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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon | The Nation

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Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon

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Chagnon’s retirement was not what he’d hoped for. In 2000, overcome by the stress of working to clear his name, but nonetheless seeing his alleged complicity with genocide become headline news around the world, he collapsed and was hospitalized. In subsequent years, he found it impossible to put the affair behind him:

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 lives in Chicago and Wilmington, North Carolina.

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I did not travel much, did not fish much, did not hunt grouse and pheasants over my German short-haired pointers, did not go to many concerts, did not read much fiction for pleasure, and did not spend more time with members of my family.

Instead, he set to work on a memoir. But he repeatedly scrapped what he’d written “because of the anger that kept creeping into my writing, giving it a very depressive tone.”

In Secrets of the Tribe, a recent documentary about anthropologists and the Yanomami, Chagnon responds to his critics mostly by repeating simplified versions of their charges in a sanctimonious tone. Despite his attempts to expunge the anger from his memoir, much of Noble Savages has a similar quality. As Chagnon sees it, his critics are a coalition of anthropological “ayatollahs” scrambling to protect their own authority from scientific rigor, “Marxist”-style “Thought Police” guarding the “politically correct” conventional wisdom, “postmodernists” unqualified to make claims about his conduct because they can’t even decide if the world exists, Catholic missionaries who wanted the Yanomami for themselves, and “barefoot” “activist” types less interested in studying the people of the world than in leading a witch hunt for the bad guy in the “office down the hall.” (The long history of overlap between American anthropology and the American military-intelligence sector is not mentioned.) These are the sorts of people, we are given to understand, who don’t care about what is true or not—the sort willing to smear a man to keep an ideology alive.

But Chagnon is in a bind: he’s written a memoir to refute the charges against him, but he finds the charges so baseless, and their existence so revolting, that he can barely be bothered to address them, or even to characterize them accurately. (In this sense, Noble Savages mirrors Darkness in El Dorado, which might have been more rigorous if Tierney hadn’t been so furious.) A telling example is Chagnon’s response to criticism from his fellow anthropologist Brian Ferguson. In 1995, Ferguson published Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, a book centrally concerned with countering Chagnon’s analysis of Yanomami life and violence. He disputed Chagnon’s interpretations of his own data (convincingly, I think), but also advanced a more fundamental objection: that the Yanomami had been in contact, direct and otherwise, with the “outside” world at several points long before Chagnon’s arrival, and that these moments of contact had influenced everything from where their villages were established to how they related to each other. Warfare was not the Yanomami historical norm, Ferguson said, and when war did break out, it had at least as much to do with the effects of encroaching nation-states and empires as it did with women and revenge. One crucial result of these moments of contact was the Yanomami’s acquistion of steel. Steel tools are many times more efficient than stone ones; when some villages came to possess more than others, it tilted the scales toward conflict, especially in times of hardship and deprivation, such as those caused by disease outbreaks (which even by Chagnon’s calculations were a more common cause of Yanomami death than violence).

Whatever the soundness and validity of Ferguson’s complex argument, it deserves more of a response than the single sentence that Chagnon has buried in an endnote: “Ferguson also claimed that I caused animosity, jealousy, and conflicts by the way I gave metal tools to the Yanomamö.” You can almost hear Chagnon snorting in disbelief. Because the endnotes lack corresponding numbers in the main text, the path the reader must take to them is unmarked. No reader will learn from Chagnon what Ferguson actually thinks. It is true that, in Yanomamö, Chagnon admitted to intentionally exploiting local animosities and conflicts to gain information, especially in his efforts to work past the Yanomami’s pesky name taboos. It is also true that Ferguson discusses Chagnon and other anthropologists’ habit of handing out steels tools in exchange for information, labor and blood samples. But to make this the centerpiece of his critique is absurd. It is also a measure of Chagnon’s narcissism that he reduces an argument about hundreds of years of history, empires and culture to an argument about himself. (Tierney is guilty of a similar fixation: when he cites Ferguson’s arguments in Darkness in El Dorado, he is also seemingly obsessed with the possibility that Chagnon himself had caused Yanomami warfare.)

The irony is that in Noble Savages, a story of an allegedly Stone Age people, steel and its influence are ubiquitous. One village Chagnon visited exists where it does, a missionary tells him, because its residents wanted to be near the missionaries and the steel tools they brought with them. His hosts lie to him about other villages—how far away they are, the dangers he can expect en route—so that he won’t leave and share his steel gifts with others. When he’s not watching, they break into his supplies and make off with knives and fishhooks. “The very word madohe [trade goods] stirs people,” Chagnon says. If machetes or axes are present, he observes, club fights can escalate to machete fights, increasing the likelihood of their participants being crippled or killed. Even after pointing all this out, Chagnon takes a position worthy of the National Rifle Association: machetes don’t kill Yanomami, Yanomami do.

Elsewhere in his memoir, though, he insists that the introduction of new technology can alter—and has altered—the way people relate to each other, even by encouraging them to kill each other. Missionaries from the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic charity, gave shotguns to the Yanomami, something Chagnon refused to do “as a matter of principle.” The results, he says, were disastrous. “Although the shotguns did not make the Yanomamö warlike, I believe that they probably caused an increase in mortality rates…. Shotguns may have even made the Yanomamö more willing to attack their enemies because the shotguns were more efficient killing weapons than their bows and arrows.” And: “The introduction of shotguns at Salesian missions would most likely change traditional Yanomamö warfare patterns.” 

The Salesians might be the only people Chagnon dislikes more than cultural anthropologists. From his perspective, they were determined to make the rainforest into a theocracy, controlling who came and went (including anthropologists) and luring the heathen Yanomami to their settlements so as to render them dependent on the goods they supplied. It was the Salesians, Chagnon theorizes, who pulled strings to get Tierney the permits he needed to do his research in the Amazon for Darkness in El Dorado. In 2010, he even speculated that they paid Tierney to write his book. As with the postmodern barefoot ayatollahs of anthropology, the Salesians are presented to us as ruthless Machiavellians. Chagnon all but accuses them of turning a blind eye to the inevitable result of their largesse: if the guns were being used for raids, or even making the raids more common, so be it—this would make the guns more valuable, and the missionaries with the guns more powerful still. So shotguns, it seems, can influence warfare patterns, but never machetes—and anyway, Chagnon writes, the Yanomami (a supposedly untouched people) had “possessed steel tools many years prior to my first trip. 

Now and then, Chagnon will recognize that, yes, war is complicated, a cumulative result of many intertwined factors. He even draws attention to the difference between motive, on the one hand, and human statements about motive, on the other. If a Yanomami was bitten by a snake and died, Chagnon recalls, his fellow villagers might decide that the snake had been sent by a rival village—therefore providing a pretext for revenge, which might involve seizing control of some strategic resources. Such behavior should sound familiar: quite recently, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth organized the invasion of another, oil-rich nation, claiming that he was acting on God’s personal instructions. The leader of the invaders also pointed out that, in addition to possessing terrible new weapons, the oil-rich country’s leader had once tried to kill his father. Oil was never mentioned: the history of war is a history of obfuscation about its motives. But whenever the Yanomami tell Chagnon that they’re fighting over women, he takes it as a direct expression of fact—one that, conveniently enough, supports the theory that for the Yanomami, as for all our ancestors, warfare was essentially about reproduction and its kissing cousin, revenge.

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