing as truth, just the question of "whose side are you on". This was my first exposure to a shockingly amoral brand of post-modernism, and I was indeed naïve. I adhered to the principle that any cause that is truly a "just cause" can prevail through the use of truth as a weapon. If the cause requires lying to support it may in fact not be "just" after all. His position was clearly that the battle was so moral that the importance of truth was superceded by the importance of winning the battle. Now I am not so naïve as to believe that truth is the supreme morality in the universe and I might be prepared to lie in order to save lives if it were required. But my gut feeling is that deception is a tactic that usually produces only short term gains in any human rights battle. When the deception is discovered the strength of a morally correct position is heavily undermined. I don’t believe that Tierney shares this philosophy.

In keeping with this position about the importance of truth in the battle for indigenous human rights I disagree with much of what Turner says about the content of the Tierney book. There has not yet been sufficient time to check the accuracy of many charges in the Tierney book (and I certainly don’t have time in the four days I have been given to draft this response to check the new information presented by Turner from Neel's APS archive). But, if the book contains 100 allegations and the most important 10 are investigated carefully and found to be false, what is the logical reaction of most careful readers? They will conclude that the author has little credibility and discount the remaining allegations as unlikely to be true. One of the strongest predictors of the validity of information published by an author is the validity of prior information presented by that author. In this sense Tierney has a bad track record, both from the facts that have already been checked in "Darkness in El Dorado" and from some of the highly incredulous accounts presented in his previous book on human sacrifice in western South America (indeed I think even most ardent Tierney supporters will disassociate themselves from most of that book after they read it). Turner seems puzzled that Tierney critics have dismissed much of the "El Dorado" book after discovering that its treatment of the measles epidemic is highly distorted and erroneous. He thinks that the misrepresentations and distortions of the book are just small pecadillos. Indeed he wants to label people like Hames and me as "Neel and Chagnon defenders" rather than "Tierney critics" who insist on the importance of truth.

Turner further observes that some people seem to feel that "if the critical allegations against Neel and Chagnon can be refuted on scientific grounds, then the ethical questions raised .. about the effects of their actions on the Yanomami can be made to go away". In fact those of us who have criticized Tierney have refuted his allegations on factual and scientific grounds, and those allegations refuted are specifically about the actions of the two accused and their effects. There are no ethical issues to "dismiss" when the actions presented never took place and the effects on the Yanomamo were never experienced as described. Thus, the facts of the book are indeed central to some ethical discussions, and factual findings can indeed "obviate ethical issues" by rendering the discussions moot. But the discussion of the facts reported by Tierney have been placed outside this forum of debate (we are to consider only ethical issues raised by the book, not evaluate each factual claim in the book). I can only suggest that interested readers consult the numerous websites that contain factual assessments of specific Tierney claims. In the most comprehensive website about this book1 the interested reader will quickly discover that Tierney not only grossly misrepresented the events of the measles epidemic and the motives of the vaccination team, but according to the National Academy of Sciences he also misrepresented work by the AEC and Neel’s connection to that organization, according to Mark Ritchie he misrepresented events in Ritchie’s book (which are heavily cited). According to the Robarcheck’s he misrepresented their work on Waorani warfare, according to several prominent ethographic filmmakers he misrepresented the authenticity of Asch’s Yanomamo films. According to Marcel Roche’s wife he interviewed her husband when he was in a relatively advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease and misrepresents him in the reported interview, and finally according to Napoleon Chagnon "nearly every damn sentence in the book is a lie". In short Tierney has little credibility with many readers at this point, and the fact checking of his book has just begun (the current fact-checking link2 on that website is a devastating exposure of Tierney distortions and misrepresentations). I suspect that a year from now his credibility will be even less impressive. But what is more disturbing is not that Tierney made errors but that he appears to have done so intentionally in order to advocate certain positions. He selectively uses small amounts of information from some sources but ignores other information in the same sources that contradict his favored positions (the most blatant misuse includes selective information about warfare in the Heleno Valero and Mark Ritchie books while ignoring massive evidence in those books that would support the Chagnon views of warfare the Tierney hopes to discredit). And he consciously uses sleazy journalistic devices to imply connections that are non-existent in order to support his theses and undermine his villains. This writing style begins on the first few pages of the book when he tries to connect Francisco Salzano’s (who is not identified by name) blood collection activities of the 1960s to the Brazilian Military dictatorship of that time and implies that Salzano was in collusion with that dictatorship (he was in fact an outspoken opponent of the military regime). He attempts to mislead the reader from the outset into believing that genetic research is somehow connected to fascist political ideologies, without mentioning that similar blood collection took place in every region of the earth during that time period and under every type of political regime including many democracies and Marxist governments. Tierney’s sleazy journalism continues right up to the last chapter when he attempts to connect James Neel to organizations that he never worked with, to projects that he never participated in, never knew about and in some cases to studies that never existed3. Yes credibility is an important issue here and Tierney has very little at this point.

