TOP 500 REZENSENTam 3. August 2007
This book makes very serious charges of unethical and unscientific conduct by a number of scientists and government entities. Based on reading the evidence cited in the book, however, it was hard for me to tell how solid these charges are. If you like a good mystery, this book will probably appeal to you as an opportunity to figure out what went on with the Yanomami people in South America from 1964 on.
Contact with primitive people has many special responsibilities associated with it. In some cases, those who are being studied can be exposed to dangerous illnesses. In other cases, the social structure can be influenced in ways that are harmful to individuals. On the other hand, what aspects of modern science and technology, if any, should be withheld? This book raises all of those questions in very fundamental ways. Apparently, those who were involved disagree about both what was done, and its appropriateness.
The charge of unscientific research is that what has been reported about the violence of the Yanomami is inaccurate. Mr. Tierney argues that the data behind the findings are either missing, wrong, or mischaracterized. Filmed evidence is claimed to have been "staged" in exchange for gifts, or incited by inflammatory behavior by the scientists (like firing off weapons to intimidate, dressing as a shaman, and staging feasts).
Charges of U.S. government misconduct relate to obtaining specimens from Yanomami for a control group as part of Atomic Energy Commission studies of the effect of radiation on human beings. Apparently, this sampling was going on in large numbers while the initial anthropological studies were being undertaken. That research, if it took place as described here, seems like a very strange thing for anthropologists to be doing.
Clearly, the Yanomami suffered from severe outbreaks of disease (measles and other complications) at about the same time that the anthropological contacts occurred. Arguments are made that measles vaccine was misapplied by the anthropologists, which made disease and death worse. Apparently, this charge is very controversial. I do not know enough about the subject to have an opinion, but I would certainly be interested in what a disinterested third party would have to say on the subject.
One anthropologist is accused of having abused children in the process of his research.
Where should these accusations go from here? They clearly need to be resolved somehow. If they are true, serious misconduct seems to have taken place. If they are not true, serious harm to the individuals charged has occurred. In either case, I hope that this book will not be the end of the examination and discussion.
Regardless of what turns out to be the case in each aspect of the charges, I do hope that standards will be set and observed that all people will agree to and follow for working with privitive peoples.
It is hard for me to imagine that some of these factual issues can ever be resolved. A lot of time has passed, and the evidence is often buried (as in the case of the many dead Yanomami). What people say today may or may not be correct.
On the other hand, it seems like the Yanomami continue to be at risk from people who want to commercially exploit them or the land they inhabit. The South American governments have a duty here that is fairly undeveloped as a subject in the book.
Perhaps one way to advance our understanding would be if Mr. Tierney, Professor Chagnon (one of those accused by Mr. Tierney), and an independent, objective advocate for the Yanomami could write a side-by-side book in which they address one another's points of view at the same time. The answers might still not be clear, but at least the issues would be clarified. Hopefully, some guidance might emerge about what future practices should be in the area where the Yanomami live.
If we allow the appearance of injustice, we open the door to actual injustice. This book suggests that an injustice has been done in one direction or the other (and possibly both directions, on different charges). I look forward to learning more about the subject.
I rated the book as 3 stars because I could not form my own opinion from the text about the validity of most of the charges. The allegations certainly piqued my interest, but it was hard for me to imagine that the anthropologists were as callous and ruthless as they are charged as having been. Also, the arguments were repetitive and circuitous, which made them hard to follow in many cases.
I suggest that you follow up on this issue by asking those you know who are informed on these matters what they think of the controversy. Both public health people and anthropologists should have useful views.
May all live long and prosper . . . with justice and caring for all!