I usually read fiction novels, and I loved it that way. But here comes my History class telling me I have to read a medical book on Kuru. And I did (it’s not like I have a choice anyway). This isn’t really a review, as much as it is a though piece (we were required to make one). I just missed posting on my blog, so I’m sorry to disappoint you all.
Here’s to my first book of 2014!
I chose to reflect on this book by a field (I think) I’ll be more familiar with: Economics. But first, a summary. The book explain the disease of Kuru and Medical colonialism through the eyes of Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize Winner and a convicted child molester. It discusses the society of the Fore, a group of Natives in New Guinea. It explores the idea of cannibalism, prion diseases, and medicine as a form of colonialism. So if that’s your sort of thing, go for it.
For me, however, I chose to look at the supply and demand of it all. The Collector’s of Lost Souls reflect one of the most basic laws of Economics: how a great demand equals higher price, while a great supply leads to lower prices. It is also noticeable how the ways of trade and payment, and even the goods themselves, changed over the course of the book. As early on as the Introduction, Warwick mentions trade, where the white men exchanged goods like salt, tobacco, and shells for food from the gardens and pigs (page 10). Here, we see that it is trade that not only contributes to the interaction between the natives and the outsiders, but even is one of the reasons the relationship ever existed. But as the story progresses, material goods turn to immaterial. Goods are used to form social contacts towards the Fore. Even in areas where the natives avoided being seen, gifts of “matches, and salt, and grease,” would be used to coax them (page 73). Here, the idea of social debts emerges.
Scientists, especially one Gajdusek, use materials not only for obtaining other materials, but also to obtain humans and their body parts. But it is not necessarily true that the Fore only agree to the autopsies because of the goods being provided them, on the contrary, it is sometimes the opposite situation. As more and more scientists became hungry for samples, it was not the materials anymore that mattered, but the intrinsic values of the scientists themselves. As was the case with Gajdusek and Alpers (page 147), the Fore tended to be more lenient with autopsies to the scientists who gained their trust first. And only after these “transactions” would the goods be given, as if serving as tokens for their trouble.
However, the idea of social debt is not only limited between the Fore and the scientists, but among the medicinal world itself. Exchange of “gifts” became a common tool in gaining recognition and connections, especially among scientists. Brains and samples were traded, purchased, although no cash was truly involved. Humans turned into “things” (page 155). It is so that “while scientists tried to make Kuru things, Fore were generating persons, collecting white men, drawing them time and again back into their field” (page 157).