I must simply conclude that Turner and I strongly disagree on the overall veracity of the book. He suggests that factual errors are "relatively few (but important)" and that there are many parts of the book for which there is abundant evidence in the public record, testimony of other anthropologists, missionaries and Yanomami. My reading of the book is that there are considerably fewer parts of the book for which there is anything constituting good evidence and that many of the correct facts are trivial in nature (such as whether a particular person was in a particular place at a particular time). A large proportion of the 1599 footnotes provide no independent corroboration of the assertions they are cited to support. They appear instead to be decorations designed to lend authority to Tierney’s assertions. The anthropological testimony referred to by Turner consists mainly of ad-homonym attacks through the reporting of unverifiable events supposedly witnessed by two ex-Chagnon students who both parted company with him under hostile circumstances and both of whom have hidden skeletons in their own closets. However, I don’t think further generalizations on my part concerning the factual inaccuracy of the book are useful either. If Turner were specific about which important allegations he considers well supported, I could respond directly as to whether I agree with his assessment of the evidence and whether the allegations are of a serious ethical or professional nature or simply charges of bad judgment and unadmireable behavior.

I’m also puzzled that Turner’s piece seems curiously self contradictory. He laments the focus on the measles epidemic rather than other important charges (90% of the controversy on 10% of the book), but then he returns to the measles epidemic quickly as his main focus (Albert correctly notes that this is because the allegations concerning the measles epidemic are far more serious than anything else in the book). He also appears to apologize for earlier writings suggesting that Neel may have been unfairly attacked, but then he simply mounts a new attack on Neel which I suspect will also turn out to be misguided. Turner appears prepared to concede that Neel did not start the measles epidemic either on purpose or inadvertently. However, the investigation into the accuracy of the measles charge (by contacting Dr. Francis Black, Dr. Samuel L. Katz and the CDC in Atlanta) was initiated by Tierney critics ("Neel defenders") and seems only secondarily verified by Turner only after he realized that this charge would not hold (indeed Katz strongly denounced Turner's initial memo to the AAA president). Turner also sent a memo to AAA officials suggesting that there was strong evidence that Neel’s vaccination campaign was essentially an experiment rather than a preventative measure. In that memo he calls for an investigation but also elaborated in several pages his arguments about why he was convinced it was mainly an experiment. It is nice to see that he appears to have now backed off that charge as well. But, I do not accept Turner’s current summary of the events surrounding the vaccination program either, since I have heard a significantly different account of events from others who have complete access to all James Neel's notes (especially his son). I will leave that debate to Turner and those who disagree with him, but I do agree with Turner that the question of Neel’s priorities during the measles epidemic is an important ethical issue to be discussed.

Did Neel adequately prioritize Yanomamo health needs during his field expedition of 1968? Should we expect people who clearly state that they have come to indigenous populations to do a job (whether it be collect data or lay down a fence line) to provide medical services that should be the responsibility of national and local government agencies? When carefully contemplated this question opens a very large can of worms which ultimately contains not worms but a big mirror that must be held up to all field anthropologists (including Turner). In Turner’s treatment of this issue there seems to be a blatant double standard developed. Cultural anthropologists can go to the field for years and provide no medical services for their study population (because they are often unqualified and have no medical skills-- a conscious choice that they make before embarking for the field), whereas biomedical researchers are obligated to donate their time and resources to provide help at whatever cost to them personally. Turner implies that Neel should have abandoned his research (and his ethical commitment to the US taxpayer that contracted him to do that research and paid for it) and made vaccination of Yanomamo communities his top priority. Perhaps this is partially true in the case of extreme medical emergencies. My colleagues and I completely abandoned our research for several weeks in Manu Park in 1986 when a respiratory epidemic hit the isolated Yaminahua and Matsiguenga populations with whom we were working. We also flew in medical supplies at our own expense and against the wishes of local cultural anthropologists who threatened to revoke our research permit if we did so (because the supplies came from SIL missionaries and because they "interfered with the natural population regulation mechanisms of the tribal peoples--- ie. high death rates). In the case of the Yanomamo measles epidemic it is ironic that Turner seems so quickly prepared to attack the one person in the world who did the most to save Yanomamo lives. I repeat, James Neel’s actions saved more Yanomamo lives during this epidemic than any other person on the planet, yet he is roundly criticized for not doing more than he did.

