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The History Behind the Darkness : A Response to Susan Lindee’s Readings of the Neel Papers

John Stevens

Cornell University

September 2001


Since the fall of last year many voices have spoken up in the controversy surrounding Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado: HowScientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (Tierney 2000). Anthropologists, biologists, activists, university administrators, and many others have presented an increasingly diverse array of information and perspectives on the book itself and the situations it describes. From the Brazilian Medical Association’s report on the spread of measles among the Yanomami in 1968 (Lobo et al. 2001) to an undergraduate anthropology student’s plea for greater understanding about the controversy at last year’s AAA meetings, interested parties from across academia (and a few from outside of it) have been expressing their opinions and analyses of the ethical, medical, and scientific aspects of the Yanomami situation.

One of these parties has produced a body of responses that attempt to do what many others have not: go into the historical record and investigate what the participants did, and what they thought they were doing, during the events themselves. Dr. Susan Lindee, a historian of science from the University of Pennsylvania, had studied James Neel’s work on atomic-bomb survivors in Hiroshima (Lindee 1994), and began to investigate Neel’s manuscript collection shortly after the Turner-Sponsel e-mail about Darkness was leaked to a wider audience. What I would like to do in this paper is examine her responses and the manner in which she interprets the historical materials from the Neel collection, in the spirit of providing a different perspective on them and the implications of her usage of them for understanding the wider controversy.

Lindee has written or spoken of her work in at least three places: a World Wide Web statement that was posted shortly after the release of the Turner/Sponsel e-mail (Lindee 2000a), a presentation at the American AnthropologicalAssociation Annual Meetings last November (an expanded version of which she also put on the Web; see Lindee 2001b), and an interview she did for the Pennsylvania Gazette earlier this year (Pennsylvania Gazette 2001). In each case Lindee uses historical documents and quotations to prove that the charges against Neel are baseless, or at least misinterpretations. Building on a notion that Neel was a flawed but basically conscientious researcher, Lindee attempts to show that none of the allegations have any basis in the historical record and are thus without merit. Furthermore, she portrays his expedition into Yanomamiland as primarily a humanitarian endeavor, based on his discussions about acquiring measles vaccines and using them during the expedition. A closer examination of those materials in relation to her contentions, however, illustrates that the situation is not that clear-cut. While Dr. Lindee does provide a number of corrections to Tierney’s account, the very material she uses demonstrates that Neel’s motives are not merely humanitarian, and the record itself sometimes contradicts what she says about the situation under examination.

Lindee’s writings are in direct response to Patrick Tierney’s suggestions in Darkness that Neel was using the Edmonston B vaccine to conduct an experiment on the Yanomami, and that measles may have been spread or exacerbated by the use of this vaccine (Tierney 2000:xx). Dr. Lindee’s rebuttal is simple: despite his imperfections, Neel was basically performing a humanitarian function during his 1968 trip to Yanomamiland, and the historical record proves it. In her initial web presentation, Lindee says that "[t]he picture that emerges in these documents is at some variance with that presented in a widely circulated email describing the arguments in a new book by Patrick Tierney" (Lindee 2000a). This is a reference to a memo that Leslie Sponsel and Terence Turner wrote to the leaders of the AAA after reading galleys of the book to warn them about Tierney’s explosive allegations, which they attempted to summarize in the memo. Lindee’s claim is quite true: the papers, which Tierney did not consult and thus missed as an important source for his book, implicitly or explicitly differ from Tierney’s assertions at some points, and significantly exceed them in others. The problem is that they also differ from or go beyond Lindee’s own representations of their content on a number of important points.

As others have already demonstrated (see Geertz 2000; Turner 2000, 2001; for more perspectives, see Hume 2000). Darkness in El Dorado is a book that contains some exaggerations and misrepresentations, and some ofTierney’s allegations are in fact untrue. He does inflect his subject with his own biases and does analyze some of the evidence with an idiosyncratic, hyperbolic eye. Lindee, however, does not just offer a series of corrections of Tierney on specific points; rather, she presents her historicized version of the events as the product of a superior method which enables her to extract undistorted truth from the papers in contrast to the distortions and inconsistencies of Tierney’s book. This she describes as the trained historian’s method of interpreting documentary evidence.

