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Krakauer's wild theory on McCandless gives short shrift to science

Dermot Cole
Jon Krakauer's latest theory on the death of Chris McCandless suffers from the same flaws as the first two -- a sweeping conclusion based on scanty evidence. Wikimedia user Erikhalfacre photo

Jon Krakauer says that the millions of copies sold of “Into the Wild" during its first decade in print contained what he describes as a “rash intuitive leap" that Christopher McCandless did not die in 1992 from starvation but from eating poisonous seeds.

That we are still writing and talking about the painful end of the 24-year-old wanderer is tribute to Krakauer’s prominent place in the world of outdoor writing and his bizarre quest to invent a cause of death that is not starvation for a man who had almost nothing to eat for weeks.

He wrote in his 1996 book that "preliminary testing" of the seeds of wild potatoes consumed by McCandless showed that the plants contained a toxic compound and that "a compelling case can be made for these seeds having caused McCandless' death."

"If true, it means that McCandless wasn't quite as reckless or as incompetent as he has been made out to be," Krakauer wrote. "He didn't carelessly confuse one species with another. The plant that poisoned him was not known to be toxic -- indeed he'd been safely eating its roots for weeks."

Laboratory tests at the University of Alaska Fairbanks by organic chemist Thomas Clausen proved that the "rash intuitive leap" was wrong in 1997.

Krakauer must have seen the news reports that year quoting Clausen’s conclusion that the seeds were safe to eat, but the book continued to sell and the error remained in every copy printed until 2007.

Just before the movie version of "Into the Wild" reached theaters, the magazine “Men’s Journal" published a critical article by Matt Power that mentioned Krakauer’s error.

In response, Krakauer changed the text about McCandless and the seeds. He came up with a new theory out of thin air.

He said the seeds had been in a plastic bag and that mold had grown on them. The mold was poisonous, Krakauer declared to the likes of Oprah on TV and Melissa Block on National Public Radio.

"Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares," Krakauer said in 2007.

Later, a high school student working with Clausen grew mold on seeds to test the theory, but could not come up with a poisonous compound.

Last week Krakauer formally gave up on the moldy seeds he spoke about with such confidence in 2007.

Writing on the New Yorker website Sept. 12, he said he agrees with the paper he read on the Internet that claims McCandless consumed a neurotoxin known as ODAP and succumbed to paralysis, a condition called "lathyrism." The author of the paper is not a scientist, but a writer interested in McCandless. He placed his paper on a website devoted to the book and the movie about McCandless.

"Considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds," Krakauer says.

He said he now has proof that his third theory is correct because he sent some seeds to a "very sophisticated lab in Ann Arbor that had state-of-the-art techniques."

"And sure enough, absolutely, definitely, certainly the wild potato seeds contained ODAP, this deadly neurotoxin that causes paralysis if you eat it when you're not getting enough other nutrients," Krakauer told Audie Cornish of "All Things Considered" in an interview Sept. 13.

When she asked if he was doing this to defend McCandless against the claims that he was reckless, he said yes.

"It was important to me to get the book right, you know? If it hadn't -- if the seeds hadn't contained ODAP, I would have put that in a new edition of the book: Well, it seems like the seeds didn't kill him, that he just starved to death out of stupidity. But I don't have to write that now. I can write the opposite."

That would be a rash intuitive leap.

Krakauer claims that his latest theory "appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’ death."

But Krakauer should take the advice of Tom Clausen, the retired organic chemist from UAF who has spent much of his career studying plants in Alaska and their properties.

Clausen said that absent peer-reviewed scientific research he would not make any conclusions about what amounts to a highly technical and complicated scientific question.

The difference between a popular account for a general audience and a peer-reviewed journal is that an editor or two may check the former, while the latter will be subject to critical examination aimed at uncovering sloppy work.

Clausen said he has nothing to refute the conclusion, reached by both the author of the paper and Krakauer, that ODAP was present.

"With that said, let me follow with the comment that I am very skeptical about the entire story," Clausen wrote in an e-mail.

“First, it seems like a rather remarkably lucky shot in the dark for a person to suspect the presence of a specific toxin on so little evidence," he wrote. "Couple this with the observation that ODAP is only reported in certain plants of the genus lathyrus which is not the genus hedysarum and the conclusions are even more remarkable (though not impossible). I would be much more convinced if I was reading the report from a credible peer-reviewed professional journal such as the Journal of Natural Products or equivalent. I have often heard a key indicator of bad science that is highly suspect is having its results published in the popular media."

He said that there are two forms of ODAP that are mirror images of each other (known as enantiomers) which would likely have vastly different levels of toxicity.

"Even though Krakauer explicitly states the 'L' form is present in the plant, it is very unlikely that the tests to establish this were done. While this error of Krakauer's is understandable for a non-chemist to make, it certainly reinforces the need for Krakauer's claim that ODAP exists in Hedysarum alpinum to be put through a standard review process by technically trained and unbiased individuals," Clausen said.

"Again, I don't make any claims that the report is wrong since I have no data to analyze, but I am skeptical and will remain so until I see a better forum for the results to be published in."

If Krakauer is serious about this foray into the world of chemistry and biology, he should use a small portion of what he has earned from "Into the Wild" to fund independent research that could lead to publishing peer-reviewed papers on whether poison or starvation killed the young man.

If he does this, he will avoid another rash intuitive leap.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.