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Prominent anthropologist resigns in protest from National Academy of Sciences

A Protest Resignation
February 25, 2013

The eminent University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Academy of Sciences on Friday, citing his objections to its military partnerships and to its electing as a member Napoleon Chagnon, a long-controversial anthropologist who is back in the news thanks to the publication of his new book, Noble Savages

Membership in the NAS is considered highly prestigious, and public resignations are rare. In an e-mail to a number of his colleagues, which was forwarded to Inside Higher Ed, Sahlins wrote, "I have submitted my resignation to the National Academy of Sciences (US) because of my objections to the election of Chagnon... and to the military research projects of the Academy."

Sahlins confirmed his resignation and the reasons behind it in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. 

"By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research," Sahlins said. By way of example, he cited his own Washington Post review of the 2000 book Darkness in El Dorado, the source of many of the accusations against Chagnon that are still hotly disputed among anthropologists.

"At the same time," Sahlins added, "[Chagnon's] 'scientific' claims about human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence ... have proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy."

Sahlins further noted his objection to several recently announced collaborations between the NAS and the U.S. military. One of the projects involves "measuring human capabilities" and "the combination of individual capabilities to create collective capacity to perform"; another seeks to study "the social and organizational factors that present external influences on the behavior of individuals operating within the context of military environments." Both have the stated goal of utilizing social science research "to inform U.S. military personnel policies and practices."

Because of "the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples," Sahlins said, "the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war."

Sahlins' resignation highlights two serious and ongoing debates within anthropology: one, the appropriate relationship -- if any -- between anthropologists and the military (Sahlins has previously expressed his opposition to any such involvement); two, the role of hard science within the discipline.

Sahlins' research has focused on the impact of culture on human behavior, while Chagnon has tended to look for biological underpinnings. In recent years, anthropologists who consider themselves scientists have complained about being marginalized by, as one put it, "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing."

Asked to offer his opinion on Sahlins' move, Chagnon wrote in an e-mail, "I am surprised that Sahlins resigned from the NAS to protest my election last year to the NAS. One possible interpretation is that he is displeased with the gradual swing back to to the academic principle that scientists should tell the truth in their publications...."

Chagnon continued, "Sahlins was elected to the NAS in 1991, but he had published his Use and Abuse of Biology in 1976, which should have made clear to the members of the NAS how antiscientific Sahlins was."

When contacted by e-mail for comment on Sahlins' resignation, Raymond Hames, professor of anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a Chagnon supporter, also mentioned The Use and Abuse of Biology, saying that in his opinion the book "clearly demonstrated [Sahlins] had an elementary-school knowledge of evolutionary biology."

"I am not surprised he resigned," Hames added.

"Chagnon's defenders operate almost entirely by diversion," countered David Graeber, reader in social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "[T]hey never seriously engage with the core objections to what Chagnon did, which is to vilify a group of human beings so that enormous violence could be unleashed on them.

"Marshall Sahlins is a man of genuine principle," Graeber continued. "He's never had a lot of patience for shirtless macho Americans who descend into jungles, declaring their inhabitants to be violent savages, and then use that as an excuse to start behaving like violent savages themselves -- except with command over infinitely greater technological resources."

 

 

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