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<nettime> The Ax Fight and the AEC
DeeDee Halleck on 22 Sep 2000 03:31:03 -0000


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<nettime> The Ax Fight and the AEC


For decades, a classic ethnographic film has been screened in universities
college film and social science classes in North America.  Called "The Ax
Fight" (and made about the research of Napoleon Chagnon) it shows raw
footage of a fight among the Yanomami of Brazil.  The footage is then
replayed and discussion( including kinship diagrams) is offered in the way
of interpretation of this fight by social scientists, who have local
"informants" to "translate" the situation.  Sort of the "Rashomon" of
ethnography, this film has educated several generations of young American
anthropologists.  Ths following article came around today, which provides
another, entirely new angle of interpretation of this research.

I hope someone will re do the film and add this latest information.

DeeDee Halleck

 From: Terry Turner, Professor of Anthropology, Cornell
>>  University.  Head of
>>  the Special Commission of the American Anthropological Association to
>>  Investigate the Situation of the Brazilian Yanomami, 1990-91
>>  (tst3 {AT} cornell.edu
>>
>>  Leslie Sponsel, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii,
>>  Manoa. Chair of the AAA Committee for Human Rights 1992-1996
>>  (sponsel {AT} hawaii.edu)
>>
>>  In re: Scandal about to be caused by publication  of  book by Patrick
>>  Tierney (Darkness in El Dorado. New York. Norton.  Publication date:
>>  October 1, 2000).
>>
>>  Madam President, Mr. President-elect:
>>
>>  We write to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the
>>  American Anthropological profession as a whole in the eyes of the public,
>>  and arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of  the
>>  Association. In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and
>>  corruption it is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology. The AAA will
>>  be called upon by the general media and its own membership to take
>>  collective stands on the issues it raises, as well as appropriate
>>  redressive actions. All of this will obviously involve you as  Presidents 
>>  of the Association-so the sooner you know about the story that is about to
>>  break, the better prepared you can be to deal with it. Both of us have seen
>>  galley copies of a book by Patrick Tierney, an investigative journalist,
>>  about the actions of anthropologists and associated scientific researchers
>>  (notably geneticists and medical experimenters) among the  Yanomami of
>>  Venezuela over the past thirty-five years.  Because of the sensational
>>  nature of its revelations, the notoriety of the people it exposes, and the
>>  prestige of the organs of the academic establishment it implicates, the
>>  book  is bound to be widely read both outside and inside the profession. As
>>  both an indication and a vector of its public impact, we have learned that
>>  The New Yorker magazine is planning to publish an extensive excerpt, timed
>>  to coincide with the publication of the book (on or about October 1st).
>>
>>  The focus of the scandal is the long-term project for study of the Yanomami
>>  of Venezuela organized by James Neel, the human geneticist, in which
>>  Napoleon Chagnon, Timothy Asch, and numerous other anthropologists took
>>  part. The French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, who also works with the
>>  Yanomami but is not part of Neel-Chagnon project, also figures in a
>>  different scandalous capacity.
>>
>>  One of Tierney's more startling revelations is that the whole Yanomami
>>  project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Comissions
>>  secret program of experiments  on human subjects James Neel, the originator
>>  and director of the project, was part of the medical and genetic research
>>  team attached to the Atomic Energy Commission since the days of the
>>  Manhattan Project. He was a member of the small group of researchers
>>  responsible for studying the effects of radiation on human subjects. He
>>  personally headed the team that investigated the effects of the Hiroshima
>>  and Nagasaki bombs on survivors,. He was put in charge of the study of the
>>  effects of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and later was involved
>>  in the studies of the effects of the radioactivity from the experimental
>>  A and H bomb blasts in the Marshall Islands on the natives (our colleague 
>>  May Jo Marshall has a lot to say about these studies in the Marshalls and
>>  Neel's role in them). The same group also secretly carried out experiments
>>  on human subjects in the USA. These included injecting people with
>>  radioactive plutonium without their knowledge or permission,in some cases
>>  leading to their death or disfigurement ( Neel himself appears not to have
>>  given any of these experimental injections). Another member of the same AEC
>>  group of human geneticists and medical experimenters, a Venezuelan, Marcel
>>  Roche, was a close colleague of Neel's and spent some time at his
>>  AEC-funded center for Human Genetics at Ann Arbor. He returned to Venezuela
>>  after the war and did a study of the Yanomami that involved administering
>>  doses of a radioactive isotope of iodine and analyzing samples of blood for
>>  genetic data. Roche and his project were apparently the connection that led
>>  Neel to choose the Yanomami for his big study of the genetics of
>>  "leadership" and differential rates of reproduction among dominant and
>>  sub-dominant males  in a genetically "isolated" human population. There is
>>  thus a genealogical connection between the  the human experiments carried
>>  out by the AEC, and Neel's and Chagnon's Yanomami project, which was from
>>  the outset funded by the AEC.
