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Genet Epidemiol. 2001 Sep;21(2):81-104.

International Genetic Epidemiology Society: commentary on Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney.

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Department of Medical Biometry, Informatics and Epidemiology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.


The International Genetic Epidemiology Society (IGES) has examined the charges against James V. Neel and his colleagues contained in the recently published book by Patrick Tierney entitled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W.W. Norton, 2000). The book implicates Neel in causing or promoting an epidemic of measles among the Yanomamö Indians of Venezuela in 1968 leading to "hundreds if not thousands" of deaths by using a "dinosaur" vaccine (Edmonston B) as a deliberate "experiment" to test his "eugenic" theories. Tierney also attempts to link this research, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), with a broader tapestry of human radiation experiments. To investigate these serious charges, the IGES undertook a thorough examination of most source documents referenced in Tierney's book, Neel's field logs, notes, first-hand reports, contemporary writings, film sound tracks, etc., and conducted interviews with many relevant persons. The IGES finds that these allegations are false. Neel was not a eugenicist and was in fact highly critical of both the scientific basis of eugenics and its coercive social policies. In this regard, Tierney has grossly misrepresented Neel's views on a wide range of social implications of modern civilization for the long-term health of the gene pool. Far from causing an epidemic of measles, Neel did his utmost to protect the Yanomamö from the ravages of the impending epidemic by a vaccination program using a vaccine that was widely used at the time and administered in an appropriate manner. There was nothing experimental about the vaccination program, which in fact severely hindered the primary scientific objectives of the expedition. Although the research was funded in large part by the AEC, there was no element of radiation research and the work had no connection with the ethical abuses that have been reported from AEC-sponsored radiation research, such as studies of heavy isotopes. Neel's seminal contributions to a broad range of topics in human genetics have been extensively chronicled elsewhere. His research on the Yanomamö in particular has provided unique insights into the evolutionary biology of our species, the role of sociocultural practices, such as kinship relationships and selective pressures in shaping the genetic diversity of primitive population isolates, as well as the general picture of health in such populations. The IGES decries the damage done to the reputation of one of its founders and its first President and the misperception this book may have caused about the conduct of research in genetic epidemiology. Ethical issues about scientific research in primitive populations deserve serious and wide discussion, but the IGES condemns the gross misrepresentation of the facts and demonization of the principal characters in this book.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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