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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Source URL: http://www.darknessineldorado.com/alberts.htm

Response to Dr. Bruce Alberts, President National Academy of Sciences

I am grateful that Professor Bruce Alberts, the President of the National Academy of Sciences, has taken the time to scrutinize Darkness in El Dorado , including the 1469 endnotes. He has found several minor errors, none of which deal with the central issue of the book--the treatment of the Yanomami in the Amazon. I did not write the book lightly and I do not take any mistakes lightly. I will correct them in the next printing of the book.

It is, of course, possible to attack any lengthy and well-documented non-fiction work using a method in which isolated points come to represent the entire story. For over two months now, there has been a concerted attack on Darkness in El Dorado from individuals and institutions sympathetic to Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel. This prepublication assault has been nothing short of extraordinary, but not surprising given the stakes in the controversy. James Neel was a prominent figure in the National Academy of Sciences.

The controversy has been spun in such a way as to make Darkness in El Dorado seem a book only about a measles vaccine and measles epidemics in the Amazon. In fact, the book is a work with a broad and encompassing theme, which suggests that cultural deracination has been brought about by outsiders, including scientists and journalists who have projected their own views and ideologies on the Yanomami. One of my theses, for those who haven't read the book yet, is that scientific expeditions to the Yanomami to collect 12,000 blood samples and genealogies, financed by the Atomic Energy Commission as part of radiation studies in human genetics between 1965 and 1972, 1 took unethical and unfair advantage of the Yanomami. These expeditions also spread disease, warfare, and cultural chaos among one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.

President Alberts misrepresents my treatment of the 1968 epidemic in Amazonia. This outbreak began shortly after James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon began inoculating the Yanomami with a live-virus measles vaccine known as the Edmonston B vaccine. Alberts criticizes me for writing that James Neel "selected this vaccine mindful of its harmful results . . . in order to record the response of the Yanomami to this 'virulent' virus vaccine in hopes of confirming eugenic theories that Neel purportedly espoused. . . ." This material does not appear in my book, nor do I believe it to be true.

  • I never used the word "virulent" in my description of the Edmonston B vaccine.
  • I never said that Neel believed the vaccine to be harmful to the Yanomami.
  • The word "eugenic" does not appear in my chapter on the measles vaccine, nor do I ever link eugenic theory to the administration of the Edmonston B vaccine.

Instead, I cite a standard medical text, Immunization: Principles and Practice , on the Edmonston strain vaccines: "The Original Edmonston A and B vaccine strains caused quite severe reactions akin to natural measles. These could only be overcome by simultaneous use of immunoglobulin, which was clearly not a practical procedure for routine vaccination." 2 In fact, one of the editors from the American Journal of Epidemiology , in reviewing Neel's submission on the Yanomami measles epidemic, wrote, "The Edmonston B strain of measles virus vaccine and the concomitant administration of measles immune globulin has been rendered relatively obsolete by newer, further attenuated strains." 3 I also cited the geneticist Francis Black's decision to inoculate the Tiriyo Indians in 1966, two years before the Neel expedition, with the safer Schwarz vaccine, a fortunate choice since he found that the Tiriyo's febrile response to the Schwarz was nearly three times higher than other populations. 4

Alberts is also incorrect in asserting that, "Thus, according to Mr. Tierney, the vaccine was not only harmful, but that harm could be communicated from one individual to another." Actually, I state that "it is unclear whether the Edmonston B became transmissible or not." 5 Moreover, I cite Samuel Katz and his recent statement: "Vaccine virus has never been transmitted to susceptible contacts and cannot cause measles even in intimate contacts." 6 I specifically acknowledged that I do not know how transmission of measles occurred outside the vaccination circle. But, while we don't know exactly why so many Yanomami died in 1968, there is compelling evidence that the Yanomami were especially vulnerable to disease. (According to Inga Steinvorth-Goetz, a doctor in the Immunology Department of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Investigation, the Yanomami showed an abnormal response to measles: "They had absolutely no resistance. . . . All too often even relatively mild cases failed to respond to penicillin." 7 ) I also discuss the real possibility of an unknown, concomitant exposure--including evidence from the expedition tapes, mission records and a government nurse that one of the expedition's guides may have spread the disease. Whatever the origin of the measles epidemic, the Yanomami also have a unique cultural response to disease, particularly unknown disease. They interpret it to be the work of witchcraft. The afflicted people will isolate themselves out in the jungle and often will themselves to die.

