Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New Scientist, This Week: This Week - Focus, Pg. 18, November 11, 2000
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When two tribes go to war

Philip Cohen

THIRTY-TWO years ago, two American researchers carried thousands of doses of measles vaccine through the Amazonian rainforest to study the remote Yanomami people. This much of the story everyone can agree on. But whether this scientific duo were medical heroes or imperialistic villains is the basis of a fierce row that is brewing in the scientific community - and threatens to destroy anthropology's good name.

In a book to be published in the US next week called "Darkness in El Dorado: How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon", author Patrick Tierney presents the case that anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the geneticist James Neel of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who died this year, helped place "one of the Amazon basin's oldest tribes on the cusp of extinction", as the publisher's blurb puts it. The most sensational of the allegations is that Neel's use of measles vaccine unleashed a lethal epidemic among the Yanomami people that killed up to one in five of those who became infected.

As rumours of the book's contents have leaked out, many have rushed to defend the accused. The debate is likely to get even more heated next week at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco, where the two sides will meet in a special forum.

The way the hostilities have broken out before the book has even been published might make an interesting study for future anthropologists of the information age. In early September, two reviewers of the book, anthropologists Terry Turner of Cornell University in New York and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, sent a confidential e-mail to Louise Lamphere and Don Brenneis, the president and president-elect respectively of the American Anthropological Association. It warned them of the book's allegations and the unwelcome publicity it would bring to their profession. "It was dynamite, it was a bomb and we knew it would cause a commotion," says Turner. Many of the allegations, they warned, would become public in October when an excerpt was scheduled for publication in "The New Yorker" magazine.

Two weeks after the reviewers sent their supposedly private e-mail, it was still zipping back and forth through cyberspace, and people with even remote connections to anthropology were getting copies forwarded to them. "I received four in one day from different corners of the world," says Susan Lindee, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Turner and Sponsel say they don't know who leaked their message.

As "New Scientist" went to press, crucial parts of the book appear to have been toned down in the version that will appear in the shops next week, compared with the proofs sent to reviewers.

Chagnon says: "Tierney puts the most negative twist on virtually everything I did to the point ofimplying motives I didn't have."

Chagnon and Neel have attracted publicity before, but often of a more positive kind. Chagnon began his study of the then obscure Yanomami people in 1964, when he was still a graduate student. In his 1968 book "Yanomamoe: The fierce people", he depicts a culture where violence, hostility and even killing help enhance social status, challenging widely held notions of the natural peacefulness of humans. The book led to films by Chagnon and others and sold more than a million copies, becoming a standard text for anthropology students.

In 1968, Chagnon teamed up with Neel, who was already an eminent geneticist and doctor. When Neel died in February this year, Francis Collins of the US National Human Genome Research Institute said he was a pioneer who had "birthed the field of human genetics". Among his other distinctions, Neel had been in charge of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which among other things studied how the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been affected by exposure to radiation. For him, the Yanomami were a perfect control population, whose isolation guaranteed they had never been exposed to anything but background radiation. In addition, he wanted to observe their immunological response to a vaccine.

The way in which the Yanomami's immune systems reacted to the weakened form of measles virus might also have given them valuable information about why measles proved so deadly to isolated peoples. But when Chagnon and Neel arrived in the Amazon, they reported finding a measles epidemic already gathering momentum, possibly originating from other outside contacts. Tierney argues that the extreme isolation of the Yanomami would have made this unlikely.

In the final version of the book, Tierney accuses Neel of recklessly selecting a vaccine that posed a higher risk of measles compared with other vaccines in order to test his theories that those higher up the social scale would be better at fighting disease. For his tests, Neel chose to use the Edmonston B measles vaccine, which contained a live, weakened form of the virus. Tierney argues that Edmonston B was a strangely dangerous choice, given that weaker strains of the vaccine were available and that most Yanomami had never been exposed to measles and were chronically sick and malnourished.

Neel's defenders say Tierney's claims are wrong. The University of Michigan, in an extensive statement, calls the book the "literary equivalent of a professional 'hit'". It claims that Tierney's book is the result of a long-standing professional vendetta by Chagnon's critics. They dismiss as absurd any notion that the researchers' activities created a climate of aggression in Yanomami society, since records of their violence date back to before Chagnon's birth.

And at least two of the scientists whom Tierney quotes as questioning Neel's choice of the vaccine came to Neel's defence when contacted by "New Scientist". Samuel Katz of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who helped develop the Edmonston B vaccine, says that it was approved and used on millions of children in the US and abroad until 1975, including some who suffered as much from malaria and malnutrition as the Yanomami. And these children weren't able to transmit measles.

"I might have made a different choice, but Neel's was also logical," says Yale University epidemiologist Francis Black, whom Tierney describes as reacting with disbelief when informed of Neel's use of Edmonston B. "It gave stronger adverse reactions, but was a better studied vaccine and was known to give immunity for ten years." Neither scientist recalled talking to Tierney, although both said they could have easily forgotten short telephone conversations.

Tierney hasn't yet responded to these volleys. His publicist says that an agreement with his publisher prevents him from commenting on the book before its publication. The review proofs had only limited circulation, so most of the criticism of the book has been centred on the content of Turner and Sponsel's leaked e-mail and the extracts published in "The New Yorker". Sponsel says the full scale of Tierney's charges isn't yet understood. "So far, 95 per cent of the fight has been over the vaccine," says Sponsel. "But 95 per cent of the book is about other things."

Both sides in the controversy agree that its implications extend beyond personal animosities. Critics of the book say it may make indigenous peoples suspicious of medical help and impede vaccination efforts around the world. Others say that if any of the allegations are true, then reparations should be paid to the Yanomami. Chagnon is considering legal action.

With the publication of the book and the lifting of the gag on Tierney, a fuller analysis can begin. Whether or not his allegations are confirmed, they may inflict permanent damage on anthropology. Alternatively, they might help the science of anthropology to emerge all the stronger, with stricter ethical standards in place. The future of an entire field of study will be affected.