Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon (1938-2019) was a noted anthropologist to whom the label “controversial” was applied. Some of the story is told in this surprisingly objective New York Times article about Chagnon’s life and death. Matthew Blackwell gives a more complete account in “The Dangerous Life of an Anthropologist” (Quilette, October 5, 2019).
Chagnon’s sin was his finding that “nature” trumped “nurture”, as demonstrated by his decades-long ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, indigenous Amazonians who live in the border area between Venezuela and Brazil. As Blackwell tells it,
Chagnon found that up to 30 percent of all Yanomamö males died a violent death. Warfare and violence were common, and duelling was a ritual practice, in which two men would take turns flogging each other over the head with a club, until one of the combatants succumbed. Chagnon was adamant that the primary causes of violence among the Yanomamö were revenge killings and women. The latter may not seem surprising to anyone aware of the ubiquity of ruthless male sexual competition in the animal kingdom, but anthropologists generally believed that human violence found its genesis in more immediate matters, such as disputes over resources. When Chagnon asked the Yanomamö shaman Dedeheiwa to explain the cause of violence, he replied, “Don’t ask such stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!” Such fights erupted over sexual jealousy, sexual impropriety, rape, and attempts at seduction, kidnap and failure to deliver a promised girl….
Chagnon would make more than 20 fieldwork visits to the Amazon, and in 1968 he published Yanomamö: The Fierce People, which became an instant international bestseller. The book immediately ignited controversy within the field of anthropology. Although it commanded immense respect and became the most commonly taught book in introductory anthropology courses, the very subtitle of the book annoyed those anthropologists, who preferred to give their monographs titles like The Gentle Tasaday, The Gentle People, The Harmless People, The Peaceful People, Never in Anger, and The Semai: A Nonviolent People of Malaya. The stubborn tendency within the discipline was to paint an unrealistic façade over such cultures—although 61 percent of Waorani men met a violent death, an anthropologist nevertheless described this Amazonian people as a “tribe where harmony rules,” on account of an “ethos that emphasized peacefulness.”…
These anthropologists were made more squeamish still by Chagnon’s discovery that the unokai of the Yanomamö—men who had killed and assumed a ceremonial title—had about three times more children than others, owing to having twice as many wives. Drawing on this observation in his 1988 Science article “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” Chagnon suggested that men who had demonstrated success at a cultural phenomenon, the military prowess of revenge killings, were held in higher esteem and considered more attractive mates. In some quarters outside of anthropology, Chagnon’s theory came as no surprise, but its implication for anthropology could be profound. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker points out that if violent men turn out to be more evolutionarily fit, “This arithmetic, if it persisted over many generations, would favour a genetic tendency to be willing and able to kill.”…
Chagnon considered his most formidable critic to be the eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris. Harris had been crowned the unofficial historian of the field following the publication of his all-encompassing work The Rise of Anthropological Theory. He was the founder of the highly influential materialist school of anthropology, and argued that ethnographers should first seek material explanations for human behavior before considering alternatives, as “human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence.” Harris held that the structure and “superstructure” of a society are largely epiphenomena of its “infrastructure,” meaning that the economic and social organization, beliefs, values, ideology, and symbolism of a culture evolve as a result of changes in the material circumstances of a particular society, and that apparently quaint cultural practices tend to reflect man’s relationship to his environment. For instance, prohibition on beef consumption among Hindus in India is not primarily due to religious injunctions. These religious beliefs are themselves epiphenomena to the real reasons: that cows are more valuable for pulling plows and producing fertilizers and dung for burning. Cultural materialism places an emphasis on “-etic” over “-emic” explanations, ignoring the opinions of people within a society and trying to uncover the hidden reality behind those opinions.
