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Internet Source: Embodied Knowledges, March 14, 2013.
Source URL: http://embodiedknowledges.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-chagnon-controversy-what-are-issues.html

The Chagnon Controversy - What Are the Issues, What’s at Stake, Where Do We Stand?

By Gordon Ramsey

Napoloeon Chagnon, after two decades in the anthropological wilderness, is again back in the limelight with his election to the U.S. National Academy of Science (which prompted the resignation of Marshal Sahlins) and the publication of his memoir, provocatively titled Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. These events have reignited debate around the ‘Chagnon controversy’, and as in earlier rounds, these debates continue to generate more heat than light.

In large part, this lack of clarity results from the fact that the controversy comprehends a range of diverse, and often only loosely related issues, and passions inspired in one area of the debate tend to be carried over into all others because, for many of those involved, these are issues which are tied up with their own personal and professional identities.

Whilst penetrating the emotions and arguments which surround Chagnon is not easy, his work, and the challenges to it, cannot be ignored because the issues raised are fundamental to what anthropology is, what it should be, and what (if anything) it may become. In this post, I will seek to tease out what those issues are, and deal with each separately, whilst bearing in mind that there are relationships between them.

I will identify the issues which Chagnon’s work has raised in a moment, but the first controversy to resolve is a question of naming. Chagnon spells the name of those he researched ‘ Yanomamö’, whilst most of the anthropologists who followed him have preferred Yanomami. Chagnon’s use of the final vowel with an umlaut is clearly meant to convey a subtlety of pronunciation which I simply do not grasp. I will therefore use the term Yanomami, which I know how to say, with the understanding that this may not be precisely how the Yanomami themselves say the word.

I identify 10 issues which are generally conflated as ‘the Chagnon controversy’. These issues span ethical concerns, methodological questions, theoretical questions, and broader questions of disciplinary identity. No wonder these arguments become hard to unravel! Here are the 10 issues I identify:
1. Were Chagnon’s relationships with the Yanomami unethical?
2. Is Chagnon’s ethnographic description of the Yanomami derogatory, and therefore unethical?
3. Should Chagnon have refrained from publishing data which could be misused by others to justify oppression of the Yanomami?
4. Was Chagnon’s treatment by the AAA unethical?
5. Did Chagnon deliberately falsify his data to fit sociobiological theories?
6. Is Chagnon’s claim that violence in Yanomami society at the time and place of his fieldwork was primarily motivated by male desire for access to women justified by the evidence?
7. Is Chagnon’s claim that Unokais (men who had killed) had more wives and children than other men their own age justified by the evidence?
8. If Unokais are more reproductively successful than other comparable men, can this finding be generalised to make the sociobiological claim that in ancestral human populations, violence enhanced reproductive success and therefore chronic warfare was the normal condition?
9. Should anthropology be a science, and is anthropological knowledge scientific knowledge?
10. Is the production of scientific knowledge compatible with activism on behalf of indigenous people?

Here is a necessarily brief attempt to answer each of these ten questions:

1. Were Chagnon’s relationships with the Yanomami unethical?

There are three main claims that Chagnon treated the Yanomami unethically:

a). That Chagnon took part in a deliberate experiment to spread measles amongst the Yanomami, resulting in large-scale death.

This claim was made by film-maker Patrick Tierney and strongly supported by anthropologist Terence Turner. The AAA investigation found the claim to be unfounded as did the University of Michigan, and this was confirmed by the later year-long investigation by historian Alice Dreger. These investigations showed that the charges had originated from Salesian missionaries who resented Chagnon’s support of traditional Yanomami lifeways and beliefs.

b). That Chagnon, by rewarding informants and guides with western steel tools, particularly machetes, provoked the lethal conflicts which he documented, and provided the weapons with which they were conducted.

This claim is based on Brian Ferguson’s work, although it may go beyond what Ferguson himself asserted. Ferguson showed that the Yanomami had access to machetes long before Chagnon’s arrival on the scene and suggests that these were indeed a source of conflict. Ferguson notes that machetes were primarily desired as tools, not weapons - so the portrayal of Chagnon as an arms dealer may be exaggerated. Nevertheless, Ferguson shows that Chagnon did become part of a pre-existing political economy centred on machetes, and that it is possible that his interventions, whilst not necessarily causing conflict, may at least have had effects on the way some conflicts played out. This remains unproven, but the methodology of payment for information by means which may cause significant shifts in power, and thus social structure, are unlikely to be approved by any ethics committee today.