Lindee proceeds to do a close reading of Neel’s field journal, which she contrasts to what she presents as Tierney’s twisting of the truth to suit his own subjective ends. It is true that some of Tierney’s allegations, particularly in regard to Neel’s 1968 expedition, are misrepresentations based on incomplete evidence. For all her salutary corrections of detail, however, Lindee seems to miss a more fundamental point. The fundamental question posed by Tierney’s book is not just whether Tierney himself is right or wrong on specific points, but whether or not the larger issue that his work raises, about the harming of the Yanomami in the name of science, has any merit. In so far as Neel is concerned (Lindee does not address Tierney’s accounts of other researchers such as Jacques Lizot or Napoleon Chagnon) this resolves itself into the question of whether the 1968 Orinoco expedition as led by Neel aided the Yanomami as much as it could, or should, have done, and behaved in an ethical manner toward them, during the epidemic of measles that broke out while they were in the field, or whether Neel’s and the expedition’s conduct actually contributed to exacerbating the effects of the epidemic. On this point Dr. Lindee proves to be ambiguous. She claims to be skeptical about Neel’s ideas and politics at an abstract level but at the level of concrete cases absolves him of all of Tierney’s allegations of ethically problematic conduct, without attempting to point out the implications of the new data she has discovered in Neel’s papers for the more fundamental question that Tierney was trying to raise of whether Neel’s expedition may have exacerbated, or failed to alleviate as much as it could have, the effects of the epidemic.

The key point in Lindee’s interpretation of the Neel papers is that they show that Neel’s motives in going to the Yanomami were primarily (or exclusively, depending on the specific passage or text in question) humanitarian. This means, in her view, that the main purpose of the expedition was to save the Yanomami from the measles epidemic. The historical record comprised by the Neel papers, however, clearly shows that there was more to Neel’s work than just humanitarian relief. The papers, in other words, do not support Lindee’s attempts to dismiss suggestions that Neel’s activities among the Yanomami, specifically including the vaccinations against measles conducted by the 1968 expedition, were undertaken primarily for research purposes. The problem is not that Dr. Lindee has found flaws in Tierney’s account (which clearly exist), but that her version of events is also selective and evades some tough ethical questions about Neel’s activities in 1968 raised by Tierney and the documents themselves.

Lindee’s first response to the controversy was an e-mail message that asserted several "explicit matters of fact" (Lindee 2000a) about Neel’s activities in 1968. Those facts are:

"1. Neel had Venezuelan governmental permission to carry out the vaccine program-the telegram providing that permission is in his papers."

"2. Neel had consulted a CDC expert on measles about how to administer the vaccine in November 1967, before the field trip which began in January 1968. The correspondence with CDC is in his papers as are records of the trip he made to Atlanta to meet with infectious disease specialists."

"3. Neel included gamma globulin with all the vaccines he administered and kept meticulous records of names of persons immunized, and doses given. Apparently some vaccines were administered without gamma globulin by Roche, who was involved in a different project (measuring iodine uptake) with Amazonian populations."

"4. Neel heard reports of a measles outbreak at a party on January 20 while he and his team were still in Caracas buying supplies. He did not give any vaccines until January 25, when he vaccinated 14 children under age 5 in a village that had experienced a measles outbreak five years earlier."

"5. When the measles problem was identified as an epidemic, on or around February 16, Neel provided penicillin and terramycin not only to those affected in the villages he visited, but also to those who would be able to bring it to persons affected elsewhere. There is no evidence that he attempted to discourage anyone from providing treatment, and indeed for about two weeks he spent much of his own time administering vaccines and antibiotics."

"6. Furthermore, Neel himself worked out a plan for controlling the epidemic, from 2 to 4 a.m. on 16 February, after he was awakened by a messenger bearing a frantic note from a colleague at the Ocamo Mission, a note which said that there was a serious outbreak of measles, and asking him to send gamma globulin. His "all Orinoco" plan included controlling movement of people in and through the five primary ports of entry to the region, liberal use of penicillin, vaccination when practical, and gamma globulin when practical." (taken from Lindee 2000a)

