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Internet Source: The Mermaid's Tale, February 19, 2013
Source URL: http://ecodevoevo.blogspot.com/2013/02/sociobalderdash-and-yanomami-part-ii.html

Sociobalderdash, and the Yanomami? Part II

By Ken Weiss

Yesterday I commented on the reviews of a book by Napoleon Chagnon, who is defending both his work among the Yanomami in Amazonia, and his treatment at the hands of a faction of anthropologists. Though I have never been there myself, I was involved early on in analyzing some of the Yanomami demographic and genetic data (since this has to do with reproductive success by individuals), and I know Dr Chagnon and was close friends with many of the other key parties who were involved.

Nap was and perhaps still is the most prominent and well-known anthropologist of our time and he has been for decades. As I said yesterday, I have not read his book, but was commenting on the issues and controversy, and reacting to what is being said in the high-visibility reviews (such as the New York Times on Sunday -- and again yesterday) and news stories his book has occasioned (again, the New York Times on Sunday, Inside Higher Education on Monday, The Chronicle of Higher Ed last week). And, who in Anthropology doesn't know the saga of the Tierney book (a long discussion of which, and defense of Chagnon, is here, e.g.), or the documentary about this ongoing food fight, and on and on?

The reason we are commenting on this is because it involves, and reflects, fundamental and heated disagreements within anthropology that are inherently part of the politics of the whole scene. I know of few if any who can remain even remotely neutral in regard either to the way Nap has been treated by the press or by his opponents within anthropology, or about the substantive issues involved.

The actual scientific issue has to do, essentially, with genetic determinism and the degree to which our behavioral, and consequently our physical traits are the product of natural selection. Everyone, with or (mainly) without any real knowledge of the data or even the issues, is chiming in, including pop-sci authors from various disciplines who are credited with relevant 'expertise' by journalists who need someone to interview.

Some of the reaction to Chagnon's work has to do with the harmful experiences the Yanomami have had at the hands of anthropologists and other scientists, missionaries, explorers, and exploiters from the outside world. This is about social politics related to views of imperialism, exploitation, and the like, not about the anthropology of the group themselves.

But much of the fire deals with the degree to which the Yanomami represent a 'primitive people' (as a famous Science paper by Jim Neel described them in 1970), implying not just that they didn't have cars and televisions, but that they constituted an archetype of our ancestral state, during which our nature evolved via Darwinian natural selection. Even as post-docs in his lab, we felt that Neel's title was culpable hyperbole for getting a major publication, which someone of Neel's stature could do (and we told him so).

The idea was that if they are an archetype of the ur-human, Alley Oop in the flesh, then studying them can be used to extrapolate our societal and behavioral nature and their origins into our evolutionary past. Specifically, and most controversially, do we live a Hobbesian life in which male violence and dominance hierarchies determine who reproduces, and violence is largely about capturing women? Is our behavior based on a history of a species engaged in relentless, winner-take-all striving to spread our genes? Does it explain (or justify) warfare, or the sexual seizure of women?

By designating them as 'the fierce people' in the title of his most famous book, which was the monograph on 'primitive' people for many years, Nap essentially made such an argument, as did others in the research group, prominently including Neel who was the leader of the medical team involved in the classical Yanomami studies. Neel had his own biomedical genetic reasons for accepting the head-man theory of life; reproduction highly concentrated in one or a few males provided a way to understand the amount of harmful recessive genetic variation that our species had evolved to carry at any given time, as a comparison to large, modern societies exposed to chemicals and radiation, which cause genetic mutations and could heavily increase our burden of harmful variation.

The core issues

We need not here question the ethics, tactics, or descriptions of the Yanomami, nor the data that were collected. These issues have been debated and disputed, but that is beyond our point. Instead, we can question how 'primitive' or unacculturated or uncontacted they were, because those facts affect the degree to which they were archetypal as representatives of our evolutionary past.

First, this area had known missionaries for a long time. Villages were sometimes located near mission stations, and tribesmen from other villages knew about and interacted with those 'mission' villages. The Venezuelan and/or Brazilian government had, we believe, been sending vaccination teams upriver through much of the area to vaccinate natives against smallpox. By the early 1800s European settlers had established homesteads here and there along some if not much of the Amazon system. Some of these had taken Yanomami wives and were raising families on small holdings along rivers and tributaries.

Alexander von Humboldt had been through some of this general territory around 1800, coming down from the Caribbean through Venezuela, reporting mission contacts and even Indians with culture in many ways similar to the Yanomami (and, perhaps therefore, cultural antecedents of the tribe itself). The Saliva Indians on the Orinoco region (which had Catholic missions) were "mild, shy, and sociable" and "not long ago [i.e. relative to 1800!] a traveler [to the missions!] was surprised to see how Indians played the violin, violincello, guitar, and flute." Other explorers at the same time had filtered via the Atlantic up through the Amazon waterways, and there were European settlements and missionaries here and there deeply into the area.

As a result, and at the very least, even villages without known or remembered direct exposure, that were contacted in the 20th century, cannot be said to have been totally unaffected by the outside 'civilized' world. The degree to which this changed their culture was assumed by anthropologists to have been minimal, relative to the peoples of the outside world. But this was an assumption and, at least, far from complete.

Beyond this, the Yanomami practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. Whatever the evolutionary source of their agricultural knowledge, they were not 'hunter-gatherers', and they were tropical forest rather than open-country people, that is, they were not living in the generally assumed ecology of our species' ancestry. They were sparsely settled at the time of most western contact, but there are archeological and even some historical works by early explorers who reported what seem to be rather large, or even permanent, urban settlements.