The Ax-fight

c). Chagnon provoked the conflicts he documented by playing off different groups of Yanomami against one another in his efforts to create genealogies - an inherently difficult task given that for Yanomami, it is disrespectful to speak the name of a dead relative.

This claim has been made by Ryan & Jétha (Sex at Dawn), based in part on remarks made by Marshall Sahlins, but primarily on Chagnon’s own account of his methods in The Fierce People. Whilst there is no direct evidence that Chagnon’s research methods actually provoked conflict, such methods do seem insensitive, exploitative, disrespectful and even reckless, and Chagnon describes his increasing awareness that he was putting his own life in danger by pursuing them. Such methods certainly had the potential for exacerbating the existing tensions on which they played.

To summarise, the claim that Chagnon was involved in genocide has been conclusively disproved. Regarding the claims that he may have provoked conflict by distributing steel tools and using culturally insensitive research methods, there is no conclusive evidence of actual harm done, but these methods certainly would be regarded as unethical by today’s standards.

2. Is Chagnon’s ethnographic description of the Yanomami derogatory, and therefore unethical?

The most serious allegations of this kind were made by Turner, who alleged that Chagnon had deliberately misrepresented a peaceful people as congenitally violent. The AAA report which confirmed these allegations was initially accepted by the AAA in 2002, but subsequently rejected following Dreger’s investigations in 2005.

The fact that ethnographers who followed Chagnon in studying the Yanomami did not witness the same amount of violence that he had reported was construed by some as meaning that Chagnon had lied. Ferguson and others including Chagnon himself have pointed out, however, that not all Yanomami are equally violent, and that there may be ecological, cultural and economic reasons for this. Ferguson found Chagnon’s ethnographic data credible and saw no reason to question it.

Less serious allegations of similar kinds continue to be made, however - for instance anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, in her NY Times review of Noble Savages, complains about Chagnon’s descriptions of the Yanomami as ‘burly, naked, sweaty, hideous’, and stinking. She ignores the context in which these remarks were made, however, as a description as much of Chagnon’s own emotional response to his first encounter with the Yanomami, as of the Yanomami themselves. Chagnon went on to remark that he was soon equally ‘stinking’ himself. Povinelli suggests that Chagnon regards the Yanomami as ‘brutal Neolithic remnants’ which contrasts with his assertion that they have ‘a certain kind of nobility’. In fact, Povinelli’s complaint seems to result from the fact that she shares with the young Chagnon (if not with the older one), the assumption that peoples who do not conform to western aesthetic standards of appearance, odour and behaviour are necessarily inferior. There is a question here as to how much the derogatory tone she identifies is a product of Chagnon’s attitudes, and how much of her own.

Elizabeth Povinelli

The same critique can be made of Marks, who, unlike Chagnon, describes Unokais as ‘murderers’. Here, one of Chagnon’s opponents applies an ethnocentric value judgement to the Yanomami, by using a derogatory term which has no meaning outside the legal framework of a state society.

In part, what is at stake here may be different conceptions of what is normal and admirable. Chagnon grew up in a tough working-class environment in which violence would probably not have been exceptional, but a normal, culturally regulated, part of social interaction, and where (controlled) fierceness would be a source of admiration and respect. The value system of the Yanomami, as portrayed by Chagnon, is different only in the levels of violence permitted. Whilst still including strong social controls on violence, Yaonomami norms nevertheless allow lethal force, a level which in western societies is usually the prerogative of the state. Povinelli complains that Chagnon passes no moral judgement on Yanomami violence (particularly against women), but traditionally anthropologists have striven to refrain from ethnocentric judgements of the norms of others.

