“Nazi Twins” a Myth: Mengele Not Behind Brazil Boom?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News

Did Nazi doctor Josef Mengele carry on his sadistic science decades after World War II?

Recent reports have held up a remote Brazilian town—filled with blonde, blue-eyed twins—as evidence of Mengele’s postwar attempts to add to the ranks of an Aryan “master race.”

Triplets picture for

But research announced today says Cândido Godói’s “Nazi twins” are nothing more than a myth.

The outback town of about 7,000 has a twin rate nearly 1,000 percent higher than the global average.

The twins’ fair features are no mystery—Cândido Godói (map) is largely populated by the descendents of German immigrants. But the frequency of twin births is a decades-old mystery.

Earlier this year Argentine historian Jorge Camarasa offered a bombshell of an explanation in his book Mengele: The Angel of Death in South America.

In World War II, Mengele, aka the Angel of Death, was mainly interested in twin research while serving as chief doctor at the Birkenau extermination camp in Poland.

According to Camarasa, Mengele likely continued his twin experiments in the 1960s while on the run in South America.

Mengele disguised himself as a roaming physician and veterinarian and gave pregnant women in Cândido Godói an ahead-of-its-time, twin-inducing mix of drugs or hormones, the historian suggests.

Video: The Twins of Cândido Godói

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Camarasa cites interviews with locals who say they remember the visits of a traveling German doctor who provided mysterious potions or drugs.

The locals recalled him by different names, Camarasa explained. But each interviewee had the same reaction when shown a picture of Mengele: “That’s him.”

Mengele was in fact in Brazil during much of his South American exile, which began in 1949 and ended in 1979, when he died of a stroke while living under an assumed name.

During the war, Mengele and colleagues had used Jewish prisoners in often deadly fertility experiments. The ultimate aim: to provide more Aryans to populate Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”

(Related: “‘Hitler’s Stealth Fighter’ Re-created.”)

Twin Boom Predates Nazi’s Exile

The twins of Cândido Godói—most of them fraternal, or nonidentical—are eager to shake their supposed Nazi connection.

“Because of these rumors that Mengele was there, the population gets very upset about it,” said geneticist Lavinia Schuler-Faccini of Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. “So some leaders of the community asked the university to start a project to try and understand why this place has such a high incidence of twin births.”

The resulting research, led by Schuler-Faccini and backed by the Brazilian government, is featured in a new documentary: Explorer: Nazi Mystery—Twins From Brazil, which airs Sunday, November 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News and part-owns the National Geographic Channel.)

Video: The Researchers at Work

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For the initial phase of their study—which has not yet been published or reviewed by outside scientists—the team combed through baptismal records, which the researchers say should cover about 75 percent of the children born in predominantly Catholic Cândido Godói. The records would reveal where and when the town’s many twin births had occurred.

The town’s baptismal records date back to 1927, long before Mengele’s supposed arrival—and so does the exceptional rate of twinning, the team discovered.

Furthermore, the records show no “surge” in twinning in the 1960s, when Mengele is said to have experimented on the local populace, the study says.

Also, the high rate of twin births continues today, which rules out a role for Mengele, the researchers say.

Had Mengele injected mothers with something to alter their pregnancies, the twin rate should have dropped off when his supposed work stopped.

“Even if Mengele had ovulation induction drugs available, they would have had an effect only on the immediate recipients for one generation,” said Gary Steinman, a twinning expert at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

“It was not even known to anyone what the genetic code was at that time, let alone the ability to alter genes, which would have been necessary to carry over the twinning trait to future generations.”

Steinman was not part of the Brazilian team’s initial research, but he’s now helping them search for genetic clues to the phenomenon.

If Not Mengele, Who?

One clue in the baptismal records may hold the real key to Cândido Godói’s twins.

The greatest incidence of twinning, by far, is in the Linha São Pedro district, some 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the town center, the researchers found.

The neighborhood was settled in the early 20th century by just eight families. Today Linha São Pedro’s 80 households are home to 44 pairs of twins.

The community’s isolation and small size suggests an evolutionary origin for Linha São Pedro’s outsize twin population. If a small group settles a region and the settlement remains isolated for generations, the original settlers’ biological quirks tend to be passed down as the same families intermarry over and over—scientists call it the founder effect.

