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Internet Source: Louis Proyect, February 20, 2013
Source URL: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/what-the-press-is-saying-about-napoleon-chagnon/

What the press is saying about Napoleon Chagnon

By Louis Proyect

Holding court among the natives

The best place to start is with Emily Eakin’s piece in the Sunday NY Times Magazine that provides a good background. Titled “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist”, the article can best be described as damning with faint praise. She makes sure to identify the mistakes made by Patrick Tierney in his “Darkness in El Dorado,” a book that Chagnon blames for destroying his reputation, but he could hardly be happy with her reporting:

Chagnon strides into the middle of a shabono in a loincloth and faded high tops and strikes a warrior pose — a bearded Tarzan aping his subjects, to their audible delight.

A bearded Tarzan aping his subjects? This is hardly the metaphor that a man of science should welcome although it does strike at the heart of darkness imagery that defines Chagnon’s career. As clear from his writings, Chagnon enjoyed lording it over the tiny Yanomami men. Clearly his sociobiological “Naked Ape” predilections inspired him to develop an “alpha male” relationship with those he was studying.

Meanwhile the Sunday Times Book Review didn’t bother with any faint praise business and went straight for Tarzan’s jugular. Columbia University professor of anthropology and gender studies Elizabeth Povinelli seethes:

For him, the “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous” Yanomamö stink and produce enormous amounts of “dark green snot.” They keep “vicious, underfed growling dogs,” engage in brutal “club fights” and — God forbid! — defecate in the bush. By the time the reader makes it to the sections on the Yanomamö’s political organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating Chagnon’s soiled image.

Although I have little use for the editorial decisions of Sam Tanenhaus, the neoconservative editor of the Sunday Times book review section, I almost sent him a dozen roses for assigning Professor Povinelli.

As is often the case with the N.Y. Times, unless you are Noam Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein, multiple reviews of your book will yield different conclusions. In the Science section on Tuesday, February 18, 2013, Nicholas Wade was positively glowing:

After overtaxing one of his informants, the shaman Dedeheiwä, about the reason for a succession of village fissions into smaller hostile groups, Dr. Chagnon found himself rebuked with the outburst, “Don’t ask such stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!”

Dr. Chagnon’s legacy… is that he was able to gain a deep insight into the last remaining tribe living in a state of nature. “Noble Savages” is a remarkable testament to an engineer’s 35-year effort to unravel the complex working of an untouched human society.

I am surprised that Chagnon did not report that the shaman told him, “Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads!”. His impact on the tribes was, after all, quite broad.

It should be mentioned that Nicholas Wade is an evolutionary psychologist (what used to be called sociobiology) himself. He wrote a book called “The Faith Instinct” that basically argued that worshipping a deity helps to guarantee “human success”. I can’t say that I am surprised to see a worshipful blurb from the National Review’s John Derbyshire on Wade’s website. Just to jog your memory, Derbyshire was fired from the National Review for writing an article elsewhere defending racial profiling in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Just the kind of guy you need to hype some sociobiological trash.

I was anxious to see what Charles Mann had to say about Chagnon in the February 18 Wall Street Journal. Mann is the author of “1491” and “1493”, two history books that can be described as pro-Indian.

Mann was an intriguing choice since an article extracted from “1491” that appeared in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly depicts the pre-Columbian Amazon rainforest largely as “a human artifact” and no virgin wilderness. That viewpoint shapes the powerful conclusion of his review:

Implicit in his ideas is the presumption that the Yanomamo he met in 1964 are representative of the way all or most people were in the distant past — they are, as Mr. Chagnon puts it, “pure,” “pristine,” even “wild.” They were frozen in time, like insects in amber. But is that true? Researchers like Mr. Ferguson, Jacques Lizot, Ernest Migliazza and Neil Whitehead argue that the Yanomamo probably used to live hundreds of miles south, on the Rio Negro, a big tributary of the Amazon. Prior to 1492, these researchers say, this portion of central Amazonia was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, multiethnic network of big villages, fed by fish from the great river and reliant upon a multitude of forest products. When that network was thrown into turmoil by the arrival of European slavers and European diseases, the Yanomamo and many other groups fled into the hinterlands, where they now reside.

