Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 6, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part six

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Jacques Lizot’s critique

There is a cinematic quality between the clash of Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot. Chagnon, the blustering American who like to fire pistols to intimidate the Yanomami, could have been played by the young John Wayne. Lizot, the gay French disciple of structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss who seduced young Yanomami with gifts of cigarettes and pasta, could have been played by Alain Renais.

It is too bad that Patrick Tierney chose to emphasize Lizot’s sexual predations in his “Darkness in El Dorado”. While there certainly could be a case made that any adult taking sexual advantage of a young woman or man for that matter deserves opprobrium, one cannot escape feeling that Tierney was exhibiting old-fashioned homophobia in the name of defending Indian rights.

Although Chagnon and Lizot started out as collaborators, they eventually parted ways—no doubt a function of deep differences over how to regard the Indians. For Chagnon, they were like Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees waging primate war on their enemies. For Lizot, they were more like the Bonobo chimps that used sexual play—including homosexual—to relieve the tensions that lead to violence.

To be fair to Lizot, he did not literally think that the Yanomami were like chimps. In fact his main objection to Chagnon was over his sociobiology, a bogus science that reduces everything to genes.

One of the first articles to identify Chagnon as a sociobiologist was written by Lizot and Sarah Dart. Titled “On Warfare: an answer to N. A. Chagnon”, it appeared in the November 1994 issue of “American Ethnologist”.

Although Chagnon never described himself as a sociobiologist specifically, his efforts to situate anthropology in the framework of what he called “modern evolutionary thought” was clearly identifiable with E.O. Wilson’s theory. The notion that violence and warfare were a means to seize women of rival tribes so as to help propagate the genes of the dominant warrior group was nothing less than the “Darwinian fundamentalism” Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were determined to debunk.

Lizot is in basic agreement with Gould and Lewontin, writing: “Let us say it straightaway: sociobiology is only in very imperfect agreement with modern genetics; it is linked to an outdated conception of Darwinism and to a series of ideas that were abandoned nearly half a century ago.” He adds that “Wilson’s theory has been challenged by a majority of biologists and geneticists, and Lewontin has even gone so far to declare that it is a caricature of Darwinism”.

Just as Marvin Harris was able to demonstrate that Chagnon used a highly atypical Yanomami village to prove that warfare was not related to food intake, Lizot examines Chagnon’s data about warfare between two other villages in order to invalidate his hypothesis about their “fierceness”. (One wonders what Chagnon, now in his seventies and living in northern Michigan—militia country—makes of the fact that the gay community uses the word “fierce” to describe something extraordinary.)

Lizot takes up the warfare between the Tayari-theri and the Pishaasi-theri in 1979 that Chagnon had described as costing the lives of a large number of adult men. Lizot was quite familiar with the first village since it was where he reigned as a kind of over-chief due to the largesse of trade goods he bestowed upon its inhabitants, often in exchange for sexual favors.

Lizot argues that the conflict between these two villages had little to do with competition for women. Instead the conflict grew out of “gossip, insults, stone throwing, provocations, garden thefts, and the boastful attitude of certain Tayari leaders.” Things reached such a sorry state that finally Pishaasi warriors killed two of their adversaries, which led to a reciprocal revenge—an Amazon version of Hatfield-McCoy so to speak–that led to the loss of men on both sides.

Finally, a well-organized attack by 150 enemies on the Tayari village led to its total destruction by fire. Despite the murderous intentions, only 6 Tayari tribespeople died that day. Lizot examines the fatalities involved in this conflict that Chagnon chooses to describe as typical of Yanomami “fierceness” and arrives at the following conclusions. One, it is indisputable that the war was costly. One out of four men was killed in the fighting. But, more importantly, only 0.3 percent of the marriages in all the villages involved in the fighting were with women taken from an enemy group. Based on these figures, there is no cost-benefit involved with fighting in order to secure childbearing females. Unlike the Trojan War, this blood-letting in the Amazon had nothing to do with stealing women.

Lizot then applies the coup de grace to the tottering figure of Chagnon:

Chagnon’s point of view is, moreover, marked by an underlying male chauvinism, and sociobiology is a garment that suits him well. According to his conception of things, women, in the quarrels of the men, are nothing but beings without initiative and will.

Although I obviously have problems with Tierney’s hostility toward Lizot, he does have some information that will make the Tayari/Pishaasi war more understandable. In his chapter on Lizot titled rather provocatively “Erotic Indians”, Tierney gives some background on the relationship between the French anthropologist and his beneficiaries. They had their own outboard motors and plenty of shotguns, all courtesies of the French academy just as “Chagnon’s people” enjoyed trade goods provided by the University of Michigan and various museums.