All of these assertions, which Lindee presents as simple facts, are taken from Neel’s papers and 1968 field journal, which he included with his correspondence and collection of scientific documents in the archive at the American Philosophical Society. They provide us with a fuller idea of what was going on during the epidemic, and serve to correct the image suggested by Tierney’s account of a rogue scientist risking the spreading of disease among the Yanomami as part of an experiment. Lindee’s facts, however, do not tell the whole story, as it emerges from Neel’s journal and his letters. In a letter to Miguel Layrisse dated 11 December 1967, Neel does indeed request governmental permission to vaccinate the Yanomami during his expedition, as "[t]here seems to be a raging measles epidemic amongst the Yanomama" on the Brazilian side (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR5). There is no response to this request among Neel’s papers. The letter does show, however, that Neel is already aware of the Brazilian outbreak in the fall of 1967. In several letters to missionaries he discusses sending vaccine or bringing it with him (See Stevens and Turner 2001). Lindee overlooks a number of documents and items of correspondence which clearly show that Neel was interested in testing for antibodies and carrying out vaccinations, not only for measles but for a number of other alien epidemic diseases, as part of his research on "the disease picture of the American Indian" and the role of disease as a selective agent in causing genetic variation in isolated populations. These papers cast a different light on the vaccination campaign, and partially vindicate Tierney’s claim that it was done for research. Certainly this was not an "experiment" in the sense he seems to suggest, one of deliberately exploiting the dangerous reactive properties of an inappropriate vaccine, but nevertheless it does simulate the effects of a real epidemic in a way that fulfills the research interests mentioned above.

Lindee’s other assertions are likewise incomplete or misleading. It is true, for example, that Neel went to the Centers for Disease Control in November 1967 to consult with specialists there, but the available correspondence shows that he was meeting with them to discuss research methods and problems, not to consult about the vaccine or medical aspects of a vaccination program. Instead, Neel contacted a variety of specialists to consult with them on ways to research disease pressures and methods of collecting biological samples, including fungal samples from the soil (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 26 and COR 28). Most of his correspondence is with Dr. Helen Casey and two fungal disease specialists, Drs. Joseph H. Schubert and Leo Kaufman, at the NCDC (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 24 and COR 129). Neel was working with Casey at the time on tests for measles antibody titers in samples from previous field seasons (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 129). We were unable to find any specific documents or notations on what exactly went on in Neel’s CDC meetings, but his letters point to research concerns, not humanitarian ones.

Discrepancies such as these are also present in Dr. Lindee’s other assertions. It is true, as she claims, that Neel himself included gamma globulin with his vaccinations, but Neel was not the only member of his party who vaccinated people, and there is little information about how vaccinations were done in practice. Neel himself appears to have vaccinated on only a few occasions, leaving most of this and other medical tasks to other members of the expedition as well as missionaries in surrounding areas. Gamma globulin was not used in many of these circumstances; when Dr. Napoleon Chagnon went to Ocamo, for example, he did not carry a sufficient supply of gamma globulin and seems to have vaccinated half of the village without gamma globulin (telephone interview with James Neel cited by Tierney: Tierney 2000:340, n.53). The records do show that Neel shipped a lot of vaccine to missionaries without accompanying doses of gamma globulin. In a letter sent to missionaries along with a shipment of vaccine (without gamma globulin), Dr. Willard Centerwall, an expedition member who specialized in infectious diseases, states that gamma globulin is desirable but not necessary (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 179) and outlines a plan for vaccination that only covers half of each village at atime, so that the other half can care for those suffering severe reactions to the inoculations without gamma globulin. The lack of gamma globulin among missionaries giving out vaccinations in Brazil led to virulent responses to the vaccine that may have contributed to the mortality rate (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 182). These are points which Dr. Lindee does not mention in her discussion of the expedition (see Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 6 and 15). There are also questions about the completeness of the record on immunizations that still need to addressed.

