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Interview with controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, author of 'Noble Savages'

'Noble Savages'
February 18, 2013

Napoleon Chagnon may well be the most famous and most infamous anthropologist alive. Famous for the years he spent conducting fieldwork among the Yanomamö, a large and isolated native tribe in Venezuela and Brazil, and his extensive writings on their kinship structures, marriages, warfare, and more (most notably his 1968 work Yanomamö: The Fierce People, which sold close to a million copies in numerous editions and which for decades was routinely assigned in introductory anthropology courses); infamous even today in the wake of the 2000 book Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, who accused Chagnon and several of his colleagues of the most appalling and egregious sorts of misconduct and abuse. 

The most extreme of the many allegations in Darkness in El Dorado was that Chagnon and his sometime collaborator, the late geneticist James V. Neel of the University of Michigan, had introduced or exacerbated a measles epidemic among the previously unexposed Yanomamö. While that claim has been repeatedly and thoroughly rebutted, its lingering stench -- and that of some of Tierney's other charges, whose veracity (or otherwise) is less clear (such as that Chagnon incited violence among the Yanomamö merely to provide support for his own, spurious, theories)  -- has clung to Chagnon (and has sparked numerous and heated debates within the American Anthropological Association) ever since

Much of why Chagnon has never quite been able to extricate himself from scandal has to do with his particular facility for cultivating enemies. Over the course of his career, he managed to alienate the Salesian missionaries who wield a great deal of influence over Yanomamö affairs in Venezuela; a number of his former colleagues and collaborators; and a wide array of anthropologists -- American, Venezuelan, Brazilian, and otherwise. 

Chagnon's new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon & Schuster) is a 500-page behemoth dedicated to nailing down every aspect of his side of the story: from the earliest years he spent among the Yanomamö, in the mid-1960s, all the way through to the ongoing fallout of the El Dorado scandal. The book is both a fascinating (and layman-friendly) look at a nearly extinguished way of life and a scathing polemic against Chagnon's numerous critics, whom he does not hesitate to name and shame. 

In Chagnon's view, the bulk of the criticism against him stems from what he deems the "widespread biophobia" among anthropologists -- particularly cultural anthropologists -- who have no stomach for his theories about the impact of evolution on human behavior. (One notable example: a 1988 Science article in which Chagnon showed that Yanomamö men who had killed other men had more wives and more offspring than those who had not, and argued that violence might therefore be seen to serve an evolutionary function, i.e., maximizing one's reproductive opportunities.) Another factor, he says, is the trend among anthropologists toward "activism and advocacy" on behalf of "political cause[s]," rather than the straightforward scientific study that he sees as anthropology's raison d'être.

Indeed, asked to comment on the new book, Chagnon's longtime critic Leslie Sponsel, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, wrote in an e-mail:

"[T]he controversy, and probably the book... will continue to distract attention from serious issues of the violation of professional ethics and human rights that remain unresolved, and most tragically of all, distract attention from the Yanomami and their situation which are immensely more important.  Why don't you research and write an article on the Yanomami?  Are they unimportant in all of this?"

Another noted Chagnon foe, Leda Martins, associate professor of anthropology at Pitzer College, was more phlegmatic: "Well, it is what it is," she wrote. 

Inside Higher Ed conducted an e-mail interview with Chagnon, now Distinguished Research Professor and Chancellor's Chair for Excellence in Anthropology at the University of Missouri at Columbia and adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan, for his perspective on his career, its controversies, and the state of the field of anthropology.

Note: This article uses the spelling Yanomamö, which is Chagnon's own preferred term for the tribe and the one used throughout Noble Savages; Chagnon's critics and many neutral parties tend to use the spelling Yanomami. 

Q: How would you describe the current state of the discipline of cultural anthropology?

A: Cultural anthropology has gone through some important changes, beginning at about the time I was in the most productive state of my Yanomamö field research in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  One important change was the disappearance of tribesmen in the traditional regions of the world where they had been found. Part of this was the consequence of the improvement in transportation technology -- the availability of helicopters and light aircraft that could reach remote, isolated areas and the widespread use of outboard motors on watercraft and outposts of civilization like missions and trading outposts that could provide fuel for these.

