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Dr. Alan Fix, Anthropology in Trouble

The letter by Turner and Sponsel regarding alleged wrong-doing by James V. Neel has now circulated through numerous list-serves. Since I have some knowledge of Neel's work, I feel that some response to this document should be made. Clearly, a complete examination of the charges must be made and perhaps the AAA forum is the place to do that. In the meantime, several misinterpretations and mistakes are evident from the letter and can be corrected from the published writings of Neel and others and some understanding of how this kind of science works.

First, Neel indeed was supported by the AEC, which was the successor to the Manhattan Engineering Project. This is not necessarily sinister. Evaluating genetic damage done by the A bombs in Japan was a critical concern. Neel and his colleagues did that over many years. It should be stressed that this was OBSERVATIONAL work rather than experiment (this work as well as the Native American study is related in detail in Neel's scientific autobiography, "Physician to the Gene Pool", Wiley, 1994). A major interest in this work was estimating increased rates of mutation in the survivors of the bombing. Although the Yanomama project had much broader goals, the AEC continued to fund this work based on the idea that these populations would allow him to estimate mutation rates (mainly by looking at so-called "private polymorphisms" not shared by others and thought thereby to be recent mutations.). While it is possible that strange experiments were being performed, there is no necessary connection between the AEC funding and such "obsessed fascism". Another example of emotive anecdote with no substance: Roche is claimed to have injected radioactive substances in individuals. It seems he did, but of course this is the procedure routinely used to check thyroid function. Radio iodine concentrates in the thyroid and can be measured. Goitre can be a big problem in interior populations and was a concern for the biomedical team. The analogy would be like saying that those x-raying the Semai (in Malaysia, where I have experience) for TB were genocidal! Of course he did blood tests--this is evil??

I have no knowledge of the measles vaccine that is purported to be so inappropriate (Neel was an MD and a member of a medical school faculty -- I can't understand how he would have used such a vaccine). However, the supposed compelling theoretical rationale for causing the epidemic is totally bogus. This story is contrary to all of Neel's reasoning. Simply reading Neel's published work allows us to evaluate theory and belief (if not the facts of practice). Neel was not a eugenicist (read his chapters in "Physician" -- he follows Joshua Lederberg in talking of "euphenics"--change the environment to optimize human genetic potentials.

If he wished to make a eugenic prescription for the human population, it should be here. It seems likely that the classic "geneticist=eugenicist" equation is being invoked -- but this is no longer true--almost no geneticists are eugenicists (though many were in the early years of the last century). Worse, the idea that he thought there was a gene for dominance is wrong -- IF there was genetic variance associated with the qualities of headmanship, then that would indeed by passed by highly polygynous guys, but Neel never claimed that it was simple. The story gets even weirder...Neel is faulted for NOT believing that resistance was genetic -- how does this make him a eugenicist? His point was that excess mortality resulted from the breakdown of social support during epidemics -- nobody to get water, feed the kids, etc. when everybody is sick. Thus the claimed eugenicist is in fact claiming that high mortality in these populations is environmental. The crucial point is that there would be no value for Neel's theory in performing this "experiment" whatever its outcome.

The social pattern that Neel saw as critical to Yanomama population structure did feature polygyny and differential reproduction by headmen - but that was only part of his view. Many other aspects such as the "fission-fusion" pattern that were not tied to "big man" politics were also addressed. Granted he was interested in the effects that this had on the gene pool but if that's evil...

I could go on but hopefully the point has been made. The sinister claims may be overdone. It is worth waiting and seeing before judging this work.

Again, whatever the truth of any claim of the Tierney book, this letter is scary. Where "probable truth emerges by inference", I cringe. Phrases like " malicious and perverted research" where the actual evidence (at least that cited in the Turner/Sponsel letter) is terribly weak and the misinterpretation of Neel's theories is obvious is McCarthyism of the classic sort.

I also fear for anthropology -- not because of Neel's work but because of exactly the kind of self-righteous prejudice represented in the T/S letter. It is important to find whether evil was done but character assassination is evil itself.

Alan G. Fix
Professor of Anthropology
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521