Certainly, as Dr. Lindee points out in her last two points, Neel did have foreknowledge of the spreading epidemic, and once in the field did not discourage treatment. He also did draft an "All Orinoco" plan on February 16. And, as she points out: "It is clear from his notes that the epidemic drastically disrupted his field research, making it impossible for him to collect the kinds of data he had intended to collect, and it is clear that he was at times frustrated, even angry, about this situation. A measles outbreak emphatically did not facilitate his research" (Lindee 2000a). But even these points require clarification and raise further questions: why, for example, did Neel wait until February 16 to craft a plan when he had known for some time in advance that he was facing the spread of a measles epidemic into his research area? While he did not discourage treatment, why didn’t Neel stay in the village for the period required by the vaccination protocol to take care of people who would be quite ill from the effects of the vaccine itself (see Stevens and Turner 2001: DOC16)? Most tellingly, while Dr. Lindee does point out that Neel was "frustrated" by having to attend to the vaccinations and medical support work, she fails to mention the fact that despite the epidemic he maintained a breakneck pace of collecting blood and other biological samples until nearly the end of the expedition. He did give up some less important research items, such as physical examinations and anthropometric measurements (including cephalic indexes he hoped would turn out to be correlated with genetic superiority) to allow time for medical work, but at one point expressed the desire to suspend the vaccinations altogether (Stevens and Turner 2001: DOC 1:80, 5 Feb.; Neel 1968:79)! While the medical work required by the epidemic unquestionably disrupted research activities, it might be said, with equal or greater justice, that the expedition’s research activities disrupted the delivery of vaccinations and other medical services, by slowing the movements of the expedition so that many vaccinations were not given soon enough to immunize against exposure to the onrushing epidemic (Lobo et al. 2001: post scriptum, point 2).

What this points to is a concern that I wish to highlight in reference to a longer piece that Dr. Lindee presented at the Annual General Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (Lindee 2000b). In it Dr. Lindee uncovers a number of correctives to Patrick Tierney’s account of events in 1968, which she presents in a parallel day-by-day format, contrasting Neel’s journal and Tierney’s chronology to explicitly "provide a compelling challenge to Tierney’s reconstruction" (Lindee 2000b:2). Her account does expose a number of problems about Tierney’s account, particularly in regard to his characterization of various afflictions such as pneumonia as possibly measles instead (see Lindee 2000b). Her account also more clearly outlines the specific actions taken by the expedition to address the epidemic.

Since her goal, however, is only to refute Tierney’s account, rather than fully to investigate the implications of the data she presents in their own right, her discussion (perhaps inadvertently) contains a number of omissions and misrepresentations that the historical record itself can clarify. Lindee begins by normalizing Neel’s work, goals, and sponsors by historically relativizing them in terms that clear them of Tierney’s sinister implications. As is true of her prior piece, Dr. Lindee’s basic assertions are true: as she says, Neel’s views may not have been seen as "extreme," and the AEC did fund a variety of biological research. While making these valid points, however, Lindee glosses over the issues that Tierney raises in relation to Neel’s theories and their impact on how he worked with the Yanomami, not to mention the fact that the AEC did engage in questionable research practices.

This tendentious form of reinterpretation extends into her account of the epidemic. By reiterating portions of Neel’s journals without adequate attention to their context, she produces an effective refutation of some specific points of Tierney’s account, but fails to provide a thorough investigation of the implications of these actions for the basic issues at stake. Her selective use of the historiographical principles on which she lectured her anthropological audience ("It is fairly conventional in historical research to privilege sources based on their time of production, and place more weight on documents produced in temporal proximity to the events in question." Lindee 2000b) itself calls for historical interpretation. Her weighing of these sources is unbalanced: Neel’s account is taken at face value while Tierney’s parallel account is critiqued. Important aspects of the historical context are erased in the comparison of the two accounts. Contextual interpretation, an important aspect of historical method, is in fact largely absent from Lindee’s recounting. For example, she states that:

"It is certainly clear from these documents that Neel had good reason to believe both that the Yanomami would be vulnerable to a measles epidemic, and that they were at great risk of such an epidemic in the very near future. It is also clear that he was himself concerned about having proper governmental permission to vaccinate. Finally, as Tierney himself states in his own notes, Venezuela had begun using the Schwarz vaccine only in January 1968—in other words, Neel arrived in the field the same month that the Venezuelan government switched to a more attenuated vaccine in its public health program. While Tierney says that ‘even a poor country like Venezuela had by then switched to the Schwarz vaccine,’ he fails to state that the ‘then’ was January 1968 (Tierney 2000:99)." (Lindee 2000b).