James Neel was a researcher and his job in 1968 was to collect information on human genetic diversity. The Venezuelan government and the missionaries who lived in the area full time, had much more responsibility than Neel, to avert the measles crises. When physicians from the CDC are called into a country to research an outbreak of disease they do their job as researchers not clinical practitioners. They do not and can not get involved in treating every sick person they encounter in the field, that is the job of local and national government agencies. Most scientific researchers who work in a community doing research either on the human population or any other nearby phenomenon (weather, geology, ecology, air pollution, cosmic radiation, etc. etc.) would never accept the proposition that it is their responsibility to provide medical care to a population that happens to become ill in proximity to their research. Likewise, very few people believe that they are morally obligated to donate their time and resources to help some other human group just because they receive information about that groups suffering (many will however volunteer help as Neel did). But Turner feels comfortable suggesting that Neel was under just such an obligation despite the fact that medical care of the Yanomamo was never his job. Why exactly Neel should be obligated to donate his valueable time for free to provide medical care to the Yanomamo but anthropologists who hear today that the Yanomamo are suffering from serious health problems (tuberculosis, malia, etc.) are not be "obligated" to give up part of their income to help the Yanomamo (since they cannot provide services like Neel did), is unclear to me. Each anthropology student who bought a music CD this month despite knowing about Yanomamo suffering has essentially made the same decision that Neel is accused of here—namely prioritizing their own needs over that of the Yanomamo. I think that such prioritization is human, and to highlight such difficult human decisions uniquely in Jim Neel's case, smacks of hypocrisy.

In my mind the most engaging commentary in the first round was that of Albert, because he opens a dialogue that can be very productive if carried out in a spirit of sincere concern for native peoples. I am in particularly strong agreement that the major contribution of the Tierney book should be to focus attention on what can be done NOW to help the Yanomamo and other South American Indigenous populations. I must state from the outset that I disagree with some of what Albert says, but I think that disagreement can illuminate many important ethical issues in anthropology. I do find it a bit troubling that Albert, like Turner, seems primarily concerned with regulation of biomedical research but appears to have thought little about native protections and regulation of mainstream cultural anthropological research (although his last paragraph suggests that anthropologists should subject their work to the logic of biomedical research). This double standard illuminates a fundamental weakness of cultural anthropological training, which leads many practitioners to conclude that only the "other" in their profession (i.e. the people doing scientific research) should be regulated. This mindset that cultural anthropological research is generally acceptable but biomedical research is suspect and should be restricted is clearly at odds with the patterns expressed by native populations who are better educated than the Yanomamo, and thus more capable of providing truly "informed" consent. In the US, nearly the only kind of academic investigation that is regularly encouraged and invited by Native American populations is biomedical research. Cultural research, in contrast, is often strictly prohibited. The concern by some anthropologists to mainly regulate biomedical research seems to derive from an assumption that only scientists exploit native peoples and that only scientific research can be dangerous to native populations. I disagree with both suggestions.

Informed consent, in theory, should include not only information about the potential dangers of the research methodology but also some information concerning the larger goals of the research. While biomedical researchers sometimes fail to carry out this step adequately because of gaps in the educational background of the study population, this oversight is in my experience much more common still in cultural anthropology. Indeed while biomedical researchers nowadays often have stacks of signed consent forms in their files and provide a basic explanation of what their research goals are, I have never seen such forms for any cultural anthropology project and the explanations of the research goals are often totally lacking. Do cultural anthropologists fully inform subjects for example, that their research into oppression is primarily intended to provide ammunition for political battles which may lead to a political system that the native population finds distasteful? Do they explain that research into male and female activities, or political power may be used to advocate the imposition of sex roles in society that native peoples find incongruent with their own cultural values? Do cultural anthropologists really explain the deeper theoretical goals of their research the way the insist biomedical researchers must? Did Claude Levi Strauss fully explain to the Brazilian Indians that he studied how he intended to use data on them to advocate a theory of duality about their social organization and did his study subjects give informed consent for him to forward such a view? Yes, standards of informed consent need to be developed in anthropology, but they should be consistent across subfields and regardless of whether the research is scientific or non scientific in goals and methodology.

