Deep in the rain forests of Venezuela and Brazil, there once lived a people called the Yanomami. They farmed. They hunted. They had wives and children. They fought among themselves, village against village. They had life and death. They had Shamans who taught them about gods and magic and matter and spirit. They were completely isolated from the modern world.
They were, for all intents and purposes, a nation. They happened to live in an abstract, artificial political entity called “Venezuela”, but this meant nothing to them. And why should it have? White men from Europe came to the South American continent and proclaimed that God had given all of the land– and it’s peoples, as we shall see– to them. They set up governments. They demanded money from the people they identified as “citizens” so they could build armies and award each other medals. They invented guns and blades and poisons to ensure that no one would stop them from taking everything they wanted.
The Yanomami didn’t know anything about all this until the 1960’s when they were “discovered”.
Think about the arrogance of the way we Westerners use that word– as if they did not exist, or had no importance, until we “discovered” them. Think of how that word helps us think of appropriating a people, their beliefs, their culture, their technology, and, nowadays, their DNA. We discovered them. Now we can exploit them….
But I’m getting ahead of myself. An American scientist named James Neel, a geneticist, and an employee of the Atomic Energy Commission who took part in studies of the effects of radiation on people in Japan after World War II, found out about the Yanomami and decided that they provided an ideal field laboratory for his strange and rather Nazi-ish view of human evolutionary development. Now the word “Nazi” is tossed around all too carelessly these days, in reference to everyone from feminists to Alliance Party members, but, in this case, it is probably quite appropriate. Neel’s theories of human development provide a remarkably congenial intellectual framework for anyone advocating doctrines of racial superiority.
There is a mystery about James Neel’s role in studies conducted by the AEC on unsuspecting patients in a Rochester Hospital and prisoners in penitentiaries across the U.S. The AEC exposed these people to radiation in order to analyze its effects on them. I stress, the AEC did not obtain permission to do this.
Do you think that government agencies would never, ever do such a thing again? Ever?
No one has any convincing evidence that James Neel himself conducted these illegal and immoral studies, but he worked with the people who did. Has he denounced these criminals? I don’t know. No one will ever know probably– Neel is dead.
Anyway, at the AEC, Mr. Neel worked with a Venezuelan named Marcel Roche. Roche returned to Venezuela after the war and began conducting experiments, injecting radioactive isotopes into the Yanomami and then studying their blood samples. Yes, this man had been employed by the American Atomic Energy Commission. He worked for the United States Government. He helped us defeat those monsters, the Nazis. Then he went into the Venezuelan jungle and injected members of the Yanomami with radioactive iodine.
In 1968, Neel and a then-protégé named Napoleon Chagnon decided to immunize the Yanomami against the measles. The Yanomami didn’t have measles. The Yanomami had never been exposed to the measles. Until Mr. Neel decided to immunize them. There was an outbreak and hundreds, perhaps thousands of Yanomami died.
Mr. Chagnon argues that the idea of immunizing the Yanomami against the measles was the result of an altruistic desire to better their lives. Some medical scientists argue that a measles epidemic could not have been the result of immunization. Other scientists are not so sure. I’m not so sure. In fact, I think it’s rather insane to believe that the measles epidemic– the first ever in the the thousands of years of history of the Yanomami– just happened to coincide with the introduction of the vaccine, or, at the very least, with the introduction of self-seeking white adventurers, missionaries, and anthropologists, but was not caused by them.
Chagnon also induced various Yanomami villages to stage little wars for Timothy Asch’s cameras, to provide documentary “proof” of his assertions about the innate violence of the Yanomami leaders. To ensure that the battle scenes would be vigorous, he gave gifts to villagers that he knew would arouse the envy of their “enemies” of the drama, to the point where real injury and death took place.
For these achievements, Chagnon was lauded around the world as a brilliant anthropologist.
Chagnon is still alive today. He is a retired professor “emeritus”. He disputes Tierny’s charges. So those of us without first-hand knowledge are left to sort it out. You have to read Chagnon’s arguments. They don’t reassure. Tierny, for example, alleges that Chagnon used his helicopter to brazenly flop into Yanomami villages, blowing the roofs off their houses and intimidating them. Chagnon doesn’t claim that he didn’t land his helicopter in the middle of the villages and blow the roofs off houses– he merely tries to convince you that the villagers wanted him to land near the houses, so they wouldn’t have to haul his equipment so far! Why, in heaven’s name, are the Yanomami hauling this self-seeking adventurer’s equipment up into their villages? Because they love him? Because he did so much for them?
Patrick Tierney also claims that Chagnon tried to become a shaman, and that he abandoned a village to the measles. Chagnon admits that he did behave like a shaman at least once, and did paint his body and wear feathers. He claims it was intended to persuade the Yanomami that the damnation and hellfire sermons of a local missionary should not be believed. Chagnon admits he left a village knowing that a man with the measles was there and that the villagers would soon return and were likely to contract the measles from the man. His response is somewhat lame: he thought someone else would make sure the infected man left the village before the Yanomami returned.
Tierney alleges Chagnon shot a pistol off every time he entered a village. Chagnon responds that he once fired a shotgun at a tree, when some Yanomami were threatening to kill him.
Terry Turner, professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, summarizes Neel’s views of Eugenics as follows:
according to his [Neel’s] 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.