I want to add a third part to this series, triggered by the kerfluffle over Napoleon Chagnon's new book defending himself against his critics and recapitulating his views and studies of the Yanomami. The issue about his treatment by the media and his critics is one for the sociology of science, and our objective was, and is, to put some of the scientific issues into perspective. I tried in Parts I and II to do that. This third post, however, was triggered by a couple of thoughtful comments made on our previous installments, and to further express what the theoretical context was, based on my experience coming up through graduate school and a post-doc at the time, and in the same group involved in the Yanomami studies.
At the time, in the late '60s and early 70's, there was a flurry of activity in the study of the nature, genetic basis, and/or evolution of social behavior. Cultural anthropologists often were 'evolutionists' in the sense of trying to work out general principles, or even 'laws', of cultural evolution. The idea that cultures evolve in a systematic way perhaps analogous to Darwinian biological evolution goes back at least to Herbert Spencer (but even Ibn Khaldun in the Islamic golden era, and the Greeks in the classical era, had relevant ideas). I studied with Leslie White, who argued that culture evolved as a phenomenon of energy capture, a kind of physics-envy specificity, but others had various more purely sociocultural views (one, for example, that goes back to Marx and others who rejected psychological or Great Man theories; even, for example, Tolstoy's War and Peace, was an attempt to debunk such theories).
We can't go over everything involved here, but by the '60s the eugenic abuses of the Nazi era were fading from memory and it again became possible to challenge the tabula rasa or Freudian theories that propose that we are only what we experience culturally: nothing is built in to our makeup. Indeed, this was perhaps partly a reaction to some superficial psycho-theories in cultural anthropology and popular 'intellectual' commentary from WWII and thereafter.
Cultural anthropologists rejecting psychological explanations, and seeing evolutionary generalizations in the range or even sequence of human indigenous cultures (Band, Tribe, Chiefdom, State, etc.) argued that humans were uniform slates molded by their culture (a kind of cultural tabula rasa argument). Relative to cultural change, humans were a biological constant: After all, no matter what your genes were, if you were (say) born in China you spoke Chinese and ate rice and were Taoist, but if born in Florida you spoke English (or, depending on the time, Cherokee), were Catholic and ate burgers.
Documenting inherent behavioral nature
In the 60s Nikolas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and others comparably prominent whose names escape me at present, were publishing very interesting studies in 'ethology', which purported to describe the inherent nature of animal behavior for a wide-ranging set of species. If stereotypical behavior existed from birth (or, in the case of birds, hatching), then mustn't it be genetic? And if it were genetic--even if we had no ability to identify specific genes at the time--then if it were useful, didn't that mean it had evolved in the classical Darwinian sense of having been forced into the genomes by natural selection--the harsh principles of survival of the fittest in competition among individuals? What else could there be?
Ethological studies included famous and wonderful ones of lions, elephants, wolves, and so on. Among the traits being reported were male competition for mates, group defense systems, male dominance hierarchies, and more. The juicy idea of alpha males having all the fun was reported in one or another way to apply to various species. This naturally led to a spate of monographs, symposium volumes, and highly popular books some, as now, by professors whose relevant 'expertise' wasn't questioned and who were expert at playing to the popular media. Indeed, leading anthropologists turned to studies of wild primate populations (as contrasted to individual behavior of caged primates as some psychologists were doing) to relate their ecology to their social behavior, and interpret that in evolutionary deterministic frameworks. Open country led to one-male harems, forest canopy dwelling to isolated pair-bonding, etc.
Leading anthropologists like Sherry Washburn and Irv DeVore characterized this approach as part of a 'New Physical Anthropology' that went beyond bones and stones: we will learn about human nature more directly, by studying our closest relatives out there in their natural setting. And we'd do it in a Darwinian framework in which we sought deterministic environmental conditions that correlated with social behavior, accept the analogies of other species, interpret that in selectionist terms, assume it was embedded in the genome, and extrapolate it to human societies. The idea of alpha males not just bullies but of their reproductive dominance was too much to resist. This was a theme of the day in biological anthropology.