>>
>>  Tierney presents convincing evidence that Neel and Chagnon, on their trip
>>  to the Yanomami in 1968, greatly exacerbated, and probably started, the
>>  epidemic of measles that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" (Tierney's
>>  language-the exact figure will never be known) of Yanomami. The epidemic
>>  appears to have been caused, or at least worsened and more widely spread,
>>  by a campaign of  vaccination carried out by the research team, which used
>>  a virulent vaccine (Edmonson B) that had been counter-indicated by medical
>>  experts for use on isolated populations with no prior exposure to measles
>>  (exactly the Yanomami situation). Even among populations with prior contact
>>   and consequent partial genetic immunity to measles, the vaccine was
>>  supposed to be used only with supportive injections of gamma globulin.
>>
>>  It was known to produce effects virtually indistinguishable from the
>>  disease of measles itself.  Medical experts, when informed that Neel and
>>  his group used the vaccine in question on the Yanomami, typically refuse to
>>  believe it at first, then say that it is incredible that they could have
>>  done it, and are at a loss to explain why they would have chosen such an
>>  inappropriate and dangerous vaccine. There is no record that Neel sought
>>  any medical advice before applying the vaccine. He never informed the
>>  appropriate organs of the Venezuelan government that his group was planning
>>  to carry out a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do.
>>  Neither he nor any other member of  the expedition, including Chagnon and
>>  the other anthropologists, has ever explained why that vaccine was used,
>>  despite the evidence that it actually caused or at a minimum greatly
>>  exacerbated the fatal epidemic.
>>
>>  Once the measles epidemic took off, closely following the vaccinations with
>>  Edmonson B, the members of the research team refused to provide any medical
>>  assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit orders from Neel. He
>>  insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record
>>  the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as
>>  scientists, not provide medical help.
>>
>>  All this is bad enough, but the probable truth that emerges, by
>>  implication, from Tierney's documentation is  more chilling. There was, it
>>  turns out, a compelling theoretical motive for Neel to want to observe an
>>  epidemic of measles, or comparable "contact" disease, or at least an
>>  outbreak virtually indistinguishable from the real thing-precisely the
>>  effect that the vaccine he chose was known to cause-and to produce one for
>>  this purpose if necessary. This motive emerges from Teirney's documentation
>>  of Neel's extreme eugenic theories and his documented statements about what
>>  he was hoping to find among the Yanomami, interpreted against the
>>  background of his long association with the Atomic Energy Commission's
>>  secret experiments on human subjects.  Neel believed that "natural" human
>>  society (as it existed everywhere before the advent of large-scale a
>>  gricultural societies and contemporary states with their vast populations)
>>  consisted of small, genetically isolated groups, in which, according to his
>>  eugenically slanted genetic theories, dominant genes (specifically, a gene
>>  he believed existed for "leadership" or "innate ability") would have a
>>  selective advantage, because male  carriers of this gene could  gain access
>>  to a disproportionate share of the available females, thus reproducing
>>  their own superior genes more frequently than less "innately able" males.
>>  The result, supposedly, would be the continual upgrading of the human
>>  genetic stock. Modern mass societies, by contrast, consist of vast
>>  genetically entropic "herds" in which, he theorized, recessive genes could
>>  not be eliminated by selective competition and superior leadership genes
>>  would be swamped by mass genetic mediocrity. The political implication of
>>  this fascistic eugenics is clearly that society should be reorganized into
>>  small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge
>>  into dominance, eliminating or subordinating the male losers in the
>>  competition for leadership and women, and amassing harems of brood
>>  females.
>>
>>  A big problem for this program, however, was the tendency, generally
>>  recognized by virtually all qualified population geneticists and
>>  epidemiologists, for small breeding isolates to lack genetic resistance to
>>  diseases incubated in other groups, and their consequent vulnerability to
>>  contact epidemics. For Neel, this meant that the emergence of genetically
>>  superior males in small breeding isolates would tend to be undercut and
>>  neutralized by epidemic diseases to which they would be genetically
>>  vulnerable, while the supposedly genetically entropic mass societies of
>>  modern democratic states, the antitheses of Neel's ideal
>>  alpha-male-dominated groups, would be better adapted for developing genetic
>>  immunity to such "contact" diseases. It is known that Neel, virtually alone
>>  among contemporary geneticists, rejected the genetic (and historical)
>>  evidence for the vulnerability of genetically isolated groups to diseases
>>  introduced through contact from other populations. It is possible that he
>>  thought that genetically superior members of such groups might prove to
>>  have differential levels of immunity and thus higher rates of survival to
>>  imported diseases. In such a case, such exogenous epidemics, despite the
>>  enormous losses of general population they inflict, might actually be shown
>>  to increase the relative proportion of genetically superior individuals to
>>  the total population, and thus be consistent with Neel's eugenic program.