This is misleading; the Schwartz vaccine did not spring full-blown from the head of Zeus in January 1968. As Tierney notes, it had been available in the U.S. since 1965 (Tierney 2000:58). Lindee fails to see the contextual import of the facts she brings out; if a vaccine was being introduced into use in Venezuela at the time Neel was setting out on his expedition, it must have been in use and under development for several years before that in the U.S.--long enough for Neel to have learned of it and to consider using it rather than the less attenuated one he adopted. Indeed, as Tierney also notes, Black had employed it in preference to the Edmonston B vaccine used by Neel in an experimentalstudy of the effects of vaccine on another Amazonian people, the Tiriyo, in 1966 (Tierney 2000: 57-58). If by the time of the outbreak the Venezuelan government did have in its possession a better vaccine, and if this alternative was currently available (as indicated by the fact that Neel had been engaged in some trading of his tardy US shipment with Venezuelan reserves), then the opportunity must have existed for Neel to take this vaccine into the field. Lindee also does not mention that Dr. Roche, a Venezuelan collaborator of Neel’s who was then head of the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research, stated in his correspondence with Neel a month after Neel returned from Venezuela in 1968 that only 1/3 of a dose of the Schwartz vaccine would be needed to vaccinate the Yanomami, and would have far milder side-effects than the vaccine Neel employed in full-strength doses (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR 181). This fact was communicated by Roche in explanation of his decision not to use a shipment of Edmonston B vaccine from Neel to inoculate indigenous people (the purpose for which Neel had sent it).

My point here is that the "privileging" of primary sources must be inclusive, and that more than one point of view needs to be considered if we are to untangle the thorny questions in this controversy. Dr. Lindee’s parallel account does give us a much better sense of the on-the-ground chronology of events; she cites names, places, and numbers that demonstrate the sketchiness of Tierney’s account. However, she presents her narrative as an account of the expedition racing to keep up with the spread of measles. But is this really what happened? In the broader perspective gained from the correspondence and documents that accompany the field journal, as well as some of its early entries, the same narrative appears to run, as it were, in reverse: the expedition appears not to have raced to head off the epidemic, but rather to have methodically proceeded from village to village to finish as much of its programmed research activities as possible, with little regard for urgent vaccinations. The main evidence for this is that the itinerary the expedition followed was almost exactly that which Neel had planned before the arrival of the epidemic. I would argue, in short, that there is more to discuss in the historical record than what Lindee presents. A closer and more thorough reading demonstrates that the idea of the Neel expedition as a humanitarian endeavor (or at most a humanitarian endeavor with scientific overtones) is a mischaracterization that elides important issues and forecloses deeper investigation. The entries that would contradict Dr. Lindee’s position that this was a humanitarian rescue mission are either not mentioned or are inadequately contextualized so that their implications for her interpretation are obscured.

There are, for instance, numerous references in Neel’s journal that show his ambivalent attitude to the vaccinations. For the journal entry for February 21, Lindee quotes Neel as saying that he "[h]ate[s]" to have to do vaccinations first upon his arrival at a village, but does not comment on this. Lindee fails to describe the context of this statement. Neel made it upon arriving at Patanowateri, the very place that he had early considered not vaccinating at all in order to allow time to finish the specimen collecting he had programmed (Stevens and Turner 2001: COR80,5 Feb.). The reason that he changed his mind was that he had decided, against what he described as the promptings of his ownconscience, to bring with him as guides two men whom he knew had been exposed to the measles and had thus become carriers who might have infected the whole village. (Stevens and Turner 2001: Doc 1:103, 19 Feb; Doc 1: 105-6, 20 Feb.; Doc 1: 107, 21 Feb.) That Neel vaccinated first at this village thus cannot be understood as evidence that he placed a higher priority on humanitarian medical concerns than research. On the contrary, it was his higher priority on completing his planned research that led himto bring with him the exposed guides, despite his humanitarian qualms of conscience in the first place. Lindee also fails to point out that on this and other occasions Neel does more than just express his frustration with the vaccinations. Rather, he makes plans that put them at the end of his work in the villages, and follows a schedule that (as Lindee’s chronology demonstrates) is quite frenetic and gives inadequate time for the needed medical support for the vulnerable populations that have just been vaccinated. More often than not, Neel sticks to his research schedule, always driving towards collecting his target number of 1,000 blood samples, and only giving up on certain less important types of specimens and physical examinations (such as head measurements) towards the end of the research trip, when his team is immersed in the outbreak.