I also documented how Marcel Roche and Napoleon Chagnon administered the vaccine at Ocamo without the ameliorating companion dose of gamma globulin indicated by standard care. Neel himself acknowledged in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1970 that "the reaction to measles vaccine without gamma globulin had been, in some cases, as severe as the disease itself among Caucasian children." 8 Among the Yanomami at Ocamo, Neel himself recorded the most severe reaction known to have occurred on the planet--with temperatures skyrocketing up to 104 degrees (when the most conservative adjustment is made for the method of taking temperatures) and the outbreak of rash.

I have also documented, in painful detail, how Neel's team, despite being in the middle of a major outbreak of measles in a virgin population, continued to collect blood, stage films and distribute massive amounts of steel presents that attracted sick Yanomami who trailed the expedition into the tribe's heartland. I wish that Professor Alberts had discussed this issue, which is central to the measles chapter. Thus, the scientists seem to have been a primary vector of infection.

Dr. Alberts also raises the question of Neel and Chagnon's state of mind. He writes, "Neither scientist feared the Edmonston B would produce an epidemic." I agree that they did not fear this prior to vaccinating and say that they had no intention of causing an epidemic. But the sound track of the expeditions raises questions that need to be considered. The tapes I reviewed were made following two outbreaks, at Ocamo and Mavaca, which occurred after the Neel expedition's vaccinations. They vaccinated at Mavaca on February 13, 1968. 9 By Feb 18, 1968, there was an epidemic at Mavaca. In the tape, Rousseau, a radio technician, told Chagnon that he was going to radio for antibiotics "because of the effects of the vaccine." He adds, "Now if because of the effects of the vaccine, we get outbreaks of the measles." At this point, Chagnon turns to Neel for clarification, saying that Rousseau is ". . . trying to interpret all of them [cases of measles] to mean that it's a reaction to the vaccination, which I don't think is a wise thing to do." 10 Chagnon also says, "But it's certain now that we have measles at Mavaca and Ocamo and I don't know where else it is--and I don't know when it arrived." 11 After Neel explains that individuals with runny noses and runny eyes are the most infectious transmitters, Chagnon asks, "Does . . . does the vaccine give runny eyes?"

Chagnon appeared confused about the origin of the outbreak and frustrated by the strong reactions to the vaccine.

The Question of Permission

Professor Alberts also implies that Neel's choice of vaccine was approved by the CDC, though there is no evidence for that in his own papers. He visited the CDC, yes, but so far no one has found a vaccination protocol from the CDC in Neel's papers. Moreover, Alberts states that "he [Neel] obtained permission to carry and use the vaccine from the Venezuelan government through the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas [IVIC], the leading scientific institution in the country." Although IVIC is a prominent institution, it does not have now, nor did it have in 1968, authority over vaccinations, according to officials at the Ministry of Health whom I spoke to in Caracas in November, 2000. In fact, the head of the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas acknowledged on November 16, in a panel discussion about Darkness in El Dorado , that so far no documents have been found to show that the Ministry of Health approved the vaccination program.

For the record, I am in favor of measles vaccinations. I understand and support their public health benefits, and I do not suggest that the current crop of vaccinations is in any way dangerous. What I do contend is that when one approaches a vulnerable group like the Yanomami one needs to take precautions. Noeli Pocaterra, the head of the Venezuelan Congress's Permanent Committee on Indigenous Affairs, told the press in San Francisco on November 16 that she has observed that Amerindians have more severe reactions to vaccinations than other groups. "Doctors need to listen to this," she said.

