Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Genetic Epidemiology Group, Human Genetics Division, School of Medicine, University of Southampton, October 13, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://cedar.genetics.soton.ac.uk/public_html/neelstat.html

Better to Light a Candle Than Curse the Darkness

  1. Disclaimer
  2. Short statement
  3. Long statement
  4. What's new
  1. Disclaimer October 13, 2000

    The short and long versions below were prepared at the request of the Board of Directors of IGES. None of this material has been reviewed by the Board.

  2. Short statement

    During the past few weeks there has been sensationalized publicity in the headlines and over the Internet of allegations against James V. Neel, one of the most eminent human geneticists of his generation, the first president of this society, and the exemplar we commemorate with the J.V. Neel Prize. One headline was "US SCIENTIST BROUGHT DEATH TO THE AMAZON". Geneticist accused of letting thousands die in rainforest to test 'fascistic' theory of innate leadership" (Guardian Weekly, Oct 4). Allegations, particularly those that attribute criminal and insane actions to distinguished scholars in their field, require a fair and proper peer review, even when disseminated by journalists who had no access to the book and by anthropologists unable to judge it. A thorough review at present is impossible, because these accusations come from a book by the freelance journalist Patrick Tierney, to be published in November. As soon as we can obtain a copy of the book, we will review in a traditionally dispassionate manner the actual allegations and the supporting evidence the author brings forward. Meanwhile there is preliminary testimony in an article from Tierney in The New Yorker. We have asked Newton Morton to analyse the charges. His report is on the Internet (http://.cedar.genetics.soton.ac.uk/public_html/) where additional material can be found. On the available evidence Tierney's four sensational claims are unequivocally false. The Board wishes to publicize both this conclusion and our intent to continue the review process through its Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues Committee (ELSI), if the book warrants further consideration.

  3. Long statement

During recent weeks there have been several articles and voluminous e-mail about alleged misconduct of genetic epidemiologists headed by James Neel (1). The Guardian Weekly carried the most sensational headline, "U.S. scientist brought death to the Amazon" (2). The authors of these articles were reporting hearsay evidence about a book scheduled to be published in mid-November, which they had not seen (3). Neel, who died this year, was one of the most eminent human geneticists of his generation, an early President of the American Society of Human Genetics, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and the first President of the International Society of Genetic Epidemiology, which has established the J.V. Neel Prize in his honour. At the request of the Board of Directors of that society, Newton Morton reviewed the allegations as far as they can be ascertained before the book is published. This statement was revised by the Board, accepted unanimously as an accurate and fair summary of the minimal information presently available, and approved by the membership at the annual meeting on 26 October.

Denied access to the book, several pertinent publications remain. The author, Patrick Tierney, has one publication (4), in which he explains that he set out for the Andes as an undergraduate in 1983. By 1989 he had abandoned an academic career and was in the Amazon reporting on the Yanomami as a freelance journalist. He surfaced first in an article by Leslie Sponsel (5) who cites as "forthcoming" a book by Tierney entitled Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rainforest". The one reference to Neel (on the penultimate page of that article) questions whether medical research was of immediate benefit to its subjects (few among us make that claim). There is no allegation against Neel, and Tierney is not cited among the 4 references to that query. If Sponsel is to be believed, Tierney had found no reason to besmirch Neel after nine years of journalistic research. The next year completely changed his perception of good and evil in a way that rivals the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. The realization that scientists buy more book than goldminers cannot be discounted, nor the misapprehension that there would be no evidence to defend Neel after his death.

Although the book is not yet available, and quotations in the press from Sponsel and another anthropologist have no evidential value except to show reticence about the earlier version, Tierney's article is a preview of the most sensational allegations against Neel. To aid anyone who might want to read Tierney's article we address them in the order and where feasible in the words in which they are first presented.

Claim 1 Between 1965 and 1972, he received more than two million dollars from the Atomic Energy Commission to compare the cellular mutation rates of the Japanese survivors with those of the Yanomami and other "primitive tribes" that had not been exposed to radiation. The immediate goal was to determine the effects of radiation on the genetic material of cells.

There is no evidence that radiation studies were conducted on the Yanomami or their in vitro cells by Neel's group, or that this was ever considered. At the start of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission the nonirradiated city of Kure was taken as a control for Hiroshima. It soon became evident that Kure differed in many ways and that immigration into Hiroshima provided better controls. Neel promptly discontinued the Kure studies. He was too good a scientist to replace them by Yanomami. It is true that spontaneous mutation rates were and are of basic and practical interest. Neel was fascinated by electrophoretic variants, the population structure they revealed, and the fact that they give indirect estimates of mutation rates. This was an innovative and useful approach to a difficult problem, posing no conceivable hazard to human subjects. For a quarter of a century the AEC was a conduit through which the U.S. government supported research on mutation and human population genetics. On p.89 of his book (6) Neel distinguishes between the Weapons Division of the AEC, which made some documented errors at testing sites, and the Division of Biology and Medicine, which was monitored by the National Academy of Sciences. In his words, no "improper pressures with regard to the content or analysis of the genetic studies" conducted on humans and other species at U.S. universities and institutes and in Japan have been identified, despite the many thousands of people who took part.

