Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: New York Times, March 7, 2013.
Letters: ‘Noble Savages’
To the Editor:
The review of Napoleon A. Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” by the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli (Feb. 17) was curiously lacking in information about the actual book. Most of the review seemed to be about Chagnon himself — an admittedly controversial figure who nevertheless has been immensely influential in modern anthropology. It is demeaning to start a review by citing Linda Ronstadt’s song “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” It further demeans the process not to cite a single long passage from the book, nor summarize a single idea without first filtering it through sarcasm and mockery.
Chagnon’s most arresting claim is that among the Yanomamö, men who have killed enemies in combat have, on average, three times as many offspring as men who haven’t. If true, that fact carries enormous implications for any collective attempt to reduce levels of violence in the world. Surely that topic deserves respectful and dignified analysis, but, strangely, Povinelli never gets around to it. She comes across as so upset by the topic itself that she can’t bring herself to address the data in the book.
To the Editor:
Elizabeth Povinelli calls Napoleon A. Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” a “paranoid romp.” Well, this particular paranoid has real enemies, especially among rival anthropologists, and his legitimate work was indeed hampered by them. As the United States ambassador to Venezuela from 1990-93, I knew Chagnon and accompanied him to the Yanomamö lands. My presence on that trip was necessary to assure his access, because certain well-connected individuals opposed his activities. Before I agreed to join him, I researched his career and found that while a few experts disagreed with his analysis, he was a respected scientist, recognized as the discoverer and primary describer of a new tribe in the Amazon region. Povinelli makes many general accusations, but can she offer the results of research anywhere near as rigorous as Chagnon’s that show the Yanomamö to be other than he has depicted them?
Elizabeth Povinelli replies:
Napoleon A. Chagnon has offered the public a memoir of his personal experiences in the Amazon and the American academy. The inclusion of chapters devoted to an abridged recapitulation of previous research does not turn “Noble Savages” into a scholarly work. For me the salient issues here remain: the continued silence about the mass suffering and death of many Yanomamö no matter the epidemiological vector; the press’s continued use of sensationalized bodily stereotypes to cast a historical people into prehistorical time; the prickly sensitivity of an author who traffics in the brutal representation of others; and most of all, the view that any intellectual criticism of how Chagnon collected or interpreted his data is part of a “postmodern” conspiracy against science. If Junger and Skol are interested in the rich scholarly debates on how to interpret Chagnon’s data, or other approaches to sexuality and social organization, I would refer them to Marshall Sahlins’s critical analysis of Chagnon’s work; and also to E. O. Wilson’s shifting views on the selfish and altruistic gene; Cynthia Enloe’s work on race, gender and war violence; Brian Ferguson’s historical analysis of the Yanomamö; and countless books on psychoanalysis and the history of sexuality.
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