Rebuttal of Decade-Old Accusations Against Researchers Roils Anthropology Meeting Anew

December 03, 2009

The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association opened here on Wednesday, and its official theme is "The End/s of Anthropology." But people here might suspect that one thing will never end: the controversy surrounding Darkness in El Dorado, a 2000 book that accused two prominent scholars of misdeeds in their work with an indigenous community in South America.

Debate over the book consumed the anthropologists' meeting in 2000. Nine years later, the passions still have not cooled. During a panel session on Wednesday evening, a Northwestern University scholar presented new evidence of distortions in the book, and she charged that the anthropological association had badly mishandled the entire affair.

In a spirited, at times blistering critique, Alice Domurat Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, questioned why any academic would want to be a part of the association, considering how, in her estimation, it had unfairly harmed the reputations of two scholars. "I can't imagine how any scholar feels safe at the hands of the Triple A," she said.

The Roots of the Dispute

The book at the center of the controversy, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton), was written by Patrick Tierney, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Mr. Tierney's targets were Napoleon A. Chagnon, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel, a geneticist who taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Mr. Neel died in 2000, several months before the book appeared.

In Mr. Tierney's account, Mr. Chagnon and Mr. Neel committed a wide range of sins during three decades of work with the Yanomami, an indigenous people who live in a region of the Amazon straddling the Brazil-Venezuela border.

Among other things, Mr. Tierney asserted that Mr. Neel had worsened a measles epidemic in 1968; that the two scholars had failed to obtain full informed consent when collecting blood samples from the community; that Mr. Chagnon had tacitly encouraged violent conflicts among the Yanomami; and that Mr. Chagnon had collaborated with an unscrupulous gold miner in an effort to create a research reserve in Venezuela.

Within a year of the book's publication, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Society of Human Genetics, and committees at Michigan and Santa Barbara issued statements that generally exonerated Mr. Chagnon and Mr. Neel.

A committee of the American Anthropological Association, by contrast, produced a long two-volume report in 2002 that rejected some of Mr. Tierney's accusations but supported certain others. (The allegation that has been most comprehensively rejected by all parties is the notion that Mr. Neel allowed measles to spread.)

But that was not the end of the story. In 2005, the anthropology association's members voted to rescind the 2002 report, on the grounds that the association was ill-equipped to judge individual members' conduct, and that the committee had failed to give Mr. Chagnon due process.

In the four years since that decision, the debate has not quite died, as a small group of anthropologists has continued to campaign for the repatriation of blood samples gathered by Mr. Chagnon and Mr. Neel's teams. Mr. Tierney, meanwhile, has kept a low profile, rarely appearing publicly to defend his book. (He could not be located to be interviewed for this article.)

Faulting the Committee's Report

At Wednesday's panel, Ms. Dreger reignited the debate. For a book she is writing on controversies in biological and social-science research, she says, she formally interviewed more than 40 people for a chapter on Mr. Chagnon, including several members of the panel that wrote the 2002 report.

She argued that Mr. Tierney's book is littered with so many inaccuracies and fabrications that simply cataloging them was an enormous undertaking. But questions about Mr. Tierney's methods and findings were raised almost immediately after his book's publication. What Ms. Dreger seemed more interested in was taking the association to task for, in her view, credulously accepting what she maintained was obviously flawed research.

Said Ms. Dreger: "Forms of scholarship that deny evidence, that deny truth, that deny the importance of facts, even when performed in the name of good, are dangerous, not only to science and to ethics but to democracy."

One of Ms. Dreger's findings concerns a 1995 incident that is recounted at the beginning of Mr. Tierney's book. That year Mr. Chagnon intended to travel to the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, and he allegedly planned to collect blood samples without proper permission from the Brazilian government. According to Mr. Tierney, that plan was stifled after indigenous activists circulated a "dossier" of material about various controversies that had dogged Mr. Chagnon.

In Mr. Tierney's account, that dossier was written by Leda Martins, a Brazilian-born scholar who was then a graduate student in anthropology at Cornell University. (She now teaches at Pitzer College.) But Ms. Dreger says that Ms. Martins admitted to her in an interview that the actual author was Mr. Tierney himself, and that Ms. Martins merely translated it.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Ms. Martins acknowledged that Mr. Tierney had inaccurately given her credit for writing the dossier. Asked why he had done that, she said that she didn't know, and that she hadn't spoken to him in years. But Ms. Martins criticized Ms. Dreger's presentation, calling it "sleazy" and accusing her of character assassination. She also said that the controversy over the book has made real debate over Mr. Chagnon's research all but impossible.

Mr. Chagnon, meanwhile, wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Wednesday that he is pleased with the attention that Ms. Dreger's research is receiving. "Tierney's lies and fabrications have caught up to him," he wrote.

Mr. Chagnon said that he did not want to speculate about why Mr. Tierney might have decided to lie about the authorship of the dossier, which Mr. Chagnon called a "politically motivated hatchet job." On at least two occasions in the mid-1990s, he said, his research permits were revoked after the dossier was sent to officials in Brazil and Venezuela.

But it seems impossible to know whether any deception about the dossier's authorship actually had any impact on those events. Those South American officials might have responded identically to the dossier even if they had believed that its true author was Mr. Tierney.

Critiquing the Critique

Among those offering a response to Ms. Dreger's presentation was Terence S. Turner, a professor emeritus of anthropology and of social sciences at the University of Chicago, and a visiting professor at Cornell University. Mr. Turner, who is among those Ms. Dreger singled out for criticism in her remarks, complained that he had only 15 minutes to speak while Ms. Dreger spoke for 45. In his response, he offered few specifics, saying, "I can't possibly comment responsibly on this avalanche of descriptions." While acknowledging that there were problems with Mr. Tierney's book, Mr. Turner defended it as a valuable effort. "To say that this book is just trash is ridiculous," he said.

Mr. Turner also said that he had been in touch with Mr. Tierney in recent days. When asked, after the session, why Mr. Tierney had not come to defend his book himself, Mr. Turner said he was a "shy person" and that accusations about his book had left him "very depressed."

Several members of the committee that produced the 2002 report were in the audience and took issue with Ms. Dreger's conclusions. Among them was Fernando Coronil, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and currently professor of anthropology at City University of New York's Graduate Center, who said Ms. Dreger's work was not scholarly and lacked rigor. "It is ironic that in some ways her paper is a mirror image of Tierney's," he said.

Ms. Dreger is not an anthropologist, and she comes to this discussion from an unusual angle. She has long studied cultural responses to people with ambiguous sexual anatomies, and for several years she helped lead the Intersex Society of North America. In 2006 she began to look into the fierce debate surrounding her Northwestern colleague J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology whose research methods were questioned after a 2003 book about transsexualism that has been criticized by many transgender scholars and activists.

In 2008, Ms. Dreger published a long essay in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which she concluded that Mr. Bailey had been the victim of a witch-hunt. (That essay has in turn been criticized by Mr. Bailey's foes, including Lynn Conway, a professor of computer science emerita at Michigan.)

Following that experience, Ms. Dreger won a Guggenheim fellowship to write a book about academic controversies in the Internet age—including the Chagnon affair. Wednesday's panel was her first public presentation of her findings.

"People were consistent in not wanting to remember a lot of this stuff, and in wishing it would all just go away," she said in an interview on Wednesday. "But one of the things I put to them was that Chagnon and the Neel family don't get to just put this away, and so I think we have a responsibility to them and to future anthropologists to figure out just what happened."