Maybe ‘Doing No Harm’ is Not the Best Way to Help Those Who Helped You

Rob Borofsky

Hawaii Pacific University
Center for a Public Anthropology

Ethics is often about framing.  Was someone shot for a justifiable reason or murdered?   Is America a country striving for equality or encouraging inequality?  Should anthropological ethics center on “doing no harm” or should they focus on both parties – fieldworkers and their informants – positively benefiting from their relationship?

Neither the original Hippocratic Oath nor the modern version mentions “do no harm.”  The phrasing from Epidemics, I,II is:  “As to disease make a habit of two things — help, or at least, to do no harm.  The phrasing “first, do no harm” likely derives from Thomas Inman, a nineteenth century house surgeon.  Why anthropologists should focus on “do no harm” in their code of ethics – rather than on helping others – seems at first glance puzzling.

To clarify what I am getting at, let’s turn to a well-known case.  Napoleon Chagnon was accused of harming the Yanomami by describing them as fierce and writing that they lived “in a state of chronic warfare.”  During the heated debates over establishing a protective Yanomami reserve in the 1990s – one was established in 1992 – military opposition used such statements to argue for establishing a set of small broken up reserves rather than one large one.  The broken up reserves would, not incidentally, have allowed considerable gold mining in Yanomami territory – just what the larger reserve sought to prevent.

Most anthropologists emphasized the Yanomami were less violent than Chagnon depicted, a position supporting Yanomami efforts for a large reserve. Was Chagnon bringing harm to the Yanomami by emphasizing their violent behavior?

We might start answering this question by asking whether such assertions mattered to the Brazilian military.  During the military’s time in government, it tortured hundreds of Brazilians, including the current president, Dilma Rousseff.  I suspect few would argue that, if Chagnon changed his position regarding Yanomami violence, the military would have followed suit and supported a large reserve.

Intriguingly, we do not really know how violent the Yanomami actually were.  Chagnon used extensive fieldwork and a host of detailed statistics to support his position.  Tierney (2000), relying on other data, took the opposite stance.  But neither side made their data publicly available so others could check them.  We simply have their numbers, not the details that would allow others to confirm one position or the other.  No one – to my knowledge – ever suggested that the Yanomami were in a state of chronic warfare during the 1990s.  They had been “pacified” by then.  The argument over Yanomami violence was about some vague past period and hence irrelevant to the reserve controversy.

Given these circumstances, we might ask:  Why did so many anthropologists argued over whether Chagnon’s depiction of the Yanomami violated the AAA’s code of “do no harm.”

Actually, there is a good reason some might frame the issue this way.  It allowed the pro-Chagnon and anti-Chagnon anthropologists to side step a key issue:  What tangible, direct benefits had accrued to the Yanomami from all the anthropologists working with them?  Arguing over “doing no harm” allowed those involved to avoid questions about helping the Yanomami in more than token ways.  As noted, ethics is often a matter of framing.

We know that anthropologists benefited from working among and writing about the Yanomami.  Chagnon has made well over a million dollars from his various books and movies.  Other anthropologists may not have not made as much.  But their academic publications over time allowed many to gain promotions and salary increases.  With a few exceptions, they have mostly supplied the Yanomami with minor goods and weapons in return.  They have rarely helped address on a continuing basis the critical health problems that Kopenawa and Albert’s The Falling Sky note are decimating the Yanomami.

Clearly, with limited power and salaries, these anthropologists cannot correct all the ills Yanomami face.  But several Yanomami asked for something quite specific from the anthropological community:  help in gaining the return of their relatives’ blood taken during the Neel-Chagnon expeditions – so their relatives would no longer roam the earth in a transitory state.  Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado has its critics.  But there is no mistaking it provided a valuable service to the Yanomami.  It alerted them to the fact that their relatives’ blood had not been destroyed soon after it had been collected.  Instead, it was being stored in various American research institutions.  Tierney’s book drew the Yanomami into years of struggle to gain this blood back.

Fortunately, the blood has now been returned.  On the American side, the Center for a Public Anthropology working with undergraduates from across North America coaxed Penn State and the National Cancer Institute into offering to return their blood samples.  The Yanomami and the Instituto Socioambiental (especially Ana Paula and Bruce Albert), on the Brazilian side, drew the Brazilian government into accepting them.  As reported by the BBC and Globo, the Yanomami have now ritually disposed of their relatives’ blood (see and

What would have happened if, instead of arguing for years over whether Chagnon had violated the code against “doing harm,” anthropologists – Chagnon, those who supported him and those who opposed him – used their royalties and salary increases to help address some of the Yanomami’s ongoing ills (including the return of the blood samples)?  They might have helped fund Yanomami NGOs concerned with these problems, for example, or they might have lobbied for better policing against gold miner intrusions into the reserve.

You see my point.  We need to reframe our ethical arguments.  Focusing on “do no harm” allows people to argue past one another, blaming this or that individual.  Focusing on doing good means anthropologists have a responsibility for helping those in need, especially those who, in assisting us in our fieldwork, enhance our academic careers.  The North American undergraduates led the way with their example.  There is no reason why anthropological fieldworkers should not now follow.

Leave a Reply