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Old Wounds in Anthropology

Old Wounds in Anthropology
December 3, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- A decade after it was published, Patrick Tierney’s polemic against the work of U.S. social scientists in South America remains a source of tension in the anthropology world.

In his 2000 book, Darkness in El Dorado, Tierney charged that Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel had committed various atrocities against the Yanomamo, an indigenous South American tribe they studied in the 1960s. The book set off a firestorm in the anthropology field and prompted a public inquiry by the American Anthropological Association -- which the association later rescinded due to some alleged ethical missteps of its own.

Wednesday, Alice Dreger, a professor of bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, brought the Yanomamo controversy back into the spotlight in a presentation -- and a tense discussion -- at the association’s annual meeting here. And she pointed a finger sharply at her hosts.

Reading from a report she compiled from dozens of original interviews and other sources, Dreger accused the association of stringing up one of the accused researchers -- Napoleon Chagnon, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- in an effort to quell the international furor unleashed in the wake of Tierney’s expose.

Chagnon and Neel, who was a professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, studied the Yanomamo tribe in Venezuela and Brazil in 1960s. Chagnon’s text from that research, called The Yanomamo, has been a staple in anthropology curriculums for years, as the tribe, being so isolated from modern civilization, was considered an ideal subject for anthropological research. Tierney claimed that Neel -- who died before Darkness in El Dorado was published -- and Chagnon had treated the Yanomamo inhumanely by, among other things, intentionally infecting their population with measles and declining to provide them medical attention.

Dreger argued Wednesday that Tierney lied about that accusation and others. She said that the Brandon Centerwall, son of former Chagnon-Neel colleague Willard Centerwall, admitted that his father had lied in telling him as a child that Chagnon and Neel had enabled the measles epidemic in 1968 -- a claim that Brandon related to Tierney years later.

Elsewhere in his book, Dreger said, Tierney drew heavily on a dossier on Chagnon that Tierney himself had written, but had attributed to a third party. Tierney had created and disseminated the dossier as part of what Dreger believes to have been a campaign to defame Chagnon.

Dreger said Tierney ignored repeated requests to be interviewed.

The American Anthropological Association knew that many of the writer’s claims were trumped up, but went along anyway, she said. Dreger quoted a 2002 e-mail sent by the head of the association’s task force -- Jane Hill, of the University of Arizona -- to a colleague, in which Hill called Tierney’s book a “piece of sleaze,” but said the official investigation must be carried out because “silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice.”

In assessing Chagnon’s methods, Dreger said, the task force “read the Yanomamo testimonies selectively… using them sometimes to support prosecution of Chagnon, but not to exonerate him.”

“I understand the desire and the duty… to protect anthropology,” she said. “But this way?”

The association’s handling of the El Dorado case should inspire distrust among its members, Dreger told the 50 or so people at the session. “One must wonder what scholar will want to belong to a professional organization which, rather than protecting her rights to being fairly represented in the press … launches an investigation into her life’s work, producing reports -- some kept secret -- that take seriously an uncredentialed journalist whose major claims were shown, at the outset, to be false,” she said. “I can’t imagine how any scholar now feels safe at the hands of the AAA.”

Terence Turner, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Cornell University, said in his rebuttal that Dreger was “cherry picking a few apparent errors” and trying to use them to discredit Tierney’s entire work. Turner noted that large portions of Tierney’s book were culled from “often longstanding, well-established work -- which, among other things, bears out a number of the charges of unethical behavior against Napoleon Chagnon.”

"You can’t just project from the ‘epidemic’ chapters and say the rest is just trash,” he added.

Turner also criticized Dreger for attacking Tierney ad hominem, calling her work “demonic” and unscholarly. “There’s so much misstatement and tendentious distortion,” he said, noting that in the 15 minutes he had been allotted to rejoin, “I can’t possibly comment responsively on this avalanche of assertions.”

The two opposing scholars, who traded scoffs and sharp words with each other and audience members as the session drew past its intended stopping period, had one thing in common: tough words for their host organization.

The damage to the Yanomamo people and the credibility of anthropologists in general “might have been better contained if not for the AAA, which chose … not to make a forceful statement about Tierney’s egregious falsehoods,” said Dreger.

Remarking on the unevenness of the debate, where the anti-Tierney side had been given 70 minutes to his 15, Turner said, “What was the AAA programming committee thinking when they let this thing get set up?”

 

 

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