Monday, February 18, 2013

Sociobalderdash, and the Yanomami? Part I

Napoleon Chagnon's new book, Noble Savages, being widely reviewed and promoted, is great grist for the academic controversy mill.  Every pop-sci author, everyone with media-assigned expertise (including some prominent university professors automatically credited with relevant insight because of some book they've written) is in on the act.

Nap -- we've known each other since we were in the Human Genetics Department at Michigan, working with Jim Neel, the leader of the biomedical studies of the Yanoami -- is not the most relaxed personality you'll ever meet.  He's fiery and he's got very strong ideas that, even as graduate students, we wondered if didn't make him unsuitable as an objective observer of other cultures.

But we need not be post-modernists to recognize not only that Nap was for decades the most prominent cultural anthropologist in the post-Margaret Mead era, and he made the Yanomami one of the two most prominent 'primitive' (i.e., culturally non-technical relative to us) people in public and even professional awareness.  The Yanomami were #1 by far, I think, but the Kalahari San ('bushmen') of Africa were #2, after the prior era's more numerously prominent, but less publicly, well-known tribal populations having been visited by anthropologists in the colonial era.

Nap's interpretation of the Yanomami were a reflection of his time.  Animal behavior was being studied widely, and interpreted in the Darwinian context of attempts to explain the behavior in survival-of-the-fittest (SOTF) terms--that is, the traits we see today were assumed to be due to past natural selection essentially for the trait per se.  The term 'sociobiology' was coined by EO Wilson some years later, but the idea was already rampant.

The question being studied involved many different components, one of which was a genetic question related to issues of the amount of harmful genetic variation that our primitive ancestors carried in their populations (related, at the time, to what chemical and nuclear fallout might be doing to our much larger and more socially complex populations).  Looking at (or, perhaps more accurately, for) cultures today that were frozen replicates of our past was an objective of the evolutionary perspective of anthropology in the '60s and for a while thereafter.

Anthropological views and strategies on behavioral evolution
Rather than laboratory experiments, a prominent idea in anthropology at the time was that primates studied in the wild could show us how population structure evolved--how open vs forest environments led to selection for this or that kind of population size, territoriality, male dominance hierarchies, and the like.  Books reporting fascinating field studies, and opining captivatingly simple Darwinian explanations were rife.

Male dominance hierarchies suited the Hobbesian, Darwinian SOTF terms.  One tough guy (or alpha chimp, baboon, or whatever else that swimmeth in the sea or creepeth on the face of the earth), intimidated all the other guys and did all the rutting.  This very effectively spread tough-guy genes, leading us to be the way we are today.

Unfortunately how we really are can't be seen in modern complex societies.  Too many ways to reduce one guy's reproductive success, too many hospitals to take care of the weak, or soup kitchens for the needy.  So, to see how we really are we needed the frozen cultural fossils of our ancestry.  They could only be found in the most remote of places.

Neel seeking to understand the biomedical implications of the Big Man theory, and Chagnon to understand it culturally, made a very successful team.  I'll talk about what they actually did, found, or argued tomorrow, but here I want to go over just a bit of the reaction to Nap's book.

Flying fruit: anthropological food-fighting
I haven't read the book.  But, it's clear from reviews and stories in major media that, in essence, Nap is ranting about the way his work has been treated in recent years.  Anthropological opponents, who don't like Nap's aggressive personality or who don't like the idea that people might fight over resources or who don't like anthropologists' mucking about and stirring up the natives, accused him of seriously damaging the Yanomami, in many ways with lethal if inadvertent--but avoidable and predictable--effects, accused him of nefarious practice.

Nap responds that his opponents tried to vilify him within his profession, cowed a main professional organization into buying the accusations, and have done him dirty.  What really happened to the Yanomami and Nap's role in it (as alleged in Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado roughly a decade ago), is disputed.  The biomedical accusations, such as giving measles to the Indians to see how they, not previously exposed, were manifestly false, as I know personally from discussions with and seeing field notes of,  Neel and one of his main field companions.

But if Chagnon has his enemies, he also has his supporters in what has become an archetype of a professional food-fight gone viral.  He was, at an advanced age and far after his work itself was done, elected into the National Academy of Sciences last year.  This must have a political symbolic nature, especially perhaps as the current NAS anthropology membership rather predominantly favors the Darwinian viewpoint of behavior and Nap's election (which would have been fully appropriate decades ago, without a political aroma) has to be seen as a gesture in the context of his recent fights within Anthropology.   This gives a joyful finger in the eye to Nap's opponents--and many would argue it's a well-deserved symbolic finger-gesture at their demagogic treatment of him.  And this new book is his attempt to revive his reputation.  Based on the reviews and articles about it, nobody will mistake it for an objective factual treatise. He is as feisty as ever.

