Return to El Dorado

Three years after one of anthropology's biggest scandals appeared to have been resolved, debate about research on the Yanomami is back.
May 23, 2005

When Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado in 2000, he set off one of the most intense and public debates that anthropology has ever seen. The book charged that prominent anthropologists had repeatedly caused harm -- and in some cases, death -- to members of the Yanomami people they had studied in the 1960s in Venezuela and Brazil.

In the furor that followed the book's publication, the American Anthropological Association appointed a committee to study the issues raised by the charges. That committee in turn issued a report in 2002 that found fault with both the Tierney book and the researchers Tierney had attacked: Napoleon Chagnon, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James Neel, who was for many years a professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

While the association's report was criticized both by those who didn't think it was harsh enough on Chagnon and Neel and those who thought it was unfair to them, the controversy died down in the months after the report was issued. Now, it's back.

Members of the anthropology association finished voting last week on a referendum to rescind the 2002 report. Results are not expected for a few weeks, but debate about the Yanomami research is once again front and center. The statement on which the anthropologists voted does not actually take a stand on the merits of the charges against Chagnon and Neel. It says, rather, that the investigation was unfair. The referendum was an outgrowth of an article published in the December issue of American Anthropologist, "Guilt by Association: The Culture of Accusation and the American Anthropological Association's Investigations of Darkness in El Dorado."

Thomas A. Gregor, chair of the anthropology department at Vanderbilt University and one of the authors of the December article, said in an interview that after the Tierney book came out, "I think there was a sense in the association that something had to be done, and unfortunately what they did contradicted the association's own regulations, and they did it in a way that was inherently violative of basic principles of fairness and due process."

Bill Davis, executive director of the anthropology association, said that he had "no views whatsoever" on the referendum, and that this was a matter for the group's members to decide. Debate about the referendum on the association's Web site and others suggests that feelings remain strong on both sides.

Why such passion over a three-year-old report about research that took place nearly 40 years ago? In part, it's because the researchers involved were hugely influential. Chagnon's  The Yanomamo, now in its fifth edition, has for years been a classic of anthropology classrooms, as the isolated people he wrote about were ideal for anthropology research because they were so disconnected from modern life. Then there are the sensational nature of the charges in Tierney's book: that Chagnon encouraged the people he studied to be more violent and then portrayed their violence in ways that caused them to be discriminated against and their views distorted. There was also the charge that Neel gave measles vaccinations and took blood samples from the tribe members without informing them of risks that cost many their lives.

Neel was already dead when Tierney's book was published and so has never been able to defend himself, although people who worked with him have disputed the accusations about him. And Gregor said that he believes Neel saved hundreds of lives because of his work providing vaccinations and drugs to the people he studied. Chagnon maintains a Web site defending his conduct. The site includes links to many documents -- including investigations by various scholarly groups that found no misconduct by Chagnon and Neel.

In their article in American Anthropologist, Gregor and Daniel R. Gross, an anthropologist at the World Bank, note that the anthropology association has admitted many times that it is not well suited to investigate allegations of misconduct. The association's 1995 report on ethics, for example, said that the group's efforts should focus on educating people about ethical issues, and helping people who seek guidance on how to handle a situation. The 1995 report also said that the association's ethics policies "have no legal standing and appear to be on weak moral footing."

The article and the referendum also criticize the 2002 report for, in the view of Gregor and Gross, ignoring Yanomami leaders who believe that the Chagnon/Neel research helped them, for having judged Chagnon and Neel prior to starting their inquiry, and for having close ties to the critics of Chagnon and Neel.

The chair of the committee that wrote the 2002 report, Jane Hill of the University of Arizona, said in an e-mail message that the report of her panel "speaks for itself." In a short statement she posted in a forum on the Public Anthropology Web site, she said that she stood behind the report and urged people to read it. Her statement and e-mail message did not respond to the specific criticisms made by Gregor and Gross.

Another member of the committee, Joe Watkins of the University of New Mexico, published a lengthier defense of the group's work. "Perhaps the process was flawed, as Gregor and Gross allege, but had the association chosen to ignore or whitewash the situation, it would not have gone away. Failure to act would have implied a cover-up to non-anthropologists throughout the world," he wrote.

He added: "What will the proposed referendum do? Nothing at all. The report -- as widely disseminated and poorly read as it is -- will still exist. If anything, it will make people read it more widely and think less about the ethical issues involved and more about the questions related to the formation and composition of the task force. Do I stand by everything in the report? No, I do not, but I do stand by the report itself. The AAA must continue to question the issues and its decisions cannot be threatened with rescindment if some do not agree."


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