Imagine, if you will, a stranger who looks very different to most people you’ve every seen. He saunters into your remote home and tells you he can fix your problems using methods you’ve never heard of or understand.
You’d be sceptical, right?
You would want to know how he’s going to fix your problem, and why. Similarly to the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in Anderson’s “The Collector of Lost Souls”, you would be hard pressed to not feel deeply suspicious. This is compounded if your ‘helper’ is not terribly forthcoming with the reasons for his charity, or how these strange tools work and left you to assume; in this case some sort of sorcery was the accepted explanation among the people.
Not so science communication friendly.
The problem detailed is clearly that of science and the hunger for knowledge being lost in translation- not between languages, but cultures. Dr. Gajdusek, the western doctor, was there trying to help to cure ‘kuru’, a nervous disease that had become an epidemic among these people. The problem is, in trying to categorise the disease and find out what was causing it he needed data. He needed blood samples, autopsies of people killed by the disease, things that people of a superstitious culture would naturally be wary of just handing over to a stranger.
Nonetheless, you would need a certain code of ethics to ensure not only that everybody feels they’ve achieved the best possible outcome, but we all know the dead are a sensitive issue. While autopsies are normalised for those of us who watch CSI 24/7, to other cultures this could seem unbelievable, a bizarre request that would need much justification. In the case of the Fore people Dr. Gajdusek was studying, they had their own method of disposing of dead bodies; this included limited cannibalism, which was actually how the disease was spread. When the doctors wanted the brains of the diseased, this confused the Fore as to their motivation:
“It was the autopsy that prompted the most discussion, in part because the white men seemed so anxious about it. Fore where familiar with examining the body for signs of sorcery, so maybe the ‘doktas’ were merely doing that, too. But these peculiar white men seemed obsessed with taking away brains. When they practised cannibalism, Fore did not esteem this organ.”
The ‘kuru’ epidemic amongst these people was a disease related to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the bovine version of which is commonly know as ‘Mad Cow disease’. It causes neurons in the brain to die, leaving the brain with a sponge-like appearance under a microscope. Gajdusek later earned a Nobel Prize for his research.
Nonetheless, ethical considerations must be made. According to the text, Gajdusek was trading money and goods for samples from living Fore and autopsies of bodies, which is a system in serious need of moderation. How was he to know whether he was offering culturally appropriate payment? How were the Fore to know whether to accept it?
If somebody wanted to cure your family of a disease, would you let them do autopsies and use your blood to try it? Even if you didn’t know how they expected to cure it, or what they were doing with it?
Anderson, W. (2008). The scientist and his magic. In The Collectors of Lost Souls (pp 91-100). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Post by Shannon Wylie