With respect to Albert's treatment of biomedical ethics I should start by pointing out that there is a long tradition of protective regulation in biomedical research with humans, and that the Nuremberg code cited by Albert represent only a miniscule part of much more developed and broader protections for human research subjects. Interested readers might consult such documents as the "Belmont report4" of the 1970s which has been the basis for subsequent biomedical and behavioral research protections developed in the US (and heavily influential on IRB regulations), or the Australian National Guidelines for research on Aboriginal populations5, and the Canadian Tri-Council working group on ethics6 which both concern specifically protections that should be implemented when carrying out biomedical research with native groups. A number of other special findings regulating public health surveillance procedures are also relevant (but I don’t have time to look them up by the deadline for this second round response). These documents and the numerous discussions generated from them during recent years are far more comprehensive than the Nuremberg guidelines which were highly restricted to deal with human experimentation. The Nuremberg code does not to my knowledge attempt to regulate observational research and is not relevant to epidemiological surveillance required in public health emergencies. But, in general, basic moral principals guide all protective measures. First, politically vulnerable groups should not be subjected to dangerous research against their will or through the exploitation of their lack of understanding about the potential dangers of any research. Second, individual and community consent is required for most research among native populations unless that consent is withheld as a tactic to perpetuate oppression (for example, male leaders refusing to allow research on spousal abuse). And third, when public health is at stake, the need for informed consent and the rights of individuals to refuse to cooperate with research are balanced against the interests of a larger world community.

There is a fundamental difference between experimentation, observational research, and epidemiological surveillance in health research. Experiments require interventions on study populations and can carry some risk to the individual participant. Such research should be thoroughly regulated, with fully informed consent as the cornerstone of any protection policy. I agree with Albert that Roche’s research constituted an experiment and should have required completely informed consent (however, he followed standard procedure at the time and he did not employ a protocol that endangered his study subjects). Observational research by its very nature does not put study subjects in danger because it includes no intervention (however some methods like blood sampling may include a slight potential for harm). Observational biomedical research includes activities such as taking blood pressure, body temperature, recording skin lesions, collecting blood and fecal samples, etc.. It is important to realize that all advanced health treatment centers immediately begin observational research on any patient admitted to their facility and the request for treatment at such a facility automatically implies informed consent.

Observational research that is not intended to provide information for clinical treatment is indeed regulated in most cases but can be conceptualized as a business agreement between those who sell information (the study subjects) and those who buy it (the researchers). As such, study populations should be allowed to decide if they want to sell their product (allow the research) and at what price. They must clearly be informed about the dangers of collaboration but it is not clear that we should expect them to fully understand how their product (data about them) will be used. A Yanomamo artisan does not need to know what will be done with a basket she sells in order to decide whether or not to sell it. There are of course some common sense limits here-- buying a basket in order to use it in a museum display that mocks the Yanomamo people would likely change the sellers mind about whether or not to offer the product. Thus, something about how scientific data are used can be expected to influence Native decisions about whether or not to participate in research, and this is the logic for providing basic information about the purpose of the study. Finally, however, when data collection constitutes epidemiological surveillance critical to the public health of a wider community there is no requirement of informed consent in most countries. For example, in the US no informed consent is required in order to collect data on HIV prevalence among patients who are treated in US hospitals. There is a critical public interest at stake in knowing what percentage of our population is infected, and informed consent would invalidate the accuracy of that estimate (if infected groups were more likely to refuse permission). In such cases where research represents a vital public interest public health officials often supercede the authority of local police and military. I bring this up because Albert seems unaware for example that under special circumstances the Yanomamo could be required to provide blood samples (perhaps in a hypothetical scenario where they are the seed population of an extremely infectious type of drug resistant tuberculosis) whether they give consent or not, and that they would not be compensated for their participation in such research.

In between experimentation (which clearly requires informed consent) and critical public health surveillance (which does not require informed consent) there is a wide range of public health research that is more or less critical to the well being of the world community. Indigenous populations should have a critical voice in research protocols brought to their communities and whether they wish to participate in any particular study. But they should also be better informed about the potential benefits of such research by people who understand them, and frankly, many anthropological activists who have attempted to sway indigenous opinion on these matters are not qualified to assess potential benefits of such research. Albert for example sees little value in Roche’s study of goiter and insists that such research could not foreseeably benefit the Yanomamo. I disagree. While the Yanomamo did not have a high prevalence of goiter at the time Roche conducted his iodine tracer studies, there were indications that this problem could become more serious for them in the future. Some populations in Venezuela have very high prevalence of goiter and one of Roche’s goals was to determine why the Yanomamo were generally unaffected by goiter in the 1960s. This research carries the obvious implication that such research could later help to explain why they might begin to develop this health problem. The same analogy could be drawn for the study of any "disease of modern society" (asthma, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, etc.) that was carried out among the Yanomamo who may not yet be afflicted by such a condition. Likewise, Albert sees little practical value to the Yanomamo of research into human genetic variation and suggests that the Yanomamo should consider having their blood samples destroyed rather than allow them to become integrated into the human genome project. I can’t imagine more counter-productive advice. First the samples already exist and thus the beneficiaries do not have to undergo any new procedure in order to reap future benefits. Although Albert reports that the Yanomamo have a special cultural aversion toward allowing their blood to be possessed by strangers, I suspect that most well informed Yanomamo would quickly make an exception, for example, if they arrived at a hospital with a massive infection and were told that the medical personnel must draw blood in order to measure their white blood cell count. Cultural aversions can quickly change when important benefits are at stake (another explicit example might be gynecological exams which are probably culturally inappropriate in every society in the world but often accepted because of their potential value).