My point is that the historical record shows that there is more going on here than just a humanitarian gesture, and that Neel’s planning for the expedition, starting months before actually reaching the field and carrying on consistently through the height of the epidemic, may have had more to do with fulfilling his research schedule than with preventing a measles outbreak. His letters to missionaries in 1967 do mention the possibility of bringing in measles vaccine, but they are couched in an attempt by Neel to enlist missionary aid for guides and the use of their stations for research purposes. The offer of medicine is a reciprocal gesture to obtain the missionaries’ assistance in Neel’s project. Neel’s primary motivation for vaccinating the Yanomami was to forward his research agenda, and when that agenda was in danger he frequently pushed back vaccinations and rarely seems to have provided adequate care for those vaccinated.

Dr. Lindee recently did an interview for the University of Pennsylvania’s Pennsylvania Gazette on her perspective on the controversy. In it she does not cite many specifics, but it is obvious that her assertions in it draw upon her previous work and point if view. In particular, she reiterates her idea that Neel was basically a humanitarian champion rushing into the field to head off the epidemic: "As far as I can tell, [Neel was vaccinating people] strictly as a humanitarian measure" (Pennsylvania Gazette 2001:xx). Later she states that "I think his motives are crystal clear" (ibid). The clarity in this case is in the eye of the beholder; a more careful reading of the papers on which Lindee bases her assertions shows, very much to the contrary, that Neel’s motives for the vaccinations were complex from the start, a mixture of research and humanitarian purposes. One of the more curious and unexplained aspects of Lindee’s interpretation of Neel’s activities in the expedition that runs through all of her writings is the assumption, which she seems to share with other defenders of Neel, that humanitarian motives preclude scientific motives and vice versa. She therefore appears to regard the allegation that Neel was interested in using the vaccinations for research purposes as tantamount to the charge that humanitarian medical motives played no part in his planning. It therefore seems important to her to make her case for Neel as a humanitarian, to deny that Neel considered vaccinations as useful tools of research--an interpretation which cannot be sustained in the face of the evidence of the papers, in which Neel speaks at different points of both types of motive.

This blind spot also leads Lindee to miss another vital point about the changing contextual meaning of the vaccinations. Before the arrival of the real epidemic, the vaccinations were important to Neel as a way of "modeling" the effect of a wild virus. The titers, or antibody levels, produced by the Edmonston B vaccine he used were known to be virtually indistinguishable from those produced by the real thing. Once the real epidemic did arrive, however, the vaccinations became redundant for this research purpose. In the context of the epidemic, they therefore really were reduced to the status of a purely humanitarian gesture "of altruism and conscience", as Neel put it. That they did assume this meaning for Neel, however, was the result of a process of elimination that neutralized the reason for which they were initially included in the expedition’s program. This in turn may go far to explain why Neel came to regard them as such an imposition. The same contextual factor that had stripped them of their presumed research value had rendered them far more urgently needed for their humanitarian medical function: the epidemic itself. This made the vaccinations at once more burdensome (given the terrible pressures of the epidemic) and more unavoidable, on basic humanitarian grounds. The resulting swirl of motivations and frustrations around the vaccinations thus became anything but "crystal clear".

On another point, Lindee criticizes Neel for his (and "our) "fantasy of a pure, primitive or isolated population" but in none of her writings does she explore the implications of this statement, especially given that Neel’s primary motivation for the expedition was to contact pristine populations and study the effects of disease and other natural stressors on genetic variation and natural selection. Again, however, as in all of her other accounts, she fails to mention the careful planning behind Neel’s gathering of specimens or the importance of studying the effects of disease, for which vaccinations served as a research tool. She also misses the implications of the fact that in his journals the epidemic gets little mention for at least the first few weeks of his expedition, or that when it is discussed it is generally as a distraction or headache, yet another thing going wrong that will disrupt the harvesting of samples and examinations. The link between Neel’s ambivalence and frustration and the expedition’s vaccination procedures remains unexplored in Lindee’s formulation, as does the question of why Neel waited almost a month before concocting a plan to fight the outbreak. Her own narrative and argument is, the end, quite selective, and perhaps more biased than presentation would lead the reader to believe.