>>  However this may have been, Tierney's well-documented account, in its
>>  entirety,  strongly supports the conclusion that the epidemic was in all
>>  probabilty deliberately caused as an  experiment designed to produce
>>  scientific support for  Neel's eugenic theory.  This remains only an
>>  inference in the present state of our knowledge: there is no "smoking gun"
>>  in the form of a written text or recorded speech by Neel. It is
>>  nevertheless the only explanation that makes sense of a number of otherwise
>>  inexplicable facts, including Neel's known  interest in observing an
>>  epidemic in a small isolated group for which detailed records of genetic
>>  and genealogical relations were available, his otherwise inexplicable
>>  selection of a virulent vaccine known to produce effects virtually
>>  identical with the disease itself, his behavior once the epidemic had
>>  started (insisting on allowing it to run its course unhindered by medical
>>  assistance while meticulously documenting its progress and the genealogical
>>  relations of those who perished and those who survived) and his own
>>  obdurate silence, until his death in February, as to why he carried out the
>>   vaccination program in the first place, and above all with the lethally
>>  dangerous vaccine.
>>
>>  The same conclusion is reinforced by considering the objectives of the
>>  anthropological research carried out by Chagnon under Neel's initial
>>  direction and continued support. Chagnon's work has been consistently
>>  directed toward portraying Yanomami society as exactly the kind of
>>  originary human society envisioned by Neel, with dominant males (the most
>>  frequent killers) having the most wives or sexual partners and offspring.
>>  If this pristine, eugenically optimal society could be shown to survive a
>>  contact epidemic with its structure of dominant male polygynists
>>  essentially intact, regardless of quantitatively serious population losses,
>>  Neel might plausibly be able to argue that his eugenic social vision was
>>  vindicated. If the epidemic was indeed produced as an experiment, either
>>  wholly or in part, the genetic studies on the correlation of blood group
>>  samples and  genealogies carried out by Chagnon and some of his students
>>  thus formed integral parts of this massive, and massively fatal,  human
>>  experiment.
>>
>>  As another reader of Tierney's ms commented,  Mr. Tierney's analysis is a
>>  case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego, of lack of
>>  respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence. It is a further
>>  extraordinary revelation of malicious and perverted work conducted under
>>  the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission.
>>
>>  Tierney's revelations begin, but do not end, with the 1968 epidemic. There
>>  are many more episodes and sub-plots, almost equally awful, to his
>>  narrative of the antics of anthropologists among the Yanomami. Enough has
>>  been said by this time, however, for you to see that  the Association is
>>  going to have to make some collective response to this book, both to the
>>  facts it documents and the probable conclusions it implies. There will be
>>  a storm in the media, and another in the  general scholarly community,
>>  and no doubt several within anthropology itself. We must be ready. Tierney
>>  devotes much of the book  to a critique of Napoleon Chagnon's work  (and
>>  actions). He makes clear Chagnon has faithfully striven, in his
>>  ethnographic and theoretical accounts of the Yanomami, to represent them as
>>  conforming to Neel's ideas about the Hobbesian savagery of "natural" human
>>  societies , and how this constitutes the natural selective context for the
>>  rise to social dominance and reproductive advantage of males with the gene
>>  for  "leadership" or "innate ability" (thus Chagnon's emphasis on Yanomami
>>  "fierceness" and propensity for chronic warfare, and the supposed
>>  statistical tendency for men who kill more enemies to have more female
>>  sexual/reproductive partners). He documents how all these aspects of
>>  Chagnon's account of the Yanomami are based on false, non-existent or
>>  misinterpreted data. In other words, Chagnon's main claims about Yanomami
>>  society, the ones that have been so much heralded by sociobiologists and
>>  other partisans of his work, namely that  men who kill more reproduce more
>>  and have more female partners, and that such men become the dominant
>>  leaders of their communities, are simply not true. Thirdly and most
>>  troublingly, he reports that Chagnon has not stopped with cooking and
>>  re-cooking his data on conflict but has actually attempted to manufacture
>>  the phenomenon itself, actually fomenting conflicts between Yanomami
>>  communities, not once but repeatedly.