The degree of sensory overload and publication proliferation was far less in those days than it is now, and as graduate students and post-docs at Michigan where I was, at least, we all devoured everything that was published, book or article, and discussed it all the time. It naturally affected our work, and some of the major players--including Chagnon and Neel--were right there, and were friends of ours, or were even directly involved in the South American work.
At that time, in the early '60s, VC Wynne-Edwards wrote a pretentiously pompous, but famous book (Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior) on the evolution of social behavior. In a book organized, surely self-consciously, to resemble Darwin's Origin, he proposed a group selection view, quite contrary to Darwin's view of evolution (but less so to Wallace's) that selection was all about competition strictly among individuals. The gist of Wynn-Edwards' argument for our purposes here was that individual animals have ways of eliminating their reproduction so that, as a group, they avoided serious overpopulation relative to food supplies, and kept their size within what the environment could support. This could involve male-male competition, including sexual selection by display characteristics as in peacocks, and the exclusion of defeated males from having much of a sex life. Animal species achieved these self-limiting characteristics in many different ways, involving group displays and so on.
This was a kind of 'voluntary' self-limitation for the good of the group in just what Darwinism argued was contrary to the Hobbesian competition of all against all for reproductive fitness, and for that reason was very controversial. Isn't it, after all, the individual who reproduces or doesn't?
At the time many prominent anthropologists, and some of us working in anthropological demography, were interested in how humans limited their populations. Culturally 'primitive' societies had many ways of doing this, which were being widely reported--a topic du jour. Male territoriality and hierarchy comprised one. Infanticide was another. So were dowries, delayed marriage, abortion and other cultural traits that had been very widely observed. These practices were culturally imposed, but involved individuals voluntarily abstaining from reproduction or even killing their own newborn infants--but how could such things evolve??
Natural selection and demographic processes
Demographic anthropologists, of which I was one, were interested in the relationship between age-specific birth and death rates in this very context; it was a subject of my PhD dissertation and first book. How was a given 'type' of culture reflected in the very processes that determined evolutionary fitness? We didn't know specific genes, but the idea was that the age-specific effects of these practices affected at least the opportunity for natural selection at the genome level. Demographic genetics was an important component of population genetics theory, worked on by some of its leaders, and prominent in the textbooks, at the time.
In this context interest was high in finding how mating and reproduction were constrained by natural populations both of humans and our close primate relatives. In this sense, the work by Chagnon and Neel was in tune with the times, a product of the times. In the enthusiasm for this Darwinian revival, I think the word 'opportunity' slipped subtly out of people's minds and was equated to the 'fact' of selection.
But there were even then, and especially later on, various forms of explicit and implicit opposition: The idea of 'Man the Hunter' (title of a famous symposium volume) was closely examined, because the widely unquestioned macho image of caveman brutes with hefty clubs could be challenged by those who had studied extant hunter-gatherer societies directly found that they got most of their food by female gathering, and only a small fraction from meat. Hunter-gatherers were not in a relentless struggle for food but were the 'original affluent society', lazing about most of the day (as Marshall Sahlins' book called them).
The burgeoning feminist movement included numerous anthropologist primate-watchers trained in the New Physical Anthropology. Many were women availing themselves of newly opened opportunities in academe, and they refused to see society only through the lens of male competition and control. The idea of man the manly hunter was challenged as a common mythology. It wasn't that female primates were important, if delicate, things, but even that they used various selfishly competitive guiles that did not involve violence, but that enhanced their own contributions to evolution.
The idea of self-sacrifice, or altruism, that was in a sense partly behind the Wynne-Edwards and other traits that were being documented, raised a challenge to Darwinism. Wynne-Edwards' view was vigorously challenged from a classical Darwinist viewpoint, because there were few credible situations in which genes 'for' self-limitation or self-sacrifice for the good of the group could advance in frequency--organisms without the genes could just lay low and wait till the sacrificer had been sacrificed, and then move in on the newly available females! William Hamilton proposed his inclusive fitness kin selection theory to account for the evolution of altruism: genetic variation that leads you to sacrifice your own reproduction could advance in frequency if it led to a greater reproductive output of your relatives. Other rationales were also offered, for example, for why people would save drowners who weren't their relatives, or would be willing to risk their lives by going to war, but in a kindred spirit. Hamilton's rule ruled in many circles.