Yanomami Warriors

Most of Chagnon’s opponents are products of liberal middle-class environments in which all violence is seen as abnormal and unacceptable, and anyone displaying fierceness is likely to be shunned or formally excluded. For many of Chagnon's critics, to portray a society as violent is to denigrate it. This, however, is a fundamentally ethnocentric, and indeed, class-centric attitude. The exceptional value system of middle-class academia is a product of privilege, and its maintenance is only possible because this privileged class is protected by lower-class persons (police and soldiers) who are prepared to engage in violence on their behalf. The middle-class idea of normality, therefore, may not be ‘normal’ in cross-cultural (or even cross-class) context.

Interestingly, Marshall Sahlins, one of Chagnon’s strongest critics, was also accused of misrepresenting and denigrating indigenous peoples in his bitter and long-running dispute with Obeyesekere, which turned on a similar issue. Obeyesekere regarded ‘modern’ rationality as the yardstick of civilisation (much as Chagnon’s critics saw non-violence), and complained that Sahlins assertion that Hawaiians thought differently was libelous.

There seems little doubt that Chagnon’s own abrasive form of masculinity, which Harris and others have suggested resulted from his blue-collar upbringing, is distasteful to the liberal middle-class which now dominate anthropology, and some of the attitudes both he and his critics express probably tell us more about American society than they do about the Yanomami. Ironically, the move toward ever greater financial exclusivity in educational opportunities means that there are unlikely to be many more ‘blue-collar’ scholars such as Chagnon, and indeed Harris, and that anthropology’s study of cultural diversity may be compromised by the fact that the discipline is itself becoming less diverse.

In short, the allegations of deliberate misrepresentation have been convincingly refuted, but Chagnon continues to be criticised for the tone of his observations. I am at least as sceptical of these criticisms as I am of Chagnon’s colourful descriptions.

3. Should Chagnon have refrained from publishing data which could be misused by others to justify oppression of the Yanomami?

Both Turner and Povinelli base their critique of Chagnon on the fact that perceived ‘derogatory’ descriptions of the Yanomami were used to justify expropriation of their land. It seems clear that this was an issue that never crossed Chagnon’s mind when he published his early research. In later years, he did take account of this issue. In the 4th edition of The Yanamamö he dropped the subtitle The Fierce People because, he noted, in some languages (presumably Spanish & Portuguese) the translation of ‘fierce’ implied connotations of viciousness and animality. Later editions had a different subtitle - The Last Days of Eden, which has rather different connotations. Of course all scholars want to publish, and second-guessing Chagnon now that we know the events that followed is easy. But it certainly needs to be born in mind that publication can have unintended consequences. On the other hand, Chagnon is undoubtedly right in pointing out that tailoring anthropological findings to suit particular political agendas will only result in a loss of credibility for the discipline in the long term.

3 editions of Chagnon's ethnography

4. Was Chagnon’s treatment by the AAA unethical?

The answer to this seems to be a straighforward ‘Yes’. Dreger’s investigation showed convincingly that the AAA had failed in its duty of care to Chagnon, by accepting spurious and malicious allegations against him (including the allegation of genocide) without adequate supporting evidence. The AAA implicitly accepted Dreger’s verdict on its own conduct in 2005 when it voted to reject the report it had initially accepted. Chagnon’s career was effectively ended by the attacks - he was excluded from Brazil and Venezuela, was forced to take early retirement UC Santa Barbara and blames his deteriorating health on the stress of the attacks he suffered. One would think that Chagnon at least deserves an apology, which he has not received. Whether he deserves to be elected to the National Academy of Science is another question entirely.

5. Did Chagnon deliberately falsify his data to fit sociobiological theories? There is no evidence to support this allegation. Chagnon’s interest in sociobiology only emerged some years after the publication of his monograph. Given the considerable trouble he went to and considerable risks he took to amass his genealogical data, it seems unlikely he would have faked it. Brian Ferguson, perhaps Chagnon’s most effective critic, uses Chagnon’s ethnography extensively suggesting that he regards it as reliable. So it seems likely that Chagnon’s ethnography is solid, and in assessing his career, it is probably this extensive ethnographic data, gathered over a long period in difficult and dangerous circumstances, and sufficiently detailed to be reinterpreted by other scholars, that may be seen as his greatest achievement. Just because his data is honest, however, does not mean that his conclusions are correct.

