Sunday, July 30, 2017

Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association. A Cautionary Tale.

I ask readers to keep the following notes on methodology in mind as they consider the findings of this paper: This commentary results from a year of historical research that involved the collection of over a thousand source items, including published works, audio and visual recordings, private correspondence, and approximately 40 original interviews. When I interviewed people orally, I gave interviewees my notes and asked them to take some time to change the notes however they wanted, so that I had on the record exactly (and only) what they wanted. I use only their approved versions. For all the sources I have herein marked “personal communication,” I have obtained permission for use from the communications’ authors.
I come to the work I present here by way of two vocations, one as a historian of science, and the other as a human rights activist. (My rights work has focused mainly on people born with norm-challenging bodies.) Because I care deeply about both science and human rights activism, and because I have been both a critic of some science and also a target of some activist criticism, I have been working on a book aimed at understanding how to protect science and activism—including from each other—in the era of the Internet.
When I circulated word of my book project in 2008, many scientists in evolutionary anthropology and psychology told me I had to look into what had happened to Napoleon Chagnon and to the reputation of the late James V. Neel with regard to the Darkness in El Dorado controversy. As I began researching that history, it quickly became clear that several fine scholars and a number of major scientific organizations had already meticulously exposed the falsehoods about Chagnon and Neel put forth by Patrick Tierney, the author of Darkness in El Dorado () and a related New Yorker article of 2000. Most importantly these scholars had repeatedly shown that, in his work, Tierney had painted what amounted to a fictitious picture of a measles epidemic among the South American Yanomamö people in 1968. (I recommend especially Turner and Nelson , but see also, for example, Alberts ; American Society of Human Genetics ; Baur et al. ; Cantor ; Cox ; Hagen et al. ; Headland ; Paul and Beatty ; Society for Visual Anthropology ; Tooby .)
In his 2000 accounts of the 1968 epidemic (including his New Yorker article and book manuscript), Tierney had portrayed the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the late geneticist-physician James V. Neel, Sr., as virtually amoral eugenicists bent on conducting inhumane and deadly field experiments on a phenomenally vulnerable population. Tierney suggested that Neel—with Chagnon’s collaboration—had introduced a potentially fatal contraindicated measles vaccine to the Yanomamö, probably inducing the 1968 epidemic, allowing him to test his eugenic theories. Moreover, Tierney suggested that Neel and Chagnon intentionally withheld medical treatments that might have saved lives. The Neel and Chagnon of Tierney’s visions were nothing less than monsters in the guise of modern scientists—monsters responsible for the death of hundreds if not thousands of Yanomamö men, women, and children.
The truth was quite the opposite. From prior field research, before the 1968 epidemic, Neel had determined that the Yanomamö were alarmingly vulnerable to measles, and so he had personally arranged to bring vaccines on the 1968 expedition. Neel had not taken the matter lightly; he had consulted experts regarding the best vaccine to use, obtained instruction about safe administration, and personally arranged the financing to make the vaccination campaign possible (see Lindee in Hagen et al. :61–63; Turner and Nelson ). When the party arrived for what was supposed to be a typical expedition combined with a vaccination campaign, measles had already broken out (Headland ). Understanding the scope of the danger, Neel, Chagnon, and the others raced to try to contain the epidemic and get ahead of it with the vaccines. The medical supplies began to run out before everyone could be appropriately vaccinated, but it was not because of some neglect on Neel’s or Chagnon’s part (Turner and Nelson ).
The independent scholars who came to this history before me had clearly already shown that, far from being remembered as a monster as Tierney would wish, Neel really ought to be remembered as a great humanitarian. For his part, Chagnon ought to be remembered not as the genocidal maniac of Tierney’s fantasy, but as the key provider of logistics during the frantic medical response to the tragic epidemic.
I had to wonder when I came upon this story years after all this, given the reality as evidenced by so very many documentary sources, how did Tierney’s falsehoods get as far as they did? To answer that, one must really understand how and why certain individuals—but especially leaders within the American Anthropological Association (AAA)—played a supporting role to Tierney’s work. This was a supporting role that ultimately threatened the AAA’s integrity and indeed the integrity of American anthropology itself. Thus, while this paper provides some previously uncollected and critically informative background material on Tierney’s work, it chiefly seeks to highlight the problematic aiding and abetting of Tierney by scholars who had the power to know better and to do better.
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