If this is correct, these people are not “pure” or “pristine”; they are dispossessed. And their existence in small bands is reflective not of humankind’s ancient past but of a shattered society that has preserved its liberty by retreat. It would be risky to base conclusions about the evolution of society on the study of posses of refugees, perhaps especially those who have survived both a holocaust and a diaspora.

Before the book hit the stands, Matt Ridley wrote a puff piece in the January 25 Wall Street Journal titled naturally enough “Farewell to the Myth of the Noble Savage”. It should be stressed, of course, that Chagnon’s adversaries in the academy were not into Rousseau, but Karl Marx. Marxist anthropology and its close relative cultural materialism do not posit a pure Eden-like status that is sullied by civilization. Instead they simply try to explain phenomena such as warfare in terms of class relationships. Furthermore, in pre-class formation such as hunting-and-gathering societies, there is little attempt to glorify an often-harsh existence except for the tendency to enjoy a kind of Stone Age leisure that Marshall Sahlins examined.

Ridley writes:

Meanwhile the science has been going Dr. Chagnon’s way. Recent studies have confirmed that mortality from violence is very common in small-scale societies today and in the past. Almost one-third of such people die in raids and fights, and the death rate is twice as high among men as among women. This is a far higher death rate than experienced even in countries worst hit by World War II. Thomas Hobbes’s “war of each against all” looks more accurate for humanity in a state of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” though anthropologists today prefer to see a continuum between these extremes.

This, of course, is the argument made by Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond in recent books that argue we’ve never had it so good. Civilization not only gives us hot showers in the morning but also keeps us from being clubbed to death by people with green snot pouring out of their nose. When I hear this sort of thing, I harken back to what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in “The Junius Pamphlet” at the beginning of WWI:

For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

At this point it should not come as any surprise to learn that Matt Ridley is a sociobiologist himself. Written in 1993, his first book “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” is par for the course. The book is filled with stunning observations such as: “Anaxagoras’ belief that lying on the right side during sex would produce a boy was so influential that centuries later some French aristocrats had their left testicles amputated.” I can’t say that I was surprised to find no reference to such occurrences in JSTOR. Ridley probably had it right when he wrote in the same book: “Half the ideas in this book are probably wrong.”

John Horgan has a blog post on Scientific American titled “The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair” that is a must-read. Back in 2000 Horgan was asked by he N.Y. Times to review Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”. When word leaked out that he was the reviewer, he was contacted by a who’s who of sociobiologists:

I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.

One might wonder why they didn’t threaten to come to his house with clubs, beat him senseless, and drag off his wife by her hair. At first blush it seems that he buckled under pressure:

I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon per se but the sociobiology paradigm–that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness to be read and discussed, to get a hearing. After all, Tierney leveled what I found to be credible accusations against not only Chagnon but also other scientists and journalists.

To Horgan’s credit, making the review “more positive” amounted to plunging the knife in one inch less. This was the sort of thing he wrote back in 2000:

Tierney has convinced me that Chagnon’s critics were right after all. First, the visits of Chagnon — or any outsiders — to the Yanomami exposed them to pathogens to which they were extremely vulnerable. Because the Yanomami attributed illness to the sorcery of enemies, they blamed one another for infections caused by foreigners.

Perhaps reflecting Chagnon’s vindication by the anthropology establishment and Tierney’s eventual repudiation, Horgan strikes a rueful note:

I have one major regret concerning my review: I should have noted that Chagnon is a much more subtle theorist of human nature than Tierney and other critics have suggested. In fact, Chagnon has never been as much of a genetic determinist as, say, Wilson or anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who have cited Chagnon’s work as evidence that warfare has deep biological roots. (See my rebuttal of this hypothesis here.)

I first interviewed Chagnon in 1988, after Science published his report that Yanamamo killers fathered more offspring than male non-killers. Chagnon was funny and profane. He called non-killers “wimps,” and he denounced his detractors as left-wing peaceniks clinging to the “myth of the noble savage.” But when it came to the theoretical implications of his work, he chose his words with surprising care.

