Ethics of studying Amazonians

This week I was on the phone with a world-renown linguist, Pierre Pica, who works with an Amazonian indigenous tribe. He and his collaborators have already found some great stuff–that these people can only count to roughly four or five though they understand basic geometry about as well as the average Westerner.

What I’ve been pondering, however, is the impact of this kind of research. Keep in mind that many of these indigenous tribes have little contact with modern civilization. Some have never seen a modern human being. So I would say that ecotourism and the such probably are out, even for tribes that are near cities. Sure, they’ll get nice amenities like electricity and money from the gawking visitors, but just look at what conditions American Indians are in right now. They have high rates of alcoholism and fall behind on educational opportunities.

The trickier issue is the ethics of anthropologists. Do they benefit Western society? Sure, their research is valuable in understanding not only these tribes and gives us a better sense of our own origins and culture. But does the research necessarily help the natives? Theories aren’t going to help them hunt for food. Hmm. But maybe it’s ok if the guy’s Pierre–he tries not to stick with one tribe for too long (a couple days) before sailing down the river. And he sounded like a good guy on the phone.