Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
Home | Darkness in El Dorado | Contact

Internet Source: United Press International, GENERAL NEWS, September 28, 2000
Source URL: none

United Press International

September 28, 2000

Uproar in anthropology

The senior author of an e-mail that has sent the profession of anthropology into an uproar has changed his mind about some of the letter's more inflammatory assertions. In a phone interview with Terrence Turner of Cornell University, it was pointed out that the e-mail seemed irresponsible.

"I'm not at all surprised," he said. "That would have been my reaction too."

Turner and Leslie Sponsel, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, based their missive on the manuscript of a forthcoming book that alleges malfeasance in studies of Japanese A-bomb survivors and the systematic abuse of a South American Indian tribe.

The memo, which was intended only for the eyes of senior officials of the American Anthropological Association, proliferated in cyberspace, renewing ancient rivalries and clouding the reputations of James V. Neel, the father of modern human genetics, and Napoleon Chagnon, one of the most prominent anthropological field researchers of modern times. Turner's second thoughts, and the first two parts of this series, concern Neel, who died on Feb. 1 at age 84.

Turner and Sponsel say the purpose of their letter was to warn the association of a media firestorm that would follow the publication of "Darkness in El Dorado," by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, and urge it to get to the bottom of the book's lurid allegations. A 9,000-word excerpt from the book is due to appear in the New Yorker magazine on Oct. 2. To the vexation of Turner and Sponsel -- who say their primary goal was to spark an independent, impartial investigation that would include the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- the e-mail itself ignited the firestorm.

The result has the ugliness of a family fight. Partisans on both sides give compelling and contradictory accounts reminiscent of the 1951 Japanese movie "Roshomon." Most of the relevant evidence is not yet available. Tierney's book is said to run to more than 400 pages, with 58 pages of footnotes in fine print. Turner told United Press International that the publisher, W.W. Norton and Co., has stopped giving out galley proofs. He also said that the New Yorker, for proprietary interests of its own, has put pressure on Norton to push back publication from Oct. 1, as had been planned, to Nov. 16.

That delay "would be a disaster for us," Turner said, because Nov. 16 is the date the American Anthropological Association's Committee for Human Rights will hold an open forum on the controversy at the association's 99th annual meeting in San Francisco.

Turner said that the memo implied approval of Tierney's charges because of the book's exhaustive documentation. However, he cautioned, "nothing is proven." He believes "that the partisans of Chagnon and Neel" who have raised objections to the memo are trying to "kill the messengers."

But as the conduit of unproven charges, the memo appears reckless -- even if it was intended for only a small number of readers. Turner and Sponsel use such phrases as "sheer criminalityunparalleled in the history of Anthropology." They charge Neel with "fascist eugenics." They call Chagnon and Neel "corrupt and depraved" protagonists guilty of spreading their "poison" for decades. They conjure up the ghost of Auschwitz Dr. Josef Mengele.

One of the allegations is: "Neel and Chagnon, on their trip to the Yonomami (Indians) in 1968, greatly exacerbated, and probably started, the epidemic of measles that killed (quoting Tierney) 'hundreds, perhaps thousands' " of Amazon Basin natives. Turner and Sponsel say in the memo that Neel used a dangerous, obsolete measles vaccine on the Yanomomi because the physician wanted "to observe an epidemic of measles, or comparable 'contact' disease" to test his theory about the genetic basis of leadership qualities in small, isolated groups.

Now Turner calls this "speculation" on his part. "By the time they realized they were in the midst of a very serious measles epidemic, they started to realize they had caused it. I don't think that they meant to kill anybody.That's unthinkable," he told UPI.

When asked how any possible motive of Neel's could have tested his theory about selection for leadership qualities during a measles epidemic, he replied:

"I don't think it is related to leadership qualities. I don't think it has anything to do with them. I think I was wrong in my speculative thing about what I dashed off in that memo to the presidents (i.e., the president and president elect) of the (American Anthropological) Association. I think I was wrong to tie the epidemic, if that's what it was, to Neel's idea about leadership. That was the wrong alley that I" went down. "I was trying to apply my meager knowledge of Neel's ideas to (Tierney's) charge -- to provide a speculative answer to the question of Neel's motivation. I think that was a wrong speculation."

Turner said he also was wrong in his statement that Neel ordered the expedition not to give medication to the sick Indians. "This is not true. I take full responsibility for this," he said.

