Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New York Times, September 28, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.nytimes.com/2000/09/28/science/28ANTH.html

Book Seeks to Indict Anthropologists Who Studied Brazil Indians

By John Noble Wilford and Simon Romero

A new book about anthropologists who worked with isolated Indians in the Amazon Basin has set off a storm in the profession, reviving scholarly animosities, endangering personal reputations and, some parties say, threatening to undermine confidence in legitimate practices of anthropology.

In the book, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," Patrick Tierney, a journalist, presents evidence to show that in 1968 anthropologists, supported by the former Atomic Energy Commission, inoculated Yanomami Indians with a measles vaccine and suggests that the experiment possibly contributed to an epidemic of the disease.

"Hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people died in a population of little more than 20,000, Mr. Tierney said.

That is the most inflammatory of several cases described by Mr. Tierney as examples of careless and, perhaps, unethical behavior by anthropologists and filmmakers who visited and studied the isolated Yanomami Indians. Living to themselves in the Amazon Basin of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and having virtually no contact with outsiders until the 1950's, the Yanomami have become to social scientists models of what primitive Stone Age cultures must have been like.

Some anthropologists who have read the book or a summary urged the American Anthropological Association or some other scientific body to start an inquiry. Others familiar with some of the points insist that they are unfounded or exaggerated.

The project leader was Dr. James V. Neel, a specialist in human genetics at the University of Michigan and a member of the National Academy of Sciences who died in February.

Another principal target, Dr. Napoleon A. Chagnon, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who was involved in the measles project, denied the allegations, calling them part of a "long vendetta against me" by some of the critics. "No Indians that we gave the vaccine to died," he said in an interview.

As charges and countercharges raced across the Internet and telephone wires, anthropologists sprung to Dr. Chagnon and Dr. Neel's defense, saying the implications are not credible. Medical scientists said they doubted that the vaccine itself could have caused a widespread outbreak of measles or directly caused so many deaths, even among people with little resistance like the Yanomami. Those scientists said it was more likely that carriers of the disease had introduced it to the villages about the same time the vaccination program was under way.

Health workers fear suspicions of unethical practices, even if proved untrue, will raise more obstacles to vaccination programs.

Mr. Tierney's book is to be published on Nov. 16 by W. W. Norton and is scheduled to be excerpted in The New Yorker next week. Galley proofs have been available. A spokesman said Mr. Tierney was declining all interviews until publication. He wrote that he researched outsiders' work among the Yanomami for 10 years.

"We should not rush to judgment, especially since the book hasn't been published yet," the president of the anthropologists' group, Dr. Louise Lamphere, said in an interview. "In case violations did occur, we're going to have to find some way to deal with them. It's not like anthropologists are doctors or attorneys who can have their licenses revoked. It's much more complicated than that."

Dr. Barbara Johnston, head of the association's human rights committee, said she was organizing a discussion on the book on Nov. 16 at the association's annual meeting, in San Francisco. Mr. Tierney has agreed to participate. Dr. Chagnon said in a widely circulated e-mail message, "She is inviting me to a feeding frenzy in which I am the bait."

In the book, Mr. Tierney writes that Dr. Neel's vaccine project was a continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission's studies on the effects of radiation on people, which Dr. Neel had participated in since the end of World War II. The commission wanted thousands of Yanomami blood samples to determine genetic mutation rates in a population completely uncontaminated by radiation.

Dr. Neel had established an international reputation for discovering the genetic nature of thalassemia, a form of anemia that occurs among those of Greek or Italian descents, and demonstrating that sickle cell anemia is a protective adaptation against malaria. Both were major research insights.

But Dr. Neel also espoused controversial views. The book says he believed that there was a "leadership gene" and that a genetically isolated society like the Yanomami would be ideal to study, as presumably a result of dominant men's having more chances than lesser ones to reproduce and pass on their qualities.

Dr. David Glenn Smith, an anthropologist at the University of California at Davis, said: "I knew Jim Neel for nearly 30 years, and what people are saying about him sounds like a witch hunt. I can assure you he didn't think the Yanomami had a gene for `headmanship.' "

Mr. Tierney does not reach a conclusion in the book for the motive for the vaccine experiment. But in a long letter that traveled widely through e- mail and set off the uproar, two anthropologists, Dr. Terence Turner of Cornell University and Dr. Leslie E. Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, speculated that a likely motive — if the harshest contention is correct — might have been to support Dr. Neel's theories.

"It is possible," the two scientists wrote, that Dr. Neel "thought that genetically superior members" of those isolated groups "might prove to have differential levels of immunity and, thus, higher rates of survival to imported diseases."

Although Dr. Turner and Dr. Sponsel said there appeared to be no text or recorded speech by Dr. Neel to support their idea, they noted that the book raised questions about why the team had never explained their use of the vaccine, even after earlier evidence had emerged that linked the inoculations to the cause or spread of the epidemic.

Mr. Tierney also reported some evidence that he said showed that the research team might have abandoned some victims of the epidemic without treatment.

"If the allegations are proven true," Dr. Turner said in an interview, "it will mean crimes against humanity have been committed."

Mr. Tierney cited him and Dr. Sponsel as sources of "comments and encouragement" in preparing the book.

The book has other practices of anthropologists, including staging fights in making movies to support early characterizations of the Yanomami as unusually bellicose.

Dr. Chagnon said that was "totally incorrect."

Dr. Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist at Rutgers-Newark who wrote "Yanomami Warfare" (1995), said he thought that Mr. Tierney's book was "largely accurate in reporting the facts, but there are also opinions and interpretations, and that's where it gets much more debatable."

Mr. Tierney emphasized that the vaccine was a strong live-virus strain, Edmonston B. Medical scientists said the World Health Organization issued advisories in 1965 that it should be used with caution, accompanied by doses of gamma globulin. An improved vaccine was available by 1968, but it was not used.

A former director of the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Dr. William H. Foege, said: "Edmonston B was one of the first measles vaccines, and was strong and sometimes caused severe reactions that were like a light case of measles. But I would be very surprised if the vaccine caused a death, particularly death in numbers."

Dr. Susan Lindee, a science historian at the University of Pennsylvania who is researching a biography of Dr. Neel, recently examined some of his 1968 field notes and other papers and said she found evidence that contradicted some of Mr. Tierney's views. Dr. Neel, Dr. Lindee said, had Venezuela's approval for the vaccine program. When an epidemic was declared, the notes show, Dr. Neel provided medicine to the villages and their neighbors. "There is no evidence," she added, "that he attempted to discourage anyone from providing treatment."