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Internet Source: Alternative Press Review, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2001
Source URL: http://www.altpr.org/apr14/eldorado.html

Darkness in El Dorado

Neel, Chagnon and the Yanomami

Madam President,... We write to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the American Anthropological profession... In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.”

Thus begins a recent e-mail from two distinguished anthropologists, Professors Terry Turner of Cornell and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawai’i, to Louise Lamphere, president of the American Anthropological Association. The man primarily accused of these crimes, a geneticist named James Neel, died last February. The charges are made by reporter Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado.

Neel worked for a covert program of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to study the effects of radiation on human subjects and to see how human groups behaved under conditions of extreme stress. Neel had ubermensch notions about the genetics of “leadership” and differential rates of reproduction among dominant and sub-dominant males in a genetically “isolated” human population. The AEC was happy to pick up the tab, no doubt eager to find out how any survivor group of carefully selected Americans secluded in caves during nuclear Armageddon would survive and breed in the aftermath.

“Tierney presents convincing evidence,” write the aghast anthropologists Turner and Sponsel that on his 1968 trip to the Yanomami, a tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon, Neel greatly exacerbated, and probably started, the epidemic of measles that killed ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands’ (Tierney’s language-the exact figure will never be known) of Yanomami.” It seems that the epidemic was “caused, or at least worsened and more widely spread, by a campaign of vaccination carried out by the research team, which used a virulent vaccine (Edmonson BI) that had been counter-indicated by medical experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles (exactly the Yanomami situation).”

Thus, according to Tierney, who spent ten years researching this history, Neel secretly supervised a program of potentially lethal injections. Then he instructed the members of his research team to refuse to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, Neel said that as men of science they should not intervene. He apparently believed that before the rise of mass societies, first in agricultural communities and then in cities, small genetically isolated groups would produce leaders with dominant genes who would then appropriate a big share of the available women with whom they would breed, thus constantly upgrading the genetic stock of the tribe.

But his theory faced a big problem, namely the vulnerability of such small groups to diseases and consequent epidemics imported from the outside world, which the large groups in modern mass society could more easily absorb.

Hence Neel’s terrible experiments on the Yanomami, in a kind of grim downgrade of the Malthusian ethics of “Survivor.” He wanted to disprove the vulnerability of small, isolated groups to epidemics, seeking to show that though a disease such as measles might wreak awful havoc, his alpha-dominated males would be better adapted to evolve genetic immunity to these “contact” diseases. Many might die but the survivors would be of ever more superior stock.

In their letter to the head of the Anthropological Association Turner and his colleague Sponsel write carefully that “Tierney’s well-documented account, in its entirety, strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all probability deliberately caused as an experiment designed to produce scientific support for Neel’s eugenic theory.”

Neel also allegedly colluded with Venezuelan politicians attempting to gain control of Yanomami lands for illegal gold mining concessions. He provided “cover” for the illegal mine developer as a “naturalist” collaborating with the anthropological researchers, in exchange for the politician’s guarantee of continued access to the Indians for the anthropologists.

It’s not surprising that Neel should have approved of the work of Napoleon Chagnon and welcomed him as an associate. For decades, in work such as The Fierce People, Chagnon has been promoting a version of Yanomami society in which aggressive alpha males appropriate all desirable women and slaughter the weak, to the great delight of sociobiologists who have revelled in Chagon’s fictions as proof of their own gloomy views of the human condition. The simplest explanation of why the Yanomami were “fierce” is because they quite rightly couldn’t stand Chagnon.

Tierney devotes much of the book to a critique of Napoleon Chagnon’s work, charging that Chagnon has cooked his research, not least by repeatedly fomenting the internecine wars which he invokes as evidence of the ultimately healthful genetic purging by which the Yanomami survive.

On Tierney’s account of it, there’s nothing here that separates Neel from the Nazi doctors, and ghastly though the whole story is, there’s little that should surprise anyone who has looked at the practical functions of anthropology as a handservant of Empire. Anthropologists often served as spies for the colonial authorities, as many native peoples correctly surmised.

E. Evans-Pritchard, whose study of the African Nuer tribe is regarded as a classic of social anthropology, interrupted a lyrical account of Nuer life to note without comment or reproof the punitive raids of British colonial authorities “including bombing and machine-gunning of camps”. Nor did he regard this rending of Nuer society by the British as a topic worthy of inclusion in his description of stresses in Nuer society.

Will Tierney’s book provoke the uproar that Turner and Sponsel predict? Will anthropology be placed in the dock? We doubt it. For years native groups across the world with stories of the depredations of anthropologists have been eager to tell them to anyone interested. Few have listened. The can of worms is way too big.

— Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair

“Darkness in El Dorado—Neel, Shagnon and the Yanomami” first appeared in the Oct 1-15, 2000 issue of CounterPunch available from 3220 N. Street, NW, Suite 346, Washington, DC 20007 (www.counterpunch.org). Subscriptions are $40/year (22-issues)