Collapse of ethics: The case against Chagnon and Neel

ITHACA, N.Y. ?

Anthropology is the science of human beings, their physical characteristics, origins, environment and cultures. It is governed by standards of conduct and research methods to which the vast majority of its practitioners have dedicated themselves.

The Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil, as well as many responsible researchers in the field of anthropology, continue to allege that Napoleon Chagnon and the late James Neel violated these tenets, Yanomami rights and even basic moral standards during research on Yanomami during the Amazon measles epidemic of 1968. Hundreds of Yanomami perished from the measles.

The current set of rules governing professional conduct for the American Anthropological Association (AAA) has been in place in one version or another since 1972. The objections are centered on the contention that Neel and Chagnon did not acquire “informed consent” from the Yanomami on using their blood and tissue samples for anything other than medical treatment. The alleged use of the samples by Chagnon and Neel for something other than Yanomami healthcare is already one failure of these standards, but detractors of the researchers are outraged to hear the Yanomami position that the tribesmen were lied to and manipulated with trade goods.

During the recent “Tragedy in the Amazon” conference at Cornell University, a panel of anthropologists and journalists took the offensive on the controversy over Chagnon and Neel’s collection of Yanomami samples, the alleged violation of academic standards associated with the collection, the pair’s potential role in the epidemic and the failure of the AAA task force on the issue to censure them. Many AAA members have even come out in support of Neel and Chagnon, but have failed to take into consideration Yanomami viewpoints.

“The American Anthropological Association report of what Chagnon [and Neel] did is a whitewash,” said panelist David Maybury-Lewis, anthropologist and president of Cultural Survival. “Chagnon is a Houdini.”

Maybury-Lewis said Chagnon tricked individual Yanomami into revealing the names of the dead, normally a strict taboo in the tribe. Chagnon also is said to have manipulated alliances by distributing trade goods in a manner that resulted in competition and conflict between villages and staging acts of violence in films on the expedition. These conflicts and raids periodically became uncharacteristically violent for the Yanomami, which led to Chagnon “misrepresenting” and “libeling” the tribe as the “violent people,” said Maybury-Lewis.

Chagnon’s own papers and journals reveal that he participated in these incidents of violence by personally providing transportation to and from these raids during the 1968 expedition. He attacked the credibility of Yanomami elders and leaders and totally disregarded the wishes and input of the indigenous cultures he studied, say his critics.

Shockingly, critics say, Chagnon even provided firearms and ammunition to competing factions, a fact confirmed in his own records.

All these activities clearly violate the ethical standards of the AAA, numerous conference participants said. They dismissed as irrelevant the defense that the rules were not codified until after the 1968 expedition as well as the statement that Chagnon lived up to the standards of the time. Chagnon and Neel would have been subject to the post- World War II Nuremberg Accords on experimentation on human subjects and the Helsinki Accords on human rights’ said conference participants.

“His record would shame any decent anthropologist, but would also shame any decent human being,” said Maybury-Lewis.

He added that Chagnon and Neel were part of a bigger problem, a clash between “Big Science” and anthropology. “Big Science”, he said, builds up the reputation of the scientist / anthropologist to the point where the people they study are de-humanized.

Maybury-Lewis said that organizations like the AAA were powerless to stop people like Chagnon and Neel until internal mechanisms were put into place regarding what to do when an indigenous group is harmed. He said this measure indicated a shift in paradigms from science to people along with concrete efforts to protect the integrity of indigenous cultures. These efforts, he said, involved collaboration and properly informing indigenous people of the consequences of all research that is conducted.

“What we [anthropologists] can do to ensure the ‘fierce people’ are not included in the text book for the introduction to anthropology is to ensure certain pugnacious ideas are no longer accepted,” said Maybury-Lewis of Chagnon’s studies of the Yanomami. “For example, racist science in anthropology needs to be marginalized and no longer considered respectable science.”

In a report “The Yanomami and the Ethics of Anthropological Practice,” Terrance Turner, a Cornell University anthropology professor, discussed the measles vaccination program that was a sidebar to the tissue collection and research program. Turner also was involved in cataloguing Neel’s field notes, correspondence and journals on the 1968 expedition. In his report, Turner detailed from Neel’s own correspondence and journals how Neel was informed that use of the Edmonston B vaccine to combat the epidemic was not going to be accepted by the host-nation Venezuelans because previous studies had indicated there were severe reactions.

Turner explained in a post-conference interview that the studies referred to were conducted on other indigenous populations in North America and in the Pacific Islands. Defenders of Neel and Chagnon have claimed there was no reason not to use the Edmonston B vaccine on the Yanomami because it was state-of-the-art in 1968, said Turner, who added that the vaccine was administered in conjunction with gamma globulin, a treatment for the respiratory problems and fevers that were side effects of Edmonston B.

“The reason why Neel used the Edmonston B vaccine has not adequately been addressed,” said Turner of Neel’s actions. He said there was compelling evidence against using the vaccine. “The Marshall Islanders vaccinated experienced some of the highest fevers on record.”

Turner said that Neel also failed to provide adequate post-inoculation care, if at all, to the Yanomami. The follow-up treatment could potentially last up to 13 days, said Turner. Neel’s personal notes indicate he was unprepared to provide that care because he had a schedule to keep and wanted to avoid distracting Willard Centerwall, the expedition medical officer, from the tissue collection.

According to Turner, Centerwall did confront Neel, also a doctor by trade, over the extreme reactions to Edmonston B as a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Turner said Neel might have wanted to observe the effects of a natural epidemic, bringing him into further conflict with Centerwall. Centerwall’s son has also said publicly that Neel refused to alter the vaccination program until Centerwall agreed to videotape a statement stating the Edmonston B vaccine had not been harmful to the Yanomami.

Centerwall is alive, but suffering from a severe case of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Supporters of Chagnon and Neel in particular have said the protocol the immunizations were following of vaccinating only half the village was designed to create a control group. Turner and others opposed to Chagnon and Neel have described the plan as a “medical measure” and not part of any treatment plan. They contend that only half the village was immunized to allow the other half to care for them while they suffered from the fevers and other side effects.

“The half village was not intended as a control group. They were intended as an auxiliary nursing corps,” said Turner. Turner’s report also said that Chagnon and Neel were “anthropologically naive” for not anticipating the Yanomami fleeing, often by entire villages, into the Amazon to escape the immunization teams as word of the side effects spread.

During this time period, as if threats of epidemics and violence were not enough, the Yanomami of Venezuela were plagued with the presence of another French anthropologist, Ja?ques Lizot. Lizot had been placed in voluntary exile in the Amazon after a scandal stemming from his attempted sexual assaults on the young children of his colleagues, said Turner. Upon arrival in Venezuela, Lizot is reported to have solicited young Indian boys into prostitution and attempted at least one rape.

“The Venezuelans did not care about the Yanomami,” said Turner of the lack of Venezuelan police actions against Lizot. “Even when one did, that did not translate into adequate policing.” Turner added that even missionaries in the area tolerated Lizot because he was an advocate for Yanomami rights in Caracas when no else was. The Yanomami did undertake a raid on the village where Lizot lived in an attempt to punish him for his atrocious behavior, but he escaped.

“The Yanomami do not easily resort to violence,” said Turner.

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