Neel's Eugenic Beliefs

According to President Alberts, ". . . .any contention that James Neel held eugenic principles is flatly and demonstrably wrong . . ." Yet the title of Neel's autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool , suggests eugenic concern--that there is something wrong with the gene pool that must be remedied. Indeed, Neel has chapters entitled "Genetic Medicine for the Populations" and "Genetic Medicine for Individuals." In various parts of his autobiography, and elsewhere, he lays out broad eugenic concerns: which include both fostering positive qualities in the gene pool and removing negative ones. For example:

In the raids of tribal bands or villages on one another, all except the really handicapped or disabled men participate. There are no occupational deferments. Such encounters may have been instruments of genetic selection. At some point in human history, the fighting began to be relegated to the physically and intellectually more fit. The military deferments for physical/mental reasons which obtain when armies are conscripted, as in the recent World Wars, render war an agent of negative selection. 12

This perspective on warfare--as an agent for removing the mentally and physically weak and rewarding the strong and capable--is at the heart of understanding Neel's interpretation of tribal conflict, which is so crucial for Yanomami studies. From this perspective arises his obviously eugenic belief in "the Index of Innate Ability"--superior genes that are supposed to accumulate in the offspring of dominant chiefs. 13 In his paper, "On Being Headman," Neel writes, "The possible genetic implications of headmanship are obvious . . . the breeding structure of primitive populations had strong eugenic implications. . . ." Most striking of all, is Neel's conclusion:

I believe we will agree that there is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure--small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future. The first is an increasing concern with the provision of genetic services designed to decrease the transmission of genes causing disease . . . The second eugenic measure which geneticists can facilitate is a concern with measures which influence human mutation rates. . . . 14

Neel clearly saw eugenics as the imperative of genetic studies. "It is a great paradox that the human geneticists (read: eugenicists) of 70 years ago, short on specific knowledge concerning the basis of human inheritance, were long on concern for the future, whereas the human geneticists of today, increasingly long on specific knowledge, fearing the opprobrium of an eugenic label, appear to have retreated from that concern for the future." 15

Non-treatment Policy

Professor Alberts criticizes my use of an ellipsis when quoting James Neel's account of the non-treatment policy for Japanese bomb victims:

One of the most frequent Japanese complaints has been that we (the ABCC) only examined them (like guinea pigs) but did not offer treatment in the event of findings of medical significance. The fact is that the terms under which the ABCC operated did not permit treatment . . . but any finding, whether on a child or on an adult, was not only explained carefully to the patient (or parents) with the recommendation to see his/her physician, but also the patient's personal physician received a detailed letter describing the findings. 16

I did not include Neel's claim that all people who were studied by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission were referred to their own physicians for treatment for two reasons. The most important one was simply the context of the quote. I explained that Napoleon Chagnon's account of the ABCC--"a medical-genetics group whose responsibility was to treat the survivors of the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki"--was mistaken. 17 According to Neel, and Alberts, they were not permitted to treat anyone. But the notion that victims of the bombs, who were also beset by massive epidemics and a terrible shortage of medical care, could easily or simply find their "personal physicians" is doubtful, at best.

The ABCC and Human Radiation Experiments

President Alberts says I have made "a particularly egregious error" in implying that the ABCC conducted human radiation experiments. But it is President Alberts who draws that implication from a graph of human relationships, which illustrates that James Neel was associated with individuals who conducted (or participated in planning) experiments on human beings--from his superior Joseph Howland (who admitted to injecting a man with plutonium) 18 to Shields Warren (under whose aegis tracer experiments were undertaken around the world). 19

Neel's Optimism on the Effects of Radiation

Professor Alberts disputes my assertion that "His [Neel's] data on radiation toxicity has been consistently optimistic--with thresholds set four times higher than United Nations safety guidelines." 20 My source is Neel himself:

On the basis of extrapolation from a subset of mouse experiments various national and international (United Nations) committees have during the past 30 years adopted the position that the doubling dose of acute radiation for the immature germ cells of humans was about 0.35-0.40 Gy . . . so that in mice the doubling dose for chronic radiation became 1 Gy. Our estimate [4.0] for humans was thus about four times higher than the "official" rate, no small revision. 21

Independence of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission

Professor Alberts writes that "the ABCC was neither part of nor controlled by the AEC." I acknowledged that the NAS was "theoretically a full partner of Neel's atomic bomb studies." 22 But the reality was more complicated. The AEC funded the ABCC; the AEC's head of Biology and Medicine, Shields Warren, was very influential; and Neel, a military officer during his first years in Japan, was subordinate to his superiors. Even years later, General MacArthur's views could be decisive. In fact, Neel wrote that the AEC/NAS conflict over the ABCC was only resolved when "both sides recognized the constraints upon the other." 23

