November 8, 2000

Anthropology World in Uproar Over Book

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Allegations made in journalist Patrick Tierney’s recent book against a team of anthropologists working with a Venezuelan tribe have sparked a fury in the field.

Tierney’s most controversial allegation claims that the late Dr. James Neel, a University of Michigan geneticist working with anthropologist Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, intentionally injected the Yanomami people of Venezuela with a strong measles vaccine in the late 1960s. Tierney claims this experiment lead to an epidemic in the tribe under the pretext of testing the highly disputed genetics theory of eugenics.

The book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon will be published by W. W. Norton on Nov. 16.

Prof. Terrence Turner, anthropology, received a pre-publication copy of the book from the editor and was outraged by Tierney’s “grave allegations,” of misconduct against Neel and Chagnon. With his colleague Prof. Leslie Sponsel, anthropology, University of Hawaii, he sent a joint email to the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

“We were so shocked and disturbed … that we decided to write a letter to alert three top AAA officials that they should read the book ASAP and be prepared to address inquiries from the profession, media and public,” Sponsel said.

In their e-mail, Turner and Sponsel warned that Tierney’s book, which asserts that Neel and Chagnon both committed crimes against humanity, could lead to an “impending scandal, unparalleled in the history of anthropology.”

However, as Sponsel explained, the scandal already materialized after the e-mail found its way into public eyes. “One or more of [the AAA officials] forwarded the letter… and somewhere down the line some irresponsible individual(s) leaked it into cyberspace,” he said.

In the wake of Turner’s and Sponsel’s e-mail, the AAA issued a “Statement on Allegations” made in Tierney’s book. The statement includes key elements of the AAA’s Code of Ethics, stressing that anthropological researchers must avoid harming the “safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work.”

In addition, the AAA cautions against passing judgment on Tierney’s allegations “until there is a full and impartial review and discussion of the issues raised in the book.”

Turner said he is “satisfied” with the AAA’s statement.

“I agree that there should be no rush to judgment. All our initial memo ever wanted was to have an objective investigation of the allegations in the book. The allegations are very grave, but [Tierney] doesn’t establish them beyond any doubt,” Turner said.

Prof. Paul Sangren, anthropology, emphasized that the Nov. 14 meeting of the AAA in San Francisco will serve to air criticism within the anthropological community. “It is really important to wait and see how [the controversy] works out in the discourse,” Sangren said.

Turner addressed the possibility that Neels did not intentionally cause a measles epidemic, as Tierney suggested.

“There have been experiments with vaccines that produce reactions like the disease,” Turner said, “[Researchers] can then measure the antibodies in the blood to check for resistance ability.”

But he refuted suggestions that Neel produced a measles epidemic by inoculating the Yanomami with a strong vaccine.

“There is no evidence to support that,” Turner said, adding that the medical community is “unanimous that the vaccine couldn’t cause the disease.”

Both Sangren and Turner intend to use Tierney’s book, along with Chagnon’s 1968 account, “Yanomami: A Fierce People,” in their upcoming courses.

“It seems ideal to use both books in the same course because they take such opposite points of view on the same data,” Turner explained.

Archived article by Ken Meyer