Primitive laboratory

October 6, 2000

Claims that James Neel injected Amazonians with a lethal vaccine highlight a struggle still facing anthropology, argues Tim Ingold

The discipline of anthropology is heading for a nasty bout of naming and shaming that could severely damage its ethical and scholarly credibility.

The late American anthropologist James Neel, who has long enjoyed a considerable, if controversial, reputation and whose work is regularly cited in introductory courses and textbooks, stands accused of colluding in a shocking research project.

The allegation is that a community of Amazonian Indians was treated with a vaccine known to cause potentially lethal symptoms similar to measles, in order to test the effects of natural selection on a small, isolated breeding population. The theory behind this "experiment", it is alleged, was that selection in such populations would favour "genes for leadership", as the most prominent males would gain access to a disproportionate number of females.

If the charges are true, then the whole of anthropology stands in the dock for allowing a heinous crime against humanity to proceed unchecked. If they are false, then we can only be ashamed at the lengths to which some anthropologists will go to discredit others with whom they happen to disagree.

I am not going to take sides on the issue because, like most people, I do not have access to the facts that would allow me to do so. But I am immensely saddened that a discipline that has done more than any other branch of scholarship to champion those millions of people who have become the victims of western arrogance - whether in the form of economic exploitation, political oppression or scientific manipulation - should be dragged down in this way.

The image the story conjures up - of a world in whose darkest recesses there live "primitive tribes", untouched since the Stone Age until brought to light by anthropologists (who may be construed as either heroes or villains) - strikes a deep chord in western popular consciousness.

It conforms with a view of history as a one-way march from savagery to civilisation that continues to exercise a powerful hold on the imagination, despite the horrors that supposedly "civilised" peoples have inflicted upon one another and the rest of humanity. And it seems to provide some justification for the idea that by seeking out the "primitive" in remote places, we might be afforded a window on the past, to see what human beings were like before history began, perhaps even to see at work those evolutionary processes that are supposed to have made our common human nature what it is.

Against this view, anthropologists have been long and loud in protest. Almost the first thing that students of the subject are taught is to abandon their received beliefs in the existence of primitive tribes and the ethnocentric idea of history that goes along with them.

We teach that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, for example, though they lead very different lives from ours, inhabit the same world and the same time that we do. They are no more ancient than us and we are no more modern than them.

Tracking down primitive peoples and peering at them as though they were relics of the past is a million miles from what anthropologists actually do. But we face an uphill struggle to get this message across.

It is a struggle because the idea of the primitive world as a laboratory for investigating the nature and evolution of mankind is deeply embedded within western science. This is regularly reasserted to the accompaniment of much hype and fanfare - the recent surge of interest in so-called "evolutionary psychology" is only the latest example. It is an idea that reaches its ultimate and most vicious expression in atrocities such as those that are alleged to have been committed in the jungles of the Amazon.

Only if this idea is finally excised can we be sure that atrocities of this kind will never happen again. How the blame is eventually apportioned for this particular incident, only time will tell. Anthropologists, however, should not hang their heads in shame, for that would be to admit defeat. They must continue with the struggle, not just with their own consciences, but against the arrogance and abuse of science.

Tim Ingold is professor of social anthropology, University of Aberdeen.

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