This is not eugenics

In his review of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado (Books, 18 December), Kenan Malik claims that James V Neel was "a eugenicist who believed that the problems of modern society arose 'primarily from abandoning the population structure and the selective pressures under which humankind evolved' ". Eugenics generally refers to attempts to improve human society by eradication of undesirable genetic traits, often through selective breeding. Recognition that humankind evolved in an environment quite different from modern society hardly constitutes support for eugenics.

In fact, Neel was a critic of eugenics, which he found to be both immoral and lacking in scientific rigour. As indicated in a 1970 commentary in the journal Science (volume 170, pages 815-822) and his 1994 autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool (John Wiley), he believed that problems caused by the incompatibility of our genetic heritage with modern society should be ameliorated by an egalitarian programme of education, healthcare and improved nutrition. Despite being deeply concerned by environmental degradation and overpopulation, Neel believed that all individuals should have the opportunity to have children. He was worried about the loss of human genetic diversity, a concern that would seem absurd to eugenicists who want to select certain traits.

While Malik should be commended for pointing out the flimsiness of Tierney's evidence that the measles epidemic was caused by Neel and Chagnon, it seems he has not applied similar critical analysis to the accusation that Neel was a eugenicist.

Nicholas Plummer
Department of Genetics, Duke University Medical Centre,
North Carolina, USA