“By chance, one or two members of these families that started Linha São Pedro could have a genetic of predisposition to have twin births,” Schuler-Faccini speculated.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly which gene or genes are responsible for human twinning, but twin hot spots like Cândido Godói give researchers a chance to search for repeated clues in twin DNA.

Steinman, of Long Island Jewish Medical Center, suspects a role for a growth hormone-produced protein called IGF, which he’s previously linked to twinning in both cows and humans. He hopes to discover whether Cândido Godói twins have high levels of IGF and, if so, whether there’s a gene mutation responsible for high concentrations of the supposed twin-producing hormone.

Whatever the causes, the town’s profusion of fraternal twins isn’t even especially rare, said twinning expert Bruno Reversade, of the Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore, who is not involved in the Cândido Godói research.

“There are in Nigeria and Romania isolated villages like this one, but they have not gotten [or] sought publicity,” said Reversade, who called the Mengele hypothesis “preposterous.”

“I concur with the authors’ conclusions that it may be a founder effect,” he added.

Twins Spurred by Something in the Air?

Another theory suggests that environmental factors may be at least partly responsible for Cândido Godói’s profusion of twins.

Locals have long suspected that something—perhaps a pesticide—in the town’s water, food, or air may be boosting the twin birth rate, according to the Nazi Mystery documentary.

“We know that twinning can be related to environmental conditions,” study leader Schuler-Faccini told National Geographic News. “For example, some studies suggest that women who [consume] more milk and dairy products are more predisposed to have twins.”

One explanation doesn’t preclude the other, she said. Cândido Godói’s twins may be born of some combination of genetics and environmental factors.

But Camarasa, the historian, still believes Mengele may have played some role.

“There is still no convincing scientific explanation of the phenomenon,” he said. “There are only hypotheses, and mine is one of them.

“I think that Mengele’s life in exile still holds many secrets.”

Extremism, Conspiracy Theory And Murder

Chip Berlet has studied extremism, conspiracy theories and hate groups for more than 25 years. In a recent report for PublicEye.org, he says that the murders of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller and Holocaust Museum guard Stephen T. Johns exemplify the potential for violence that often lurks within extremist groups.

Berlet argues that right-wing pundits share some of the moral responsibility for the actions of their followers. He summarizes the analysis in his report in a June 10 Huffington Post article about Johns’ murder: “Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation.”

Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-area-based think tank, and the co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.He is also the editor of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

Link to original NPR story and audio.

The Inner Worlds of Conspiracy Believers

By Bruce Bower, Science News (Published at US NEWS.com)

Shortly after terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center and mangled the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, conspiracy theories blossomed about secret and malevolent government plots behind the tragic events. A report scheduled to appear in an upcoming Applied Cognitive Psychology offers a preliminary psychological profile of people who believe in 9/11 conspiracies.

A team led by psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London identified several traits associated with subscribing to 9/11 conspiracies, at least among British citizens. These characteristics consist of backing one or more conspiracy theories unrelated to 9/11, frequently talking about 9/11 conspiracy beliefs with like minded friends and others, taking a cynical stance toward politics, mistrusting authority, endorsing democratic practices, feeling generally suspicious toward others and displaying an inquisitive, imaginative outlook.

“Often, the proof offered as evidence for a conspiracy is not specific to one incident or issue, but is used to justify a general pattern of conspiracy ideas,” Swami says.

His conclusion echoes a 1994 proposal by sociologist Ted Goertzel of Rutgers–Camden in New Jersey. After conducting random telephone interviews of 347 New Jersey residents, Goertzel proposed that each of a person’s convictions about secret plots serves as evidence for other conspiracy beliefs, bypassing any need for confirming evidence.

A belief that the government is covering up its involvement in the 9/11 attacks thus feeds the idea that the government is also hiding evidence of extraterrestrial contacts or that John F. Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman.

Goertzel says the new study provides an intriguing but partial look at the inner workings of conspiracy thinking. Such convictions critically depend on what he calls “selective skepticism.” Conspiracy believers are highly doubtful about information from the government or other sources they consider suspect. But, without criticism, believers accept any source that supports their preconceived views, he says.

“Arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists tell you more about the believer than about the event,” Goertzel says.

