Dehumanization and a Deadly Medical Experiment on the Yanomami People

Steven Newcomb

A February 28 article by “Newpower” that was published by the Guardian in the United Kingdom reports that in the mid-1960s thousands “of South American Indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds.” Why? So that “U.S. scientists could study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.” The phrase “primitive societies” is part of the tradition of dehumanization against original nations and peoples that made its way into the story.

Darkness in El Dorado, the book about this sordid story, is now scheduled for release this coming October. Authored by investigative reporter Patrick Tierny, it has taken him 10 years to complete. The study was apparently funded by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and conducted by a team of “scientists” headed by James Neel, who is now deceased. As the Newpower story reports: “The book accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people.” Neel and his team, many of whom are apparently still living, used “a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands.”              

The story goes on to describe the dehumanizing nature of the experiment: “Once the epidemic was underway, the research team ‘refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit order from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their role as scientists, not provide medical help.’”

The approach taken was based on an antiquated “positivism” model of “science.” According to the “positivism” approach, those conducting the scientific study are to behave in an “objective” manner by merely “observing,” “recording,” and comparing the results against a control group so the results can be measured. Human “subjectivity” such as compassionate emotions that would identify with the suffering and dying of “the test subjects” was not considered “scientific” for the positivists conducting the deadly inhumane experiment.

To dehumanize people in such a manner is to treat them as subhuman or as nonhuman, and as not deserving of human compassion. To express and understand one reality (e.g., “Native nations and peoples”) in terms of another reality (e.g., “sub-humans”) is to engage in a metaphorical form of thought. For one people to use a metaphorical imagery to conceptualize another people as merely “beasts in the guise of humans” is to dehumanize them. By means of such mental imagery, those engaged in the dehumanization give themselves permission to do anything to those being dehumanized, even treat them as “test subjects” or as sub-human “guinea pigs.”

The dehumanizers may say that paying attention to the suffering of the test subjects is not “scientific.” The underlying rationale for this treatment is classifying people as sub-humans that are deemed to be “waste” and, if need be, disposed of in the search for forms of knowledge that will benefit those who are being classified as fully human. Those who have deemed themselves to be “true humans” of “higher intelligence” must study the “barbarous” and “sub-humans” in the quest for “human” knowledge for the supposed “true humans.”

Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University has read the proofs of the forthcoming book. He is quoted as stating: “The political implications of this fascistic eugenics is clearly that society should be reorganised [sic] 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.” The dehumanizing “Yanomami project,” says the article, “was an outgrowth and continuation of the atomic energy commission’s secret programme of experiments on human subjects.”

Racism, the framework upon which eugenics-type thinking and behavior operates, is only one form of domination; its corollary is dehumanization. It is a framework that mentally creates a conception that it is acceptable to kill or cull “lesser races” to make greater room for “the superior race” of the self-chosen people.

So here’s a question: Where is the standard that condemns all forms of domination and dehumanization as completely unacceptable? And once patterns of domination and dehumanization have been developed and institutionalized into entire language systems, and into pseudo systems of “science,” or into dominating systems of “law” (think U.S. federal Indian law) based on Christian bigotry, how do finally rid ourselves of those systems by ridding ourselves of those ways of thinking and behaving?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.

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