>>
>>  In his film work with Asch, for example, Chagnon induced Yanomami to enact
>>  fights and aggressive behavior for Asch's camera, sometimes building whole
>>  artificial villages as "sets" for the purpose, which were presented as
>>  spontaneous slices of Yanomami life unaffected by the presence of the
>>  anthropologists. Some of these unavowedly artificial scenarios, however,
>>  actually turned into real conflicts, partly as  a result of Chagnon's
>>  policy of giving vast amounts of presents to the villages that agreed to
>>  put on the docu-drama, which distorted their relations with their neighbors
>>  in ways that encouraged outbreaks of raiding. In sum, most of the Yanomami
>>  conflicts that Chagnon documents, that are the basis of his interpretation
>>  of Yanomami society as a neo-Hobbesian system of endemic warfare, were
>>  caused directly or indirectly by himself: a fact he invariably neglects to
>>  report. This is not just a matter of bad ethnography or unreflexive
>>  theorizing: Yanomami were maimed and killed in these conflicts, and whole
>>  communities were disrupted to the point of  fission and flight.(Brian
>>  Ferguson has also documented some of this story, but Tierney adds much new
>>  evidence). As a general point, it is clear that Chagnon's whole Yanomami
>>  oeuvre is more radically continuous with  Neel's eugenic theories, and his
>>  unethical approach to experimentation on human subjects, than appears
>>  simply from a reading of Chagnon's works by themselves.
>>
>>  Chagnon is not the only anthropologist mentioned in Tierney's narrative.
>>  Some of his students, like Hames and Good, are also dealt with (not so
>>  unfavorably). The F French  anthropologist, Jaques Lizot, also gets a
>>  chapter. He has had nothing to do with Neel or Chagnon (in fact has been a
>>  trenchant and cogent critic of their work), but he has an Achilles heel of
>>  his own in the form of a harem of Yanomami boys that he keeps, and showers
>>  with presents in exchange for sexual favors (he has also been known to
>>  resort to young girls when boys were unavailable). On the sexual front,
>>  there are also passing references to Chagnon himself demanding that
>>  villagers bring him girls for sex.
>>
>>  There is still more, in the form of  collusion by Neel and Chagnon with
>>  sinister Venezuelan politicians attempting to gain control of Yanomami
>>  lands for illegal  gold mining concessions, with the anthropologists
>>  providing "cover" for the illegal mine developer as a "naturalist"
>>  collaborating with the anthropological researchers, in exchange for the
>>  politician's guaranteeing continuing  access to the Indians for the
>>  anthropologists.
>>
>>  This nightmarish story  -a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond
>>  the     imagining of even  a Josef Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef
>>  Mengele)--will be seen (rightly in our view) by the public, as well as
>>  most
>>  anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial. As another
>>  reader of the galleys put it, This book should shake anthropology to its
>>  very foundations. It should cause the field to  understand how the corrupt
>>  and depraved protagonists could have spread          their poison for so
>>  long while they were accorded great respect throughout the Western World
>>  and generations of undergraduates received their lies as the introductory
>>  substance of anthropology. This should never be allowed to happen again.
>>
>>  We venture to predict that this reaction is fairly representative of the
>>  response that will follow the publication of Tierney's book and the New
>>  Yorker excerpt. Coming as they will less than two months before the San
>>  Francisco meetings, these publication events virtually guarantee that the
>>  Yanomami scandal will be at its height at the Meetings. This should give an
>>  optimal opportunity for the Association to mobilize the membership and the
>>  institutional structure to deal with it. The  writers, both emeritus
>>  members of the Committee for Human Rights, have arranged with Barbara
>>  Johnston, the present chair of the CfHR, that the open Forum put on by the
>>  Committee this year be devoted to the Yanomami case. This seemed the best
>>  way to provide a venue for a public airing of the scandal, given that the
>>  program is of  course already closed. With Johnston's consent, we have
>>  invited Patrick Tierney to come to the Meetings and be present at the
>>  Forum. He has accepted. He has also agreed to have a copy of the book ms
>>  sent to Johnston, for the use of the CfHR. We have also tentatively agreed
>>  with Barbara that the CfHR should draft a press release, which the
>>  President (either or both of you) could (if you and the Executive Board
>>  approve) circulate to the media. There are obviously human rights aspects
>>  of this case that make the CfHR appropriate, but the Ethics Committee, the
>>  Society for Latin  American Anthropology, and the Association for Latina
>>  and Latino Anthropology should also be notified and involved, separately or
>>  jointly. These obviously do not exhaust the possibilities--- a lot of
>>  thought and planning remains to be done. Our point is simply that the
>>  time to start is now.
>>
>>
>>  Rosemary Gianno, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Sociology/Anthropology
>>  Rhodes
>>  Hall Keene State College Keene NH 03435-3400 USA
>>
>>  rgianno {AT} keene.edu Phone: (603) 358-2510 Fax:   (603) 358-2184

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