Relative to other villages, the Tayari-theri was well-endowed. When a headman from a rival village approached the Tayaris after an unsuccessful hunting expedition, he was pelted with mud. This humiliation, according to Tierney, was what led to the first attack. The coalition involved in the attack on the Tayaris was regarded by the Indians as “Chagnon’s people” and were at one point determined to kill Lizot himself.

One supposes that the main lesson of this particular war among the Yanomami is that it could have been averted if the anthropologists had simply stayed home.


  1. Speaking of faulty biology, about those bonobos: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/07/30/070730fa_fact_parker

    Comment by Jenny — August 6, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  2. culturebox
    More on Napoleon Chagnon’s Abhorrent Field Methods
    Judith Shulevitz
    Posted Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000, at 12:20 PM ET

    Note to readers: This item responds to two letters objecting to Culturebox’s recent review of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. To read Culturebox’s review, click here. To read the letters, scroll to the bottom of that page.

    In my review of Patrick Tierney’s much refuted Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, I opine that although Tierney fails to drum up a scandal out of his unsupportable accusations of genocide, there is another, truer scandal buried in his story. That is the way that Napoleon Chagnon–the anthropologist under attack in the book–went about extracting genealogies from the Amazonians known as the Yanomami, despite their strong taboo against uttering the names of their dead. I call the practice “staggeringly callous” and “evidence of a chilling disregard for human dignity and individual belief.” Two colleagues of Chagnon, anthropologists Raymond Hames and Ed Hagen, accuse me of mischaracterizing the procedure.

    One of them, Professor Hagen, is right to say that I got one fact wrong, but he is incorrect when he implies that Chagnon’s field methods are somehow less abhorrent for it. I write:

    He would play people against one another. He would go to one man and ask for the names of his rival’s dead relatives. Then he would go to the rival and reel off the names of his kin, gauging the accuracy of the first man’s information by the amount of anger it elicited in the second. The rival, by now an enemy of the first, would spew the names of that man’s dead relatives in retaliation.

    In fact, as Hagen points out, Chagnon took care not to go directly to rivals with the forbidden names but rather to their friends and neighbors. He did this because when he did utter the name of an informant’s late close relative to that informant’s face, the man usually flew into a rage and stopped talking to Chagnon. The anthropologist also feared being physically attacked.

    Mea culpa. Let’s put my mistake in context, though. The question here is, was Chagnon’s genealogy-gathering unusually divisive and disrespectful to the Yanomami? The answer is yes.

    Consider how he first hit on the method. He was watching a club fight between two men that escalated to such fury that one man began calling the other by the name of his deceased father. Chagnon saw this and all but pounced on the angrier of the men:

    I quickly seized on this incident as an opportunity to collect an accurate genealogy and confidentially asked Rerebawa about his adversary’s ancestors. … He gave me the information I requested of his adversary’s deceased ancestors, almost with devilish glee. I asked about dead ancestors of other people in the village and got prompt, unequivocal answers: He was angry with everyone in the village.

    Inspired by his success with the embittered Rerebawa, Chagnon soon realizes that local enmity and strife hold the key to Yanomami family trees:

    [I]t was a major turning point in my fieldwork. Thereafter, I began taking advantage of local arguments and animosities in selecting my informants, and used more extensively informants who had married into the village in the recent past. I also began traveling more regularly to other villages at this time to check on genealogies, seeking out villages whose members were on strained terms with the people about whom I wanted information. I would then return to my base in the village of Bisaasi-teri and check with local informants the accuracy of the new information.

    At one point, Chagnon nearly gets himself killed when he goes to a village where a woman has recently been murdered and, in an effort to find out who she was so he doesn’t inadvertently drop her name in the wrong context, whispers it to a close relative:

    [H]e flew out of his chair, enraged and trembling violently, his arm raised to strike me: “You son-of-a-bitch!” he screamed. “If you say her name in my presence again, I’ll kill you in an instant!” I sat there, bewildered, shocked, and confused. … I reflected on the several articles I had read as a graduate student that explained the “genealogical method,” but could not recall anything about its being a potentially lethal undertaking. My furious informant left my hut, never again to be invited back to be an informant. I had other similar experiences in different villages, but I was always fortunate in that the dead person had been dead for some time, or was not very closely related to the individual into whose ear I whispered the forbidden name. I was usually cautioned by one of the men to desist from saying any more names lest I get people “angry.”