Saying he had been falsely accused of claiming that there is a “warfare gene,” he denied that Yanomamo warriors are innately warlike. He noted that Yanomamo headmen usually employed violence in a controlled manner; compulsively violent males often did not live long enough to bear children. Yanomamo males engaged in raids and other violent behavior, Chagnon proposed, not out of instinct but because their culture esteemed violent behavior. Many Yanomamo warriors had confessed to Chagnon that they loathed war and wished it could be abolished from their culture.

Chagnon reiterated this view when I interviewed him for “The New Social Darwinists,” a critique of evolutionary psychology published in Scientific American in October 1995. He said he was disturbed at the degree to which some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists downplayed the role of culture in human behavior. I said he sounded like Stephen Jay Gould, a vehement critic of genetic explanations of human behavior. I meant to goad Chagnon with the comparison, but he embraced it. “Steve Gould and I probably agree on a lot of things,” Chagnon said.

Well, it would have been interesting to see how “Steve Gould” would have responded to Chagnon’s comment but somehow I doubt it. Gould was an enemy of biological determinism and despite Horgan’s assertion that Chagnon was falsely accused of claiming that there was a “warfare gene”, there is little doubt that he was committed to a “spread your seed gene”. In other words, Chagnon viewed the need for men to get as many “women, women, women, women” under their control as innate. The violence, of course, was instrumental to their achieving that goal.

One thing is damned sure, however. James V. Neel, Napoleon Chagnon’s research partner in Yanomami territory, was committed to eugenics, the bogus science that Stephen Jay Gould dismantled in “Mismeasure of Man”. In the torrent of articles and email that followed the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado”, Terence Turner, a member of the anthropology department at Cornell University, delivered the goods on Neel’s “science”. He quotes from a Neel article [emphasis added]:

There is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure– small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future.

Turner offers these thoughts [emphasis added]:

The same ideas and eugenic claims for Yanomama-type society are repeated, in less developed form, in Chapter 17 of Neel’s autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool. Dr Neel also expressed some of these ideas to me in personal conversation. Shortly after my return from my first field trip to the Kayapo in the winter of 1964, Neel invited me to Ann Arbor to give a lecture to his students and colleagues about practical aspects of field research in the Amazon. This initiated a period of loose collaboration with the project organized by Neel and the distinguished Brazilian biological anthropologist, Francisco Salzano, for comparative research on the population genetics of Amazonian indigenous groups. My main contribution to the project was a genealogical census of a Kayapo community that I believe comprises the project’s main data base on the Kayapo. After my lecture to Neel’s group at Ann Arbor, there was a small reception. I found myself standing next to Dr. Neel, who startled me by exclaiming, “Maybe now we can really find the leadership gene” (these were his exact words as I remember them). Incredulous, I in turn exclaimed, “You can’t be serious!”. He replied in words to the effect that he did not think it unreasonable to suppose that in small, relatively isolated societies like those of contemporary Amazonian peoples, men would rise to leadership by virtue of superior genetic endowment, and as polygamists be able to reproduce their genes more than less dominant monogamous men.

They say you are known by the company you keep. If Neel was Chagnon’s closest collaborator in the Amazon rainforest, you really are kidding yourself if you think he had anything in common with “Steve Gould”.

Of these articles or reviews on Napoleon Chagnon timed to coincide with the release of his memoir “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists”, the two most negative were written by women.

Although this is impossible to prove, I strongly suspect that men are less offended by Chagnon’s theory that Yanomami violence is a function of men trying to gain access to as many women as possible in order to help propagate their genes.

Jacques Lizot, a Levi-Strauss disciple who worked among the same tribes as Chagnon, and Sarah Dart wrote a paper titled “On Warfare: an answer to N. A. Chagnon” for the November 1994 issue of “American Ethnologist”.

In examining the warfare between the villages that supposedly proved Chagnon’s thesis, Lizot discovered that only 0.3 percent of the were with women taken from an enemy group. Based on these figures, there is no cost-benefit involved with fighting in order to secure childbearing females. Unlike the Trojan War, this bloodletting in the Amazon had nothing to do with stealing women.

Lizot and Dart apply the coup de grace to Chagnon:

Chagnon’s point of view is, moreover, marked by an underlying male chauvinism, and sociobiology is a garment that suits him well. According to his conception of things, women, in the quarrels of the men, are nothing but beings without initiative and will.