Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Letter from Jean Jackson

Hi folks,

I'm sending along a statement by a friend, a political scientist, Diane Paul. She is the author of Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (Humanities 1995). She gave me permission to forward it (I'm going to try to be more careful about that Eudora function from now on!). I'm all for investigative reporting, but if you're going to do it, do it right, and there seem to be some problems with Tierney's book.

Abrazos, Jean

Dear Jean,

I am trying to write this in-between classes, so it will have the defects of a rush job. But I know you want to contact the people to whom you forwarded the letter. So here are a few, brief comments that you are welcome to cite:

I am appalled by the letter. Of course if the claims were true, that would be even more appalling than the fact that apparently respected anthropologists have given their imprimatur to charges whose truth, at least in respect to James Neel, they have clearly made no effort to verify. Nowhere in the letter is there any acknowledgment that Tierney's claims need to be evaluated. The irresponsible rush to judgment is made even worse by the fact that Neel died last year and thus can not defend himself from the charges that he a "corrupt and depraved" researcher, who deliberately began a deadly epidemic in order to record the results.

I can not know that all of Tierney's charges are untrue. But I do know that at least some of them are on the face of it implausible, while some others are demonstrably false. To be concrete:

The charge that Neel held "extreme eugenic theories" - indeed, was a proponent of "fascistic eugenics" - is bizarre. I hardly know where to begin here. Let me just say that if we are considering human geneticists of his generation, he is on the (other) extreme of a continuum; for example, he consistently argued against directiveness in genetic counseling. Whether someone is a "eugenicist" depends on what one means by this very protean term. But at a minimum, one can say that Neal always considered himself and was considered by others to be a critic of eugenics, and that there were very good reasons for this. (See Daniel Kevles's in the Name of Eugenics).

The treatment of AEC funding is shockingly de-contextualized. In some subfields of biology, the AEC funded most researchers - including vehement critics of the AEC, such as H.J. Muller. (John Beatty has written extensively on AEC funding in biology; Richard Lewontin, who was also funded by the AEC, provides a useful more personalized history in the book edited by Chomsky and others titled [approximately] the Cold War and the Universities). The implication that anyone funded by the AEC must be up to something bad is ridiculous.

But then there are the outright misstatements of fact:

The letter-writers refer to Neal's "obdurate silence, until his death in February, as to why he carried out the vaccination program in the first place." In fact, Neal wrote about this at length in his autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool, published by Wiley in 1994 (and perhaps elsewhere). In the autobiography, the measles episode is linked to an explicitly *anti-racist* argument; i.e. Neel denies that Europeans can get morally off the hook by claiming that these populations would have anyway succumbed to contact diseases. How do Tierney et al. explain the inconsistency between Neal's supposed motives and the points he actually makes regarding the episode?

In what is perhaps the most inflammatory charge, the authors claim that "members of the research team refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit orders from Neel." That claim is contradicted by Neel's papers, which are housed at the American Philosophical Society (APS). It would seem that Tierney must not have consulted Neel's papers in researching his ostensibly "well-documented" book.

According to the letter-writers, "He [Neel] never informed the appropriate organs of the Venezuelan governmentthat his group was planning to carry out a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do." That is also untrue, as his papers at the APS document.

A small point: According to the authors, "there is no record that Neel sought any medical advice before applying the vaccine." Neal was a physician as well as Ph.D. geneticist - why should he have sought medical advice?

I need to stop here. Hopefully, this will suffice to show that there are at least reasons for skepticism. Unfortunately, by now many, many people have heard or read the charges, which will certainly continue to circulate in cyberspace. Even if Neel were to be "officially" vindicated, mud would doubtless stick. What a sickening way to do business!

All best, Diane