Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Pennsylvania Gazette, January/February, 2001
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0101/0101gaz9.html

A Tangled Web, In More Ways Than One

This past fall, Dr. M. Susan Lindee, associate professor of the history and sociology of science, found herself in the middle of one of the biggest controversies to rock the scholarly and scientific world in recent memory. At issue was a series of charges in a new book by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which chronicled the damage done to the Yanomami, a rain-forest tribe, by those who had studied them over the years. Though Tierney casts blame widely, a major target is the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose 1968 book, Yanomam–: The Fierce People, is the best-selling ethnographic study ever written.

Tierney’s most controversial assertion was that Chagnon and the late Dr. James Neel, a geneticist at the University of Michigan working for the Atomic Energy Commission, may have caused a measles epidemic among the Yanomami in 1968 by vaccinating villagers with Edmonston B—a “dinosaur vaccine” with symptoms similar to measles itself—supposedly to test Neel’s unorthodox theories about disease resistance in isolated populations. That charge was the focus of an excerpt published in The New Yorker the month before the book’s publication by W.W. Norton in November.

Weeks before the excerpt and book came out, sensational rumors had been “churning on the Web,” says Lindee. The first salvo was an e-mail—addresssed to the president and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) but swiftly posted on the Web—from Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel, anthropology professors at Cornell and the University of Hawaii, respectively. The e-mail laid out Tierney’s accusations and warned of an “impending scandal … in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption … unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.” It sparked a slew of e-mail and Web sites devoted to the controversy, as well as numerous reports in the print and electronic media worldwide. (For one useful compendium, see (www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness.htm).)

Lindee, a former journalist herself, was a “natural source” for many of these stories. She had studied Neel’s work and interviewed him extensively for her book, Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima, published in 1994. During the summer she had been working with Neel’s papers, housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for another project.

She read through Neel’s contemporaneous field notes, correspondence and related documents, and on September 21 posted her findings on the Web. “The picture that emerges in these documents is at some variance” with that in the Turner-Sponsel e-mail, she wrote. “It is clear from his notes that the epidemic drastically disrupted [Neel’s] field research … A measles outbreak emphatically did not facilitate his research.” At the AAA meeting in November, Lindee also participated in a panel discussion with Tierney.

A few days after her return, she talked about the book, the fevered exchanges of charge and countercharge on the Internet, and what the controversy may mean for anthropology.

Gazette: How did you first get involved in this?

Susan Lindee: I heard about Tierney’s book in July. Last summer a colleague at the University of Pittsburgh [where Tierney is a visiting scholar] called and said, “You won’t believe these incredible allegations about Neel and the Yanomami in Venezuela.” I had never heard that there was any controversy over a measles vaccine or a measles epidemic, and I said, “Please have this person call me,” and the person—Patrick Tierney, as things turned out—didn’t ever call me. Around September 15 I got the first and famous Turner-Sponsel e-mail from about 15 people at once. It went into the Web, went out in all directions, and then came flying back at me from different disciplines—from historians, philosophers, people in England, from all over the world …That first e-mail was so explosive, and basically within less than a week [it] was on the front page of [the London newspaper] The Guardian.

Gazette: Is that the one with the headline “Scientist ‘killed Amazon Indians to test race theory’”?

Lindee: That was it. That story was that e-mail, which was supposed to go to a select group, members of the American Anthropological Association, and which instead went out into the world and began to interact with a whole bunch of different people, to have an impact on press coverage, on scientists going ballistic, on me rushing out to the archives. Because that’s what I did. I got scared, and I said to myself, “Could he have possibly done anything so horrible?”

Gazette: Your e-mail gives a somewhat less heated defense of Neel than some of the other things on the Web and elsewhere. It was very straightforward in tone: “Here are the facts.”

