Fight Clubs: On Napoleon Chagnon
For all his claims to be working in opposition to the archetype of the noble savage, Chagnon is implicitly committed to the idea that the Yanomami he met were in some sense completely different from us—that they lived, to borrow a phrase from the pop science writer Jared Diamond, in a premodern sliver of the “world until yesterday” preserved in our midst. The Yanomami are, at different points in Chagnon’s book, “wild,” “primitive” and “Stone Age”—never mind all their steel, or the fact that they rely on farming, not hunting or gathering, for 70 percent of their diet. Never mind that none of their primary crops—bananas and plantains—are indigenous to the Amazon or even South America. No, the Yanomami are “pristine,” “pure,” “special,” even noble: “I have chosen to call this book Noble Savages,” Chagnon writes, “in part because the Yanomamö I lived among had a certain kind of nobility that most anthropologists rarely see in acculturated and depopulated tribes that have been defeated by and incorporated into the political states in whose jurisdiction they reside.”
When it comes to describing the definitively unpristine Yanomami—those who, even by his standard, have had extended contact with “civilization”—Chagnon vacillates between pity, disdain and (most often) disinterest. Readers of Noble Savages will learn almost nothing of contemporary Yanomami or their politics. They will certainly not learn about the assemblies at which representatives from different villages discuss the ongoing threats to their existence posed by mining interests, and the future of their relationships with Venezuela and Brazil. Yanomami have even traveled to the United States—not just to speak about the Chagnon controversy, but also to request the return of the blood samples gathered by research teams, including those led by James Neel. The Yanomami argue that they never consented to the indefinite storage of bodily materials in far-away freezers, a practice that violates their burial customs. (In 2010, several research facilities agreed to return the blood.) Chagnon says not one word about any of this; he’s too busy calling Yanomami leaders the puppets of Salesian missionaries, who are using them to advance their anti-Chagnon, anti-science agenda.
Chagnon’s fixation on those Yanomami he judged “pristine,” and his disinterest in any he’d determined to be “acculturated,” took its most explicit turn in 1990, when he was contacted by Cecilia Matos, the mistress of Venezuela’s then-president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. As Chagnon tells it, Pérez’s political career was winding down, and Matos wanted him to beef up his legacy by doing something to benefit people like the Yanomami. Though Chagnon had started a Yanomami Survival Fund in 1988, there is no evidence that he ever delivered any money to the people it was named for. The one time he was asked for advice about safeguarding the Yanomami’s living conditions, Chagnon recommended a rainforest biosphere project that would protect their land—but not all of it, just those parts whose inhabitants Chagnon deemed sufficiently untouched. About four-fifths of Yanomami lands in Venezuela would be unprotected, and so more open to mining concerns.
This aspect of the proposal goes unmentioned in Noble Savages; all Chagnon says, in his three-page account of the incident, is that before the project could be implemented, the usual network of detractors went to work spreading lies, which prompted hysterical protests, and so the project died. He doesn’t say that a similar project that included almost all Yanomami land was launched the following year. More damningly, he doesn’t tell his readers that in 1993 Pérez was impeached, removed from office and jailed after getting caught siphoning millions of dollars’ worth of public funds to private accounts he shared with his mistress. Matos was to be arrested too, but she fled the country; on her arrest order, she was accused of, among other things, misappropriating state resources to get a noble-sounding biosphere project running as a front for more profitable activities. Almost every commentator on the Chagnon saga, even among his army of vociferous allies, has agreed that his participation in this project, however tangential, was at the very least bad judgment. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Chagnon swatted away such accusations. In exchange for his help, Pérez had restored his research permit. “I got a year’s worth of data,” he said. “It was worth it for that reason.”
At the end of the Secrets of the Tribe documentary, Patrick Tierney says, “I don’t think that there’s any way [Chagnon’s defenders] can salvage [him] in the long run.” Time will tell, but I’d wager that Tierney is wrong: he is too enamored of the idea that scandal might lead to change, and too optimistic about facts trumping ideology (which is, of course, what Chagnon claims to hope for, too). Chagnon’s basic conclusions about the Yanomami were cited uncritically in Jared Diamond’s bestseller The World Until Yesterday, published in December [see Stephen Wertheim, “Hunter-Blatherer,” April 22]. Early reviews of Noble Savages were almost all positive. In a triumphant blurb, the anthropologist Robin Fox calls it the “final knockout punch in a fight [Chagnon] didn’t pick but has most assuredly won.” Chagnon was recently asked by the University of Michigan, his alma mater, to organize his life’s work into a digital archive for use by academics around the world. And last year, he was voted into the National Academy of Sciences.
In response, his old University of Michigan professor Marshall Sahlins resigned from the academy, citing not only Chagnon’s election but also the recruitment of NAS anthropologists by the US military. “The two are connected,” he told me recently. “Chagnon’s research and the imperial venture are both based on the same assumption, that pursuit of material self-interest is the natural human condition—the obvious, natural, best thing for the individual and the nation.”
Online, Chagnon’s fans have been selling T-shirts that caricature his critics’ positions as: Napoleon Chagnon kicked my dog! Word is the man himself thinks they’re hilarious and has ordered a bunch for friends and family. This semester, at age 74, Chagnon joined the anthropology department at the University of Missouri. “I feel like a battleship,” he told the campus newspaper, “shaking off the mothballs and taking to the high seas again.” Let’s christen it the USS Machete.
In “Library Man” (Feb. 7, 2011), Thomas Meaney reviewed Patrick Wilcken’s biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss, “a poet in the laboratory of anthropology.”