Another change, especially in forested areas like Amazonas, was the spread of the lumber industry and cattle ranching where formerly dense forests existed.... So, in general, the traditional subject matter of cultural anthropology -- the study of remote tribesmen -- was disappearing and most cultural anthropologists began studying other groups, like traditional peasants in Latin America, ghettos in large cities, youth gangs in small cities in Europe, and even the areas whence their grandparents and other relatives came. 

In addition to these changes in the subject matter itself, new approaches, styles, and intellectual directions developed -- “postmodernism,” political activism on behalf of native peoples, gender studies, and other -isms that shared, in general, a skepticism bordering on contempt for the scientific method and evolutionism. Finally, in my estimation, the cultural branch of anthropology tended to have increasingly fewer academic guidelines and rules, intellectual demands, and rigorously structured graduate programs that entailed comprehensive training in, for example, linguistics, statistical methods, field research requirements, and general knowledge about the history of the discipline. It was very possible for someone to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology and essentially know only about one specialized topic -- like the reasons why women in rural Poland were suppressed and unable to have their voices heard.

But another branch of cultural anthropology went in the direction of science and evolutionary theory and was more rigorous in the kinds of field studies and analyses its members did. Today it is generally known as either evolutionary psychology or evolutionary ecology, and it tends to be more in line with the kinds of issues and methods that biologists and ecologists use in the study of a variety of animal population -- including humans and other primates.

One consequence of these developments has been a great deal of bickering, backbiting, and often open conflict in major departments of anthropology leading, in some cases, to the splitting of departments into “the scientists” and “the nonscientists.”  I retired, for example, from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999, just before this kind of friction reached a climax. I was hired by the University of Missouri’s anthropology department, where an abiding respect for science and evolutionary theory is shared by all of the faculty I have gotten to know.

In short, I think those departments of anthropology whose members adhere to the scientific method will endure and again come to be the “standard” approach to the study of Homo Sapiens, while those that are nonscientific will become less and less numerous or eventually be absorbed into disciplines that are nonanthropological, like comparative literature, gender studies, philosophy, and others.

Q: What were some of your key conclusions about human behavior based on your observations of the Yanomamö? What made these ideas so controversial?

A: Foremost among my conclusions about human behavior based on my longtime study of the Yanomamö is that Yanomamö behavior is essentially like our behavior.  Like us, they choose courses of action that, in general, contribute to their own well-being and the well-being of their families -- their kinsmen. Our behavior differs in degree, not kind, because we now live in communities that number in the billions of individuals and have developed institutions like the political state, the empire, or the nation and, very importantly, laws that proscribe many kinds of behavior and activities at the pain of severe penalties, fines, censorship, incarceration, and even execution.

The ideas on which my research rest in fact are NOT controversial to most educated people, especially those who understand the procedures of science and the more general thing we call common sense. But I have argued all during my academic life that humans and all organisms have an evolved nature and a learned nature. Unfortunately, many cultural anthropologists hold the view that humans are virtually unique among living organisms in having only a cultural nature -- and are repulsed by the notion that aspects of human behavior can only be understood if one admits that humans are the product of evolution, as are all forms of life. 

Let me give just one example. Most anthropologists never think about the question:  “Why are humans social, i.e., live in groups containing both sexes and individuals of all ages?” Anthropologists just assume that it is “natural” to be social.  But many species are not social and the sexes come together just long enough to mate and then disperse.  Thus, the most central characteristic of humans, “sociality,” must be explained. That explanation cannot be provided by cultural anthropology because it is a biological question. My Yanomamö field studies were conducted AFTER I became familiar with the profound developments in biological theories after about 1965 that explained cooperation, altruism, competition, etc., in ways that were new and generally unknown in anthropology. This ignorance in the theoretical canon of anthropology made this idea controversial.

Q: Can you explain your concerns about the effect of postmodernism on the field of anthropology?