Lindee: You wouldn’t want to portray Neel as one of the great humanitarians of all time. He wasn’t Dr. Evil, but he was a person about whom it is possible to have reservations—about his decision to go and extract blood and urine and stool samples from the Yanomami [for example]. My goal in that e-mail was to say, “We don’t have to believe he was a deeply wonderful human being in order to believe that these charges are false.” And I was confident, having read his notes—and I remain confident —that charges that he intentionally did anything of the sort, or even that the vaccine started a measles epidemic, are wrong. [Tierney claims that Neel] shouldn’t have used a measles vaccine [Edmonston B] that would have these dramatic responses, but that was the measles vaccine widely used in the United States. It was the only measles vaccine made by the majority of American pharmaceutical companies in 1968. It was sanctioned by the World Health Organization and by the Centers for Disease Control, and it was, in fact, the vaccine that had been used in Venezuela until January of 1968. So the whole story about the evil vaccine, or the dinosaur vaccine, I knew was untrue. But what I didn’t want to do was to send out an e-mail that said there’s no problem with any of this stuff—because, in fact, the Yanomami have been exploited as technical resources and there are many groups and individuals who have treated them in ways that I would view as morally or politically problematic. This particular charge is wrong, but I’m sympathetic with the general critique.

Gazette: It’s been suggested that the book was a deliberate hoax.

Lindee: I don’t think that Tierney meant it as a hoax. I was on the panel that he was on at the AAA meeting in November, and until I met him I was a little perplexed about what his position or motives were. Why had he written a book that was so incendiary and so easily demolished? That’s the important thing to keep in mind: It didn’t take two weeks for me and about four other people to show that there was no evidentiary basis for the claims he made. I decided after meeting him and hearing him speak that he is convinced that he’s right about the Yanomami, and he has adopted what I consider to be a very dangerous position—that the facts don’t matter.

Gazette: Say a bit more about the panel. The story in The Chronicle of Higher Education talks about the 800-seat auditorium being packed.

Lindee: It was a remarkable event. There was certainly standing-room only; the fire marshals were back there turning people away. We were up on the panel, and facing us was a whole battery of cameras. There were about 20 journalists from basically all the major news outlets, and there were eight people on the panel and each of us had 10 minutes. For my presentation, I selected a few points of important disagreement between Tierney’s text and footnotes and James Neel’s field notes, and all I wanted to show was that the story Neel tells about the epidemic is dramatically different from the one Tierney tells. I had a much longer text, but here I exploited the Web. I put it on my Web site and the first overhead I had was the address of the Web site (ccat.sas.upenn.edu/hss/ faculty/fc_lindee.htm). I closed with a statement that—like anthropologists—historians and even journalists also have ethical standards—and that these standards too can be violated in ways that damage vulnerable populations. Because if you tell a story that says vaccines killed people, it’s a dangerous story in terms of the needs of public-health programs around the globe.

Gazette: What was Neel trying to do out there?

Lindee: He had been working for 15 years on radiation genetics, because he was put in charge of the genetics project of the study of the atomic-bomb survivors … One of the premises in population genetics at the time was that if you wanted to figure out what natural human-mutation rates were, you would need to find a population that was in this state of primitive purity and simplicity. In practice, he did a standard population-genetics study, which was to look at growth and development, neonatal mortality, reproduction statistics and disease pressure —what were the selecting agents. That’s why he cared about measles. It was a selecting agent. It could kill people.

Gazette: So why was he vaccinating people?

Lindee: As far as I can tell, strictly as a humanitarian measure. As he was planning his field trip for January 1968 he received several reports from missionaries about measles outbreaks—at first fairly far from the villages he would be studying, but moving closer. Basically he undertook the vaccine program because he heard there was an epidemic; he knew that the villages he would be visiting hadn’t experienced measles; and he knew that measles could have a devastating impact in populations such as this. We can question some things about it, but I think his motives are crystal clear: He was worried; he was going out in the field; and he knew it was coming.

Gazette: Is it pretty well established that the vaccine—however severe its effects—couldn’t have caused a transmissible case of measles?

Lindee: All the immunologists say that couldn’t possibly happen. I don’t know, biological things are weird. But we have no reason to believe that happened, because we know that 20 miles up the Orinoco, the mission was reporting people dying of measles. You don’t need to have some remarkable, unheard-of biological event. One thing this controversy has provoked me to think about is our fantasy of a pure, primitive or isolated population. Chagnon and Neel were acting on a dream that there was some place outside of time. Neel would look at the Yanomami, and he believed he was looking back in time at human evolution. Well, he wasn’t. He was looking at 20th-century Yanomami embedded in this time and this place. We can’t look back at human evolution, and I also don’t think it’s fair to expect any people to bear the burden of our fantasies about the “innocent place.”