Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon | The Nation


Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon

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The book was controversial from the start. Chagnon presented the Yanomami as a people living in the “state of nature,” untouched by the influence of modern civilization and nation-states, and so providing something of an undiluted example of humankind’s evolutionary ancestry. The possibility that these “primitive,” “Stone Age” people were killing each other not in competition over strategic resources, but specifically to improve their “reproductive fitness”—their odds of passing on their genes, either by reproducing themselves or by boosting the reproductive prospects of their relatives—was irresistible to proponents of the emerging field of sociobiology, which looks to natural selection to explain human social behaviors like altruism, the emergence of nation-states and war. The discipline’s recognition skyrocketed after the publication of E.O. Wilson’s influential Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975; in subsequent editions of Yanomamö, Chagnon placed more emphasis on the role of biology in explanations of human behavior. For sociobiologists and their descendants, especially so-called evolutionary psychologists, such thinking was nothing short of a scientific revolution; for their detractors, among them cultural anthropologists, it was reductionist mumbo-jumbo at best, and politically dangerous at worst—the squeezing of the Yanomami and similar groups into categories crafted from Western assumptions to serve Western interests. The battles were heated and inseparable from competition over funding. The Yanomami became something of a prize token: for Chagnon’s defenders and critics, the fighting that occurred among this small group of people in the Amazon simply could not be what the other camp claimed it was, nor mean what the other side said it meant. Allegations of bad faith, often tinged with personal hostility, were as thick in the air as insects in the Amazon rainforest.

Noble Savages
My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.
By Napoleon A. Chagnon.

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About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker is a writer in DeKalb, Illinois.

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Even if the Yanomami are, or were, our “contemporary ancestors,” they live on land that is claimed by modern nation-states and happens to be rich in precious minerals. When the miners arrive, the Yanomami die, mostly from disease or poisonous chemical runoff, but sometimes also from shotgun blasts. During the 1980s and ’90s, anthropologists and indigenous rights groups became concerned about the possible effect that Chagnon’s theories might have outside the academy. This concern escalated after 1988, when Chagnon published an article in Science claiming that, among the Yanomami, men who killed other men also had the most wives and children. In 1989, the Brazilian Anthropological Association wrote to the AAA’s newsletter, arguing that Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomami as a fundamentally “fierce people” (the subtitle of his book’s first three editions) was exaggerated to the point of falsehood, and less than helpful at a time when the Yanomami were under attack by miners and their allies in the Brazilian government, who were citing this supposedly endemic Yanomami violence as one of the reasons they should be segregated on twenty-one separate micro-reservations. As similar accusations circulated, it became increasingly difficult for Chagnon to obtain the permits required to do his work. In 1999, citing this obstacle, he announced his early retirement from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and returned to his home state of Michigan.

Around a year later, controversy about Chagnon’s Yanomami work reached a new level of scrutiny and public visibility, prompted by the publication of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Where previous Yanomami debates had rarely strayed beyond specialized academic venues, Tierney’s attack on Chagnon was published by W.W. Norton, a respected trade house, and garnered the attention of reviewers around the world. Tierney was at the time a journalist and indigenous rights activist; in Darkness in El Dorado, he took all the old complaints against Chagnon and wove them into a dramatic narrative of white men and the ruin they’d brought to the rainforest. His rogues’ gallery includes the French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, who for years used his store of foreign goods to pay Yanomami men and boys for sex. There was also the public television documentary crew that paid the Yanomami to dress and act differently (more “primitively”) than they otherwise would have—and then sat by, cameras rolling, while a young woman and her child died, despite having a motorboat that could have taken them to a hospital. There are miners and soldiers and corrupt politicians—and there’s Chagnon himself, whom Tierney portrays as the monomaniacal, violence-obsessed Colonel Kurtz of sociobiology, so entranced by the possibility of making a vital contribution to a beautiful, voguish theory that he lost all sight of Yanomami reality, research ethics and human decency.

In addition to rehashing—and, more than once, overcooking—the old accusations about Chagnon’s flawed assumptions, suspect methodology, dubious interpretations and their effects on the Yanomami, Tierney raised a new charge, one that seemed to dwarf the others in terms of its horror. The allegation related to a central aspect of Chagnon’s research program, one that had hardly been mentioned in his writings to date. The funding for Chagnon’s first few trips to South America came from the National Institute of Mental Health; but by 1967, Chagnon was collaborating with James Neel, a titan of modern genetics. Neel worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, the post–World War II agency created to study nuclear technology and its effects (including the infamous experiments in which Americans were exposed to large doses of radiation without their consent). As a geneticist, Neel saw the Yanomami as the closest link to our “evolutionary ancestors” he would ever get a chance to sample, an isolated population unaffected by industrialization or global conflict. Neel and Chagnon were both then based at the University of Michigan, and it was on Neel’s recommendation that Chagnon went to live with the Yanomami in the first place. Chagnon got AEC money; in return, whenever one of Neel’s teams wanted to collect blood and tissue samples, he served as their guide and translator.

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