Patrick Tierney Edmonston measles vaccines
Dr. Samuel L. Katz, Edmonston B vaccine and Ethics Scandal
over experiment on Isolated Indians
Anthropology Community Upset Over Ethics Scandal Isolated Indians were corrupted, writer says
David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor Thursday, November 16, 2000
The world of anthropology is in a furious clash over charges by a
journalist that the long-isolated Yanomami people of Venezuela were
victimized by a noted University of California anthropologist and an equally
famed medical geneticist.
In what has been called an unparalleled violation of scientific ethics, the
anthropologist is accused of giving the Indians weapons to provoke them into
violent warfare, and both are charged with unleashing a deadly epidemic of
measles by giving the Indians a dangerous and untested vaccine.
Now, three detailed examinations of the charges say journalist Patrick
Tierney has committed major errors, falsified his evidence and ignored
relevant documents that did not support his charges.
The big flap will be aired in San Francisco today at a meeting of the
American Anthropological Association, where more than 5,000 anthropologists
will be talking about little else.
The charges involve two of the most widely known figures in their fields --
Napoleon Chagnon, 62, a recently retired anthropologist from the University
of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James V. Neel of the University
of Michigan, a noted physician and geneticist and much honored member of the
National Academy of Sciences.
Chagnon is best known for his own book, "Yanomamo, The Fierce People," his
account of many years investigating the long-isolated and primitive
who still inhabit the remote jungles of the upper Orinoco River in southern
Venezuela and northern Brazil.
Both Chagnon and Neel began studying the Yanomami in their tiny villages in
1968. Chagnon believed that like many other human groups, the Yanomami were
endowed through nature and evolution with unbridled savagery and incessant
dedication to intratribal warfare.
Charges began circulating against the two men more than five years ago and
are now raised in a sensational book by Tierney published this week called
"Darkness in El Dorado." An excerpt was also published in the New Yorker
magazine last month.
Among the charges are that the two scientists misused a dangerous measles
vaccine to spread -- if not cause -- a deadly epidemic that moved from
village to village and killed at least 30 Yanomami people more than 20 years
BATTLES ALLEGEDLY INCITED
Further, Tierney's book details scores of episodes of alleged scientific
misconduct, including claims that Chagnon deliberately incited warfare among
the Indians he was studying by distributing machetes to them so he could
observe and record their battles.
Tierney, who has been supported by at least two well-known anthropologists,
will defend himself this evening on a panel of scientists at the annual
meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco at the
John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and a former
colleague of Chagnon's, has blasted Tierney's book as a virtual hoax filled
with falsehoods, deliberate misquotations and "a massive tangle of fun-house
More serious is an analysis of the book and its supporters by Bruce
Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, who marshaled academy
scientists to rebut many of Tierney's points and who declared that several
statements in it are at least "misleading or demonstrably false."
There is no doubt that Neel was, as some of his colleagues agree, a "Cold
Warrior deluxe and an elitist" who ranked races, sexes and civilizations by
their degree of development. But Tierney's book claims that Neel has
advocated forced abortions of defective fetuses to prevent the degrading of
the human gene pool.
Said Alberts on behalf of the National Academy: "Any contention that James
Neel held eugenic principles is flatly and demonstrably wrong; on the
his most substantial professional contribution was wresting the control of
human genetics away from the eugenic pseudo-scientists."
In an interview yesterday, Tierney dismissed the National Academy report
because, he insisted, "it found only two minor errors" and, in fact,
misquoted what he wrote in his heavily documented 417-page book.
Tierney said he made six trips to the Yanomami villages of southern
Venezuela during the 11 years he spent interviewing local missionaries,
government health workers and scores of villagers. He said they described
Chagnon and his cameraman faked filmed conflicts, handed out machetes and
corrupted the primitive people they were supposedly observing.
MEASLES OUTBREAK IN DISPUTE
One of Tierney's most serious charges relates to an outbreak of measles
struck several of the Yanomami villages. According to Tierney, Chagnon and
Neel obtained supplies of a dangerous measles vaccine made from a viral
strain known as Edmonston B and used it without permission from Venezuelan
The result -- if not actually genocide -- was to kill hundreds if not
thousands of the Yanomami by administering the vaccine to the unwitting
victims, according to Terence Turner, a professor of anthropology at Cornell
University, and Leslie Sponsel, professor of anthropology at the University
In support of Tierney, it was they who first alerted officials of the
American Anthropological Association about the "scandal" in an e-mail
last September and thereby touched off the crisis that will consume much of
this week's San Francisco meeting.
"In its scale, ramifications and sheer criminality and corruption, (the
vaccine episode) is unparalleled in the history of anthropology," Turner and
Sponsel declared in their e-mail.
But according to detailed studies of the book by physicians,
and other researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan,
Edmonston B vaccine had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration and recommended by the World Health Organization. Venezuelan
medical officials had approved its use by Neel and Chagnon, and the measles
outbreak had hit the Yanomami villages at least a year before Neel began
administering it, according to the University of Michigan analysis.
Dr. Samuel L. Katz of Duke University, co-developer of the vaccine in 1958,
stated in an e-mail message to a UC Santa Barbara committee that Tierney
misquoted him on the nature of the Edmonston B vaccine. In fact, Katz said,
the same vaccine had been given to at least 18 million children with nothing
worse than brief fever reactions, except for three deaths -- one a patient
with AIDS and two with immune systems damaged by leukemia.
"The use of Edmonston B vaccine in an attempt to halt an epidemic was a
justifiable, proven and valid approach," Katz said. "In no way could it
initiate or exacerbate an epidemic."
'SLOPPY VACCINATION EFFORT'
Tierney insists, however, that the vaccine was dangerous and already
date. He says Neel and Chagnon engaged in a "reckless and sloppy vaccination
effort" and then acted "inhumanely" by doing nothing to reduce the number of
According to Susan Lindee, a historian of science at the University of
Pennsylvania who said she read all of Neel's field notes on the vaccination
effort, Tierney is wrong.
"Neel provided penicillin and terramycin not only to those affected in the
villages he visited," she said. "There is no evidence that he attempted to
discourage anyone from providing treatment, and indeed for about two weeks
spent much of his own time administering vaccines and antibiotics."
There is an undercurrent of scientific politics running through this
unparalleled welter of charges and countercharges. It concerns the long-
standing academic controversy over sociobiology, a version of the old
Chagnon, as he says, is a strong believer in sociobiology -- the theory
much of human culture, human drives and behavior stems from human biology.
Opponents insist that humans are born with largely equal genetic
that their behavior is due primarily to the society and culture in which
they are raised.
To some in academia, the debate has political connotations, with
sociobiologists on the right and their opponents, who insist that even
anthropologists studying primitive societies must actively help improve them
and not merely observe them, on the left.
Chagnon will not be at the panel on Tierney's accusations this evening, as
he is not coming to the meeting at all.
"I'm not going to be a part of that feeding frenzy," he said in a telephone
interview from his home in Traverse City, Mich. But he will have a colleague
there to defend him, William Irons of Northwestern University. Several
experts will discuss technical aspects of the controversy, and an official
representative of Venezuela's Commission on Indigenous Peoples will present
the Yanomami point of view.