The expedition "did give medicine," Turner said, "but it is true that Neel tried to cut the time they spent on giving medicine down to a minimum and demanded that the expedition move on trying to keep (to its)very demanding schedule of villages to visit and to vaccinate. (Expedition members) left villages that were at the height of the illness reaction. People were sick; many were dying. The expedition didn't really stay to watch them die and to help them. They went on to other villages."

Turner said Neel's explanation to the team was that it had to leave to give vaccinations in these other villages.

"Oftenthey left and didn't give vaccinations in the next village," he said, "saving the remaining medicine and trying to get to a more distant village where they were going to make a movie. And they were trying to keep to that schedule. So there was monumental medical irresponsibility," Turner said.

Despite Tierney's reputed documentation, some remain skeptical of the journalist's research techniques. Susan Lindee, a member of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of the History and Sociology of Science, circulated a message after reading Neel's entire field notes "for the 1968 work in Venezuela." Of Lindee's five "explicit matters of fact," Neel's detractors have fixed on her apparently mistaken interpretation of a telegram she thought gave Neel permission from the Venezuelan government to carry out the vaccine program.

The telegram was from Marcel Roche, they say, a Venezuelan physician who was a member of Neel's team. Roche was not authorized to grant such permission, said Turner and Kenneth Good, a Jersey City State anthropologist who spent 12 years with the Yanomomi.

But Lindee makes a compelling case for Neel in her other four points.

"It is clear from (Neel's) notes that the epidemic drastically disrupted his field research," she concluded, "making it impossible to collect the kinds of data he had intended to collect, and it's clear that he was at times frustrated, even angry, about this situation. A measles outbreak emphatically did not facilitate his research."

David Glenn Smith, a physical anthropologist at the University of California at Davis, knew Neel for 30 years and worked closely with him at the University of Michigan. "Many of (Neel's) colleagues who worked with him on the Yonomami project are also longtime and, in some cases, very dear friends of mine," Smith said. "None of my friends who worked on the Yonomami project who I have been in contact with over this issue know Mr. Tierney or were ever interviewed by him."

A.T. "Ted" Steegmann, former chairman of SUNY Buffalo's anthropology department, introduced Chagnon to Neel at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s. "The possibility that Neel and Chagnon caused a measles epidemic deliberately is zero," he said when the memo appeared.

"Neel was a great physician who took the Hippocratic oath. And what care can you give for measles?" he asked. "People have to rest. It's a virus infection. Nursing care is the best you can do."

William J. Schull is an emeritus professor of academic medicine, the Human Genetic Center, at the University of Texas at Houston: "Jim Neel and I worked together for half a century," he said. "It is beyond my imagination that he wouldn't treat someone who was sick. Even though his position (at the University of Michigan) was in a basic science department, to keep his clinical touch he used to routinely take charge of a medicine ward every year when I was there." (Next: Radioactive accusations)

Analysis: Uproar in anthropology Part 2


(Editor's note: The field of anthropology is in tumult. A pirated e-mail accuses two famous scholars of unspeakable outrages in the conduct of their field research. A South American Indian tribe and a test group of Japanese A-bomb survivors are the alleged victims. The memo, based on the galleys of a forthcoming book, charges depraved criminality and "fascist eugenics." The name of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor, is invoked. Partisans are lining up for a showdown at the 99th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco on Nov. 16. UPI's Lou Marano reports on the controversy in a three-part series.)

Second of three articles

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- As the case against "the father of modern human genetics" showed signs of collapse Thursday, a distinguished former colleague of the late James V. Neel called charges that Neel conducted a secret program of experiments on human subjects "just totally off the wall."

William J. Schull, emeritus professor of academic medicine at the University of Texas, spoke in response to allegations made in an e-mail intended only for senior officials of the American Anthropological Association. Its authors -- anthropology professors Terrence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii at Manoa -- believe the missive was leaked by a member of one of the association's committees.

The authors drew their charges from their reading of "Darkness in El Dorado," a book by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, soon to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. Turner and Sponsel say their main goal was to prepare the association for the coming firestorm the book would spark and to urge an impartial, independent investigation that would include the participation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But the memo shows no signs of impartiality because, on its face, it treats Tierney's documentation as definitive. Turner now has backed away from some of the e-mail's more lurid charges and he told United Press International: "The memo was not conceived as an assertion of truth, or even of our beliefs. It was conceived as an assertion of Tierney's allegations and their probable implications."

