Napoleon Chagnon and the Struggle for Scientific Anthropology |
March 9, 2013
Evolutionary anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, is creating a considerable stir because it (gasp!) reiterates his findings that the behavior of the Yanomamö tribe of the Amazon basin was a good fit with an evolutionary model. In his review, Nick Romeo summarizes the central findings:
To a Darwinian anthropologist, it comes as no surprise that genetically related kin would form coalitions to wield power. And indeed, nearly all Yanomamö headmen have a greater number of male kin in their village than potential rivals do. But earlier anthropological models often downplayed natural selection and rejected the idea that hierarchies might be innate features of human society. Where these models assumed that individuals of the same age and gender would have roughly equal status in a village, Chagnon documented extensive kin-based hierarchies. He explained their presence in Darwinian terms: individuals who promote the survival of genetic kin are promoting the survival of their own genes. He also observed that power in Yanomamö villages was primarily defined by access to reproductive resources, not material ones. Powerful males had more wives and more offspring than less powerful males, and they were able to use their influence to provide close male relatives with wives. Power was both cause and effect of producing many genetically related kin in a village. A more disturbing finding was the correlation he noticed between violence and reproductive success: Yanomamö men who had killed other men were statistically more likely to have more offspring than those who had not.
Or, more colorfully, as Chagnon (who is nothing if not colorful) phrased it in his Skeptic interview with Frank Miele,
I was threatening the general attitude within anthropology that all native peoples are pacific and live an angelic kind of life, gliding through the jungle with lithe, scented bodies, being altruistic, sharing their food, and willing to cooperate with the stranger that comes in and wants to learn about them and their culture, and anxious to share their knowledge and life histories with that stranger.
Chagnon’s work quickly became a standard ethnological account among evolutionary anthropologists, but he was “effectively blacklisted” by the wider field. The second part of Chagnon’s book recounts his war with the anthropological establishment clinging to romantic views of the human past populated by peaceful gift givers living in harmony with nature. Based on the main combatants arrayed against Chagnon over the years (Marshall Sahlins [an early ideological opponent of sociobiology who recently resigned from the National Academy of Science to protest Chagnon's election to the NAS], Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the notorious Ashley Montagu [whose given name, as Chagnon notes in a footnote, is Israel Ehrenberg], Marvin Harris, and now yet another anti-evolutionary crusader, Jonathan Marks), the entire controversy might be a good addition to the material on the decline of Darwinism in anthropology (Chapter 2 of The Culture of Critique; Montagu is discussed on p. 26).
Reviews in the elite media have been mixed. Nicolas Wade gave a fair and positive review in the New York Times, while Elizabeth Povinelli’s review in the New York Times Book Review is dripping with hatred. She condemns
his core set of rhetorical syllogisms: (a) Neolithic man was a Hobbesian creature brutally competing for Darwinian reproductive advantage; (b) the Yanomamö are Neolithic men who desire women; therefore, (c) the Yanomamö are competing for reproductive advantage. But paying attention to desire and sexuality need not entail a theoretical paradigm of reproductive fitness. A different set of presuppositions would lead you elsewhere.
So you see, that’s all there is to anthropology. It doesn’t matter that Chagnon’s data conclusively demonstrate reproductive competition at the heart of Yanomamö society. You can make his data disappear into irrelevance by simply assuming that reproductive competition is not important. In the same way, the demonstration by Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun can be safely rejected if we simply make the assumption that God created the universe with the Earth at its center. Different assumptions, different results.
Is there any wonder that anthropology has no respect as an academic field? As a recent article in Science noted,
In the fall of 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott proclaimed that his state didn’t need any more anthropologists, and that public money would be better spent educating scientists. Then in January, a study found that the unemployment rate among recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and archaeology was 10.5%, surpassed by few other majors, and that anthropology majors who did get jobs were also among the lowest paid.