A major explanation for the criticism to which he's been subjected, and a major element of his defense, is the fact that many anthropologists just can't buy sociobiological theorizing about human culture, nor his using the Yanomami as a valid, even archetypal 'primitive' people.  He argues that his antagonists simply can't abide the idea that Darwinian evolution has made us culturally and behaviorally, as well as physically the way we are.  That's true, whether one gives credence to the critics' viewpoint or not.

So regardless of whether his work directly or indirectly harmed the Yanomami, questions which involve legitimate ethical issues, the heat of the attacks have always been, I think, aimed at his justification of violence and inequality as being inherent in our nature, for reasons that he claims his studies of the Yanomami show.

Tomorrow, we'll look at some of those issues themselves.


Ken Weiss said...

We didn't put links to the various interview and book review stories about Dr Chagnon's new book because they were so widely splashed in the media that we felt anybody could get them if they hadn't seen them already.

And again, we are commenting on the issues that are at play, with which we are very and directly familiar, not on the book itself.

Stephen Corry, Survival International said...

Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on how Chagnon's work has been disastrous for the tribe.

Visit for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami. They 'disagree with Napoleon Chagnon's public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. [and] deplore how Chagnon's work has been used throughout the years - and could still be used - by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.'

Ken Weiss said...

My only comment is that everyone must recognize that nobody comes at this with a neutral perspective. Survival International has an explicit agenda, which is not a criticism and may be completely laudable. But here the question is who to believe, because Dr Chagnon defends himself against these charges. Can one just give SI a pass on asking whether they, too, might color the evidence or select what they see as relevant?

I can ask this question even without in any way taking sides nor minimizing the importance of SI's objectives, nor questioning the materials you refer to on your website. That's because the issues here are not about whether indigenous peoples deserve a better, fair shake or to be left alone, or to be helped, but whether Nap's work caused problems for the Yanomami. I'm not in a position to judge what actually happened there, but I did mention several reasons that people have raised to challenge Nap's views.

As I said in this series of posts, the ethnological practices questions, which are wholly legitimate, are largely different from the question about the interpretation of the Yanomami, or what their culture may or may not represent, even were one to accept Chagnon's descriptions.

J. David Sapir said...

Ken Weiss,

Your series on Chagnon is most interesting for me as a cultural, not biological, anthropologist. I was looking for a level headed discussion and you provide it.

However, I can hardly take this:

"But we need not be post-modernists to recognize not only that Nap was for decades the most prominent cultural anthropologist in the post-Margaret Mead era,"

I was doing field work in Africa during the 60s and never thought for a second about Chagnon, he had absolutely nothing to do with my work which was about language, religious thought and basic social organization.

My only connection to the Yanomami affair was a deep love and appreciation for Chagnon's film maker, Tim Asch. Perhaps Asch and John Marshall (for the Bushman) are more responsible for the general fame of these two peoples than the anthropologists involved!

I am,

Sincerely yours,

J. David Sapir

Ken Weiss said...

Well, I was coming up in anthropology at the time Nap was in his acme, so to speak, and I don't think anyone had his level of reputation. Mead was fading, the San studies were the other really prominent group but not associated as strongly with a single investigator. I would say this was the 70s and perhaps 80s, rather than 60s which was still the era of Mead, some of the British ethnologists, etc.

At the time, there were many prominent ethnologists;I studied with, and had very high respect for, Leslie White, for example, and Marshall Sahlins and Eric Wolf were at Michigan where I was a student, too. Levi-Strauss was very well known, and others, but I don't think had the same level of public reputation as Nap did. Anyway, regardless of the league table, Nap was one of the prominent ones and that's my only point. (are you the same Sapir, or related to him, who was very prominent also at that time?).

I never met Tim Asch, but shared your view.

Anyway, I don't know of any single ethnologist whose fame matched his at the time, and his book was far and away the biggest seller in anthropological history I think.

J. David Sapir said...

"(are you the same Sapir, or related to him, who was very prominent also at that time?)."

My father, Edward Sapir, (1984-1939) was prominent then, before, still, and probably for as long as people are interested in language, culture and the relationship of the self to his/her culture.