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? 

To read a reponse to this article from the editors of The New Yorker, click here

91000_91951_001024_badbook
Advertisement

Lately I've been engrossed in—and in some sense involved in—the most sensational scandal to emerge from academia in decades. The scandal erupted last month when two anthropologists, Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel, sent a searing letter to the president of the American Anthropological Association. The letter distilled a series of chilling "revelations" made by the journalist Patrick Tierney in his forthcoming book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. According to Turner and Sponsel, the scandal unearthed by Tierney, "in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption," is "unparalleled in the history of Anthropology." Turner and Sponsel listed a horrifying series of crimes—"beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)"—including genocide, allegedly committed by U.S. scientists against the Yanomamö, an indigenous people living in the Venezuelan and Brazilian rain forest.

Turner and Sponsel's letter spread like a virus over the Internet, quickly driving the controversy into the mainstream press. A story in Britain's Guardian—"Scientist 'killed Amazon indians to test race theory' "—was followed by accounts in Time and the New York Times, on NPR's All Things Considered, and so on. The accusations drew strength from two institutions that endorsed Tierney's credibility: TheNew Yorker, known for its obsessive fact-checking, published an adapted excerpt from the book early this month; and the fact that the book is scheduled for publication next month by W.W. Norton, which is highly respected by academics.

Pre-publication galleys of the book show why it inspired such trust. Tierney's argument is massively documented, based on hundreds of interviews, academic articles, and items uncovered under the Freedom of Information Act, not to mention his own visits among the Yanomamö. Through 10 years of dogged sleuthing, it would seem, Tierney dragged a conspiracy of military, medical, and anthropological wrongdoing into the light. Last week, when finalists for this year's National Book Awards were announced, Darkness in El Dorado was listed in the nonfiction category.

There is only one problem: The book should have been in the fiction category. When examined against its own cited sources, the book is demonstrably, sometimes hilariously, false on scores of points that are central to its most sensational allegations. After looking into those sources, I found myself seriously wondering whether Tierney had perpetrated a hoax on the publishing world. Of course, only he knows whether he consciously set out "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something that is false and often preposterous"—the dictionary definition of a hoax. But the book does seem systematically organized to do exactly that. And, to a frightening extent, it has succeeded.

The accusations are directed primarily against James Neel, a physician and a founder of modern medical genetics (now dead), and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps the world's most famous living social anthropologist. Tierney describes Neel as an unapologetic "eugenicist" who believed as a "social gospel" that "democracy, with its free breeding for the masses and its sentimental supports for the weak" is a eugenic mistake.

Tierney argues that, starting in the 1960s, Neel and his researchers were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct horrifying medical "experiments" on the Yanomamö. Far and away the most serious allegation is that the researchers killed hundreds or even thousands by knowingly releasing a contagious measles virus into the previously unexposed Yanomamö population. As Turner and Sponsel put it, "Tierney's well-documented account … strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all probability deliberately caused as an experiment designed to produce scientific support for Neel's eugenic theory." Chagnon—described by Tierney as a "disciple" of Neel's—was implicated in this crime and charged with inadvertently bringing other devastating diseases as well. What's more, Chagnon was said to have been the main cause of the violence he saw among the Yanomamö and more generally to have twisted his scholarly portrayal of them to bolster his Hobbesian theories of human nature.

I was an early recipient of this ethics complaint, in that small number of Internet nanoseconds when it was still considered confidential. As president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, of which Chagnon was a prominent member, I was obliged to investigate the allegations, just as the American Anthropological Association would be doing. Chagnon had been my departmental colleague since I moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara, a decade ago, and I consider him a friend. (Click for full disclosure.) But I'd never met Neel, and for all I knew, he really was a eugenics crackpot, exploiting the isolation of his field site in some warped way. And as for Chagnon—well, how much do we really know about the person in the next office?

Starting with the most serious charge—genocide—I looked up what Neel himself wrote about the measles epidemic. Tierney alleged that a measles vaccine Neel's team administered to the Yanomamö, Edmonston B, was a dangerous agent—and was known to be so at the time—and triggered the epidemic. In Neel's (a cover-up?), what Tierney finds suspicious—that a measles outbreak started around the time Neel first administered the vaccine—has a different explanation: After Neel learned about the incipient outbreak, he started vaccinating people, trying furiously to head off an epidemic.

To my nonspecialist ears, Tierney's theory sounded possible: Many vaccines, including measles vaccines (then and now), use attenuated live virus, which, when injected, gives the recipient an infection that is supposed to stimulate the immune system. So why couldn't a live virus have spread contagiously from Yanomamö to Yanomamö, launching a deadly epidemic?