16 August 2008

In conversation last night or this morning, the Woman of Interest noted that cannibalistic killers are at elevated risk for brain disease, whence we got onto the subject of kuru.

Many people have heard or read of kuru, a form of prion disease noted amongst a people of Papua New Guinea, as a result of cannibalism, but I noted to her that there are a few twists to the story which which most people are not now unfamiliar.

The south Fore people, who were the people in question, seem to have picked-up the practice of eating the dead from a neighboring people who did so for religious reasons. But the Fore only adopted the practice, not the religion. The women were just having a little nosh as they prepared the bodies, and were sharing with the children.

An acknowledgment that kuru was caused by cannibalism — which acknowledgment later helped scientists and policy-makers to recognize how other prion diseases spread — was impeded because, in the 1970s and '80s, an anthropolgist, William Edward Arens, had with remarkable success made politically correct the denial of culturally based cannibalism. That is to say that the existence of cannibalism wasn't altogether denied, but it was claimed to be always an extraordinary act of deviance or of desperation. (On at least one occasion, Arens took a researcher to task for noting the physical evidence for cannibalism amongst a vanished people, instead of working to promote the virtues of their extinct culture.)

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on identifying the cause of kuru, was in Papua New Guinea largely for the boys. He was a child molestor.

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2 Responses to Inglorious

  • Barbara says:

    Then again, cannibalism supplied an excellent source of protein, which might have been in short supply. Waste not, want not.

    So, you mean to say Gajdusek did all this research and discovery and at such a level of excellence that he won the Nobel, and saved thousands of lives, and you think his major motivation was child molestation. Think again. There is a baby in that bathwater.

    • Daniel says:

      No, actually, research has shown that the human body is not a particularly good source of food for other humans. (And quality protein is scarce everywhere, which is why it commands a price in the market-place. None-the-less, one hopes that Soylent Green isn't found on the shelves in Alameda.)

      As to the remainder of your intellectual sloppiness: I didn't claim that Gajdusek's principal motivation was pædophilic; I said that he was largely there for the boys. There are many medical mysteries in this world, and there was simply no telling, when Gajdusek began research on kuru, whether any lives would be saved. (I'll let stand the question of whether the research actually saved thousands of lives.) A proposition that the research proved useful or was excellent simply isn't a proper contradiction to the point that he deliberately chose to conduct research where he could prey on children.

      In effect, you are arguing that the bathwater isn't dirty because a baby was found in it. Whereäs I've noted dirt there that didn't come off the baby.

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