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

Internet Source: The Bookpress, October , 2000
Source URL: http://www.thebookery.com/Bookpress/article.cfm/10.7/198.Turner4220.html

Heart of Darkness

Terence Turner

Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.
By Patrick Tierney
Norton, 2000
416 pages, $27.95

Horror and disbelief are the immediate reactions most readers will feel to this book, which tells of a contemporary, and non-fictional heart of darkness beyond anything Joseph Conrad could have imagined. The product of ten years of arduous research that carried the author, investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, from warfare among tribal people in the Amazonian forests of Venezuela to the savage conflicts of American academia, the book purports to describe a stupefying array of misconduct and abuse visited on the indigenous Yanomami people of the Venezuelan forests by anthropologists, geneticists, other scientists, politicians, and journalists.

This is a sensational book, full of dramatic anecdotes and melodramatic rhetorical flourishes but also based on extraordinarily thorough and detailed research. At a few points, Tierney stretches his interpretation beyond what his data can support, but these instances are rare. The focus of the book is a critical dissection of the works, ideas and behavior of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, life-long researcher of the Yanomami and author of a best-selling anthropological text called initially The Fierce People (the title, if not the content, has become less bellicose in later editions). Other anthropologists and associated scientists figure in the plot, among them James Neel, the noted geneticist.

Because of its revelations, the reputation of the scientific figures it purports to expose, and the prestige of the governmental, professional, and academic institutions it implicates, the book is bound to be widely read both outside and inside the profession. As an indication of its public impact, the New Yorker is planning to publish on October 2 an extensive excerpt, in advance of the publication of the book itself in November.

The sensational nature of Tierney’s allegations makes it all the more essential that they should be thoroughly investigated by independent parties before being accepted as confirmed. Among Tierney’s many charges, the most terrible is that American scientists, funded mostly by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, knowingly conducted a medically irresponsible measles vaccination program with a highly dangerous vaccine that actually spread and intensified, or may even have caused, an epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomami. When the reactions to the virus turned into a full-scale epidemic, researchers failed to provide adequate medical assistance as their human subjects died around them. The dangerous vaccine was used, Tierney suggests, for experimental reasons, not despite but because of its virulence, in order to simulate and observe the effects of a "real" epidemic of wild measles on a population with no exposure or genetic resistance to the disease.

The same team of anthropologists and geneticists, seeking to find support for sociobiological theories of social and sexual dominance by warriors and "headmen" in "pristine" human society, actually contributed, by their presence and activities, to arousing violent conflicts within and between indigenous communities, which they then represented as arising solely from the natural "fierceness" of the Yanomami, considered as an instance of the intrinsic social dynamics of primitive human society.

The anthropologist responsible for these representations then stood by without comment as his distorted findings were used as ammunition by Brazilian politicians seeking to break up the Brazilian Yanomami reservation. Another anthropologist (not part of the same team) maintained a seraglio of Yanomami boys whom he dressed in fancy clothes in exchange for sexual favors. Some of the scientists involved allied themselves with corrupt figures at the highest levels of the Venezuelan state in exchange for their help in gaining access to indigenous villages, in return providing scientific "cover" for the latter’s illegal attempts to secure ecologically and socially ruinous gold mining concessions in Yanomami territory.

The focus of the scandal is the long-term project for study of the Yanomami of Venezuela organized by the late James Neel, the distinguished human geneticist, in which Napoleon Chagnon, Timothy Asch, and numerous other anthropologists took part. One of Tierney’s more startling revelations is that the whole Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission’s secret program of experiments on human subjects. James Neel, the originator and director of the project, was part of the medical and genetic research team attached to the Atomic Energy Commission since the days of the Manhattan Project. He was a member of the small group of researchers responsible for studying the effects of radiation on human subjects, personally heading the team that investigated the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs on survivors. Later he was involved in studies of the effects of radioactivity on Marshall Islanders from the experimental A and H bomb blasts conducted there. The same group (but not Neel personally) also secretly carried out experiments on human subjects in the U.S. that included injecting people with radioactive plutonium without their knowledge or permission, in some cases, according to Tierney, leading to their death or disfigurement.

