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Internet Source: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 57, No. 1, January/February 2001
Source URL: http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2001/jf01/jf01sea.html


Research in the rainforest

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

Geoffrey Sea

In 1993, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary acknowledged that during the Cold War federal agencies conducted secret experiments on U.S. citizens. In 1996, after three years of investigations, the White House announced that the issue had been fully explored and "could now be put behind us." However, the official inquiries never extended to what the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and other agencies did on foreign soil or using foreign nationals.

Even before its publication last November, journalist Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado had ignited a bitter debate in science circles because of its charges of ethical misconduct by AEC-funded scientists who studied the Yanomami, an Amazonian indigenous tribe, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Tierney alleges that anthropologists and journalists manufactured evidence in their portrayal of the Yanomami, and that geneticists and physicians may have worsened a devastating measles epidemic. Although some scientists have called the book a fraud or a hoax, others have denounced the AEC-sponsored experiments described by Tierney as "fascistic eugenics."

According to Tierney, the AEC began "experimenting" on the Yanomami in the late 1950s when it extended its radioisotope distribution program to Venezuela. In 1958, Venezuelan physician Marcel Roche used radioiodine provided by the AEC to investigate goiter in the Yanomamiand neighboring tribes. A few years later, other scientists used radioactive iron 55 and iron 59 to study anemia and nutrition in Amazonians.

By the mid-1960s, the studies turned toward genetics. Scientists identified the Yanomami as a unique genetic resource, undisturbed by the effects of modern social relations or man-made atomic radiation. James V. Neel, an AEC-funded geneticist who headed studies of Japanese bomb survivors and Marshall Islanders, believed the Yanomami were perfect subjects for exploring the "natural" mutation rate in an unexposed population. Neel also used the tribe to test his eugenics theories about the salutary genetic effect of male competition and warfare.

In 1964, Neel sent his graduate student in anthropology, Napoleon Chagnon, to Venezuela. Chagnon published the first anthropological study of the tribe in 1968, Yanomamo The Fierce People, which portrayed the group as excessively violent and brutish. Immediately acclaimed as a classic by some, the book was considered controversial by others because of the methods Chagnon employed.

Tierney writes that Chagnon traveled to isolated villages wearing war paint and a cowboy hat and offering "gifts" like machetes and shotguns. On one occasion, Chagnon landed in a military helicopter-with television crew in tow-in the middle of a Yanomami open-centered dwelling, intentionally destroying the village in order to study it.

In 1968, Neel, Chagnon, and Roche conducted a vaccination campaign, inoculating the Yanomami with an unstable live-virus vaccine, Edmonston B, which was being replaced elsewhere by other vaccines with fewer side effects. It is not clear whether the vaccination program lessened or exacerbated a measles epidemic.

Tierney suggests that one of the motives behind the vaccination program was Neel's desire to test his theory of the Yanomami's "primitive genetic superiority"-a result, thought Neel, of the unfettered male aggression exhibited by the tribe-by letting loose a dangerous live-virus vaccine. According to Tierney, instead of trying to stem the epidemic, Neel and his team hurriedly collected samples of blood, urine, and saliva.

Neel's defenders say that he was only trying to help the Yanomami. There is also evidence that Neel, who died last year, may have terminated the vaccination program when he realized it was exacerbating the epidemic. But his patients and subjects clearly did not consent to, nor did they understand, the studies he was undertaking.

In some cases, Tierney fails to see the broader context of his story. By the mid-1950s, iron 55 was restricted for human use in domestic research because of recognized dangers. As a result, researchers moved anemia and nutrition studies overseas, to underdeveloped countries like Venezuela. There is no evidence indicating that foreign researchers‹or test subjects‹were warned about potential dangers. Darkness in El Dorado provides an example of how U.S. studies using radioactive isotopes went abroad as they were progressively banned in the United States.

Tierney also writes that the AEC collected vast amounts of Yanomami bone samples for strontium studies. Yanomami blood and perhaps other tissue samples are still stored at U.S. government and university repositories. There are similar "archives" containing tissue from Marshall Islanders, former nuclear workers, U.S. human radiation subjects, and randomly selected control subjects from around the world.

Unfortunately, the two chapters of Darkness in El Dorado that deal with radiation studies are the book's weakest. Confused chronology, mistakes of detail, and reasoning by innuendo reduce their persuasiveness.

But overall, the book is as insightful as it is important, and despite the ongoing debate over the merits of many of Tierney's allegations, Darkness in El Dorado has already had a huge impact beyond scientific circles. In Venezuela, the Office of Indigenous Affairs has placed a moratorium on permits for non-governmental visits to the country's indigenous-populated territories, pending a thorough investigation. This marks the first time a country has sealed off its native inhabitants from foreign contact in order to protect them from the potential dangers of scientific and medical research.

Darkness in El Dorado will become standard-if disputed-reading on the methods used to study native populations. It may also provoke more investigations into U.S. Cold War experiments.

Geoffrey Sea is the executive director of the U.S.-Kazakhstan International Foundation on Radiation, Ecology, and Health.