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Internet Source: Although Flawed, Book on Yanomami Research 'Served Anthropology Well,' Report Concludes, Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, December 7, 2001
Source URL: http://chronicle.merit.edu/free/v48/i15/15a01801.htm


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Although Flawed, Book on Yanomami Research 'Served Anthropology Well,' Report Concludes

By D.W. MILLER

ONE THUMB UP: Anthropologists don't have to like what Patrick Tierney says about their colleagues, but they should be glad he says it.

That seems to be the conclusion of the American Anthropological Association's inquiry on Mr. Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton, 2000), which sharply criticizes researchers' treatment of an indigenous people. In a preliminary report released over the Thanksgiving weekend, the association's El Dorado Task Force wrote that the book has "served anthropology well" for inspiring "reflection and stocktaking about anthropology, ... especially reflection about our relationships with those among whom we study." But the panel also concluded that some of the book's most sensational allegations do not hold up under scrutiny.

Mr. Tierney, an investigative journalist, caused an uproar last year when he wrote that certain American researchers had worsened the suffering of the Yanomami, a tribe inhabiting rain forests of Venezuela and Brazil. Most notably, he suggested that the late James V. Neel, a geneticist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, may have exacerbated the effects of a deadly measles epidemic in 1968 by distributing Edmonston B, a vaccine with severe side effects. And Mr. Tierney wrote that Napoleon A. Chagnon, an anthropologist now retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, had also contributed to the decimation of the Yanomami by fomenting intertribal violence and collaborating in oppression by outsiders.

After months of debate between defenders and critics of Mr. Neel, Mr. Chagnon, and other accused scholars, the association decided to appoint the panel to investigate at least some of the allegations. In its report (available online at http://www.aaanet.org/edtfpr.htm), the panel found that "the allegations in the book are by no means trivial, that much evidence is presented in the book in support of the allegations, and that they must be taken seriously." Among the findings:

Contrary to Mr. Tierney's allegations, Mr. Neel did not act unreasonably in choosing the Edmonston B vaccine, did not distribute vaccines selectively or withhold treatment as part of some research experiment, and did not place his scientific goals above the humanitarian needs of the Yanomami.

Although the profession's standards for obtaining informed consent from indigenous people under study have tightened since the 1960s, Mr. Neel's treatment of them reflected the scholarly norms of the time.

Mr. Chagnon may have acted unethically in soliciting information about the Yanomami's personal names, in violation of their cultural taboos, but Mr. Tierney's major criticisms of his conduct are unfounded. The panel concluded that Mr. Tierney had misleadingly quoted from Mr. Chagnon's own work to make his transgressions appear worse than they were. "Tierney seizes on these mistakes as Chagnon's standard practice when in fact they were not," the investigators found. "It is our sense that many of the mistakes Chagnon made around names were honest and unintended and that he learned from these errors."

Mr. Tierney was right to fault Mr. Chagnon for helping members of one Yanomami tribe raid the village of another. "But one could imagine other circumstances where involvement in hostilities is unavoidable," the report states.

Mr. Chagnon's decision to publicly challenge the "authenticity" of a prominent Yanomami spokesman during the 1980s and '90s was "unanthropological" and "could not fail to have undermined" Yanomami political interests.

Neither Mr. Tierney nor Mr. Chagnon could be reached for comment about the report. Mr. Tierney has said in the past that he may have made some minor errors but that he had always intended his book to provoke a reassessment of scholars' treatment of indigenous people. Mr. Chagnon has said little in public, but he has assisted efforts by his former department to rebut the book, point by point.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS: The association's board was scheduled to receive the findings last week, at its annual business meeting. But the panel considers its work preliminary because it is still waiting for information from authorities and scholars in South America that will shed light on some of Mr. Tierney's other claims. For example, Mr. Tierney accuses Mr. Chagnon of having contributed to the oppression of the Yanomami in the '90s by working with unscrupulous Venezuelan politicians and businessmen to control natural resources on land reserved for the tribe. Mr. Tierney also faults Mr. Chagnon for allowing outsiders to use his characterization of the Yanomami as extremely violent to justify incursions.

The report notes that the association has been criticized in the past for failing to enforce its code of ethics. Complaints about researchers' behavior in the Amazon were aired years ago, especially by scholars in Venezuela and Brazil. But the panel reports that the association can do little beyond publishing information and urging more soul searching. "We are just not a certifying body," says Jane C. Hill, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the panel's chairwoman. "We're not the bar association or the medical association. What we try to do is provide a very open forum for exchange."

"We're really not interested in going out and bashing people and saying, 'Ooh, you did a wrong thing, this is very bad,''' she adds. "Our interest is, what can anthropologists learn from this stuff? What could a student learn reading about this? How can we advance anthropology so that we're more use and less trouble to indigenous groups?"