Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: United Press International, November 13, 2000
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Analysis: National Academy of Sciences debunks book



The prestigious National Academy of Scientists has taken the highly unusual step of calling into question the accuracy of a book before it is even published.

In a statement released Thursday, academy President Bruce Alberts said his organization "believes that it is critical to correct several statements that are misleading or demonstrably false in the new book from W.W. Norton & Co., "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," by Patrick Tierney."

The controversy over this book has been swirling in academia since September, when its contents became known. In it Tierney savagely attacks the reputations of two famous scientists: James V. Neel, who passed away on Feb. 1 at age 80 in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Napoleon Chagnon, 63, an emeritus professor of anthropology living in Michigan. The statement deals mostly with the charges against Neel, an academy member generally acknowledged to be the father of modern human genetics. They have to do with Neel's work on the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan after World War II and his research among Amazonian Indians in the late 1960s.

The statement said: "Many of the book's misstatements and misattributions have been exhaustively addressed by other institutions, scholarly societies and individuals.The Academy feels compelled to refute those errors of fact and interpretation that specifically concern our own work."

Academy members were "stunned" when they saw the galley proofs of "Darkness in El Dorado," Susan Turner-Lowe, director of news operations, told United Press International. "They couldn't believe it. Jim Neel was a colleague they loved dearly," she said. Turner-Lowe remarked on the exceptional nature of the statement.

"Darkness in El Dorado" purports to describe an academy study showing that radiation caused the deaths of U.S. workers who produced and assembled atomic bomb components. "In fact, no such study has been done," the statement said.

Neel's mandate in Japan was to study the genetic damage done to victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings as manifested in their descendants. By quoting Neel out of context, Tierney gives the impression that the researchers used the victims as "guinea pigs" while withholding medical treatment.

The academy said it is important to note that the ABCC was prohibited from undertaking therapy by the regulations governing the occupation of Japan. Tierney quotes Neel to this effect but truncates Neel's sentence, omitting the words: "but any finding, whether on a child or on an adult, was not only explained carefully to the patient (or parents) with a recommendation to see his/her physician, but also the patient's personal physician received a detailed letter describing the findings."

Tierney also makes consistent errors in describing the ABCC and its relationship with the Atomic Energy Commission, the statement said, going so far as to call it the AEC's "genetic division." Instead, the ABCC was an independent, bi-national study run by the National Academy of Sciences with the government of Japan. In fact, the AEC later made an unsuccessful attempt to dismantle the program over the protests of Neel and Gen. Douglas Macarthur, supreme commander of the occupation forces.

"Darkness in El Dorado" implies that Neel, in his work at the ABCC, produced reports underplaying the harmful effects of radiation. Again Tierney cites Neel's autobiography as evidence, but the section in question deals with something else entirely.

"In a particularly egregious error," the National Academy of Sciences' statement says, "Tierney implies that the ABCC was involved with human radiation experimentation," using a specious flow chart as evidence. The ABCC did no human experiments, the academy said.

Tierney also accuses Neel of starting a measles epidemic among Indians in the Amazon Basin in 1968. He writes that Neel purposely administered an obsolete and dangerous vaccine, causing hundreds if not thousands of deaths, in order to test fascistic eugenic theories.

Refuting this scurrilous charge gives it unwarranted dignity. Neel was a physician of compassion and integrity. The vaccine was not dangerous. Neel and his team saved many lives. The epidemic did not benefit him but made his planned research more difficult. Neel's writings from young manhood show disdain for eugenics theories. As a biologist, he recognized that species with the most genetic diversity are the most hardy because they are less vulnerable to changing circumstances. This view is the opposite of eugenics, which seeks to "improve" species by breeding for sameness, not variation.