6. Is Chagnon’s claim that violence in Yanomami society at the time and place of his fieldwork was primarily motivated by male desire for access to women justified by the evidence?

There have been two main challenges to Chagnon’s assertion. The first, from Marvin Harris, claimed that the Yanomami were really fighting over protein - meat. The second, from Brian Ferguson, claimed that imported western goods, especially steel tools such as machetes, were the primary cause of conflict. Chagnon claims to have effectively refuted Harris’s theory by showing that the Yanomami do not suffer from protein shortage, and notes that when he put Harris’s theory to the Yanomami, they themselves refuted it, saying, ‘we like meat, but we like women more’. Ferguson is not entirely convinced that the Yanomami are protein rich, but he agrees with Chagnon that there is no evidence that protein deficiency is a cause of conflict.

Ferguson makes a well-evidenced and convincing case that variations in the frequency and intensity of Yanomami warfare correlate with changes in the availability of western goods, particularly machetes. Chagnon agreed that such variations were a result of ecological and cultural factors, although steel tools was not a factor he identified. When we ask why the Yanomami want machetes, however, Ferguson tells us that it is primarily to enable larger gardens to be efficiently cleared - and the reason Yanomami men want larger gardens is to support more wives and children. So Ferguson’s explanation and Chagnon’s are not alternatives, they are complementary. What we are dealing with here is the difference between proximate and ultimate explanations. So Chagnon’s central claim has not been convincingly refuted, although Ferguson has shown that some of the mechanisms may be more complex than Chagnon allowed. Accepting that Chagnon is correct in this observation, however, does not necessarily mean that he is correct in the broader theoretical conclusions he drew from it (see 8 below).

7. Is Chagnon’s claim that Unokais (men who had killed) had more wives and children than other men their own age, and thus greater ‘reproductive fitness’ justified by the evidence?

Both Harris and Ferguson agree with Chagnon that particularly aggressive men do appropriate women as wives (Ferguson 1991. War in the Tribal Zone: 214). However, Ferguson (1989 American Ethologist) has also pointed out that this does not necessarily translate directly into greater ‘reproductive fitness’, since Unokais may themselves be killed before they can father many children, and Chagnon’s statistics do not record the numbers of Unokais who were killed. Moreover, Fry (2005 The Human Potential for Peace) has pointed out that Chagnon’s statistics include men whose ages vary by up to ten years, and Unokais tend to be older - so Chagnon’s statistics may not support his claim that Unokais have more wives and children than other men their own age. So whilst it seems clear that aggression is a tactic deployed by some men to increase their reproductive fitness, the jury is out on how successful a tactic it is.

8. If Unokais are more reproductively successful than other comparable men, can this finding be generalised to make the sociobiological claim that in ancestral human populations, violence enhanced reproductive success and therefore chronic warfare was the normal condition?

Jonathan Marks has laid out a convincing argument that even if Unokais are reproductively ‘fitter’ than other Yanomami men, there is no justification for generalising this to ancestral human populations - you can never generalise from one example. Marks has also demonstrated why Chagnon’s assertion that the Yanomami live ‘as close to a state of nature as is possible in the 20th century’ (2013 Noble Savages) does not render his claims any more credible.

In fact Chagnon is no longer at the forefront of this debate. His former student, Laura Betzig has made far more comprehensive claims regarding the link between violence and evolutionary fitness, and supported it with data from 104 different societies. Interestingly, although Betzig’s claims are at least as provocative as Chagnon’s, she has attracted nowhere near the same level of hostility, and I have been able to find very few critiques of her work, which has informed controversial popular science books such as Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen and Helen Fisher’s The Anatomy of Love. A sociobiologist might suspect that the range of overwhelmingly male scholars and journalists who lined up to do battle with Chagnon have little interest in engaging in a similar status struggle with a female scholar . . .

As for the claim that ‘chronic warfare’ was the normal human condition, Ferguson (1995 Yanomami Warfare) has provided detailed evidence that it was not normal even for the Yanomami, and that the extraordinary violence which Chagnon encountered was a product of particular historical circumstances. Chagnon’s own account of regional differences in Yanomami violence or peacefulness tends to support this interpretation of the evidence.