Another member of the same AEC group of human geneticists and medical experimenters, Marcel Roche, a Venezuelan, was a close colleague of Neel’s and spent some time at his AEC-funded center for Human Genetics at Ann Arbor. He returned to Venezuela after the war and did a study of the Yanomami that involved administering doses of a radioactive isotope of iodine and analyzing samples of blood for genetic data. Roche and his project were apparently the connection that led Neel to choose the Yanomami for his big study, which was conceived in part as a "control group" for comparison with other societies more affected by civilization. Neel tended to idealize small primitive peoples as genetic utopias in which genes for "leadership" (or as he later came to call it, "innate ability") could be selected for through the differential rates of reproduction of dominant and sub-dominant males in a genetically "isolated" human population.

Tierney posits a "genealogical" connection between the human experiments carried out by the AEC, and the use of a measles vaccine known to cause especially strong reactions by Neel and his associates in the Yanomami project, which was from the outset funded by the AEC. Tierney implies that this connection may account in some degree for the willingness of Neel to use the Yanomami as guinea pigs to test the effects of the Edmonston B measles vaccine. There is no hard evidence for this either way, however.

Tierney does present a good deal of hard evidence that the strong reactions of the Yamomami to the vaccine caught Neel and Chagnon by surprise and probably exacerbated the epidemic of measles that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" (Tierney’s language––the exact figure will never be known) of Yanomami. Edmonston B vaccine had been counter-indicated by medical experts for use on immune-depressed and isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles (exactly the Yanomami situation). Even among populations with prior contact and consequent partial genetic immunity to measles, the vaccine was supposed to be used only with supportive injections of gamma globulin. Unaccountably, the expedition did not bring nearly enough gamma globulin to accompany all of the vaccinations. Even when gamma globulin was available, it was not used on at least three occasions. Tierney suggests that this was not done in those instances and others because Neel was interested in observing the reaction of Yanomami to the vaccine without the gamma globulin, but this remains only an unsupported inference.

In one case, half the people in a village were vaccinated and the other half not, a standard procedure in medical epidemiological experiments. Considering that this was done in the teeth of a deadly epidemic, however, the experiment, if that is what it was, would appear to have taken ethically unacceptable risks with the lives of those in the "control group." The vaccine was problematic enough to be withdrawn from use in or about 1972. Neither Neel nor any other member of the expedition, including Chagnon and the other anthropologists, has ever explained why the Edmonston B vaccine was used.

Some knowledgeable experts, however, have insisted that the vaccine was safe, and at any rate not likely to cause serious illness, certainly not death. This seems to be the preponderant consensus of qualified opinion on the subject. The point is important, because it is central to Tierney’s most sensational allegation: that the dangerous vaccine was used as part of a deliberate experiment that consciously risked the lives, or at least the health, of its subjects to support an (unspecified) theoretical hypothesis. This experiment, in the form of the vaccination program, Tierney suggests, actually led to the intensification of the epidemic that took hundreds of lives. This, the most horrible and controversial allegation of the book, has become known through leaks of a confidential memo by two anthropologists who read advance galleys of the book and wrote to warn the leaders of the American Anthropological Association of the impending scandal that would be caused when the allegations were published. Instead, the scandal has been provoked by the leaked memo. Headlines in the British and American press about "Nazi experiments that killed thousands" have made the book famous, or infamous, before its publication. The headlines are in fact wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately, the book has already become a succés de scandale through such irresponsible, and unfounded, journalistic hyperbole. There is no hard evidence that the use of the vaccine actually caused deaths, and Neel, though he seems to have held eugenic ideas, can scarcely be described as a Nazi. There is, however, good reason to believe that Neel undertook the vaccination program partly for experimental reasons. His close collaborator, the Brazilian anthropologist Francisco Salzano, in the midst of a passionate defense of Neel against Tierney’s charges, says about the vaccination program, "The purpose was to learn how the organisms of people belonging to isolated groups, like the Yanomamis, react to vaccination against infectious diseases." And in the ninth chapter of Neel’s autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool, he likens the 1968 epidemic to an "experiment of nature." The passage is worth quoting in extenso: "unfortunately, ‘experiments of nature’ always lack the control of laboratory experiments. Our observations are complicated by the fact that a wave of severe upper-respiratory infection had swept through these same villages one or two months previously...[But] with respect to the secondary responses to measles, our records are clear. A year after the epidemic, we found both the vaccinated and those who had been ill with the disease to have developed protective antibody titres just as high as in Caucasians––even though this may have been the first experience of this tribe with measles." This result appeared to vindicate Neel’s theory about the ability of populations lacking genetic immunity to develop resistance after one exposure, rather than to retain an "inborn susceptibility" across the generations, which he describes as the "prevailing medical dogma".