It's important to realize that the Yanomami have not been represented as showing just some local, currently evolving traits, but as a showcase of human evolution generally. But their way of life is not how our ancestors evolved! For by far the majority of our evolution as a species, we evolved, as far as we know, as various sorts of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers in tiny, very sparsely dispersed populations, in diverse ecosystems, mainly in the Old World and only partly in tropical rainforest conditions. Unless agriculture has no effect whatever on social structure and behavior, a rather dubious assumption, the Yanomami are not unexceptionable archetypes of the way natural selection molded our behavior.

Indeed, other anthropologists and observers have not even seen the Yanomami as being particularly 'fierce' or warlike. One who had been part of the studies told me, way back at the time of the most intense studies in the early '70s, that the Yanomami were the most 'pacific' (his word) population in the region. And other scientists working in the same area at the same time as Nap characterized them basically in benign terms. Each anthropologist his or her own biases and predispositions to see his/her own sociopolitical views in the 'other', a fact that led to deep and angry splits within anthropology, regarding whether we could ever be even close to 'objective' about such things (the highly inflammatory and destructive 'post-modernism' disputes).

But the really important points don't require that we deny the objective facts, or the Yanomami's violence and competitiveness, or their headman-based social structures, all of which may well be quite as Chagnon described them over many years of observation--even if that is what he preferentially saw, what appealed to him, or even if his visits triggered some of that mayhem, as has been alleged. To deny that they had violent sports or did raids and captured women or had domineering male leaders, is simply silly if not scurrilous, and this must be said of many of the critics of Nap's work who often have been self-serving demagogues, to put it mildly.

Extrapolation is not needed to see the issues

We need not guess about whether the Yanomami social behavior represents human existence in our primeval past, because anthropologists have identified living hunter-gatherers and swidden agriculturalists with a wide range of social structures. The degree to which they had male dominance associated with substantially greater reproductive success, or had murderous rapine violence, are debated (or hotly debated). But there is a lot of variation, and violence and inequity are not the predominant characteristics reported for hunter-gatherer societies, even if they indubitably had their occasional heated disputes, as do we all. Indeed, to my recollection, studies of the surrounding South American indigenous groups do not characterize them as inherently or particularly violent. The Yanomami data themselves do not support the kind of genetic interpretation of head-man fitness advantage.

But even were we to accept Nap's data and inferences, there is another plausible reason for the violent and territory based tendencies he reports, a reason not at all based on intemperate inherency. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were ones during which outside explorers and exploiters pushed into much of the Amazon basin. Among the major aspects of that was the rubber trade. Rubber traders exploited the Indians badly in the usual ways, coming up the Amazon and then into its branching tributaries, and the fleeing Indians, who hadn't been enslaved or killed for target practice (yes, literally) may well have put frenzied territorial pressures on the Yanomami a century ago with consequences for their way of life when Chagnon and others first visited them. But of course it would in that case be a recent, rather than inherent cultural trait. There was indirect evidence for this in some of the demographic data in Nap's reports.

Such incursive pressures could plausibly have increased their wariness and warring behavior as a natural self-defense. Again, that would be a fact, but not a necessary aspect, of Amazonian culture, and certainly not something that could be extrapolated back for the past thousands of generations, on other continents, during which our entire species' inherent 'tendencies', if we have any, were molded by natural selection, or to the extent that such molding even occurred. Such extrapolations are a reflection of assumptions or predilections of the extrapolator.

Thus, another important debate, and what really underlies some of the vitriol surrounding Chagnon and his fights with the less than noble savages in anthropology, is the degree to which there can be objectivity in observing cultures other than our own (or, perhaps, even including our own). Indeed, the total (and totally predictable) prior-commitment manifest by the many commenters on this issue, who may typically have minimal direct knowledge of the Yanomami or the technical issues involved, is probably in itself a case study in post-modernism!

Ötzi the ice man

No one doubts that humans have it in their makeup to be aggressive under some conditions. But one cannot just dismiss the other anthropologists who have simply not perceived indigenous cultures as so violent, war-obsessed, or socially (and reproductively) unequal as the Yanomami were reported to be. Furthermore, social inequity can occur without it being a systematic force of natural selection--that is, without variation in social achievement being the direct much less consistently causal results of genetic variation.

So even if behavioral Darwinism be a valid way to view our genomic evolution, which is not at all obvious, the Yanomami are not, like Ötzi, the Tyrolian neolithic iceman, a frozen instance of a unitary distant past.

So, sociobiology or sociobalderdash?

The point of this post is not to attempt to adjudicate, but to point out that the issues underlying the heat of the dispute have to do with both the truth of the Darwinian interpretation of human behavioral nature, and the way that Dr Chagnon did, and reported, his studies in the Yanomami. The extent of genetic determinism is a legitimate one, and we must also recognize the wishful-thinking among anthropologists--on both sides of the arguments--that leads them to see what they see, and undoubtedly colors what and how they report it.

To repeat: Much more important is the degree to which observations today can be credibly extrapolated into the past, from one part of the world to all of humanity's patrimony. All of this ado over Nap's work is irrelevant to that question: Even were his descriptions indisputably 100% accurate, they don't contribute to the greater legitimate debate about the nature of our evolution. Yanomami culture today, in the Amazon, says nothing about our African past 200,000 years ago.

One way to see the colorful charivari that has always surrounded Dr Chagnon has to do with the knowledge of his nature, not just the nature of his knowledge.