9. Should anthropology be a science, and is anthropological knowledge scientific knowledge?

Chagnon (2013) has interpreted his exclusion from the mainstream of Cultural Anthropology as evidence of an anti-science agenda within the discipline. Marks ( http://anthropomics.blogspot.co.uk/ ) has disputed this - claiming that in fact the dispute is between ‘anthropological science’ and sociobiology. To support this argument, Marks conflates the Chagnon controversy with the Mead/Freeman dispute - with Mead enrolled alongside Marshal Sahlins and other opponents of Chagnon on the side of ‘anthropological science’, whilst Freeman, characterised as a ‘nutter sociobiologist’ is consigned to the dark side, along with Chagnon. Leaving aside the ethics of characterising fellow scholars as nutters, the problem with this argument is that Freeman, even if he was a nutter, was certainly not a sociobiologist. In fact he was a ferocious opponent of sociobiology, and wrote a paper (in Montagu’s 1980 Sociobiology Examined) attacking the paradigm as ‘pseudoscientific flummery’. Moreover, Mead was not the doctrinaire cultural constructionist that some of her disciples imagined either - she acknowledged the influence of biology on cross-cultural regularities in human behaviour, and was one of the few anthropologists in the AAA to defend Chagnon when he was attacked - characterising the attempt to silence him as equivalent to book-burning. One suspects that had she lived longer, the subsequent Chagnon debacle would not have been allowed to happen.

In fact, there has been a longstanding debate within anthropology as to whether anthropology is, or should be, a science, and this debate has been largely won by those who believe it should not be. This debate can be traced to Evans-Pritchard’s (1956 Social Anthropology: Past & Present) assertion that social anthropology seeks patterns and not scientific laws, and interprets rather than explains. Evans-Pritchard’s view that anthropology was not a science but a humanity became entrenched on the other side of the Atlantic in Geertz’s interpretive approach which asserted that the analysis of culture was ‘not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’, and in the subsequent work of postmodern anthropologists such as Clifford who questioned the division between subject and object which was fundamental to science.

Whilst the questions these theorists asked and the insights they brought were valuable in challenging the unspoken assumptions which had informed colonial anthropology, they led to several generations of anthropologists, most of whom who do not conceive of themselves as scientists, are suspicious of science, and, it has become increasingly apparent, may not be able either to ‘do’ science, or to effectively critique those who do. If, as Marks claims, anthropology’s problem is that it ‘has let the other side speak, largely unchallenged, on behalf of science’, this is because there are very few anthropologists who are capable of challenging on equal terms. Marks offers Sahlins as an example of an anthropologist who has engaged with evolutionary science, but Chagnon has derided Sahlins’ work as full of ‘schoolboy errors’, and Tim Ingold (1986 Evolution and Social Life), by no means a sociobiologist, has also pointed out the flaws in Sahlins’ reasoning.

Unfortunately, its not just Sahlins. Researching an undergraduate course on the Anthropology of Sex & Gender, ‘schoolboy errors’ committed by eminent scholars in regard to evolutionary theory have been depressingly frequent discoveries. To give just two examples stumbled across in the last week, David Gilmore in “The Manhood Puzzle’ denies that the evolutionary pressures on hunter-gatherer societies can shed any light on modern human behaviours, since many modern societies have never hunted; whilst Lees & Black (2000 Gender and Anthropology), in an introductory textbook, question “the assumption that there is differential investment in a child at the moment of its conception since female ova are bigger than male sperm”, noting that ‘This assumption may be warranted for species in which the size of the female gamete is large in relation to total body size, but not necessarily in humans where the energy needed to produce male and female gametes is minimal”.

Both these assertions show a fundamental failure to grasp the evolutionary timeline: in Gilmore’s case, the fact that all humans have been hunter-gatherers for at least a million years, and lived other lifestyles for less than 10,000; in the case of Lees & Black, the fact that the argument concerning the energy costs of gamete size applies not to human beings (where differential investment is a result of pregnancy and lactation), but to the single-cell organisms in which sexual reproduction first evolved many millions of years before humans appeared. Whilst the fact that established scholars are making elementary mistakes is of concern, what is considerably more worrying is the fact that these errors are not being noticed by peer-reviewers and editors. This suggests that there really is a degree of scientific illiteracy within the discipline.

