The Fierce People. That’s what anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon called the indigenous Ya̧nomamö Indians of Venezuela in his 1968 book Ya̧nomamö: The Fierce People. It’s one of the best-selling anthropology texts of all time and is still in wide use.
In the 45 years since the book’s release, Chagnon has remained a lightning rod for controversy about theory, method and ethics in anthropology. Chagnon’s central conclusion is a stark one: chronic warfare and homicidal violence among the Ya̧nomamö should be understood, in large part, as a biologically ingrained behavior.
As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explained in an essay from 2000, Chagnon’s conclusions on homicide and reproductive success among the Ya̧nomamö attempt to “support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in our genes.” Explaining human behavior in this way, by primary recourse to genetics instead of looking to a rich mix of cultural and biological factors, is considered by many anthropologists to be an inaccurate, impoverished view of human behavior.
Chagnon, who was elected last year to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and is a professor at the University of Missouri, has also been accused by some of directly harming the Ya̧nomamö themselves via ethical lapses in his research. (For details, see Sahlins’ essay, plus this more recent report from indigenous-advocacy group Survival International).
The debates surrounding his work are burning brightly once again with the publication of Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages. The book received lacerating reviews by anthropologists Elizabeth Povinelli in The New York Times and Rachel Newcomb in The Washington Post. Then, as reported by Inside Higher Ed on Monday, Sahlins resigned his membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
Sahlins cited the Academy’s “large moral and intellectual blunder” in electing Chagnon as one reason for his decision. (The other reason involves Sahlins’ objection to collaborative projects between the NAS and the military, an issue that has nothing to do with Chagnon).
I know neither Sahlins nor Chagnon personally. But for a biological anthropologist like myself, these recent, dizzying and highly agitated events surrounding Chagnon and his work are important to try and understand.
This is no mere ego contest between two alpha-male primates of academic anthropology: instead it’s a meaningful, if startlingly angry, discussion about the responsibility of scientists to the people they study and (the factor I will focus on here) the contribution of biology, particularly genetics, to understanding human behavior.
Chagnon has remarked to Inside Higher Ed that Sahlins is “anti-scientific,” that is, unwilling to see that good science may lead to conclusions about inherited patterns of human behavior. Certainly, in taking this perspective, Chagnon has his supporters, including prominent anthropologists William Irons and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder. After all, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences!
But the opposing voices are adamant, and they say that Chagnon’s science isn’t good science. Anthropologist Jonathan Marks, in a blog post last week, called Chagnon “an incompetent anthropologist.” Marks wrote:
Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”. Chagnon’s methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices. Yes, he saw the Ya̧nomamö doing nasty things. But when he concluded from his observations that the Ya̧nomamö are innately and primordially “fierce” he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.
I am cautious about using the term “innately fierce” with regard to Chagnon’s perspective. Science writer John Horgan insists that Chagnon is a more subtle thinker on this point than he is usually given credit for. Still, I agree with Marks that Chagnon, in his scholarly works, too readily links violence and biology.
The Sahlins essay from 2000 shows how key parts of Chagnon’s argument have been “dismembered” scientifically. In a major paper published in 1988, Sahlins says, Chagnon left out too many relevant factors that bear on Ya̧nomamö males’ reproductive success to allow any convincing case for a genetic underpinning of violence.
On Tuesday, I emailed Chagnon, asking for his response to the Marks’ commentary and others along similar lines. I have not heard back as of this post’s publication on Thursday morning.
As an anthropologist, I know that my field is so much better — more elegant, more nuanced — than one that paints non-Western peoples’ behavior as strongly rooted in evolutionary biology or as throwback to times past. (Povinelli in her book review notes that Chagnon seems to think of the Ya̧nomamö as “brutal Neolithic remnants in a land that time forgot.” I raised similar issues in my post last month about Jared Diamond, who in his own new book The World Until Yesterday relies on Chagnon’s data for certain conclusions.)
I’ll say it plainly: I love anthropology. I love my own disciplinary subfield, biological anthropology, and participating in the search for the role that our evolved biology plays — or doesn’t play — in the expression of human behavioral repertoires today.
So here’s the thing, a point that matters a lot and one I want to impress on students of all ages (inside the classroom and out) who have fallen in love with anthropology:
More than any other animal, we humans experience life, and have experienced it for countless generations in societies around the world, through a complicated and chaotic mix of cultural, historical, political-economic and biological variables.
Biological anthropologists know this. You only have to read the work of Marks, of Agustin Fuentes, of Alan Goodman, of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy or countless other of my colleagues, to see that we do. And to know it really does matter, because it’s the foundation of doing informed, comprehensive and ethical anthropological science.
So, what now? Am I suggesting that Chagnon not be read? Not at all. Read Chagnon, of course. Read his work alongside that of Sahlins and of the other anthropologists I’ve noted here, and of even more anthropologists whom you’ll discover for yourself.
Sahlins’ protest resignation from the NAS was a brave act of principle.
For the rest of us, reading widely and deeply in anthropology is the best antidote to inappropriately reductionist science.
You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape