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Eugenic Ideas in James Neel's Conception of "Primitive Society"

Terence Turner
Department of Anthropology, Cornell University
November 10, 2000

A puzzling feature of the outpouring of messages and testimonials in support of James Neel against the allegations about his actions and ideas in Patrick Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado, is the denial that Neel held eugenic beliefs. In his discussions of primitive society, Neel was quite explicit about his eugenic ideas, both in print and in conversation. They have a fundamental place in his conception of the selective advantages of primitive (and specifically Yanomama) social organization. These ideas are most fully expounded in his article, "On being Headman". I quote at length from this article. I have put certain passages in upper case for emphasis (page numbers are indicated in brackets).

[p.285-] Some genetic implications of [Yanomami] culture

The possible genetic implications of headmanship are obvious. Let us consider that we have at our disposal an Index of Innate Ability (IIA), which some will be tempted to equate to intelligence. It is a quantitative trait certainly related to intelligence, based on the additive effects of alleles at many loci, but since the quality which we call intelligence has been validated only as a predictor of school performance, we best not allow ourselves to be ensnared by that word. Let us assume that the average Index within a village which contains 50 reproducing adults is 100, but that the headman has an Index of 120, in which case his 49 peers will average 99.6....[p. 286]On a very simplistic deterministic, additive model for the inheritance of this Index, assuming mid- parent IIA values in children, if the headman marries women of average IIA but has twice as many children as other men, as do his children, then two generations later, neglecting other factors, the average IIA of the replacement population of 50 should be 100.45....Let us quickly note that the IIA is relative, so that one does not make long- range predictions by adding generational gains! There are many unreal and simplistic assumptions of this model, including complete village endogamy, and one of our challenges for the future is to develop a more sophisticated treatment. Even so, THE POTENTIAL THIS POPULATION STRUCTURE OFFERS FOR POSITIVE SELECTION FOR THE IIA SEEMS INCONTROVERTIBLE...

No one has yet developed, let alone applied, the kind of test procedures which could be used to determine whether and to what extent the headman really is characterized by a high IIA. In any effort to understand the driving forces of human evolution, I regard the provision of such data as the number one objective. The gains in IIA predicted by the model must of course have been partially but not entirely offset by the losses imposed by the operation of chance and erosion through mutation, as discussed earlier. I say "not entirely" on the basis of the fossil evidence for increasing cranial capacity, which must bear some relationship to IIA. Thus if we could get a fix on the IIA of the headman in the few surviving cultures where the institution persists, we would have an important insight into the intensity of the positive selection for IIA [p.287] and still permit the evolution of IIA we presume to have occurred...

[p.287] Some caveats

[One should not] extrapolate loosely from the Yanomama, and indeed, it would be foolish to generalize in detail from a single [p.288] case [but given that] the practice of polygyny is widespread among primitive groups, including true hunters-and- gatherers, and its practitioners are almost invariably the older and more influential men, however influence is defined...any serious challenge to the propriety of using the Yanomama as a general population model must be based on contradictory, hard, detailed demographic data plus either longitudinal studies or simulation involving other tribes at this cultural or the hunting-gathering level; I have not been able to identify any other such data. Furthermore, the discovery of a single [counter-example] would not be sufficient to challenge THE GENERALITY THAT THE BREEDING STRUCTURE OF PRIMITIVE POPULATIONS HAD STRONG EUGENIC IMPLICATIONS...

There is good reason to postulate that the counterpart of the village headman emerged early in human evolution. The existence of a dominant male in the bands of various species of primates has been well documented [refs]. The analogy with the social structure postulated for primitive man extends further: the fissioning of a band of Rhesus monkeys is influenced by considerations of lineage, and this lineal effect is believed to be a significant factor in the origin of the observed inter-group genetic differentiation [ref]. Thus when our ancestors began the transformation to man, very possibly there had already evolved a social structure favoring more rapid microdifferentiation than was the case for most mammals...

[p.289] Are there tenable countermeasures to the loss of our primitive population structure?

...the loss of headmanship as a feature of our culture, as well as the weakening of other vehicles of natural selection, is clearly a minus...While the emphasis in this paper on the role of dominant males in primate evolution is not a new thought, what we can now begin to do for the first time is to quantify, at least for man, the precise reproductive patterns which not only offset the effects of chance and mutation but also permitted selection. My principal thesis in this presentation is that although we were all to some extent aware of a relaxation of natural selection, now we can see that that selection may have been both more rigorous and more necessary to the maintenance of human attributes than we have realized. The rate of the genetic deterioration of our species which we are led to predict...is indeterminate... [290] [So] even if we all saw the implications of the loss of headmanship as I have presented them, it would be difficult for geneticists to command real attention for such distant problems. But,should we get that attention, what can we offer at this time?



In these passages, Neel identifies himself as having "eugenic" concerns. He uses the term not only for his own programs for contemporary social action but for what he takes to be the selective advantages of the structure of primitive society, imagined to be built around the institution of headmanship on the Yanomama model. Headmanship is conceived to be based on the headman's possession of a superior quantity of a genetic trait called the "Index of innate ability", defined as "a quantitative trait certainly related to intelligence, based on the additive effects of alleles at many loci." As headmen are said to be universally polygamous, they are therefore in a position to reproduce their superior genes--their greater Index of Innate Ability--at a higher rate than other men. The result is a secular tendency to upgrade the average genetic quality--the quantity of genetic "Innate Ability"--of the population.

Note that not only headmanship as a central social institution, but the structure of society as a whole is in this view directly determined by genetics. Neel represents the social organization of the small deme (endogamous breeding population) as a hierarchy of males, with differing numbers of wives according to their rank, which is determined by relative proportions of genetic Innate Ability. The more numerous groupings of wives attached to the more dominant men give rise to sibling groups of differing size, which become "lineages" across generations. The differing size of the lineages, a determining factor in the political order of the community, is thus a result of the differing numbers of wives of the adult males, which in turn is a function of their relative dominance, with the headman or -men having the most. Social structure is thus defined as a dependent variable of the unequal proportions of the right genetic stuff possessed by male competitors for leadership and reproductive advantage (i.e., women).

This understanding of "primitive social structure", with headmanship as its central institution, as a direct expression of genetics is the basis of Neel's explicit claim for the selective advantage, and thus the eugenic effect, of Yanomama-style society. As the passage I have quoted from his "Headman" article makes clear, he maintained that this form of society was and is the common form of social organization in hunting- and-foraging and simple horticultural societies, and thus in effect the natural social form of the human species.

The same ideas and eugenic claims for Yanomama-type society are repeated, in less developed form, in Chapter 17 of Neel's autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool.

Dr Neel also expressed some of these ideas to me in personal conversation. Shortly after my return from my first field trip to the Kayapo in the winter of 1964, Neel invited me to Ann Arbor to give a lecture to his students and colleagues about practical aspects of field research in the Amazon . This initiated a period of loose collaboration with the project organized by Neel and the distinguished Brazilian biological anthropologist, Francisco Salzano, for comparative research on the population genetics of Amazonian indigenous groups. My main contribution to the project was a genealogical census of a Kayapo community that I believe comprises the project's main data base on the Kayapo. After my lecture to Neel's group at Ann Arbor, there was a small reception. I found myself standing next to Dr. Neel, who startled me by exclaiming, "Maybe now we can really find the leadership gene" (these were his exact words as I remember them). Incredulous, I in turn exclaimed, "You can't be serious!". He replied in words to the effect that he did not think it unreasonable to suppose that in small, relatively isolated societies like those of contemporary Amazonian peoples, men would rise to leadership by virtue of superior genetic endowment, and as polygamists be able to reproduce their genes more than less dominant monogamous men. Neel was clearly referring in this conversation to what he elsewhere called the "Index of Innate Ability" in later writings such as the article, "On Being Headman" from which I have quoted. In that informal conversation he no doubt used the expression, "the leadership gene" as a verbal shorthand for his more complex concept of the genetic basis of "innate ability" as "the additive effects of alleles at many loci", as he defined it in the passage I have quoted.

Later the same year I returned to Brazil and met Neel and several colleagues, including Francisco Salzano, David Maybury-Lewis, Pedro Clovis Junqueira, and the late German biological anthropologist F. Keiter, in Rio de Janeiro as they were on their way to study the Shavante of Mato Grosso. Dr. Keiter was interested in morphological measurements. I was told that one question he intended to investigate was whether the heads of Shavante headmen had distinctive parameters or dimensions. Correspondence between Neel, Francisco Salzano and J. Niswander found among Neel's papers at the American Philosophical Society reveals that Neel hoped to find a positive correlation between the distinctive head forms of chiefs and their higher rates of "reproductive success". A positive three-way association between head size and/or shape, reproductive success, and headmanship (there is an awful pun lurking here but I will refrain from making it) would have fulfilled Neel's quest for the elusive empirical, quantifiable indication of superior levels of IIA. In the event, no significant differences between the heads of chiefs and commoners were found. Salzano, who analyzed the head measurements, wrote to Neel and Niswander that at least on the basis of the small sample size they had managed to collect, no statistically significant correlations could be established between dolicocephaly and mesocephaly or variations in cephalic index and reproductive performance. He advised that it seemed pointless on the basis of the available data to pursue this line of research. Neel, however, replied:

"This matter of head form and reproductive performance is a problem. It was on my mind even before you brought the question up, but I had felt that we needed much more data before an analysis would be profitable...I would hope that some day we could combine your data on the Caingangs, our Xavante data, and the data we hope to get on the Cayapo, and the Yanomama, and then do an analysis of variance, partitioning by tribe and head form".

It is clear from the account of headmanship Neel develops in an earlier part of the same article from which I have quoted that he conceived the leadership of the headman in relatively gentle and informal terms, as "authority so loosely defined that he is best described as a first among equals" [p.283]: not, in short, as a coercive or violent exercise of power.

It is clear that Neel conceived the leadership of the headman, and the IIA on which it was based, as involving intelligence; but it is equally clear that he also conceived it to include prowess in battle and in hunting--in short, the intelligent, measured use of violence. Both in his 1980 article and his 1994 autobiography, Neel emphasized that in addition to intellignce, headmen need to be fighters, since fighting will occasionally be necessary to discharge their responsibility to protect the well being of the community. The authors of the University of California at Santa Barbara web site , seeking to refute Tierney's claim for a connection between Neel's conception of headmanship and Chagnon's idea of leaders as violent killers, assert that Neel conceived headmanship and the IIA purely in terms of intelligence. In what they clearly suppose to be support of their claim they quote Neel as saying that

"Simple aggressiveness will not be a sufficient quality for headmanship: there are too many ways that aggressiveness divorced from judgement can lead to an early demise in the jungle". This and other similar statements by Neel, however, demonstrate the opposite of what they are asserting: specifically, that Neel did not consider headmanship, and by extension, the "ability" for leadership indexed by the IIA, as a matter of intelligence alone. The strategic use of violence is an intrisic art of the headman's "abilities'. The basis for continuity with Chagnon's ideas of dominance based on killing is clearly present in Neel's conception, just as Tierney claims.

As the failure of the head-measurement hypothesis forced Neel to admit, there exists no objective test or measure of the "Index of Innate Ability" [p.286]. Nor did Neel ever produce a clear theoretical definition of the concept, or for that matter a theoretical justification for the principle it resupposes that "ability" for leadership is a single, homogeneous entity rather than an assortment of disparate alternative skills and qualities. The "Index of Innate Ability", , in sum, never attainded the status of a scientific concept. It is rather an article of faith, that could only be defined in practice in circular fashion, as a property that must be possessed by existing headmen. It thus becomes, potentially at least, an ideological justification of the existing political leadership or dominance hierarchy.

This ideological character of Neel's concept of headmanship and its genetic basis gives grounds for serious reservation.The notion is inherently anti-egalitarian, and legitimates domination by the strongest or most "able", with no provision for any political role or rights for the less dominant. Leaders rise to, and hold, power by virtue of their biological superiority over their followers, which directly constitutes their source of power: there is no provision for the reciprocity that many have emphasized as an intrinsic feature of leadership in indigenous Amazonian societies. Neel provides, moreover, a eugenic justification for this genetically driven form of dominance. "Headmen" are good for society, because by using their dominance to amass polygynous harems they become able to reproduce their superior genes at a greater rate than their monogamous or celibate subordinates, and thus raise the average genetic tone of their whole social group.

This, then, is a eugenic justification for leadership by a supposedly biologically superior elite. In the passage from p. 290 that I have put in capitals, Neel discusses the feasibility of eugenic action in contemporary society. He notes that it is out of the question "to engineer an early return to Yanomama population structure" (my italics), implying that perhaps in the evolutionary long run it might be possible (and would clearly be desirable) to do so. This would mean, as he explains, the reorganization of society under the political control of a "generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes [who would] enjoy a well-defined reproductive advantage" (i.e., a polygamous harem), which he would of course enjoy in "twentieth century comfort". "Twentieth Century?" In ideological terms, with its avowedly eugenic justification, this looks uncomfortably like a Social Darwinist form of authoritarianism: the domination of the biologically superior leader, with no nonsense about democratic participation or constraints on the power or leadership of the "headman". Neel's ability to slip from his relatively multi-faceted conception of the leadership qualities of the successful headman [p.283] to an apparent acceptance of Chagnon's narrower definition of Yanomami dominance in terms of violence and aggressive competition for women testifies to the potential for theoretical and ideological abuses of his notion. Alpha males are not democrats even if (pace John Tooby) they may support Gore supporters. Neel's notion is also clearly loaded in favor of the male gender: Neel asserts at one point that females may also have high IIA levels, but it is not clear that for them this has any social consequences, as it supposedly does for males.

In the memo that I and Leslie Sponsel sent to the leadership of the AAA about Patrick Tierney's book, we speculated about the possibility that James Neel might have carried out the 1968 vaccination campaign to test apects of his eugenic theory of Yanomama leadership. We were aware at the time that there was no direct evidence for this; it was an educated guess based on our knowledge of Neel's ideas, which we suggested given the lack of any available alternative explanation for why Neel might have planned to start an epidemic, as Tierney suggested he might have done for some ill-defined experimental purpose. At any rate we quickly recognized that this speculation could not be correct, not because Neel did not hold the eugenic ideas we attributed to him (the passages quoted above are evidence enough that he did), but because a more plausible motive has emerged from a fuller knowledge of Neel's research interests, the testimony of one of his colleagues, and passages from his own papers in the Archive of the American Philosophical Society, which clearly indicate that while Neel originally planned the vaccination campaign for measles, and other similar campaigns for other epidemic diseases, for a research purpose, this purpose had no direct connection with his notions of the genetic basis or eugenic value of the IIA.

A more likely scenario is that suggested by a statement by Neel's long-time collaborator, Dr. Francisco Salzano, in the Brazilian Newspaper, O Globo, on September 27, 2000. In an interview printed in that paper, Salzano said that the vaccinations were done to test the reaction of the Yanomami, as an "isolated population", to the "stress of the vaccinations". This is consistent with Neel's known long-standing interest in experimental studies of selective pressures on small populations by such "natural stressers" as epidemic disease. It bears no direct relation, however, to Neel's ideas of the eugenic advantages of headmanship in primitive society. It is consistent, on the other hand, with the suggestion that what Neel may have intended to cause was not an actual epidemic of measles but a "model epidemic" in which non-fatal vaccine reactions might stand in, for experimental purposes, for the real thing--much as Francis Black had done in his 1966 experimental vaccination campaign among the Tiriyo.

In Sponsel's and my memo, we speculated that if Tierney's suggestion that Neel purposely produced an epidemic as an experiment were true (which it quickly appeared that it clearly is not), Neel might have been interested in the differential survivability of headmen under epidemic conditions. Following Neel's emphasis on the role of social factors in the impact of epidemic diseases on previously unexposed populations, we suggested that headmen, with their numerous wives and greater command of support networks, should be better able to survive the social disorganization and breakdown that Neel had indicated played such a large role in the high death toll of first-contact epidemics. If this were true it would reinforce the reproductive advantage of headmen, a result which would have been of interest to Neel. This was not an implausible conjecture within the context of Neel's ideas. It does not rely on the idea of a specific genetic basis for differential resistance to disease, but rather for the superior level of genetically conferred IIA that would enable the organization of a more effective social base (I.e., a more numerous extended family) for care under epidemic conditions. When we, and others, checked on and rejected Tierney's suggestion in the galley version of the book (later removed from the published version) that the vaccine he used could have caused such an epidemic, the only situation in which a test of the hypothesis we suggested would have been possible, we rejected this speculative hypothesis a fortiori . As Neel makes clear in his correspondence and field journal, he did initially conceive and carry out his vaccination campaign for a research purpose (to study the production of antibodies by a "virgin soil" population), but he did not imagine this as involving causing actual cases (much less an epidemic) of measles.


Neel, James V., "On Being Headman", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 23 (277- 94) Winter 1980

Neel, James V., Physician to the Gene Pool: Genetic Lessons and Other Stories. New York. John Wiley 1994. Ch. 17,"Some longer-range problems for the gene pool (301-316, see especially 301-304) Neel, James V., Salzano, F.M., Junqueira,

P.C., Keiter, F., and Maybury-Lewis, D. 1964. Studies on the Shavante Indians of the Brazilian Mato Grosso. American Journal of Human Genetics 16:52-140

Turner, T., letter to S. Katz, September 27, 2000. Hume website http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/index.htm

Turner, T., and J. Stevens, Annotated index of selected documents and correspondence from the collection of James V. Neel's papers in the archive of the American Philosophical Society, 2001

U.S. Atomic Energy Commission: Declassified AEC Document no. 4005304: Minutes of the Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine, Monthly Status of Progress Reports for February 1951