In short, if Marks optimistic vision of anthropological science seeing off flawed theories of the kind advanced by Chagnon is to become a reality, anthropologists need to become a great deal more scientifically literate than most currently are. The problem is that, having largely rejected science in favour of interpretation and deconstruction, many anthropologists are now unable to tell good science from bad. If this were not the case, it would not have taken so long for Chagnon to be effectively challenged on his own ground.

10. Is the production of scientific knowledge compatible with activism on behalf of indigenous people?

In the final part of Noble Savages, Chagnon claims that Anthropology has abandoned science in favour of advocacy. I will not offer any critique of this part of his book since I have not yet been able to access it - but the relationship between science and advocacy is certainly a legitimate topic to raise, and one which has caused problems for many anthropologists in the past - particularly those dragged into legal disputes between indigenous groups and dominant societies.

The problem is that whilst almost all anthropologists (Chagnon may be an exception) accept that all knowledge is situated, capitalist societies, and in particular, their legal systems, do not. Given this imperfect world, Chagnon may be right to point out that an excessive commitment to advocacy may compromise not only academic credibility, but effectiveness as an advocate as well. This does not mean that the relationship between scientific and ethical accountability cannot be managed, however. Clearly Chagnon himself believed that it could, when, in the conclusion of the 1992 edition of The Yanamamö he declared that the rest of his career would be devoted to “becoming an advocate of their rights and their chances to have a decent future”. His subsequent exclusion from Brazil and Venezuela left him little opportunity to pursue this aim, and us little opportunity to assess his performance. Whilst we must agree with Chagnon that advocacy should not extend to telling untruths, probably all anthropologists accept that in practice it means telling partial truths. But then, as even the hardest of scientific disciplines has now shown in the realm of quantum physics, at the most fundamental level, all truths are partial.


Whilst it has been shown that Chagnon is not guilty of the worst crimes of which he was accused, some of his research methods were potentially if not actually harmful, and are certainly unacceptable today. He did not lie about his findings, but a more thoughtful and sensitive approach to the way he reported them might have avoided their misuse by those seeking to dispossess the Yanomami. Conversely, some of his critics seem to be at least as ethnocentric as he.

Chagnon’s claim that the violence he witnessed was primarily motivated by male rivalries over women has been challenged but not convincingly refuted, and his claim that Unokais appropriate more women than other men has been accepted even by his critics. His attempt to generalise this finding, however, to the much broader claim that a Hobbesian state of ‘chronic warfare’ over women was normal in ancestral human populations is not supported by the evidence he provides. This does not mean that the claim is wrong - simply that Chagnon has not proved that it is right. Laura Betzig has provided much stronger evidence for a link between violence and reproductive fitness, but she has also shown that it is in early state societies, rather than hunter-gatherer bands, that the relationship is strongest. In fact Betzig’s theory could be interpreted as being closer to Engels than to Hobbes.

Marks has shown convincingly that Chagnon’s sociobiological theorising does not stand up to scrutiny, and that if his theory is science, it is inadequate science. Nevertheless, Chagnon is right in claiming there has been a turn away from science leading to a loss of scientific literacy within anthropology. Ironically, had this not been the case, a scientifically grounded critique of Chagnon’s theory might have emerged a great deal earlier than Marks’s (2013) blog.

Finally then, Chagnon may deserve an apology for his mistreatment, but so may the Yanomami. It could be argued that Chagnon’s election to the NAS is not justified given the failure of his evidence to substantiate his theories and the allegations of misrepresentation which have been made against him, but then the same argument could have been made about Sahlins. Chagnon sees his election as a vindication of him personally, and it may be seen as a rebuke to the AAA for its poor handling of the allegations against him. Chagnon also sees his election as a vindication of a ‘scientific’ approach to anthropology. Certainly it is a wake-up call to the discipline that whether they accept or reject such approaches, they need to be sufficiently knowledgeable of evolutionary theory to engage with them effectively. In a wider political context, Chagnon’s election could be seen as a somewhat sinister statement that the ends justifies the means. If so, the fact that the ends turned out to be a lot less rewarding than promised should also stand as a symbolic warning.