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Internet Source: MSNBC, October 13, 2000
Source URL: http://www.msnbc.com/news/475771.asp


The debate over Amazon ‘Darkness’

A closer look at the accusations aimed against late geneticist

By Matt Crenson

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK, Oct. 13 — The obituaries painted a glowing portrait of James V. Neel — “father of human genetics,” winner of top academic honors, a scholar universally respected by his peers. Eight months later, a man who barely knew Neel is accusing him of killing many hundreds of people in a reckless medical experiment. A new book alleges that in 1968, Neel caused a catastrophic measles epidemic by inoculating South American Indians with a dangerous vaccine. The accusation is almost certainly false.

THE CHARGE is made in advance copies of a new book scheduled to be released Nov. 16 by W.W. Norton & Co. and hinted at in a more cautious article by the same author in The New Yorker magazine of Oct. 9.

Leading epidemiologists interviewed by the AP believe that what Neel is accused of is scientifically impossible.

People who knew Neel say he would never have done anything immoral in the pursuit of science. “All I can tell you,” says Peter Smouse, a Rutgers University professor and former student of Neel’s, “is that’s not the Jim Neel I know.”

In a six-decade career, Neel won a National Medal of Science and a Lasker Award, biology’s most prestigious prize short of the Nobel. He belonged to the National Academy of Sciences. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and a scientific titan in his own right, has called Neel “father of the field of human genetics.”

Although he was a physician specializing in human heredity, Neel often worked closely with anthropologists, whose field is notorious for extreme ideologies and massive egos. Anthropologists regularly accuse one another of bending reality to match theory, disrupting native cultures and violating the human rights of those they study.

The charges have been especially acrimonious among scholars of the Yanomami, a tribe in the remote Amazon highlands of Venezuela and Brazil.

Neel had only occasional contact with the Yanomami and those who study them. Even so, those brief encounters now threaten his reputation at a time when he can no longer defend himself.

HOW IT BEGAN

Neel, a professor of human genetics, met Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropology student, at the University of Michigan in 1963.

Chagnon was preparing to do research in the Amazon, but this was no pint-sized project to help a beginning researcher get his feet wet. In the early 1960s, the Yanomami were considered a Stone Age remnant cut off from civilization, offering a rare opportunity to study culture in its primitive state.

Author and anthropologist Patrick Tierney accuses Chagnon and others of orchestrating ceremonial events for the benefit of documentary filmmakers, pitting Yanomami villages against one another and abetting a corrupt plan to turn the Yanomami homeland over to gold mining companies.

One chapter suggests that Chagnon collaborated with Neel in deadly experiments.

Tierney strongly implies the vaccine caused a measles epidemic but is vague about whether the researchers intended to spread the disease. His summary in The New Yorker did not draw as many conclusions as the book’s advance copies did. The publisher says Tierney is adding 50 pages of new material to the book but won’t say how that will affect the strength of the accusation.

Tierney, the author, did not respond to interview requests.

Even though the final version of the book is unavailable, the National Book Foundation announced Wednesday that it had nominated “Darkness in El Dorado” for a National Book Award.

TREMENDOUS IMPACT

Pre-publication copies of the book have had a tremendous impact.

Anthropologists Terry Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii read it and immediately sent a four-page e-mail to the president of the American Anthropological Association.

“We write to inform you of an impending scandal,” their message began. “In its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology.”

The message leaked and was widely circulated several weeks ago. Turner says it was meant to inform authorities about Tierney’s claims, not support them. But some of the e-mail’s passages seem to suggest otherwise, referring to “startling revelations” and “convincing evidence.”

Chagnon, who declined to discuss “Darkness in El Dorado,” sounded almost weary in a brief statement responding to the e-mail.

“Tierney, Turner and Sponsel have repeatedly accused me of some of these things in the past, both in print and verbally in public anthropology meetings,” he wrote. “This is just a more elaborate extension of their long vendetta against me.”

SWASHBUCKLING ADVENTURE

The fighting began in 1968, when Chagnon’s book about his time among the Yanomami came out. It depicted them as people prone to gang rape, wife-beating, ritual battle and murder. It chronicled Chagnon’s experiences as a swashbuckling adventure full of close encounters with jaguars and attempts on the young man’s life.

“Yanomamo: The Fierce People” remains required reading in many freshman anthropology classes and has sold more than 1 million copies.

In academia, such success often leads to notoriety. Other anthropologists fiercely disputed Chagnon’s description of the Yanomami, claiming that any violence he observed was a reaction to his own aggression. They accused Chagnon of making up data and pitting neighbors against one another for his own purposes.

Chagnon responded with belligerence, shouting at opponents at scientific meetings and labeling them with epithets like “Marxist” and “leftist.”