But one can't get the toothpaste back in the tube. Even assuming benign intent, the memo's harsh words have tarred Neel's international reputation and that of Napoleon Chagnon, one of the most prominent anthropological field researchers of the 20th century. The memo charged Neel and Chagnon with malfeasance during a measles epidemic that struck a tribe of Amazon Basin Indians in 1968. Among other allegations, Turner and Sponsel said that Neel's team -- for shadowy and unsavory reasons -- administered an obsolete and dangerous vaccine to the Yanomomi Indians.

Duke University pediatrician-vaccinologist Samuel Katz submitted a letter on the subject for publication in Time Magazine and circulated it widely in the academic community. Katz affirmed the vaccine's safety and refuted the memo's shocking claims. Use of the vaccine "in an attempt to halt an epidemic was a justifiable, proven and valid approach," Katz wrote. "In no way could it initiate or exacerbate an epidemic (as Turner and Sponsel originally charged). Continued circulation of these charges is not only unwarranted, but truly egregious."

On Thursday, Turner circulated a surprisingly phlegmatic response in which he excused himself and Sponsel from the obligation to represent the work of others accurately. "Checking the veracity of (Tierney's) allegations for ourselves was not germane to the immediate and limited purpose of the memo ..." Since circulating the memo, Turner wrote to Katz, he and Sponsel have "set about doing our best to check on Dr. Neel's vaccination program and his use of the (disputed) vaccine. One of the authorities we consulted was Dr. Peter Aaby, a well-known medical anthropologist and member of the Scandinavian medical team that has been working on measles in West Africa for some twenty years. He has gone over the claims about the vaccine made by Tierney (and transmitted by Turner and Sponsel) and refuted them point by point, in very much the same terms that you have used."

Those who knew Neel believe the other charges against him also will collapse of their own weight. In an elliptical attack, Turner and Sponsel noted that Neel was put in charge of an Atomic Energy Commission study of the effects of the atomic bomb on Japanese survivors. Later, they said, Neel "was involved in the studies of the effects of the radioactivity from the experimental A and H bomb blasts in the Marshall Islands on the natives ... The same group secretly carried on experiments on human subjects in the USA," the authors wrote. "These included injecting people with radioactive plutonium without their knowledge or permission, in some cases leading to their death or disfigurement." In a parenthetical aside, Turner and Sponsel concede that "Neel himself appears not to have given any of these experimental injections."

Schull called this statement "as cheap a shot as I've seen in years." The assertion that Neel was involved in the Marshall Islands studies is "totally false," he told UPI. Schull, who worked with Neel for 52 years, said that over the decades the Micronesian peoples requested studies to determine whether it was safe to return to the contaminated atolls. Each of those studies culminated in a report, Schull said.

"A few years back, one of those reports was directed to the National Research Council for review and assessment. And Jim was chairman of the committee that reviewed the report's assessment of the dose levels and whether they were too high to permit rehabilitation of those islands."

The committee traveled to the Marshall Islands, Schull said, but Neel did not go because he already was ill from the prostate cancer that killed him Feb. 1 at age 84. "What easier target than someone not there to defend himself?" Schull asked.

The memo's innuendoes about harm to A-bomb survivors were ominous but unspecific. Because Tierney and Sponsel characterized Neel's Yanomami project as nefarious, and because they raised the alarm that Neel's expedition to the Amazon "was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission's secret program of experiments on human subjects" in which Neel was involved, the memo implied that Neel had done something wrong in this alleged "secret program of experiments."

Schull denied that Neel did any secret work for the AEC.

"Jim's responsibility was to look at the establishment of a program of genetic studies to assess the consequences of the exposure of the parents of the children (the bomb victims) had subsequent to the bombing," Schull said. "Those studies have culminated in 50 or 60 publications.

(Neel's) contributions to human genetics have been seminal and central to almost all subsequent developments.

"He was the first one, for example, to correctly point the mode of inheritance of what was then called Cooley's anemia, now called thalassemia," Schull said. "He also was the one who identified the mode of inheritance of sickle-cell anemia. And he was the first to point out the significance of (subclinical) 'carriers' of inherited disease.

"I find it more than just malicious to take on someone who is no linger in a position to defend himself. Rest assured that Jim would not have backed off from a fight," Schull said. "He was simply not that kind of person."

