Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Internet Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 22, 2000, Wednesday, SOONER EDITION, EDITORIAL, Pg. A-22, LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Neel and Euphenics


Staff writer Anita Srikameswaran described some of the controversy surrounding "Darkness in El Dorado," authored by Patrick Tierney ("Controversy of Epidemic Proportions," Nov. 15). The reputation of a colleague, James V. Neel, is threatened by this book, and since Professor Neel is no longer alive to defend himself, I write to offer a personal perspective as a retort to Tierney's implications.

The notions that Neel harbored "his own theories of genetically based superiority" and risked lives of an indigenous population in Venezuela to test his theories are nowhere substantiated by either his written legacy or his life as a caring physician.

Several years ago, when I had the privilege of chairing the program committee of the American Society of Human Genetics, my reward was choosing the three individuals to participate in the "Distinguished Speakers Symposium" at the annual meeting. Professor Neel, then 80 and still active as an investigator at the University of Michigan, was my first choice. He delivered a stirring discourse on his view of the major problems facing the world: expanding populations and diminishing resources.

His call was to study how genes and environment interact and then to modify the environment in ways that human genetic potential is optimized. This is termed "euphenics" and is a far cry from eugenics, or purposeful manipulation of the gene pool, which Tierney accuses Neel of advocating. Indeed, an example of euphenics often cited by Neel is attention to infectious disease such as by vaccination.

I was so impressed with the perspectives and advice of this wise man that my co-editors and I included the substance of Neel's lecture as the final chapter in our textbook, "Principles and Practice of Medical Genetics" (Churchill Livingstone, 1997). I strongly recommend that those who delve into Tierney's book spend some time with Neel's chapter or his autobiography, "Physician to the Gene Pool" (Wiley, 1994).



Editor's note: The writer is a professor of human genetics at the MCP Hahnemann University School of Medicine.