Claim 2 Neel was a self-professed eugenicist. On the contrary, Neel was a critic of eugenics from his graduate days. When the Eugenics Record Office was closed and its files offered to Neel, he refused them on the grounds that storage space in his institute was too valuable to waste on worthless records. His last publication as he was dying of cancer deplored the ill-conceived Law of the People's Republic of China on Maternal and Infant Health Care, contributing to the pressure from scientists in China and abroad that has failed to get its eugenic provisions modified or rescinded, but at least they are not enforced (7). In that paper he advocated that efforts to control population growth be noncoercive and without regard to real or fancied genetic differences among individuals and populations. Under the circumstances this was not Neel's best scientific paper, but it articulates his respect for the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm". Like Sewall Wright, his basic assumptions did not change with his interests. Of all the scientists who ever lived, Neel was the least likely to have entertained eugenic fantasies.

Perhaps we should charitably assume that as a non-scientist Tierney could not distinguish between eugenics and evolutionary theory. Neel was attracted to the proposition that whatever genetic qualities might predispose to being a headman, they would be favoured if, as is the case among the Yanomami (8), they acquired more wives than less successful individuals (6, 178-180, 302-303). The syllogism is impeccable, but there is no evidence on the magnitude of any effect. Neel admitted failure to devise a test of headmanship, without which heritability cannot be estimated (and would be unreliable if it could be estimated). To isolate genes for male leadership lies far beyond our capabilities now, and no scientist would have hoped to do that a generation ago. The hypothesis may violate some notions of political correctness, but speculation is perfectly ethical. No one familiar with Homer's Iliad, in which the war against Troy was started by abduction of one woman and almost abandoned in a dispute between headmen over possession of another, will argue that it is demonstrably wrong.

Claim 3 It cannot be determined with any accuracy how many died after receiving the vaccination for measles. The vaccine used by Neel was approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) was consulted on its administration, and the Venezuelan government gave approval. Millions of trials have demonstrated that the vaccine cannot induce measles. Two experts on measles vaccine have been so disturbed by Tierney's false allegations that they have rebutted them on Internet (9).

Claim 4 Implicit in Tierney's article is the accusation more fully developed elsewhere that Neel refused to provide medical aid so that he could observe an epidemic, with fatal consequences. The Archive for October 4 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/ summarises published allegations. "In an e-mail leaked to the Guardian last month, two anthropologists who have read proofs of the book say it shows that the leader of the measles expedition, James Neel, was a callous, manipulative figure, who coldly observed without intervening as hundreds of Indians fell victim to a disease that he either started deliberately, or at best, let rage unchecked. One of the anthropologists who has seen the book, Terry Turner of Cornell University, says that Dr. Neel deliberately used an unsafe measles vaccine on the Yanomami, without consulting medical experts or the Venezuelan government, held his team back from giving medical help to the sick and dying, and sought to use the tragedy to back up his "fascistic" theories of the survival of the fittest humans". The idea of using deaths in a measles epidemic to count wives would not occur even to Dr. Mengele, and reflects as much on the accusers' wit as on their taste. This outrageous claim is refuted in detail by a statement from the University of Michigan, based in part on testimony from a distinguished paediatrician who went on several expeditions (10). Neel's research logs, correspondence, and other relevant documentation are archived at the University of Michigan, and many photocopies have been deposited in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Susan Lindee is writing a biography.

Knowing from previous fieldwork that various Yanomami groups had not been exposed to measles and that an epidemic had begun in 1968, just prior to his departure for the field, Neel quickly obtained 2000 doses of measles vaccine to be administered by his group and resident missionaries. A similar Amerindian group had a death rate of 28.6% in untreated patients and 9.6% in vaccinated patients, many of whom were incubating the virus before the vaccine could be effective. In the outbreak witnessed by Neel the death rate was 8.8 per cent, showing clearly that proper medical care was provided. As far as we can determine, Tierney never tried to access this material and did not read or did not understand Neel's publications. He did not contact any of Neel's coworkers, who are familiar with the time Neel devoted to medical practise in the Amazon as in Michigan, conforming to his almost religious commitment to the Hippocratic Oath and his responsibilities as a physician.

Not only is there unequivocal evidence that Neel was a conscientious and energetic physician, but he had no motive to behave differently in the Amazon. Neel worked among the Yanomami because he believed them to be representative of human society during most of its history. As a scientist he always stressed this as an unprovable opinion. He did not consider them fiercer than the Homeric Greeks who sacked Troy. In one passage he compared their ritualised warfare favourably with recent events in what was once Yugoslavia. His studies depended on the Yanomami being numerous, healthy, at peace with each other, and friendly with his team. The conduct attributed to him by Tierney and his two thoughtless supporters would have destroyed these conditions and been both criminal and insane. Turner has retracted his accusation of genocide (9). It remains to be seen whether the book, if it is published, reflects that retraction.