So Neel had a theoretical motive as well as the practical means for producing reactions that would to some degree resemble measles, a vaccine that would produce strong enough reactions to produce the highest possible levels of resistance, as manifested in titres that could be checked afterwards. It is thus conceivable that the "experiment" was not as "natural" as Neel suggested. The question, however, is "so what?" Tierney cites a remark of the medical historian, John Earle, "I wouldn’t rule out a deliberate attempt to create an epidemic. After all, Indians in this country were used in medical experiments, like the Seneca in the syphilis studies. And down there in the jungle, who was to know?"

But there is no evidence that the vaccination program, at least in its totality, was such a case. To say that the vaccinations were carried out as an experiment does not preclude a benevolent medical intent on the part of Neel and his colleagues. They had every reason to expect that the vaccinations would help their subjects develop resistance to measles, at the same time as they produced valuable scientific data. Certainly it does not imply that they intended or expected the reactions to include fatalities. In other words, even if Neel did the vaccinations as an experiment to produce effects of theoretical interest, his use of the Edmonston B vaccine means that it was not at the cost of the lives or well being of his human subjects. So the darker, and more horrendous implications of Tierney’s account of the epidemic seem unsustainable.

Perhaps the most morally problematic aspect of the research team’s behavior is that even as they grasped the shocking truth that they had started a measles epidemic, they did not stay with any stricken group long enough to provide adequate medical treatment, but kept moving from village to village in an attempt to maintain their research schedule. As the epidemic grew, Neel became concerned to limit both the time expedition members were spending on medical treatment, which was cutting into their research duties, and to cover up the possibility that the reactions to the vaccinations were in many cases frighteningly similar to measles symptoms.

At one point he angrily told the expedition cinematographer, Timothy Asch, who had started to film a Yanomami who had fallen ill with measles, "Not the picture of the physician ministering to his flock. This is very detrimental to the expedition...You’re here to document the kind of study we’re trying to make. Anybody can walk into a village and treat people." Tierney found this bit of discourse on a forgotten videotape that Asch left in a film archive in the Smithsonian.

Tierney documents a series of attempts by Neel and Chagnon to cover up the possibility that the epidemic may have taken off from reactions to the vaccinations. For example, Neel and Chagnon have come out with changing and contradictory stories of how the epidemic was started by contact with itinerant Brazilians, who however turn out not to have been specifically diagnosed as measles cases. The contradictions and inconsistencies among these stories, and their sheer implausibility, in themselves suggest a cover up.

Of course, if the epidemic had indeed been caused by the vaccinations, a cover up was essential if Neel and Chagnon were to continue working with the Yanomami and avoid a terrible blot on their careers. As Tierney says, "they would have been blacklisted for life as the men who had caused the vaccine epidemic...In fact, they would never have gotten scientific permits to go anywhere in South America again, not even to a dog show."

Neel believed that "natural" human society (as it existed everywhere before the advent of large-scale agricultural societies and contemporary states with their vast populations) consisted of small, genetically isolated groups, in which dominant genes (specifically, a gene he believed existed for "leadership" or "innate ability") would have a selective advantage. This is because male carriers of this gene, who would tend to rise to headmanship in their communities, would tend to become polygynists, thus reproducing their own superior genes more frequently than less "innately able" males. The result, supposedly, would be selective pressure for the continual upgrading of the human genetic stock. Modern mass societies, by contrast, consist of vast genetically entropic "herds" in which, he theorized, recessive genes could not be eliminated by selective competition and superior leadership genes would be swamped in the mass of genetic mediocrity. Neel’s romantic vision of "primitive societies", of which he took the Yanomami as representatives, thus served him as an ideological equivalent of a "control group" for his less rosy view of modern society.