According to the Department of Energy's response to my Freedom of Information request, James Neel's Yanomami studies were financed by direct grants to the University of Michigan's Department of Human Genetics from the Division of Biology and Medicine of the Atomic Energy Commission: "the Director of the Division of Biology and Medicine had the responsibility for approving the expenditure of research funds." Neel and the University of Michigan's "Area Program in Population Genetics" was explained in terms of "the AEC's Biological, Medical and Environmental Research Program in Radiation Genetics . . ." There was no mention of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission or the National Academy of Sciences in the DOE's account of these grants, their scientific goals or their results. 24 Moreover, films by and about the expeditions-- The Feast and Yanomama: A Multidisciplinary Study --credited the United States Atomic Energy Commission, not the NAS or ABCC. 25


In my book I cite a review of the health of workers employed in the manufacture of nuclear bomb materials, conducted under the auspices of the Department of Energy and the White House, which found elevated amounts of fatal cancer among workers employed in plants related to the production of nuclear weapons. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, responded to this report in The New York Times on Jan 29, 2000, by saying: "This is the first time that the government is acknowledging that people got cancer from radiation exposure in the plants." 26 I erred by saying that the National Academy of Sciences was involved in producing this report. And I should have said that General MacArthur strongly urged the Atomic Energy Commission--not the National Academy of Sciences--to continue funding the ABCC's genetic research in Japan. 27

Again, I am grateful to President Alberts for pointing out these errors, which will be corrected in the next printing. However, they do not relate to the central and primary thesis of my book, which is that the scientists who worked with the Yanomami were often reckless and violated the norms of informed consent and humane treatment of scientific subjects. These standards and norms were widely recognized at the time, and taking advantage of the most vulnerable and isolated tribal groups on earth has left a legacy of shame, and an abject lesson for future researchers to contemplate.

Patrick Tierney

December 3, 2000

1. David G. Thomassen, Ph.D., Department of Energy, FOIA Request No. 9501260003, March 13, 1995.
2. J. Alaistair Dudgeon and William A. Cutting, Immunization: Principles and Practice (London and New York: Chapman and Hall Medical, 1991), p. 163.
3. Letter to James Neel, Ref. 9-168, November 3, 1968, from the American Journal of Epidemiology , James V. Neel Collection, American Philosophical Society.
4. Francis Black, J. P. Woodall, and P. Pinheiro, "Measles Vaccine Reactions in a Virgin Population," American Journal of Epidemiology 89 (1969), p. 174.
5. Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado , p. 81.
6. Ibid, p. 80.
7. Ibid, p. 68.
8. Neel, Chagnon, et al., "Notes on the Effects of Measles Vaccine in a Virgin Soil Population of South American Indians," AJE (91) 1970: 425.
9. Vaccination list, Bisaasi-teri, (James V. Neel Collection, A.P.S.), February 13, 1968.
10. Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado , Ibid, p. 73.
11. Ibid, p. 78.
12. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , p. 310.
13. James Neel, "On Being Headman," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 23, Winter 1980, pp. 285-290.
14. Ibid, p. 290.
15. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , p. 394.
16. Ibid, p. 85.
17. Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomamo: The Fierce People , Third Edition, p. 199.
18. Eileen Welsome, The Plutonium Files (New York: Random House, 1999), pp. 84-87.
19. Ibid, pp. 207-218.
20. Ibid, pp. 302-303.
21. James Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , p. 243.
22. Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado , p. 302.
23. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , p. 88.
24. Thomassen, Ph.D., Department of Energy, FOIA Request No. 9501260003, March 13, 1995.
25. Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon, The Feast , 29 min. Washington, D.C.: DOE, 1970. James Neel, Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomama: A Multidisciplinary Study , 43 min. Washington, D.C.: DOE, 1971. Neel is the narrator and senior director of A Multidisciplinary Study , which summarizes his research on the Yanomami. According to the film's credits, "The studies have been principally funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Biology and Medicine, as part of its long range research program in human population genetics."
26. Mathew L. Wald, "U.S. Acknowledges Radiation Killed Weapons Workers," The New York Times , January 29, 2000.
27. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool , pp. 87-88.