The study of human genetic variation has enormous implications for understanding human disease and pathology, and this is likely to be much more critical for small inbred populations than for members of large western state societies (this is why groups like the Ashkenazi Jews and the inhabitants of Iceland have been very proactive in encouraging genetic research on their populations). Indeed, as we move into the era of the completely mapped human genome, one of the clearest patterns to emerge is that human genetic diversity is more related to disease adaptation than any other factor (see Ridley’s recent book "Genome7" for a delightfully clear exposition of this fact). The world community stands to benefit from the analyses of Yanomamo genes but the Yanomamo themselves are likely to benefit even more. What possible benefit could they gain from the destruction of this material that is already archived? Instead of insisting that previously collected blood samples should be destroyed, I believe that the Yanomamo should write to the guardians of those samples, requesting that research be initiated with them that could benefit the Yanomamo community. Scientists should be co-opted as allies rather than alienated and attacked. I do however, agree completely with Albert that any commercial use of Yanomamo genetic material must be approved by them beforehand and must include fair compensation and share of profits. Unauthorized commercial use of Yanomamo genes should immediately lead to a lawsuit.

This brings me to another disagreement with Albert. He suggests that the Yanomamo should consider filing lawsuits against a variety of institutions that were behind previous biomedical research. I believe that such action is not in the best interests of the Yanomamo. In these modern times of absurdly escalating tendencies to litigation over every imaginable issue there should be common sense moral guidelines that provide the criteria for justifiable lawsuits. They should be filed in order to compensate for real damages or to punish reckless lack of concern for potential damage. I don’t believe previous Yanomamo research meets either criteria. If not, such lawsuits are essentially frivolous and send the wrong moral message to the Yanomamo (that they should be willing to extract resources from anybody they can if they can get away with it regardless of the ethics of doing so). Filing frivolous lawsuits against researchers or research agencies will only lead scientists to be unwilling to return to the Yanomamo communities, something that would be disastrously counterproductive given their growing health problems. However, if Albert wants to advise the Yanomamo to file lawsuits I suggest they first sue those who have truly caused them harm, namely the Brazilian and Venezuelan governments that failed to provide medical services or adequate protection from rampant infectious diseases introduced by colonists, and have allowed land invasion, environmental destruction and human rights violations for years.

Finally I disagree with the last sentence of Albert’s essay, and this returns us to the point made by Peter’s concerning the anthropological phobia against objective assessment of indigenous culture. I do not believe anthropologists should award "preeminence" to the "natives point of view" on ethical, intellectual, or political issues. We are in a partnership with Native peoples and we should treat them with respect and as equals. Our views of the world are not superior but neither are theirs. We both have much to learn from each other. They should not be indoctrinated to believe that they are special and that all outsiders must defer to their worldview--- they often make mistakes. Only by working together and discussing what is best for their communities and what is best for all of humanity are we likely to come up with truly "ethical" guidelines for future research.


1. Douglas Hume's "El Dorado" website at: http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness _in_el_dorado/index.htm

2. Fact checking the Tierney book, at:


3. A statement from Bruce Alberts, president of The National Academy of Sciences which can be found under the "position statements" link of the Hume website above or at:

http://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nashome.nsf/ b57ef1bf2404952b852566dd00671bfd/ 57065f16ff258371852569920052d283?OpenDocument

4. National commission for the protection of human subjects of biomedical and behavioral research, "Belmont Report". (Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare 1979).

5. Australia National Health and Medical Research Council "Guidelines on ethihcal matters in aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research" (NHMRC 1991).

6. Canada Tri-Council working group on ethics "code of conduct for research involving humans" (Minister of Supply and Services, Ottawa 1996).

7. Ridley, Matt 1999. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York : HarperCollins