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Internet Source: Nassau Weekly, October 19, 2000
Source URL: http://www.princeton.edu/~nweekly/forum/2000/10/yanomami/

Did scientists kill to test race theory?

Ann Kelly

The report is nightmarish. In his upcoming book, Darkness in El Dorado, journalist Patrick Tierney argues that thousands of South American Indians were fatally infected with measles in order for American scientists to study the effects of natural selection on primitive society. Due out in November, the impact of Tierney’s book on the discipline is described in a memo to the president of the American Anthropological Association in this way: “Its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption, it is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.”

Darkness in El Dorado, now a nominee for the National Book Award, indicts a team of American scientists for having conducted ethically irresponsible research of the Yanomami over the past thirty-five years. The scandal centers on a project organized by James V. Neel, a human geneticist at the University of Michigan, and Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

The Yanomami, a remote tribe in the Amazon River Basin, have attracted enormous scholarly attention since the 1960’s because of their “untouched” position vis-a-vis the modern world. According to Tierney, during their trip to the Yanomami in 1968, Neel and Chagnon began vaccinating the Yanomami for measles for what they described as “purely preventative” reasons. However, the Edmonston B strain of vaccine that Neel and Chagnon distributed, had been deemed dangerous by medical experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles - precisely the Yanomami situation. The Edmonston B vaccine was only supposed to be used with supportive injections of gamma globulin, which would reduce the fevers by half. According to Tierney, Neel had his researchers administer Edmonston B without gamma globulin to forty tribes people at a mission on the Ocamo River. Over the next three months, the worst epidemic in Yanomami’s history broke out and Tierney estimates that between “fifteen and twenty percent of the Yanomami who contracted measles died.”

What is even more chilling than the disaster itself is the possibility that it was not just a product of Neel’s careless practice, but rather a deliberate attempt to test his genetic theories. As a self-proclaimed eugenicist, Neel believed that isolated communities maintained superior genes by living according to a survival-of-the-fittest principle. By contrast, modern mass cultures with their free breeding swamped their “leadership genes” with genetic mediocrity. Human society in a “state of nature” consisted of small, genetically isolated groups in which dominant genes would have selective advantage. An epidemic, therefore, might drastically reduce the population at large but would insure the continual upgrading of human genetic stock. Tierney claims that after the epidemic began to spread, Neel’s research team refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit orders from Neel. Though there is no “smoking gun” in the form of texts or recorded speeches to implicate Neel’s conduct, Tierney finds his theories on eugenics draw enough uneasy parallels to make one wonder if they are indeed, extricable.

Tierney does not stop there. He finds Chagnon’s research of the Yanomami society formulated to prove Neel’s ideas about the Hobbesian savagery of “natural” human societies. Chagnon’s ethnography The Fierce People, and the films he made during his visit represent the Yanomami culture as inherently violent. Tierney challenges these portrayals not only on the basis of their reductiveness, but also under the accusation that they are fabricated. Tierney contends that Chagnon instigated conflicts that he documented between Yanomami communities and in some instances, built whole artificial villages as “sets.” However, more than just influencing his research data, these staged brawls massively impacted the subjects of his study by leading to real conflicts. Tierney finds then that Chagnon’s representation of the Yanomami in film is continuous with Neel’s theoretical commitments to eugenics, and his unethical methodological approach.

As if that wasn’t enough to make the back jacket of a Michael Crichton novel, Tierney further claims that the Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission’s secret experiments on the effect of radiation on human subjects. These tests, according to Tierney, included injecting people with radioactive plutonium without their knowledge or permission, leading in some cases to death or disfigurement.

Neel, sadly, can never respond to Tierney’s accusations, having died last February. However, the vehement defense Neel has received from many of his colleagues in the field has, in some way, compensated for his silence. In the flurry of emails circulated through the anthropologic community, one of the most vocal has been that of Susan Lindee of the Department of Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She has repeatedly stated that Neel did indeed have Venezuelan governmental permission to carry out the vaccine program and consulted with the Centers for Disease Control in preparation for the program in measles immunization. More importantly Lindee finds that it is clear from Neel’s notes that the epidemic did anything but facilitate his work. Rather, it drastically disrupted his field research by making it virtually impossible to gather the kind of data he had hoped to collect. Far from being his political cohort or even his friend, Lindee argues that his personal character has little to do with his methods: “Neel was a Cold Warrior deluxe and an elitist who was confident about his hierarchical rankings of races, sexes, and civilizations, fields of knowledge production, and forms of social organization. But I am convinced that Neel’s intentions were benevolent in the classic colonialist sense, and express sympathy for the generalities.”

For his part, Chagnon vehemently admonishes Tierney for misconstruing his research to the point of complete fabrication. Acknowledging his presence during the measles epidemic, he insists that, as in a letter he wrote to some of his colleagues years before the controversy arose, no one died of measles in the villages he vaccinated, nor in those of the local missionaries who assisted him. With regards to his film, Chagnon points to the fact that he began filming the day after his arrival. To stage or prompt a conflict would presuppose a vast amount of preformulated knowledge about the Yanamomi culture, let alone be massively dangerous considering the hosting village already had a tremendous amount of misgivings about his presence.

Further Chagnon not only disputes the reports of his personal research as fabricated, but also argues that the basis of Tierney’s argument is contrary to empirical biomedical evidence. In a statement sent to Time magazine, Chagnon cites a scientific study that covers a 40 year time span involving hundreds of millions of cases where Edmonston B vaccine have been used, showing that the vaccination has never been known to cause measles. Chagnon emphasizes that, contrary to Tierney’s claims, the vaccination was administered without gamma globulin to Western as well as Native populations. Furthermore, scientific records show that the only cases in which deaths were documented were those patients who, prior to the vaccination, had depressed immune systems caused by leukemia, AIDS, or severe malnutrition. Chagnon struggles to conceive what plausible sample population Tierney could have to substantiate his claims that “hundreds, if not thousands” of Yanomami died as a consequence of his attempt to vaccinate them. In a fiery conclusion to his memo to Time, Chagnon writes: “intelligent people base their judgements on evidence. Only believers in conspiracy theories leap to conclusions that are not only not supported by the available scientific evidence, but contradicts and thoroughly refutes them.”

To many scholars in the field, Tierney’s book has much broader implications than the credibility of the research conducted on the Yanomami. Many regard the impact of Darkness in El Dorado as not simply the exposure of a megalomaniacal research team whose interest in uncovering the rules governing social dynamics eclipsed any notion of human beings who constitute them; rather, a book like Tierney’s, calls into question field research in general. If Tierney’s accusations prove true, far beyond tainting Chagnon’s reputation as an anthropologist, his evidence, as Prof. Turner and Sponsel write to the heads of the American Anthropology Association, “will taint the entire discipline.”

For their part, the AAA will conduct an open forum during their annual meeting on November 16 to review and discuss the issues and allegations raised in the book. Though hoping to cast light on the allegations by giving the individuals featured in the book the opportunity to express their own views, no formal actions will be taken. And considering the enormous disparities between accounts, it is hard to imagine how they could. However, the larger questions about the discipline seem to take shape in the very nature of the debate. That a large number of leading anthropologists- critically minded and conscience by trade- would immediately validate Tierney’s accusations, apparently without considering what basis Tierney had for his claims, is somewhat shocking. The reception of Tierney’s book and not just the arguments it makes have exposed the paranoid and ultimately corrosive stance imbedded in the modern anthropology. Inadvertently, Tierney has revealed the general trend of the discipline to limit its discourse to a constant reassertion of its liberal position to a public skeptical of its goals.