More on El Dorado
- Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Anthropologists Rescind Report That Examined Allegations of Misconduct
by Researchers in the Amazon
By DAVID GLENN <mailto:david.glenn@...>
The American Anthropological Association has voted to rescind its
acceptance of a 2002 committee report that reviewed allegations that two
prominent American anthropologists had committed serious misconduct in
Brazil and Venezuela between 1967 and 1990.
The reversal is the latest twist in a complex dispute that had been
simmering for decades but exploded into prominence in 2000, with the
publication of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists
Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton), by the freelance reporter Patrick
Tierney (The Chronicle,
<http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i05/05a01601.htm> September 29, 2000).
In his book, Mr. Tierney charged that Napoleon A. Chagnon, who is now a
professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at
Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel, a longtime professor of human
genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, had badly
mistreated an indigenous group, known as the Yanomami, in the upper
Among other things, Mr. Tierney asserted that during a 1968 measles
epidemic among the Yanomami, Mr. Neel's research was driven by
scientific curiosity rather than sound medical practice and that dozens
of indigenous people had needlessly died. (In prepublication galleys,
Mr. Tierney even suggested that Mr. Neel had spread measles himself by
administering a certain vaccine.)
Mr. Tierney also charged that Mr. Chagnon had tacitly encouraged
violence among the Yanomami and that he had staged violent scenes in
several famous ethnographic films.
Mr. Tierney's book received a huge amount of publicity, and leaders of
the anthropology association felt a need to respond. In 2001 they
appointed a small committee, known as the El Dorado Task Force, that was
instructed to assess the issues raised by the controversy and to
recommend ways to improve anthropologists' practices in the field.
The task force was dogged by its own controversies. Critics complained
that two of its members had prejudged the case by publicly criticizing
Mr. Chagnon's conduct. Another member, Raymond Hames, a professor of
anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, resigned from the
committee because he believed that his past professional association
with Mr. Chagnon raised the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The low point may have come in November 2001, when the anthropology
association released a preliminary report by the committee. Two of its
six members promptly objected, saying that the report contained material
that they had neither read nor approved (The Chronicle,
<http://chronicle.com/daily/2001/12/2001120303n.htm> December 3, 2001).
At the association's annual meeting that month, several scholars
complained that the report appeared to ignore certain serious
allegations in Mr. Tierney's book.
The committee's final report <http://www.aaanet.org/edtf/index.htm> was
completed in May 2002 and released to the public two months later. Like
other investigative bodies, the committee found that Mr. Tierney's most
sensational allegation -- that Mr. Neel had acted negligently during the
measles epidemic -- was false. The report found merit in several of Mr.
Tierney's other charges, however. The committee encouraged the
association to take steps to improve scholars' ethics in the field and
the discipline's relationship with indigenous people (The Chronicle,
<http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/07/2002070202n.htm> July 2, 2002).
The final report came under immediate and heavy criticism from several
scholars. Chief among them were Thomas A. Gregor, a professor of
anthropology at Vanderbilt University, and Daniel R. Gross, a staff
researcher at the World Bank. Mr. Gregor and Mr. Gross charged that the
committee's report amounted to a formal inquiry into Mr. Chagnon's and
Mr. Neel's behavior, and that, as such, it violated a 1998 resolution in
which the association vowed that it would not adjudicate charges of
misconduct against its members.
The critics also said that the panel's composition was biased, that Mr.
Chagnon had not been afforded due process, and that the association's
Web site had propagated (in "comments" pages associated with the
task-force report) a new stream of lurid and unsubstantiated allegations
against Mr. Chagnon.
Last fall, Mr. Gregor and Mr. Gross offered a resolution to rescind the
association's acceptance of the report. The association's members voted
on the resolution by mail in April and May, and the results were
announced late last week. The resolution passed, 846 to 338.
The resolution requires the association to widely publicize the decision
to rescind the report, and to explain the reasons for doing so. It also
affirms that "the association will follow its own policies prohibiting
Reached by telephone in Uruguay on Monday, Mr. Gross said that he was
very pleased by the vote. "The association wasn't equipped to carry out
adjudications," he said. "It didn't have the machinery, it didn't have
the procedures in place. In any of these cases where grave accusations
are made against a colleague, we need to have fair procedures in place."
Mr. Gross suggested that the institutional review boards at Mr.
Chagnon's and Mr. Neel's universities were better placed to assess Mr.
Mr. Gross said that he would have no objection if the association
continued to post the report on its Web site. He simply wanted it to be
made clear, he said, that the report is "the opinion of a group of
people, and not the association's official position."
Jane H. Hill, a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the
University of Arizona, who was the chair of the task force, said on
Monday that she was very disappointed in the referendum's outcome. "We
should have done more work to educate people about the meaning of this,"
Ms. Hill said that she could have accepted a narrower resolution that
affirmed the association's prohibition on adjudicating ethical
allegations against its members. But she believes that Mr. Gregor and
Mr. Gross's resolution, which rescinds the task force report in its
entirety, goes much too far. The committee's recommendations for ethical
reforms in anthropological fieldwork have now been struck from the
record, she said.
"I think this sends an appalling message," she said. "I'm afraid that
the resolution will be read in Latin America by our anthropological
colleagues and by politically aware indigenous people as a direct slap
at the kinds of agency that they're trying to achieve with international
Another scholar said the saga had much to teach the field. "I hope we
can move on now to really get a good sense of where ethics lie in the
discipline, and how we can evaluate anthropologists fairly and
honorably," said Robert Borofsky, a professor of anthropology at Hawaii
Pacific University and the author of Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy
and What We Can Learn From It (University of California Press, 2005).
Mr. Borofsky, who was not a member of the El Dorado Task Force, said he
agreed with Mr. Gross that the committee's due-process procedures were
inadequate. But he strongly disputed the notion that the association
should not adjudicate cases of alleged misconduct among its members. He
said that he and a colleague would like to revisit some of the material
in the report. "We would like to find exact data -- criteria that
everyone can agree on -- that we can use for evaluating the accusations
against Chagnon," he said, "and decide what might be a fair and
honorable way of evaluating Chagnon's actions."
"We need to have procedures in place before the next storm, before the
next time the media hounds us with another crisis," Mr. Borofsky said.
"We cannot take an ostrich-like view of ethics."
Mr. Borofsky also said that he was startled by how few people voted in
the referendum. The association has more than 10,000 members.
Copyright <http://chronicle.com/help/copyright.htm> (c) 2005 by The
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