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Tangled Web, In More Ways Than One
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.
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 Ba dinosaur vaccine with symptoms
similar to measles itselfsupposedly to test Neels 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 books publication by W.W. Norton in November.
before the excerpt and book came out, sensational rumors had been churning
on the Web, says Lindee. The first salvo was an e-mailaddresssed to
the president and president-elect of the American Anthropological Association
(AAA) but swiftly posted on the Webfrom Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel,
anthropology professors at Cornell and the University of Hawaii, respectively.
The e-mail laid out Tierneys accusations and warned of an impending
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,
a former journalist herself, was a natural source for many of these
stories. She had studied Neels 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 Neels papers, housed at the American Philosophical Society
in Philadelphia, for another project.
read through Neels 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 [Neels] 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.
How did you first get involved in this?
Lindee: I heard about Tierneys book in July. Last summer a colleague
at the University of Pittsburgh [where Tierney is a visiting scholar]
called and said, You wont 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 personPatrick Tierney, as
things turned outdidnt 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 disciplinesfrom 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.
Is that the one with the headline Scientist killed Amazon Indians to
test race theory?
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
thats what I did. I got scared, and I said to myself, Could he have
possibly done anything so horrible?
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.
wouldnt want to portray Neel as one of the great humanitarians of all
time. He wasnt Dr. Evil, but he was a person about whom it is possible
to have reservationsabout 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 dont 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 notesand I remain confident that charges that he intentionally
did anything of the sort, or even that the vaccine started a measles epidemic,
claims that Neel] shouldnt 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.
what I didnt want to do was to send out an e-mail that said theres no
problem with any of this stuffbecause, 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 Im sympathetic with
the general critique.
Its been suggested that the book was a deliberate hoax.
I dont 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? Thats
the important thing to keep in mind: It didnt 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 hes right about the Yanomami, and he has adopted
what I consider to be a very dangerous positionthat the facts dont matter.
Say a bit more about the panel. The story in The Chronicle of Higher
Education talks about the 800-seat auditorium being packed.
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.
my presentation, I selected a few points of important disagreement between
Tierneys text and footnotes and James Neels 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/
closed with a statement thatlike anthropologistshistorians and even
journalists also have ethical standardsand that these standards too can
be violated in ways that damage vulnerable populations. Because if you
tell a story that says vaccines killed people, its a dangerous story
in terms of the needs of public-health programs around the globe.
What was Neel trying to do out there?
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
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. Thats why he cared about measles. It was a selecting agent. It
could kill people.
So why was he vaccinating people?
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 outbreaksat 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 hadnt 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.
Is it pretty well established that the vaccinehowever severe its effectscouldnt
have caused a transmissible case of measles?
All the immunologists say that couldnt possibly happen. I dont 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 dont need to have some remarkable, unheard-of
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 wasnt. He was looking at 20th-century Yanomami embedded
in this time and this place. We cant look back at human evolution, and
I also dont think its fair to expect any people to bear the burden of
our fantasies about the innocent place.
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