In summary, the available evidence refutes unambiguously all of the accusations against Neel in the only publication Tierney has provided. The second, and apparently much altered version of his book has been cunningly timed to appear after the relevant professional societies have met, when scientific curiosity has been whetted without being satisfied. The International Society of Genetic Epidemiology takes seriously allegations of impropriety by any genetic epidemiologist. J.V. Neel was admired by almost all who knew him and envied by a few. Accusations against him have taken the form of sensationalised public discussion in the headlines and over the Internet. We are not used to anthropologists who dine more on each other than on their field notes (9,11). As soon as we can obtain a copy of the book, we will review the allegations and documentation provided by an author who so far has been singularly cavalier with the truth.


  1. Mann CC (2000) Misconduct alleged in Yanomano studies. Science 289:2251,2253, 29 September.
  2. Brown P (2000), subtitled Geneticist accused of letting thousands die in rainforest to test 'fascistic' theory of innate leadership. Guardian Weekly, Sept 28 - Oct 4, p.3.
  3. Tierney P (2000). Darkness in El Dorado. How scientists and journalists devastated the Amazon. W.W. Norton, New York, (in press).
  4. Tierney P (2000). The fierce anthropologist. The New Yorker Oct 9, pp. 50-61.
  5. Sponsel L (1998). Yanomami: an area of conflict and aggression in the Amazon. Aggressive Behavior 24:97-122.
  6. Neel JV (1994). Physician to the Gene Pool. Genetic Lessons and Other Stories. John Wiley and Sons, New York.
  7. Neel JV (2000). Some ethical issues at the population level raised by "soft" eugenics, euphenics, and isogenics. Hum. Hered. 50:14-21.
  8. Biocca E (1996). Yanoama: the story of Helena Valero, a girl kidnapped by Amazonian Indians. Kodansha America, New York.
  9. www.nytimes.com/2000/10/08/weekinreview/08ZALE.html
  10. http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html
  11. Information on Darkness in El Dorado. http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness.htm
  1. What's new

13 October

  1. The Tierney book cited by Sponsel in 1998 as "forthcoming" was assigned ISBN: 067083372X in 1995. Our University Library can find no evidence that it was ever published. Which of his few "publications" were published?
  2. Jack Schull writes that the darkness book has been recommended for the National Book Award in non-fiction and asks me to guess why and by whom. Wrong category.
  3. The website in ref. 11 above continues to be useful. The ideological hatred between observational anthropology and advocacy is a revelation. The first group tries to determine how a society functions, the second knows that a society can't function because it has been destroyed by colonialism. It certainly must make life easier for a graduate student to know his politically correct conclusion before he makes any observations, but I had no idea that such work could be published. Geneticists lead a very sheltered existence.
  4. The American Anthropological Society (AAA) has scheduled its Tierney forum on 16 November. By dubious coincidence this is the day that darkness is scheduled to be published, guaranteeing that no participant will have read the book, but some will buy it.
  5. The American Society of Human Genetics has issued a correct but frigid press statement. In extenuation, it was written when all evidence was hearsay, before Tierney exposed his jugular in The New Yorker. Perhaps no more can be expected from a postmature society.

16 October

  1. Two relevant documents have been received and can be accessed by the above hypertext.

17 October 2000

The nine days' wonder has ended, and widespread defence of Neel is conclusive but beginning to be repetitive. Only the lunatic fringe of social anthropology believes any of the four allegations against him, since Tierney know too little genetics to be a convincing liar to scientists. I therefore close this website with the correspondence that began it, stimulated by the most irresponsible of all editorials about a book not yet in print but already discredited by what the author has written in The New Yorker.

If the book warrants consideration, it must be judged by the same criteria that apply to that article. The charge is murder, not cultural relativism.

(1) Is there any evidence that Neel or one of his party behaved improperly in the Amazon or during earlier studies in Japan and the U.S.; (2) is there a rational motive for the actions attributed to Neel; (3) do his publications, correspondence, conversations, and eye witness accounts by knowledgeable scientists lend support to the allegations; (4) could the measles vaccine he employed have been virulent, contrary to all testimony by experts; (5) do Tierney's unsupported allegations and contradictions attributed to him about roles of goldminers and scientists violate permissive standard of muckrake journalism? On the hearsay evidence and misrepresentations available, scientists should place no more credence in his allegations than in a report of extraterrestrials in Uzbekistan, which at least has the merit of not libeling the dead.

Newton E. Morton

Following are three correspondences between me and the Guardian

  1. To Editor
  2. Brown's reply
  3. Dear Mr. Brown

Newton E. Morton, nem@soton.ac.uk.

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