Analysis: Uproar in anthropology -- Part 3


Sunday, October 01, 2000 7:24:47 PM EST

Analysis: Uproar in anthropology -- Part 3

(Editor's note: The field of anthropology is in tumult. A pirated e-mail accuses two famous scholars of unspeakable outrages in the conduct of their field research. A South American Indian tribe and a test group of Japanese A-bomb survivors are the alleged victims. The memo, based on the galleys of a forthcoming book, charges depraved criminality and "fascist eugenics." The name of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor, is invoked. Partisans are lining up for a showdown at the 99th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco on Nov. 16. UPI's Lou Marano reports on the controversy in a three-part series.)

Last of three parts

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Accusations leveled against two distinguished scientists in September are crumbling by the hour.

The charges, which appear more slanderous with each passing day, were made in an e-mail addressed to senior officials of the American Anthropological Association. The authors, anthropology professors Terrence Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, claim they wanted merely to alert the association to the media firestorm sure to come with the publication of Patrick Tierney's book "Darkness in El Dorado." They also say they wanted to promote an impartial, independent investigation of Tierney's shocking charges against James V. Neel, aptly called "the father of modern human genetics," and the swashbuckling but scholarly Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps anthropology's premier field researcher of the 20th century.

But the memo is looking more and more like a brick from the dark. Turner and Sponsel transmitted Tierney's allegations uncritically, as if they were established facts. Those who have seen galley proofs of "Darkness in El Dorado" say the kind of credit Tierney gives to Turner and Sponsel is consistent with a long-standing collaboration. Far from being surprised by the contents of the proofs and thus galvanized into action, as claimed, Turner and Sponsel seem certain to have been two of Tierney's principal sources. Turner now says, unconvincingly, that the memo was not intended to be "an assertion of truth (but) ... an assertion of Tierney's allegations and their probable implications."

The charges conveyed in the e-mail were represented in parts one and two of this series, and it seems inappropriate to repeat them even as they are in the process of being discredited.

Suffice to say that Turner and Sponsel linked Neel's name with that of Auschwitz monster Josef Mengele in the context of a measles epidemic that struck the Yanomomi Indians of the Amazon rain forest in 1968. Chagnon, who was a member of Neel's team, is named as an accomplice. The memo says Neel used a "lethally dangerous" and obsolete measles vaccine to vindicate his fascistic "eugenic social vision." (Don't ask. Turner couldn't explain it in a telephone interview.) The vaccine was neither dangerous nor obsolete. Neel saved many lives. Turner has backed away from the accusation in recent days, but his characterization of Chagnon's later work remains venomous.

Turner and Sponsel, citing Tierney, also claim that the "Neel-Chagnon" Yanomomi project "was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission's secret program of experiments on human subjects" involving Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb. None of Neel's work in Japan was secret. He studied signs of genetic damage to the survivors manifested in their children.

Allen Lichter, dean of the University of Michigan Medical School, told United Press International that the university's investigation so far has found Turner and Sponsel's accusations against Neel to be "totally baseless." Lichter called Neel "a giant in his field." The geneticist and physician died of prostate cancer in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 1 at age 84.

Similarly, the University of Michigan scholar tasked with investigating the anthropological dimension of the controversy said she could find no evidence to support the charges against Chagnon. In fact, she mentioned how easy it was to find evidence to the contrary in the university library.

"If the ethics of anyone are called into question, it will be those of Turner and Sponsel," Lichter said. "Even to write something like that (the memo) with no independent verification that any of this (the accusations in Tierney's book) has merit is unbelievable," the medical school dean said.

"Turner and Sponsel have given credibility to anyone who has anything bad to say about Chagnon," Lichter observed.

Chagnon, 62, has studied the Yanomomi for 35 years. His accumulated time in the field is about five years. His ethnography of the tribe, now in its sixth edition, originally was subtitled "The Fierce People." For decades, adversaries have charged Chagnon with exaggerating the fierceness of Yanomomi by projecting his own aggressive personality onto them. His putative motive is to portray the tribe as representative of pristine human societies in which, as expressed by Turner and Sponsel, "dominant males (the most frequent killers)" have "the most wives or sexual partners and offspring."