Meanwhile, Neel’s colleagues in the far more genteel realm of human genetics are aghast at the new accusations against him.

“He was a leader in his field,” says Kenneth Weiss, a professor at Penn State University and a former student of Neel’s. “He may have been heavy-handed about a lot of things, but he was a physician.”

Not long before the winds of controversy began to whirl around Chagnon, Neel recruited the young anthropologist for an Amazon expedition.

Neel had done famous studies of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the Atomic Energy Commission was giving him money to study the opposite end of the spectrum of radiation exposure — a remote tribe that had never seen an X-ray machine, much less drunk milk contaminated by fallout from bomb tests.

Chagnon’s value to Neel’s expedition was his ability to get information from the Yanomami. The genetic studies required not just blood samples but genealogies of a people that kept no written records. To make things more difficult, the Yanomami consider it taboo to speak one another’s names.

Chagnon’s solution showed characteristic gusto. He visited neighbors who were on bad terms with the group he was interested in, and got the genealogical information from them. Then he confirmed it by going back to the people he was studying and telling them the names he had collected. When they got belligerent, he figured he had good information.

NEEL’S MOTIVATION

In addition to the AEC research, Neel had his own reasons to study the Yanomami.

Ever since Columbus’ expeditions, it had been known that “virgin populations” of American Indians were especially vulnerable to European diseases such as smallpox and measles. Most scientists believed that over millennia of isolation from such afflictions, American Indians had lost the genetic wherewithal to survive them.

Neel disagreed, arguing that a dozen millennia or so isn’t enough time for a people to lose whole sets of genes. He believed isolation from European diseases had merely created a precarious epidemiological situation.

Before vaccinations made childhood diseases such as measles rare in industrialized nations, immunity came only from exposure. Although many children became sick, few died, and survivors grew to adulthood with immunity. When their own children fell ill, they could provide care without becoming sick themselves.

But in isolated Indian populations, no one was immune because no one had been exposed. Young and old alike fell ill, leaving almost nobody upright to feed and nurse the sick. That, Neel believed, was what turned a usually nonfatal disease into a mass killer.

Neel wanted to test his idea by vaccinating 2,000 Yanomami against measles, then come back a few years later to measure their immune response to the vaccine, says Ryk Ward, an Oxford University professor who went to Venezuela with Neel that year as a University of Michigan postdoctoral researcher.

If the Yanomami were genetically different from Europeans, their new measles antibodies would differ from those generated by immunized Caucasians. If the Yanomami were not genetically different, their antibodies would be indistinguishable.

In pre-publication copies of his book, Tierney describes Neel’s plan as a dangerous experiment on uninformed subjects. He argues that the vaccine Neel selected, Edmonston B, may have been too potent for the Yanomami and could have actually given them the disease.

Epidemiologists scoff at the idea that it could have caused a measles outbreak.

“There is no evidence that it would be possible for that vaccine to cause an epidemic,” says Mark Papania, a measles expert with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If I were there at that time in those villages,” he adds, “I would have used it.”

By 1968, most doctors had replaced the Edmonston B with a milder vaccine, but it was by no means obsolete. It was given to 1 million children in the United States that year. Neel chose it, his defenders say, because the immunological response to it was well-documented, making it easier to compare to the Indians’ reaction.

Field scientists live in a world far removed from the brightly lit bench tops of their laboratory peers. They cannot control or repeat their experiments. They must adapt to whatever nature throws at them.

In February 1968, what nature threw at Neel and his colleagues was a raging measles epidemic, Ward says. It was a disheartening coincidence, he says. The Yanomami, never exposed to measles before, were dropping like flies just weeks before the researchers had intended to vaccinate them.

“For the next two or three weeks,” he says, “we tried to head off the measles epidemic the best we could.”

The scientists vaccinated hundreds of Yanomami, but it wasn’t enough. When it was over, many villages had lost 20 percent to 30 percent of their inhabitants. Nobody knows how many Yanomami died in more inaccessible regions.

Later tests showed that both Yanomami who had been vaccinated and others who had caught measles produced an antibody response identical to that of a typical Caucasian.

Neel’s hypothesis, it appears, was correct.

Today his scientific legacy is in danger of being overshadowed by controversy.

In 1968, Neel couldn’t have known that a junior member of his team would soon become one of anthropology’s most notorious scholars. And there is no evidence that he knew the Atomic Energy Commission, which funded his 1968 South America trip and some of his other research, had been conducting unethical human experiments.

Only recently have news reports revealed that the agency studied radiation in the 1950s and 1960s by feeding radioactive oatmeal to retarded boys in Massachusetts and exposing U.S. troops to nuclear weapons tests in Nevada.

In pointing out that much of Neel’s research was funded by the AEC, Tierney’s book implies it is part of the same shameful legacy.

Neel’s real problem may lie in the company he kept.