These ideas also seem to underlie the objectives of the anthropological research carried out by Napoleon Chagnon under Neel’s initial patronage and continued support. Tierney devotes much of the book to a critique of Chagnon’s work, particularly his actions in the field, and here Tierney seems on much stronger ground. He makes clear Chagnon has faithfully striven, in his ethnographic and theoretical representation of the Yanomami as the "fierce people," to portray them as conforming to Neel’s ideas about the Hobbesian savagery of "natural" human societies. Thus Chagnon’s emphasis on Yanomami "fierceness" and propensity for chronic warfare, and the supposed statistical tendency for men who kill more enemies to have more female sexual/reproductive partners, closely correspond to Neel’s ideas.

Tierney documents how all these aspects of Chagnon’s account of Yanomami society are based on false, non-existent or misinterpreted data. In other words, Chagnon’s main claims about Yanomami society, the ones that have been so much heralded by sociobiologists and other partisans of his work, are simply not true. Most troublingly, he reports that Chagnon has not stopped with cooking and re-cooking his data on conflict but has actually attempted to manufacture the phenomenon itself, directly and indirectly fomenting conflicts between Yanomami communities, not once but repeatedly.

In his film work with Asch, for example, Tierney argues that Chagnon induced Yanomami to enact fights and aggressive behavior for Asch’s camera, sometimes building whole artificial villages as "sets" for the purpose. These were presented as spontaneous slices of Yanomami life unaffected by the presence of the anthropologists. Some of these artificial scenarios, however, actually turned into real conflicts, partly as a result of Chagnon’s policy of giving vast amounts of presents to the villages or herdsmen who agreed to put on the docu-drama, thereby distorting their relations with their neighbors in ways that encouraged outbreaks of raiding. In sum, many of the Yanomami conflicts that Chagnon documents, that constitute the ostensible basis of his interpretation of Yanomami society as a neo-Hobbesian system of endemic warfare, were precipitated in considerable part by his own presence and activities: a fact he invariably neglects to include in his accounts of Yanomami warfare and "fierceness". This is not just a matter of bad ethnography or unreflexive theorizing: Yanomami were maimed and killed in these conflicts, and whole communities were disrupted to the point of fission and flight. The historian, Brian Ferguson, has also documented some of this story in a chapter of his Yanomami Warfare, but Tierney adds much new evidence.

Chagnon is not the only anthropologist mentioned in Tierney’s narrative. The French anthropologist, Jaques Lizot, also gets a chapter. He has had nothing to do with Neel or Chagnon (in fact has been a trenchant and cogent critic of their work), but he has an Achilles heel of his own in the form of a harem of Yanomami boys that he keeps and showers with presents in exchange for sexual favors.

There is still more, in the form of collusion by Neel and Chagnon with corrupt Venezuelan politicians, including Cecilia Mattos, the influential mistress of the deposed former president of Venezuela, Carlos Andres Perez, and Charles Brewer-Carias, a gold-mining entrepreneur and former minister in a rightist government, who were attempting to gain control of illegal gold mining concessions in Yanomami lands. In this symbiotic relationship, the anthropologists provided "cover" for Brewer-Carias as a "naturalist" collaborating with their scientific team, in exchange for his and Mattos guaranteeing (and subsidizing) continuing access to Yanomami territory, after Chagnon had been denied research permits by the official Venezuelan Indian agency.

In the words of Professor Terry Collins, President of the Green Chemistry Society,

This book should shake anthropology to its very foundations. It should cause the field to understand how the corrupt and depraved protagonists could have spread their poison for so long while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western world and generations of undergraduates received their lies as the introductory substance of anthropology. This should never be allowed to happen again.

I venture to predict that this reaction is fairly representative of the response that will follow the publication of Darkness in El Dorado and the New Yorker excerpt. The American Anthropological Association, and other organizations of anthropologists are going to have to make some collective response to this book. It is to be hoped that in responding to the storms the book will cause in the media, in the general scholarly community, and within anthropology itself, the real victims of this dark history, the Yanomami, will not be forgotten. Is it possible to conceive of some form of reparations that might be tendered, at long last, in compensation for all that anthropologists and other scientists have perpetrated on the Yanomami? In any such attempt, the patronizing, exclusively top-down approach of those who have done the damage should not be repeated. It is finally time to hear their story from the Yanomami themselves.

Terence Turner is professor of anthropology at Cornell University and former head of the American Anthropological Association Special Commission to investigate the situation of the Brazilian Yanomami.