Chagnon told UPI that his publications are simply descriptions of what he saw. Evidence that Chagnon did not invent or exaggerate Yanomomi violence can be found in the 1970 book "Yanoáma: The Narrative of a White Girl Kidnapped by Amazonian Indians" as told to Ettore Biocca, an Italian parasitologist and anthropologist. The Yanomomi captured Helena Valero in 1937, a year before Chagnon was born, at the age of 11 or 12 and kept her for two decades. The violence she described chills the blood. Such mayhem, not unusual in inter-tribal warfare, shocks when it occurs among closely related bands -- actually, extended families.

Chagnon said he was surprised to discover that Yanomomi men who had killed produced more offspring than those who had not. He did not go to the field to test such a hypothesis, he said. The correlation emerged from his analysis of data collected over a period of some 25 years. These data include extensive genealogies from which the correlation was extracted.

Studies of what biologists call patterns of "differential fertility and differential mortality" constitute the essence of evolutionary science. Rival anthropologists are unable to refute Chagnon's data because -- as the eminent anthropologist Robert Carneiro, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, has noted - he has produced the best data set for South American studies. For this alone his legacy is unassailable.

Keith Otterbein, a specialist in the anthropology of war at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said of Chagnon's many critics: "Everyone who writes about the Yanomomi and has not studied them firsthand almost always falls back on using Chagnon's accounts. ... If people really thought (Chagnon's work) is so bad, why would they use it?"

One doesn't have to agree with Chagnon's conclusions to honor his contributions to anthropology. Chagnon believes Yanomomi culture is fairly representative of the small social groups in which our ancestors evolved.

"Fights usually start out over women," he said, and from insults arising from conflict over women. Antagonisms "grow and smolder until fights start breaking out, and eventually someone gets killed." This escalates to the point where villages split and fight each other with the intent to kill.

A gloomy picture, to be sure. But one could make case that the Yanomomi are not typical of any other group, least of all the wandering bands of our distant ancestors. They are semi-sedentary gardeners, for one thing, and horticulture is a relatively recent development. They countenance a limited form of polyandry (one wife, two or more husbands), which is quite unusual. And clearly, some Yanomomi villages are more bellicose than others. Respectable ecological, demographic and historical arguments have been advanced to account for Yanomomi aggression.

Chagnon finds all of them inconsistent with his observations. He posits the existence of "a huge ethnographic gap" in the literature. The first Westerners to encounter pristine societies did not describe Yanomomi-like behavior because "they were there to conquer, not document," he said in a telephone interview. "There are, however, very gripping accounts by Europeans who got to know native peoples intimately, especially as captives. Their accounts are very vivid and relevant to this issue."

Why this animosity against Chagnon? Academics routinely disagree, sometimes vehemently, without accusing each other of hideous crimes. The answer can be found in long-standing tensions within the field of anthropology and in the enduring question of whether the discipline is a branch of literature or a branch of science. In this continuing struggle, the personal and the political become inextricable.

Chagnon, who is an excellent writer and compelling raconteur, is above all a scientist. His data collection -- which includes photos and blood samples as well as interviews -- produces tables, charts and graphs that make "humanistic" anthropologists uneasy. He is a sociobiologist, which means he looks for biological explanations of human behavior as well as for cultural and historical determinants. Academics from the humanities and social sciences, most of whom are aligned with the political left, hate and fear sociobiology. This is because they view humans as malleable creatures subject to the manipulations of "enlightened" thinkers like themselves. This is why they are quick to use epithets such as "fascist" and "Nazi." And like the Nazis of old, they seek to suppress free inquiry, albeit -- so far -- not by government crackdown.

Why fear sociobiology? Chagnon's conclusions might be wrong, but they are based on evidence. Turner told UPI that many anthropologists have attacked Chagnon on the grounds of "his Yanomomi ethnography, his claims about genealogy, his claims about violence, and the correlation between ... killing and warfare and the number of wives and offspring."

To this Chagnon replied: "Yes, many others have attacked me. Almost none of them bother to consider the evidence I have provided and the detailed description of my field methods to obtain similar (or conflicting) evidence elsewhere to contest or endorse my findings.

"That is science," Chagnon said. "The number of times a scientist is attacked is not an acceptable measure of his or her integrity. Scientists do not establish truth by voting. They collect evidence to test hypotheses and theories.

"Good science is about trying to refute theories, particularly your own," Chagnon continued. "Those who go forth to 'prove' theories are tempted to overlook or discount inconvenient facts. I've disproved some of my own theories and have published my findings on these failures."