Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: New Scientist, February 5, 2013
A life spent fighting fair about the roots of violence
Despite the fierce conflicts experienced living among anthropologists, science steals the show in Napoleon Chagnon's autobiography Noble Savages
NAPOLEON CHAGNON may be the world's most famous living anthropologist. From the late 1960s onward, if you were a college student in the US you would probably have read his monograph, Yanomamö: The fierce people.
Yanomamö became a bestseller because it is both well written and a thrilling adventure story. Its controversy turns on two ideas. First, Chagnon claimed the Yanomamö valued violence and warfare. Second, he concluded that this violence resulted primarily from men fighting over women, to secure mates.
Chagnon's first thesis was controversial because it conflicted with the "noble savage", a notion which dates back to the Enlightenment - and provides an ironic title for these memoirs. The second thesis contradicted an idea that was even more popular among intellectuals, that the cause of human conflict was the unequal distribution of goods, the Marxist underpinning of a good deal of social science research. Noble_Savages_cover.jpg
I encountered Yanomamö during my first anthropology course in 1972. But my initial reaction was unrelated to its controversies. I hoped to live in the Amazon, and I was in awe of Chagnon's ability to tolerate the bugs, violence, disease, loneliness, danger and isolation of the jungle for long periods for science.
As Chagnon revisits how he arrived at his original analysis of Yanomamö culture, he discusses how his PhD dissertation provoked "immediate and serious professional opposition" to his simple description of the facts. This led him to become sceptical "about what senior members of my profession said about the world". His scepticism was well founded and foreshadowed much to come in his career.
Chagnon's main memory of 28 November 1964 - his first day with the Yanomamö - was that "I had never seen so much green snot before". He arrived in the village, with his host from the New Tribes Mission, as the men were "blowing a greenish powder, a hallucinogenic drug called ebene, up each other's noses through yard-long hollow tubes". This sent them into a world of psychedelia, but a side-effect was long, thick, green mucous hanging from their noses.
I love this scene because it captures so well the combination of horror, thrill and surprise felt by a field researcher on their first day in an isolated tribal society. It is visceral. But it runs alongside the fact that not only does one recover from such experiences in such research, one learns to work with them and even enjoy them.
Chagnon goes on to describe how he found a place to live and enticed men to teach him about their language and culture. He underscores his research conclusions and the view of anthropology as science that he has come to be known for: that the understanding of humans is to be found in the notions of Darwinism that are associated with evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. It is no coincidence that the book's endorsements include glowing remarks from E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, leading proponents of these views.
These memoirs do stray from autobiography into Yanomamö ethnography: chapters 1 to 13 are among the best words ever written about a South American culture. But the next two chapters signal a different subject matter under the heading "Darkness in cultural anthropology". This is an allusion to a now discredited book, Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney, that attacked him. What follows is a tour of the hell Chagnon was subjected to by some fellow anthropologists.
I have followed Chagnon's work for 40 years, and admired his fortitude even more after I lived among Amazonian peoples for roughly the same length of time as he did. When I learned of the controversy that began to engulf him some 15 years ago, I had no opinion of whether Chagnon or his critics/attackers were right. Chagnon and I have exchanged a couple of emails over the past few years, but have never met.
His explanations and descriptions of Yanomamö culture, through books, scientific and popular articles and 21 films, are unacceptable to many anthropologists, especially those who believe that human conflict is caused not by our biology but by our external circumstances. He is also opposed by those, perhaps the majority in Latin America, who believe that the principal function of the anthropologist is advocacy, not science.
In my opinion, behind these public reasons for opposing Chagnon's work there lingers a less intellectual motive: jealousy over his fame and success.
Chagnon, as is his wont, will inflame critics with the title Noble Savages, and its reference to the idea that societies uncontaminated by cruel, over-civilised peoples of the Western world live a much more idyllic existence. Some do (see The Grammar of Happiness, a film about the Pirahãs peoples I studied). Some don't (see The Ax Fight, a film by Chagnon and Tim Asch on the Yanomamö).
I have interviewed missionaries from the Unevangelized Fields Mission and New Tribes Mission who have worked with Chagnon. Though they have no love for his atheism, they told me they believe his explanations of Yanomamö warfare are the best by any anthropologist who worked there.
Some of Chagnon's problems stem from statements by Davi Kopenawa, a spokesman for the Yanomamö indians, and some Salesian missionaries. I translated for Kopenawa when he visited Pittsburgh in the 1990s with one of the Salesians. Kopenawa became a spokesman for Survival International, the human rights organisation that campaigns for indigenous peoples, and he challenged Chagnon's descriptions and explanations of Yanomamö violence.
Although this book discusses the attacks on Chagnon, his experiences with the Yanomamö and the sophistry and politics in the highest towers of academe, it stands out primarily for its portrayal of how science is done.
I think Chagnon's career has been opinionated, aggravating, courageous, intelligent and marked by a rarely equalled commitment to the highest ideals of science - and damn the consequences. I emphatically reject Chagnon's theoretical approach, a nativism I frankly find little evidence for. But I am hard-pressed to think of anyone I respect more for their dedication throughout their career. Chagnon comes across as I have long thought of him - a cantankerous, brilliant and noble scientist.
Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, Massachusetts. His most recent book is Language: The cultural tool (Profile, 2012)
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