Again, strongly committed Darwinists swooned over these explanations, a acceptance of nature as really red in tooth and claw. EO Wilson coined the term Sociobiology in 1975 in his book of that name, culpably (in my view) adding a final, very badly superficial, chapter on humans, after discussing more legitimate examples like ants, that he knew very well, in the rest of the book. Like Wynne-Edwards, Wilson's subtitle (The New Synthesis) reached high if not pompously, playing on 'the modern evolutionary synthesis' a self-congratulatory characterization of evolutionary biology in the '40s.
All this strong Darwinism was in the eye of the anthropologists: in truth, it was argued that they saw what they wanted to see or had been prepared by their own experiences or by western imperialistic culture to see. There was, the critics argued, nothing objective about this, and 'laws' of culture were simply reflections of these biases. Indeed, Darwinism comfortably justified imperialism, male dominance over women, inequality, racism and other similar evils. Thus went the deconstructionist, post-modern reaction to the 'modernism' of Darwinian 'science' and its attempt to explain, or even justify, the awful state of the world--a view that didn't reflect an objective truth. It was, whether consciously or not, a kind of controlling 'plot', mainly perpetrated by privileged elites (mainly men).
In many ways this was a continuation of age-old disputes. Naturally, feelings ran high. They still do. I'm oversimplifying all over the place here, for brevity (and, surely, because of my own limited knowledge). But many of the dogmas, including even Hamilton's rule as well as ideas of group selection, have since on close examination been found to be forced, or wanting, at best, or applicable only under highly restrictive conditions. But post-modernist notions that there is no truth out there in the world are also manifestly simplistic. Ethological findings, and behavioral determinism have been shown in many different ways to be, at best, generic descriptions of what happens in some situations, not what is genetically prescribed.
There is no wonder that, while the ideas when first proposed by Changon and Neel and many others in their time had wide societal purchase, there was a backlash. The many other factors, including the anti-imperialistic defense of indigenous populations, that were simmering widely in the social sciences during and after the Viet Nam war era, naturally were sent nuclear in and by Patrick Tierney's often wildly irresponsible attacks on the Yanomami studies. Legitimate questions of anthropological ethics that may be raised by those studies are buried under the storm-surge of contention, polemic demagoguery, and the like.
Natural selection and the "Truth"
My own predilection is that natural selection, especially for complex behavioral traits, is far weaker and more diffuse than the sociobiological view -- or, perhaps more accurately, assumptions -- would have it. I think the genetic arguments about the role of the candidate behaviors (like Headman dominance) are weak, at best. I also think that our behavioral repertoire and intelligence, which we know were on the rise long before humans came on the scene, are manifestly more about abilities to sense and respond to complex social situations than it is prescriptive. I think rigid behavioral programming would be strongly selected against, because circumstances can vary greatly in a species like ours.
To me, the wide array of cultures shows this very clearly, and even ethological studies have shown that some of the classical case studies were not correctly interpreted (e.g., things assumed to be inherent were shown to have environmental causation, even including pre-hatching effects on chick behaviors shown in work by Gil Gottlieb and others). That is why in my previous posts in this series, I have argued that however accurate Nap's characterization of the Yanomami as he saw them when he was there were, those traits are neither necessary nor universal even in South American indigenes, but further, are irrelevant to what is generally 'human' or how prescriptive that may be, or how or even what has 'evolved' in the Darwinian sense.
But of course my view is just one and just as I am sincere in holding them, we shouldn't question the sincerity of those with other views who in their own way understand genetics and evolution, often not including the chatterati on this topic in the public and even professional media, who don't really understand genetics or evolution, or perhaps even ethnology, yet who are not inhibited to opine on the subject. There are intelligent thinkers with different points of view. They don't advocate it any more strongly or irresponsibly then do their (knowledgeably qualified) opposition.
I happen to think the Darwinian case is greatly overstated and I think there is plenty of evidence to that effect (and commenters on our previous posts have pointed to some of that evidence). But the food-fights that treat people like Nap either as totally unaware of reality, or as having a throat-hold on the truth, are not constructive if we really do want to know what that truth might be.