Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Oct. 25 2000 3:00 AM

Jungle Fever

Did two U.S. scientists start a genocidal epidemic in the Amazon, or was The New Yorker duped? 

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I started putting in calls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Conversations with various researchers, including eventually Dr. Mark Papania, chief of the U.S. measles eradication program, rapidly discredited every essential element of the Tierney disease scenarios.


For example, it turns out that researchers who test vaccines for safety have never been able to document, in hundreds of millions of uses, a single case of a live-virus measles vaccine leading to contagious transmission from one human to another—this despite their strenuous efforts to detect such a thing. If attenuated live virus does not jump from person to person, it cannot cause an epidemic. Nor can it be planned to cause an epidemic, as alleged in this case, if it never has caused one before.

Experts elsewhere have confirmed this—and have confirmed the safety of the Edmonston B vaccine under the conditions in which it was used. (Click here for a statement from the University of Michigan on this point and other errors in Tierney's book; here for statements by Dr. Samuel L. Katz, a co-developer of the Edmonston B vaccine, on studies of the vaccine's safety, including in tropical populations; and here for an account by Susan Lindee, an historian of science at the University of Pennsylvania, on what she found from reading Neel's field notes.) All told, the evidence against Tierney's genocide thesis is now so overwhelming that even Turner, its once-enthusiastic supporter, has backed off. He concedes that the medical expert he finally got around to consulting took Tierney's medical claims and "refuted them point by point."

You'd think the Tierney book, 10 years in the making, might mention the relevant and easily discoverable fact that, as the Michigan medical report puts it, "live attenuated vaccine has never been shown to be transmissible from a recipient to a subsequent contact." Somehow it omits it (even though this information is featured prominently in a paper Tierney cites five times!). The New Yorker piece also fails to mention it and instead says, "Today, scientists still do not know whether people who have been vaccinated with Edmonston B can transmit measles." This is literally true, but only because scientists use the word know very carefully. Scientists also do not know that The New Yorker is not riddled with a cult of pedophilic Satan worshipers or that the Pentagon is not in the control of extraterrestrials masquerading as generals. If you ask a good scientist about each of these allegations, she would be forced to answer, yes, it's possible. But she will consider it relevant and worth mentioning, as The New Yorker does not, that the failure to substantiate a hypothesis given millions of opportunities floats the hypothesis out toward the scientific neighborhood inhabited by ESP and UFOs.

Once I had seen Tierney's most attention-getting claim crumble, I started through the galleys of his book systematically, evaluating it against available sources with the help of various colleagues. Almost anywhere we scratched the surface, a massive tangle of fun-house falsity would erupt through.

We had to accept from the outset that scores of conversations reported in the book are with people scattered through the rain forest, virtually impossible to contact (even for The New Yorker's energetic fact-checkers). So Tierney's veracity would have to be judged on the basis of sources that could be reached. I had already run into one such source—Papania of the CDC, whom Tierney had interviewed for the book. Papania told me that he was troubled to find, in galleys he'd recently been sent, that Tierney had misquoted him. Tierney had him endorsing the idea that the vaccine was a plausible cause of the epidemic, which was not, in fact, his view.

It soon became evident that Tierney was no more faithful to written sources than to oral ones. To begin with, comparing Neel's autobiography with Tierney's use of it is an education in audacity. Whatever Tierney might have wished to convey by calling Neel a "conservative" and claiming that "Neel's politics were too extreme for Reagan's council on aging," Neel's book shows him to be a supporter of Al Gore ("superb," "the most hopeful recent sign"), a Reagan-Bush basher ("chilling," "myopic"), pro-nuclear-disarmament, and an enthusiastic environmentalist. Neel's conflict with the advisory council on aging, it turns out, came when he objected to the diversion of money from poor children into research on how to artificially extend the human life span—research that, Neel speculated, would wind up benefiting mainly the affluent.

And what of Tierney's claim that Neel was a "eugenicist" who believed as a "social gospel" that "democracy, with its free breeding for the masses and its sentimental supports for the weak" was a eugenic mistake? It turns out that Neel had been a fierce opponent of eugenics for 60 years, since his student days. To dramatize his opposition, he labeled his beliefs euphenics, emphasizing the medical and social importance of environmental interventions. As Neel put it, the "challenge of euphenics is to ensure that each individual maximizes his genetic potentialities" through the creation of environments in which each can flourish, and "to ameliorate the expression of all our varied genotypes"—ameliorate the expression of our genes, not the genes themselves. Neel lists, as examples of good social investments, prenatal care, medical care for children and adolescents, good and equal education for all children, and so on.

There is not a word on any of the pages Tierney cites about how "democracy … violates natural selection." Indeed, though worried about overpopulation, Neel argues that there is no scientific or moral basis for preventing anyone from being a parent, and he says that guaranteeing the equal right to reproduce would "preserve insofar as it's possible all of [our species'] poorly understood diversity." Neel even does an extended calculation to debunk the eugenicist fear that reproduction by those with genetic defects threatens the gene pool!

Neel does analyze, in the standard way population geneticists do, how unfavorable genetic mutations were "selected out" more rapidly before the invention of agriculture and subsequent creature comforts, and before the transition from polygamy to monogamy (which slows the form of natural selection known as "sexual selection"). Here, as elsewhere in the book, Tierney works feverishly to erase the simple distinction—basic to all scientific discussion—between describing something and endorsing it. In this case, it was a difficult erasure, since Neel, far from wanting to return humanity to a lost world where natural selection is more intense, had called this "unthinkable." (Incidentally, if you're wondering why Neel might have found a measles epidemic useful as a test of his, as Tierney claims, the answer is that Tierney never provides a coherent explanation.)

This pattern of falsification—of which I have mentioned only a small sampling—extends to Tierney's assault on Napoleon Chagnon. To begin with, Tierney—like some other Chagnon critics—caricatures Chagnon's view of human nature, as if Chagnon considered people innately violent, period. In reality, Chagnon, pondering the relative rate that "people, throughout history, have based their political relationships with other groups on predatory versus religious or altruistic strategies," concludes that "we have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy," depending on what our culture rewards.