Swami’s finding that 9/11 conspiracy believers frequently spoke with likeminded individuals supports the notion that “conspiracy thinkers constitute a community of believers,” remarks historian Robert Goldberg of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Goldberg has studied various conspiracy theories in the United States.

Conspiracy thinkers share an optimistic conviction that they can find “the truth,” spread it to the masses and foster social change, Goldberg asserts.

Over the past 50 years, researchers and observers of social dynamics have traced beliefs in conspiracy theories to feelings of powerlessness, attempts to bolster self-esteem and diminished faith in government. Some conspiracy beliefs — such as the widespread conviction among blacks that the U.S. government concocted HIV/AIDS as a genocidal plot — gain strength from actual events, such as the once-secret Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis were denied treatment.

Swami and his colleagues administered a battery of questionnaires to 257 British adults, including a condensed version of a standard personality test. Participants came from a variety of ethnic, religious and social backgrounds representative of the British population.

Most participants expressed either no support or weak support for 16 conspiracy beliefs about 9/11. These beliefs included: “The World Trade Center towers were brought down by a controlled demolition” and, “Individuals within the U.S. government knew of the impending attacks and purposely failed to act on that knowledge.”

Much as Swami’s team suspected, beliefs in 9/11 conspiracy theories were stronger among individuals whose personalities combined suspicion and antagonism toward others with intellectual curiosity and an active imagination.

A related, unpublished survey of more than 1,000 British adults found that 9/11 conspiracy believers not only often subscribed to a variety of well-known conspiracy theories, but also frequently agreed with an invented conspiracy. Christopher French of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Patrick Leman of Royal Holloway, University of London, both psychologists, asked volunteers about eight common conspiracy theories and one that researchers made up: “The government is using mobile phone technology to track everyone all the time.”

The study, still unpublished, shows that conspiracy believers displayed a greater propensity than nonbelievers to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence.

“It seems likely that conspiratorial beliefs serve a similar psychological function to superstitious, paranormal and, more controversially, religious beliefs, as they help some people to gain a sense of control over an unpredictable world,” French says.

Swami now plans to investigate attitudes of British volunteers to conspiracy theories about the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London.

Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More

Note: I will be posting more on CERN-related conspiracy theories and fears very soon. This is one of the most well respected journalistic articles on the subject.

By Dennis Overbye (NY Times)

More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can’t afford their mortgages and in some places now they can’t even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth — and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely — though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.

The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.

According to a spokesman for the Justice Department, which is representing the Department of Energy, a scheduling meeting has been set for June 16.

Why should CERN, an organization of European nations based in Switzerland, even show up in a Hawaiian courtroom?

In an interview, Mr. Wagner said, “I don’t know if they’re going to show up.” CERN would have to voluntarily submit to the court’s jurisdiction, he said, adding that he and Mr. Sancho could have sued in France or Switzerland, but to save expenses they had added CERN to the docket here. He claimed that a restraining order on Fermilab and the Energy Department, which helps to supply and maintain the accelerator’s massive superconducting magnets, would shut down the project anyway.

James Gillies, head of communications at CERN, said the laboratory as of yet had no comment on the suit. “It’s hard to see how a district court in Hawaii has jurisdiction over an intergovernmental organization in Europe,” Mr. Gillies said.

“There is nothing new to suggest that the L.H.C. is unsafe,” he said, adding that its safety had been confirmed by two reports, with a third on the way, and would be the subject of a discussion during an open house at the lab on April 6.

Scientifically, we’re not hiding away,” he said.

But Mr. Wagner is not mollified. “They’ve got a lot of propaganda saying it’s safe,” he said in an interview, “but basically it’s propaganda.”

In an e-mail message, Mr. Wagner called the CERN safety review “fundamentally flawed” and said it had been initiated too late. The review process violates the European Commission’s standards for adhering to the “Precautionary Principle,” he wrote, “and has not been done by ‘arms length’ scientists.”

Physicists in and out of CERN say a variety of studies, including an official CERN report in 2003, have concluded there is no problem. But just to be sure, last year the anonymous Safety Assessment Group was set up to do the review again.

“The possibility that a black hole eats up the Earth is too serious a threat to leave it as a matter of argument among crackpots,” said Michelangelo Mangano, a CERN theorist who said he was part of the group. The others prefer to remain anonymous, Mr. Mangano said, for various reasons. Their report was due in January.