A: I probably have an overly skeptical view of postmodernism in anthropology, largely because my work has generally been singled out as “wrongheaded” by academics who purport to be postmodernists.  My “wrongheadedness” inevitably comes down to my defense of the scientific method in my work and my complete rejection of the notion that “explanations” in anthropology are merely ideological constructs and therefore arbitrary because “constructs” are always contaminated by the individual’s political, economic, religious, social, etc. views. In short, there are no acceptable means of verification of claims about events in the external world because each person’s view and explanations are simply contaminated “constructs.” This implies that an empirically verifiable external world does not exist and the standard practice of appealing to empirical evidence cannot be used to verify someone’s claim: all claims are equal because they are all constructs of the human psyche.

Q: The study of anthropology has changed a great deal since the 1960s, when you first went to live with the Yanomamö. How do you view the changes in the image and role of the anthropologist over time?

A: If by anthropologist you mean “cultural” anthropologist who has contempt for the scientific method, then my response would be that that the “image” of the “cultural anthropologist” among other scientists is probably that they have nothing important to add to any discussion of meaningful things in important human matters and are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. I am concerned about this for the future of cultural anthropology as a viable avocation. My view is that the only way cultural anthropologists can remain relevant in pronouncements about human affairs -- whether it is advocating for native rights or attempting to explain violence in human societies -- is if they use common sense, express opinions based on verifiable and repeatable data, and don’t simply make up stuff. 

Q: What are some of the more common misconceptions about the Yanomamö?
 
A: I would say that the main misconception that most people have is the impression that the Yanomamö are uniformly like the groups that I have studied and there is little or no variation from one group -- a cluster of villages with a common historical origin -- to another group.  But I have repeatedly indicated that the Yanomamö are a very large tribe of over 20,000 individuals who live in some 250 or more separate villages scattered over a very large area, an area about the size of the state of North Dakota. Several distinct dialects of their language have developed due to geographical isolation of some of these groups and lack of contact between them for a variety of reasons, including differences in terrain, altitude, preference for certain types of ecology, and possible deliberate avoidance due of fear of neighbors with a reputation for nastiness.
 
There have been a number of anthropologists who have lived among different groups of Yanomamö and have published excellent works. In fact, over 40 different anthropologists have visited and worked among the Yanomamö for brief periods of time.  This should have turned into a wonderful opportunity for informed anthropologists with firsthand experience to compare notes on the measurable and documentable differences between the various groups in both Venezuela and Brazil -- things like differences in average village size, elevation and terrain differences, distance between villages, forms of antagonism between villages if any existed, results of lethal raids in terms of deaths, causes of other deaths, frequency of polygynous marriage, and a host of other questions.
 
But this kind of cooperation and discussion never developed, possibly because each anthropologist wanted his or her work to be unique and stand out from the work of others....
 
So, in the end, most of the anthropologists who worked among the Yanomamö decided it was “safer” to simply denounce me, contributing to the misconception that I was the only anthropologist who studied a group of Yanomamö who engaged in warfare, club fighting, and homicide -- making possible the rather humorous accusation that I projected my allegedly “vile” personality into the Yanomamö I studied, thereby either making them violent, or having to invent my evidence that they did engage in violence.  One wonders how others have managed to avoid reporting deaths caused by violence in the groups of Yanomamö studied by other anthropologists.  It would be refreshing if these data, if collected, would be made public so we anthropologists could begin trying to explain the differences in the rates and patterns.
 
Q: How would you answer the question that you pose in the book's final chapter: "If the central allegation in Tierney's book was false, why did his other accusations cause such a sensational scandal in the media and in academia?"
 
A: The answer to that question is probably one that a sociobiologist like me would give; people are very interested in the misfortunes of others who have had a little more success in life than they have had, and tend to be willing to accept stories that imply that they got ahead by dishonesty, cheating, subterfuge, or unfair privilege.
 
So, when someone like the editor of The New Yorker, known for its meticulous fact-checking, or a respected publisher like W. W. Norton with a large college text division, publishes an article by Tierney or a book by him, they do so because his story is most likely to be sensational and sell a large number of magazines or books because it is simply too sensational to turn down, despite its improbable veracity:  two prominent scientists are exposed for their unethical and reprehensible treatment of innocent natives, like what the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele did to Jews in the death camps of WWII.
 
People just love to have the dirty laundry of others exposed and made public.  Never mind what this does to the victims of the false accusations, and their families.

 

 

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