Finally, we come to the controversial question of Neel’s eugenic beliefs: "controversial" because despite the abundant evidence of Neel’s own writings on this point, Lindee, in common with a number of Neel’s defenders, has done her best to belittle or deny the embarrassing fact that Neel was a eugenicist, in a sense directly relevant to his work on the Yanomami and the controversy that has grown up around it. Despite many categorical denials from Neel supporters and various institutions that he held "eugenic beliefs," the evidence shows that he did, and that they played a fundamental role in his ideas about "primitive society" and human evolution. This is undeniable and explicit in Neel’s own writings. One should clearly distinguish between eugenics as an ideology of social and political movements in the U.S. and some European countries that advocated programs of compulsory abortion, selective immigration, etc., for those held to be of inferior genetic endowment, and theoretical ideas about the role of eugenic tendencies as positive selective factors in primitive society and evolution. There is no question that Neel played a progressive and influential role in opposing eugenicist ideas and causes in the first sense. There is, on the other hand, equally little question that eugenic and genetic reductionist ideas in the second sense dominated Neel’s thinking about the evolution of human society and the nature of contemporary primitive peoples like the Yanomami. He is quite explicit about this in his writings on the eugenic advantages of Yanomami social organization, which in his view provided optimal conditions for males with superior genetic endowment to rise to leadership and thereby to attain superior rates of reproductive success [Neel 1980: 277-94; 1994:301-316 (see especially 301-304)].

Against the overwhelming evidence of Neel’s own writings on the subject, with which she is surely familiar, it is difficult to understand Lindee’s dismissive remarks about Neel’s eugenic ideas being merely a matterof "semantics" (Lindee 2000a; the same expression, possibly derived from Lindee, is used by Geertz 2001), or her indirect way of dealing with suggestions that Neel held eugenic ideas in the second sense by denying that he was a eugenicist in the first sense, or conceding that, to the extent that he did hold eugenic beliefs, they were concerned with dealing with certain genetically inherited diseases in contemporary mass societies, thus avoiding the question of his eugenic ideas about the nature of primitive human social organization (as in her spoken remarks in the Forum devoted to the controversy at the AAA Meetings in Nov. 2000, not included in her published text of her talk: Lindee 2001b).

In sum, the implication of what Lindee has said on the subject is that Neel held no eugenic ideas relevant to the controversy over his work on the Yanomami. This is both mistaken and misleading. Eugenic ideas, coupled with a strong form of genetic reductionism, played a dominant role in Neel’s views of Yanomami social organization. Furthermore, they have had an ongoing impact on the study of the Yanomami and human behavior, most obviously in the work of Dr. Napoleon Chagnon. These ideas have had continuing repercussions in Chagnon’s theoretical claims about the superior reproductive success of "killers" (Chagnon 1988), and have had a great impact on how the Yanomami are perceived and discussed both in the popular press and academic discourse. Given this impact, a more thorough discussion of Neel’s ideas is as necessary as a discussion of this activities in Yanomamiland to determine the effects of his work on the Yanomami.

As Turner has pointed out, Neel explicitly identifies himself as holding "eugenic" ideas about the selective advantages of the structure of primitive society, which he imagined to be built around the institution of headmanship on the Yanomami model (Turner 200, 2001). Neel conceived headmanship 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, although Neel was careful to qualify this by suggesting that this tendency was normally offset by other entropic tendencies. As he forthrightly declares, "THE BREEDING STRUCTURE OF PRIMITIVE POPULATIONS HAD STRONG EUGENIC IMPLICATIONS..."(Neel 1980:287). Neel sums up his argument by asserting that "THE POTENTIAL THIS POPULATION STRUCTURE OFFERS FOR POSITIVE SELECTION FOR THE IIA [Index of Innate Ability] SEEMS INCONTROVERTIBLE..."(Neel 1980:285).

As Turner has argued, Neel’s eugenic convictions were integrally related to his fundamental conviction that the determinants of social order are (at least in the natural human state represented by hunter-forager populations) biological rather than social or cultural. This reductionist belief was for Neel an article of faith, an ideological conviction impervious to the absence of scientific evidence for it (Turner 2001). Neel’s reductionist faith, in turn, according to Turner, was grounded in his

"...ideological conviction that ‘science’, conceived as bio-genetic understanding of individuals, breeding populations, and species, conceived in abstraction from social, cultural and historical factors, is the sufficient and proper basis of understanding the essential properties of human nature and human society. All this is not just an inconsequential matter of "semantics". It is rather the paradigmatic form of the ideology of scientism that underlies contemporary Neo-Darwinist thinking, of which sociobiology is only one expression. As the faith that animates the most vociferous of the partisans of Neel and Chagnon in the current controversy, it deserves to be recognized for what it is by anyone who wishes to understand what all the fuss has been about" (Turner 2001).