Naturally, when the Yanomamö explained that warfare and fights were caused by women and blood feuds, Harris sought a material explanation that would draw upon immediate survival concerns. Chagnon’s data clearly confirmed that the larger a village, the more likely fighting, violence, and warfare were to occur. In his book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture Harris argued that fighting occurs more often in larger Yanomamö villages because these villages deplete the local game levels in the rainforest faster than smaller villages, leaving the men no option but to fight with each other or to attack outside groups for meat to fulfil their protein macronutrient needs. When Chagnon put Harris’s materialist theory to the Yanomamö they laughed and replied, “Even though we like meat, we like women a whole lot more.” Chagnon believed that smaller villages avoided violence because they were composed of tighter kin groups—those communities had just two or three extended families and had developed more stable systems of borrowing wives from each other.
Survival International … has long promoted the Rousseauian image of a traditional people who need to be preserved in all their natural wonder from the ravages of the modern world. Survival International does not welcome anthropological findings that complicate this harmonious picture, and Chagnon had wandered straight into their line of fire….
For years, Survival International’s Terence Turner had been assisting a self-described journalist, Patrick Tierney, as the latter investigated Chagnon for his book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. In 2000, as Tierney’s book was being readied for publication, Turner and his colleague Leslie Sponsel wrote to the president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and informed her that an unprecedented crisis was about to engulf the field of anthropology. This, they warned, would be a scandal that, “in its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption, is unparalleled in the history of Anthropology.” Tierney alleged that Chagnon and Neel had spread measles among the Yanomamö in 1968 by using compromised vaccines, and that Chagnon’s documentaries depicting Yanomamö violence were faked by using Yanomamö to act out dangerous scenes, in which further lives were lost. Chagnon was blamed, inter alia, for inciting violence among the Yanomamö, cooking his data, starting wars, and aiding corrupt politicians. Neel was also accused of withholding vaccines from certain populations of natives as part of an experiment. The media were not slow to pick up on Tierney’s allegations, and the Guardian ran an article under an inflammatory headline accusing Neel and Chagnon of eugenics: “Scientists ‘killed Amazon Indians to test race theory.’” Turner claimed that Neel believed in a gene for “leadership” and that the human genetic stock could be upgraded by wiping out mediocre people. “The political implication of this fascistic eugenics,” Turner told the Guardian, “is clearly that society should be reorganised into small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge into dominance, eliminating or subordinating the male losers.”
By the end of 2000, the American Anthropological Association announced a hearing on Tierney’s book. This was not entirely reassuring news to Chagnon, given their history with anthropologists who failed to toe the party line….
… Although the [AAA] taskforce [appointed to investigate Tierney’s accusations] was not an “investigation” concerned with any particular person, for all intents and purposes, it blamed Chagnon for portraying the Yanomamö in a way that was harmful and held him responsible for prioritizing his research over their interests.
Nonetheless, the most serious claims Tierney made in Darkness in El Dorado collapsed like a house of cards. Elected Yanomamö leaders issued a statement in 2000 stating that Chagnon had arrived after the measles epidemic and saved lives, “Dr. Chagnon—known to us as Shaki—came into our communities with some physicians and he vaccinated us against the epidemic disease which was killing us. Thanks to this, hundreds of us survived and we are very thankful to Dr. Chagnon and his collaborators for help.” Investigations by the American Society of Human Genetics and the International Genetic Epidemiology Society both found Tierney’s claims regarding the measles outbreak to be unfounded. The Society of Visual Anthropology reviewed the so-called faked documentaries, and determined that these allegations were also false. Then an independent preliminary report released by a team of anthropologists dissected Tierney’s book claim by claim, concluding that all of Tierney’s most important assertions were either deliberately fraudulent or, at the very least, misleading. The University of Michigan reached the same conclusion. “We are satisfied,” its Provost stated, “that Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon, both among the most distinguished scientists in their respective fields, acted with integrity in conducting their research… The serious factual errors we have found call into question the accuracy of the entire book [Darkness in El Dorado] as well as the interpretations of its author.” Academic journal articles began to proliferate, detailing the mis-inquiry and flawed conclusions of the 2002 taskforce. By 2005, only three years later, the American Anthropological Association voted to withdraw the 2002 taskforce report, re-exonerating Chagnon.
