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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: The Australian , FEATURES; Pg. 29, December 5, 2001
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Early judgment in council of elders

A preliminary report has found sensational allegations about researchers' treatment of an Amazonian tribe weren't quite what they seemed. D.W. Miller reports from Washington

AFTER months of inquiry, the American Anthropological Association has given a mixed review to a contentious book that criticised scholars' treatment of indigenous people of the Amazon.

In a preliminary report, a fact-finding panel has written 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 it also concludes that some of the book's most sensational allegations do not bear scrutiny.

Patrick Tierney, an investigative journalist and the author of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton), caused an uproar last year when he wrote that certain American researchers had worsened the suffering of the Yanomami, a tribe inhabiting rainforests of Venezuela and Brazil. Most notably, he suggested that James Neel, a geneticist at the University of Michigan, may have exacerbated a deadly measles epidemic in 1968 by distributing Edmonston B, a vaccine with severe side effects, and by withholding medical treatment from patients. Tierney also wrote that Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara, had contributed to the decimation by fomenting intertribal violence among the Yanomami and collaborating in their oppression by outsiders.

By the time of its official publication in November last year, the book had been nominated for a National Book Award in the US and sparked heated debate between defenders and critics of Chagnon, Neel and other accused scholars. The association decided to appoint a panel to investigate at least some of the allegations.

In their preliminary report, the six members of the panel have written "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 panel's findings:

Contrary to Tierney's allegations, Neel did not act unreasonably in choosing the Edmonston B vaccine, did not distribute vaccines selectively or withhold treatment to further a research agenda 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, Neel's treatment of them reflected the scholarly norms of the time.

Chagnon may have acted unethically in soliciting information about the Yanomami's personal names in violation of their cultural taboos, but Tierney's main criticisms of Chagnon's conduct are unfounded. The panel concludes that Tierney had misleadingly quoted from Chagnon's 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 panel writes. "It is our sense that many of the mistakes Chagnon made around names were honest and unintended and that he learned from these errors."

Tierney was right to fault 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 panel writes.

Tierney's allegation that other scholars had inappropriate sexual relationships with Yanomami over the years is accurate.

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

The association's board formally received the findings at its annual business meeting last Friday. But the panel considers its work preliminary because it is still waiting for authorities and scholars in South America to compile information relevant to Tierney's claims.

For example, Tierney accuses Chagnon of having contributed to the oppression of the Yanomami in the 1990s by working with unscrupulous Venezuelan politicians and businessmen to control natural resources on land reserved for the Yanomami. Tierney also faults Chagnon for allowing outsiders to use his characterisation of the Yanomami as extremely violent to justify incursions.

The report notes that the association has been criticised in the past for doing too little to enforce its code of ethics. Complaints about researchers' behaviour in the Amazon were aired years ago, especially by scholars in Venezuela and Brazil. But the panel writes that the association can do little beyond publishing information and urging more soul searching.

"We are just not a certifying body," says Jane Hill, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the chairwoman of the panel.

"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.'

"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?"

The Chronicle of Higher Education