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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 8, 2000 Home Edition, Section: Opinion, Page: M-5
Source URL: http://www.latimes.com/

Sunday, October 8, 2000
Home Edition
Section: Opinion
Page: M-5


What Happens When Genocide Poses as Science

Alexander Cockburn is co-author, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "Al Gore: A User's Manual," just published by Verso

"We write to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the American anthropological profession. In its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption, it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology."

Thus begins a recent e-mail from two noted anthropologists, Terry Turner of Cornell and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, to Louise Lamphere, president of the American Anthropological Assn. The man primarily accused of these crimes, University of Michigan geneticist James Neel, died this past February. The charges are made by investigative journalist John Tierney in his book, "Darkness in El Dorado," scheduled for publication next month by W.W. Norton.

Neel worked for a covert program of the Atomic Energy Commission to study the effects of radiation on human subjects and to see how human groups behaved under conditions of extreme stress. Neel had ubermensch notions about the genetics of "leadership" and differential rates of reproduction among dominant and subdominant males in a genetically "isolated" human population. The AEC was happy to pick up the tab, eager to find out how any survivor group of carefully selected Americans secluded in caves during a nuclear Armageddon would survive and breed in the aftermath.

Tierney presents convincing evidence, write Turner and Sponsel, that on his 1968 trip to the Yanomami, a tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon, Neel greatly exacerbated, and probably started, the epidemic of measles that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Yanomami. It seems, according to the Tierney book, that the epidemic was "caused, or at least worsened and more widely spread, by a campaign of vaccination carried out by the research team, which used a virulent vaccine that had been counter-indicated by medical experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles (exactly the Yanomami situation)."

Thus, according to Tierney, who spent 10 years researching this history, Neel secretly supervised a program of potentially lethal injections. Then he instructed the members of his research team to refuse to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, reportedly saying that as men of science, they should not intervene. He apparently believed that before the rise of mass societies, first in agricultural communities and then in cities, small genetically isolated groups would produce leaders with dominant genes who would then appropriate a big share of the available women with whom they would breed, thus constantly upgrading the genetic stock of the tribe.

But his theory faced a big problem, namely the vulnerability of such small groups to diseases and consequent epidemics imported from the outside world, which the large groups in modern mass society could more easily absorb.

Hence Neel's terrible experiments on the Yanomami, in a kind of grim downgrade of the Malthusian ethics of "Survivor."

In their e-mail, Turner and Sponsel write carefully that "Tierney's well-documented account, in its entirety, strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all probability deliberately caused as an experiment designed to produce scientific support for Neel's eugenic theory."

On Tierney's account of it, there's nothing here that separates Neel and his team from the Nazi doctors, and ghastly though the whole story is, there's little that should excessively surprise anyone who has looked at the practical functions of anthropology as a servant of empire. Anthropologists often served as spies for the colonial authorities, as many native peoples correctly surmised.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard, whose study of the African Nuer tribe published in 1940 is regarded as a classic of social anthropology, interrupted a lyrical account of Nuer life to note without comment or reproof the punitive raids of British colonial authorities "including bombing and machine-gunning of camps." Nor did he regard this rending of Nuer society by the British as a topic worthy of inclusion in his description of stresses in the society.

Again, this should not surprise us. Alfred Kroeber, who founded academic anthropology in California at the turn of the century and who wrote "Handbook of the Indians of California," spent many hours interviewing the Yurok tribe whose territory is on the coast of Northern California, just south of the Oregon line, about 100 miles north of where I live.

Kroeber eventually distilled these conversations into a volume called "Yurok Narratives," in which he meditated on the supposed "character" of this Indian group. The Yurok, he wrote, were "an inwardly fearful people; the men often seemed to me withdrawn." He mused that "for some reason, the culture had gone hypochondriac." Kroeber never got around to mentioning that between 1848, the start of the Gold Rush, and 1910, when he was studying California's Indians, the Yurok population in the region was reduced from about 2,500 to 610. Disease, starvation and murder had wiped out about 75% of the group. It is as though an anthropologist studying the inward fears of Polish Jews after 1945 never mentioned Auschwitz.

Will Tierney's book provoke the uproar that Turner and Sponsel predict? Will anthropology be placed in the dock? I doubt it. For years, native groups across the world have been telling their stories about the depredations of anthropologists to anyone interested. Few have listened. The can of worms is way too big.

Type of Material: Opinion Piece