This is not the first time around for Mr. Wagner. He filed similar suits in 1999 and 2000 to prevent the Brookhaven National Laboratory from operating the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. That suit was dismissed in 2001. The collider, which smashes together gold ions in the hopes of creating what is called a “quark-gluon plasma,” has been operating without incident since 2000.

Mr. Wagner, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law from what is now known as the University of Northern California in Sacramento. He subsequently worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration.

Mr. Sancho, who describes himself as an author and researcher on time theory, lives in Spain, probably in Barcelona, Mr. Wagner said.

Doomsday fears have a long, if not distinguished, pedigree in the history of physics. At Los Alamos before the first nuclear bomb was tested, Emil Konopinski was given the job of calculating whether or not the explosion would set the atmosphere on fire.

The Large Hadron Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together. Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere, said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

What is different, physicists admit, is that the fragments from cosmic rays will go shooting harmlessly through the Earth at nearly the speed of light, but anything created when the beams meet head-on in the collider will be born at rest relative to the laboratory and so will stick around and thus could create havoc.

The new worries are about black holes, which, according to some variants of string theory, could appear at the collider. That possibility, though a long shot, has been widely ballyhooed in many papers and popular articles in the last few years, but would they be dangerous?

According to a paper by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 1974, they would rapidly evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles, and thus pose no threat. No one, though, has seen a black hole evaporate.

As a result, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Sancho contend in their complaint, black holes could really be stable, and a micro black hole created by the collider could grow, eventually swallowing the Earth.

But William Unruh, of the University of British Columbia, whose paper exploring the limits of Dr. Hawking’s radiation process was referenced on Mr. Wagner’s Web site, said they had missed his point. “Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate,” he said. “But it would really, really have to be weird.”

Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist whose work helped fuel the speculation about black holes at the collider, pointed out in a paper last year that black holes would probably not be produced at the collider after all, although other effects of so-called quantum gravity might appear.

As part of the safety assessment report, Dr. Mangano and Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been working intensely for the last few months on a paper exploring all the possibilities of these fearsome black holes. They think there are no problems but are reluctant to talk about their findings until they have been peer reviewed, Dr. Mangano said.

Dr. Arkani-Hamed said concerning worries about the death of the Earth or universe, “Neither has any merit.” He pointed out that because of the dice-throwing nature of quantum physics, there was some probability of almost anything happening. There is some minuscule probability, he said, “the Large Hadron Collider might make dragons that might eat us up.”

“Giant Skeletons” Fuel Web Hoax

Written by James Owen (National Geographic)

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The National Geographic Society has not discovered ancient giant humans, despite rampant reports and pictures.

The hoax began with a doctored photo and later found a receptive online audience—thanks perhaps to the image’s unintended religious connotations.

A digitally altered photograph created in 2002 shows a reclining giant surrounded by a wooden platform—with a shovel-wielding archaeologist thrown in for scale.

By 2004 the “discovery” was being blogged and emailed all over the world—”Giant Skeleton Unearthed!”—and it’s been enjoying a revival in 2007.

The photo fakery might be obvious to most people. But the tall tale refuses to lie down even five years later, if a continuing flow of emails to National Geographic News are any indication. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

The messages come from around the globe—Portugal, India, El Salvador, Malaysia, Africa, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya. But they all ask the same question: Is it true?

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Perpetuating the Myth

Helping to fuel the story’s recent resurgence are a smattering of media outlets that have reported the find as fact.

An often cited March 2007 article in India’s Hindu Voice monthly, for example, claimed that a National Geographic Society team, in collaboration with the Indian Army, had dug up a giant human skeleton in India.

“Recent exploration activity in the northern region of India uncovered a skeletal remains of a human of phenomenal size,” the report read.

The story went on to say the discovery was made by a “National Geographic Team (India Division) with support from the Indian Army since the area comes under jurisdiction of the Army.”

The account added that the team also found tablets with inscriptions that suggest the giant belonged to a race of superhumans that are mentioned in the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic poem from about 200 B.C.

“They were very tall, big and very powerful, such that they could put their arms around a tree trunk and uproot it,” the report said, repeating claims that initially appeared in 2004.

