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Internet Source: ABC News, October 5, 2000
Source URL: http://more.abcnews.go.com/sections/living/secondopinion/secondopinion.html

Who Should Investigate?

Looking at Conflict of Interest in Biomedicine, Part Two

Commentary By Nicholas Regush

Oct. 5 — Well, here we go again. Another red-hot scientific scandal. This time, anthropologists and geneticists are getting a noisy wake-up call.

A book written by journalist Patrick Tierney, titled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, will be published next month. It raises a stink so high that the space station astronauts will get a whiff of it.

Tierney alleges that some big stars in science were likely either involved in a horrific biological experiment on the isolated Amazonian Yanomamo Indian tribe or in fabrication of scientific data while conducting ethnographic studies in the region.

Criminal Investigation Warranted

If enough genuine dirt appears to seep out from beneath the rug surrounding these allegations, there should be a federal criminal investigation. These days, with so much conflict of interest and ugly, aggressive partisanship built into the fabric of scientific enterprise, anyone trusting science to police itself is probably ignorant of scientific politics.

One suggestion in Tierney’s book is that the late geneticist James Neel may have helped launch a deadly measles epidemic in 1968 among the Yanomamo. Hundreds, maybe thousands, died of measles about the time that several communities of the tribe were inoculated (for reasons that remain unclear) with a controversial ? and, some say, dangerous and inappropriate — live-virus measles vaccine known as Edmonston B.

Some of this research, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission, was conducted in the context of the agency’s need to test for genetic mutation in a population that had not been contaminated by radiation. The commission needed Yanomamo blood samples.

Many Troublesome Questions

Did Neel help trigger this epidemic so that he could test a genetic theory? Did his notion of the existence of a “leadership” gene motivate him to determine whether genetically superior Yanomamo could successfully fight off an invasion of a new virus? Did he view the isolated Yanomamo, who live in the Amazon basin of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, as providing him with the dream condition for testing his theory?

These are some of the dicey questions now circulating in anthropological circles, and will require some answers.

Tierney’s book also raises disturbing questions about the ethics and credibility of Napoleon Chagnon, Neel protégé and co-Yanomamo researcher and possible co-conspirator in the measles epidemic. Chagnon is currently professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Suspicious Cultural Theories

Chagnon is famous for his portrayal of the Yanomamo as fiercely warlike, and for providing strong fuel, on the basis of his research in the Amazon, for the theory that men are the movers of evolutionary change because they are biologically primed to be violent and thereby compete aggressively for sexual access to women.

Some of his fellow anthropologists have long blasted Chagnon for what they call slovenly research. And now Tierney comes along and alleges that Chagnon has not only cooked his data but staged fights on film to promote his views that the Yanomamo are savages.

As you might well imagine, critics of these two men are gearing up for a major battle against those who defend them. Chagnon considers the charges in the book to be ludicrous, the net effect of a long-standing political feud within anthropology about the nature of being human.

The American Anthropological Association will play host to some of this argument at its annual meeting next month.

Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop

Any investigation should move beyond academic rants. This episode in science can’t be left to the fox who guards the chicken coop.

The same Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to the Department of Energy) that sponsored radiation experiments in the mid-1970s without knowledge or consent of its 16,000 subjects, including hospital patients, prisoners and mentally disabled children, is once again at the heart of scandal.

It was only in 1993, after considerable pressure was applied by activists and survivors, that the Clinton administration acknowledged the commission’s role in the radiation experiments.

We’d better get some real answers from law enforcement authorities about the Yanomamo research — and fast.