A 2000 statement by the leaders of the Yanomamö and their Ye’kwana neighbours called for Tierney’s head: “We demand that our national government investigate the false statements of Tierney, which taint the humanitarian mission carried out by Shaki [Chagnon] with much tenderness and respect for our communities. The investigation never occurred, but Tierney’s public image lay in ruins and would suffer even more at the hands of historian of science Alice Dreger, who interviewed dozens of people involved in the controversy. Although Tierney had thanked a Venezuelan anthropologist for providing him with a dossier of information on Chagnon for his book, the anthropologist told Dreger that Tierney had actually written the dossier himself and then misrepresented it as an independent source of information.
A “dossier” and its use to smear an ideological opponent. Where else have we seen that?
Returning to Blackwell:
Scientific American has described the controversy as “Anthropology’s Darkest Hour,” and it raises troubling questions about the entire field. In 2013, Chagnon published his final book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. Chagnon had long felt that anthropology was experiencing a schism more significant than any difference between research paradigms or schools of ethnography—a schism between those dedicated to the very science of mankind, anthropologists in the true sense of the word, and those opposed to science; either postmodernists vaguely defined, or activists disguised as scientists who seek to place indigenous advocacy above the pursuit of objective truth. Chagnon identified Nancy Scheper-Hughes as a leader in the activist faction of anthropologists, citing her statement that we “need not entail a philosophical commitment to Enlightenment notions of reason and truth.”
Whatever the rights and wrong of his debates with Marvin Harris across three decades, Harris’s materialist paradigm was a scientifically debatable hypothesis, which caused Chagnon to realize that he and his old rival shared more in common than they did with the activist forces emerging in the field: “Ironically, Harris and I both argued for a scientific view of human behavior at a time when increasing numbers of anthropologists were becoming skeptical of the scientific approach.”…
Both Chagnon and Harris agreed that anthropology’s move away from being a scientific enterprise was dangerous. And both believed that anthropologists, not to mention thinkers in other fields of social sciences, were disguising their increasingly anti-scientific activism as research by using obscurantist postmodern gibberish. Observers have remarked at how abstruse humanities research has become and even a world famous linguist like Noam Chomsky admits, “It seems to me to be some exercise by intellectuals who talk to each other in very obscure ways, and I can’t follow it, and I don’t think anybody else can.” Chagnon resigned his membership of the American Anthropological Association in the 1980s, stating that he no longer understood the “unintelligible mumbo jumbo of postmodern jargon” taught in the field. In his last book, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, Harris virtually agreed with Chagnon. “Postmodernists,” he wrote, “have achieved the ability to write about their thoughts in a uniquely impenetrable manner. Their neo-baroque prose style with its inner clauses, bracketed syllables, metaphors and metonyms, verbal pirouettes, curlicues and figures is not a mere epiphenomenon; rather, it is a mocking rejoinder to anyone who would try to write simple intelligible sentences in the modernist tradition.”…
The quest for knowledge of mankind has in many respects become unrecognizable in the field that now calls itself anthropology. According to Chagnon, we’ve entered a period of “darkness in cultural anthropology.” With his passing, anthropology has become darker still.
I recount all of this for three reasons. First, Chagnon’s findings testify to the immutable urge to violence that lurks within human beings, and to the dominance of “nature” over “nurture”. That dominance is evident not only in the urge to violence (pace Steven Pinker), but in the strong heritability of such traits as intelligence.
The second reason for recounting Chagnon’s saga it is to underline the corruption of science in the service of left-wing causes. The underlying problem is always the same: When science — testable and tested hypotheses based on unbiased observations — challenges left-wing orthodoxy, left-wingers — many of them so-called scientists — go all out to discredit real scientists. And they do so by claiming, in good Orwellian fashion, to be “scientific”. (I have written many posts about this phenomenon.) Leftists are, in fact, delusional devotees of magical thinking.
The third reason for my interest in the story of Napoleon Chagnon is a familial connection of sorts. He was born in a village where his grandfather, also Napoleon Chagnon, was a doctor. My mother was one of ten children, most of them born and all of them raised in the same village. When the tenth child was born, he was given Napoleon as his middle name, in honor of Doc Chagnon.