Voice editor P. Deivamuthu admitted to National Geographic News that his publication was taken in by the fake reports.

The monthly, which is based in Mumbai (Bombay), published a retraction after readers alerted Deivamuthu to the hoax, he said.

“We are against spreading lies and canards,” Deivamuthu added. “Moreover, our readers are a highly intellectual class and will not brook any nonsense.”

Other blog entries—such as a May 2007posting on a site called Srini’s Weblog—cite a report supposedly published in the Times of India on April 22, 2004. But a search of that newspaper’s archive revealed no such article.

Arabian Giant

Variations of the giant photo hoax include alleged discovery of a 60- to 80-foot long (18- to 24-meter) human skeleton in Saudi Arabia. In one popular take, which likewise first surfaced in 2004, an oil-exploration team is said to have made the find.

Here the skeleton is held up as evidence of giants mentioned in Islamic, rather than Hindu, scriptures.

The Debunkers

Web sites dedicated to debunking urban legends and “netlore” picked up on the various giant hoaxes soon after they first appeared.

California-based Snopes.com, for example, noted that the skeleton image had been lifted from Worth1000, which hosts photo-manipulation competitions.

Titled “Giants,” the skeleton-and-shoveler picture had won third place in a 2002 contest called “Archaeological Anomalies 2.”

The image’s creator—an illustrator from Canada who goes by the screen name IronKite—told National Geographic News via email that he had had nothing to do with the subsequent hoax.

He added that he wants to remain anonymous because some forums that debated whether the giant was genuine or not “were turning their entire argument into a religious one.” It was argued, for instance, that the Saudi Arabian find was entirely consistent with the teachings of the Koran.

“This was about the same time that death threats and cash bounties were being issued against cartoonists and other industry professionals for doing things like depicting the Prophet Mohammed,” IronKite wrote.

How the Image Was Made

IronKite started with an aerial photo of a mastodon excavation in Hyde Park, New York, in 2000. He then digitally superimposed a human skeleton over the beast’s remains.

The later addition of a digging man presented the biggest technical challenge.

“If you look, he’s holding a yellow-handled shovel, but there’s nothing on the end,” IronKite said.

“Originally, the spade end was there. But [it] looked like it was occupying the exact same space as the skeleton’s temple, making the whole thing look fake.

“Now it looks like he’s just holding a stick, and people don’t notice. It’s funny.”

IronKite also altered the color of the man’s clothing to create a “uniform tie-in” with the white-shirted observer peering down from the wooden platform.

The two figures work to exaggerate the scale of the skeleton, he added.

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IronKite said he’s tickled that the picture—which took only about an hour and a half to create—has generated so much Internet attention.

“I laugh myself silly when some guy claims to know someone who was there, or even goes so far as to claim that he or she was there when they found the skeleton and took the picture,” IronKite said.

“Sometimes people seem so desperate to believe in something that they lie to themselves, or exaggerate in order to make their own argument stronger.”

Wanting to Believe

David Mikkelson of Snopes.com said such hoaxes succeed when they seem to confirm something people are already inclined to believe, such as a prejudice, political viewpoint, or religious belief.

A hoax also needs to be presented “in a framework that has the appearance of credibility,” he said in an email.

The “ancient giant” has both elements, according to Mikkelson.

“It appeals to both a religious and a secular vision of the world as different and more fantastic than mere science would lead us to believe,” he said.

“Proof,” Mikkelson added, “comes in the form of a fairly convincing image.”

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For anyone who may have knowingly propagated the myth, Mikkelson added, the motivation “probably wasn’t any different than the motivation for engaging in a game of ringing someone’s doorbell and running away—because it’s an easy way to have a laugh at someone else’s expense.”

Alex Boese, “curator” of the virtual Museum of Hoaxes, said fake giants have a long history going back to the at least the 1700s.

The recent hoax is reminiscent of the once famous Cardiff Giant myth, involving a ten-foot-tall (three-meter) stone figure dug up in 1869 in Cardiff, New York, Boese said.

Many people believed the figure was a petrified man and claimed he was one of the giants mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis: “There were giants in the Earth in those days.”

Likewise, Boese said, the recent giant hoax “taps into people’s desire for mystery and their desire to see concrete confirmation of religious legends.”

National Geographic News photo editor Sebastian John contributed to this report.