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Yanomamö Wars Continue

2 January 2002 (All day)
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Last fall, journalist Patrick Tierney reignited a long-standing dispute about scientists' treatment of the Yanomamö Indians with Darkness in El Dorado, a book charging anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the late geneticist James V. Neel, and others with exploitation and destructive practices, including possibly exacerbating a fatal 1968 measles epidemic (Science, 19 January 2001, p. 416). In the ensuing uproar, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) launched an inquiry to examine--and, it hoped, settle--the issues.

In late November, the six-member task force posted a preliminary report on the Web that largely rejected Tierney's claims. Neel's team "did the best that they possibly could" with the epidemic, it ruled. And the report only gave Chagnon a light tap on the wrist for collecting "secret" Yanomamö names and aiding a tribal raiding party. "There's nothing substantial proving that either Neel or Chagnon did anything wrong," says Chagnon defender William Irons of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "The original charges ... have been downgraded to almost nothing."

But if the AAA hoped to put an end to the Yanomamö wars, it failed. Indeed, the draft report--posted before two task force members had seen it--was quickly denounced as "one-sided" and "sanitized" by Terence Turner of Cornell, a Chagnon critic. Task force member Janet Chernela of Florida International University in Miami says there were major omissions, including her interviews with Yanomami about blood samples taken by Neel.

In response to criticism, the AAA pulled the report down (but not before evolutionary psychologists reposted it). Although Irons thinks the task force did a "fair job," Chagnon is still bitter about the mauling he took from Tierney. "I'm absolutely amazed that the AAA takes this book seriously enough to have mounted an all-out investigation," he says. He predicts that the task force, bowing to political pressure, will issue a more "hostile" final report "that will excoriate me more thoroughly."

Related sites

The American Anthropological Association
Napoleon Chagnon's defense
Site about Darkness in El Dorado by the book's publisher, W.W. Norton & Company

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