Thus, by dismissing rather than engaging the uncomfortable implications of Neel’s theoretical and research frameworks, Lindee provides a very constrained portrait of Neel as scientist and researcher, and thus a constrained portrait of the roots and dimensions of the larger controversy.

Despite her assertion that "I have no particular stake in Neel’s reputation", and that "[i]f I had any evidence that he had behaved in an inhumane or irresponsible manner in Venezuela I would not hesitate to say so" (Lindee 2000), Lindee’s declarations of her objective and critical attitude to Neel lead to no concrete criticisms, and serve only to give added credibility to her defenses of Neel against criticisms by others, all of which she rebuts while making none of her own. The objective result is a one-sided defense of Neel. She carries her critical readings of the papers only far enough to refute Tierney, but seems indifferent to their implications for what might actually have happened to the Yanomami as a result of the expedition’s actions. Her selective readings of Neel’s journal and papers systematically de-emphasize the importance of research motives in Neel’s planning and leadership of the expedition, and essentially transform it into a humanitarian mission to stop the epidemic, which it was not. Lindee consistently resists acknowledging that the humanitarian aspects of Neel’s expedition (above all, the vaccinations) might also have had scientific motives, or that the two might have coexisted so that basic medical needs were served, although belatedly, while research took top priority. Neel emerges from her account as an essentially one-dimensional humanitarian idealist, a subtly heroic figure, rather than the conflicted, calculating scientist more concerned with carrying out his research than delivering vaccinations and medical care to the Yanomami, a researcher bedeviled by humanitarian commitments that he cannot bring himself to abandon. This is what emerges from a fuller and more balanced reading of the papers. These complicated issues can only be understood through a more carefully contextualized and balanced examination of the available evidence than Lindee has given us--one guided by the need not only to identify Tierney’s mistakes, but to find out just what did happen to the Yanomami, and why.


Geertz, Clifford

2001 Life among the anthros. New York Review of Books . XLVIII:3 (18-22)

Hume, Douglas

2000 " Darkness in El Dorado: Information and Links." Website located at http://www.anth.uconn.Edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness_in_el_dorado. Access date: 7/26/01

Lindee, M. Susan

1994 Suffering Made Real : American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2001a http://www.tamu.edu/anthropology/Lindee.html .. Letter from Lindee responding to Darkness in El Dorado, dated 21 September 2000. Access date: 6/20/01.

2001b "Neel’s Field Notes in 1968." Paper presented at the Annual General Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, November 2000. Paper archived at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/hss/faculty/neel.htm . Access date: 7/24/01.

Lobo et al

2001 "Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado."

Neel, James V.

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

Pennsylvania Gazette

2001 "A Tangled Web, In More Ways Than One." Pennsylvania Gazette January/February 2001. Interview with Dr. Susan Lindee, name of interviewer not given. Accessed at http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0101/0101gaz9.html . Access date: 7/26/01.

Stevens, John H. and Terence Turner

2001 "Annotated Index of Selected Documents and Correspondence from the Collection of James V. Neel's Papers in the Archive of the American Philosophical Society." Paper available at http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm . Access date: 7/25/01.

Tierney, Patrick

2000 Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W.W. Norton.

Turner, Terence

2000 Eugenic ideas in James Neel’s conception of "primitive society". Memo posted on Hume web site {HYPERLINK <http://www.anth.uconn.Edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm>} and web site of Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History, University of Michigan, lecture series "Science, Ethics, Power: Controversy over the production of knowledge and indigenous peoples" {HYPERLINK:<http://www.umich.edu/%7Elinet/Crossing Borders/scienceethicspower.html>}

2001a Rejoinder to Clifford Geertz. New York Review of Books XLVIII:7.69

2001b The Yanomami and the ethics of anthropological practice. At sites:

{HYPERLINK: <www.umich.edu/˜urel/darkneupd.html>; {HYPERLINK <http://www.anth.uconn. Edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm>}.