    Any reader who comes across these passages is bound to pause and ask herself what was really going on here, just as I did. Why didn’t Chagnon stop or at least reconsider his research when he saw how offensive it was to the Yanomami? What made him so sure that his edification was worth the price of their distress? The answer is clear: The Western anthropologist considered his concerns to be more important than the Yanomami’s concern with preserving the dignity of the dead. The distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins words his criticism of this attitude much more harshly (and insightfully) than I did. I encourage everyone to read his excellent review of Tierney’s book in the Washington Post. Here’s what Sahlins says about Chagnon’s genealogy project:

    [Chagnon] was also engaged in an absurdist anthropological project, which he took seriously, of finding ancestor-based lineage institutions among a people who by taboo could not know, could not trace and could not name their ancestors–or for that matter, could not bear to hear their own names. To utter people’s names in their presence is the gravest offense, a horror: “In battle they shout out the name because they are enemies.” As for the dead, they are completely excluded from Yanomami society, ritually as well as verbally, as a necessary condition of the continued existence of the living. But for the sake of science, Chagnon had to know–and so set in motion an opposition between their humanity and his epistemology that developed progressively through his professorial career.

    As for the usefulness of native North American genealogies, which Professor Hagen cites, apparently as a possible justification for Chagnon’s research, I don’t see how they are relevant to a discussion of Chagnon’s work. Even if the Yanomami genealogies were as useful as native North American ones are–and Hagen doesn’t claim they are–the bottom line is that harmful research techniques should be condemned no matter how good their data is or or how much good it ultimately does. One of the perennial questions in medical ethics is whether to use the information about the limits of human endurance obtained through Nazi experiments in concentration camps. Some people think we should; others do not. But no one tries to claim that the experiments are defensible just because they produced some data that might be of value to us today.

    Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate. She is writing a book about the Sabbath.

    Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/1006674/

    Copyright 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC

    Comment by Charles — August 7, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

  3. Jungle Fever

    By Marshall Sahlins
    Sunday, December 10, 2000; Page X01

    How Scientists and Journalists
    Devastated the Amazon
    By Patrick Tierney
    Norton. 417 pp. $27.95

    Guilty not as charged.

    Well before it reached the bookstores, Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in
    El Dorado set off a flurry of publicity and electronic debate over its
    allegations that, at about the same time American soldiers were
    carrying out search-and-destroy missions in the jungles of Vietnam,
    American scientists were doing something like research-and-destroy by
    knowingly spreading disease in the jungles of Amazonia. On closer
    examination, the alleged scientific horror turned out to be something
    less than that, even as it was always the lesser part of Tierney’s book.
    By far the greater part is the story, sufficiently notorious in its own
    right, of the well-known anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon: of his work
    among the Yanomami people of Venezuela and his fame among the science
    tribe of America.

    The pre-publication sound and fury, however, concerned the decorated
    geneticist and physician the late James Neel–for whose researches in
    the upper Orinoco during the late 1960s and early 1970s Chagnon had
    served as a jungle advance man and blood collector. Sponsored by the
    U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Neel’s investigations were
    designed to establish mutation rates in a population uncontaminated by
    nuclear radiation for comparison with the survivors of Hiroshima and
    Nagasaki. But according to Tierney, Neel also had another agenda: He
    wanted to test an original theory of immunity-formation in a “virgin
    soil” population, exposed for the first time to a devastating foreign
    disease. Hence the sensational chapter on “The Outbreak,” where
    Tierney alleges that Neel abetted, if not created, a deadly measles
    epidemic by inoculating Yanomami Indians with an outmoded type of
    vaccine known to cause severe reactions. Or so it says in the original
    review galleys of the book.

    But by the time Darkness in El Dorado was published, it was already in
    a second, revised edition, one that qualified some of Tierney’s more
    sensational claims in the galley proofs of “The Outbreak.” Tierney is
    an investigative journalist, and critical aspects of his original
    indictment of Neel took the form of well-documented speculation,
    leaving plenty of space for the heated exchanges by e-mail and
    Internet that ensued among respectable scholars who for the most part
    hadn’t read the book. These hasty incriminations and recriminations
    created their own versions of what Neel had done–and, accordingly,
    criticisms of Tierney that had nothing to do with what he had said.
    Still, it became clear enough that Neel could not have originated or
    spread genuine measles by the vaccine he administered. Tierney then
    revised the conclusion of the relevant chapter in the published
    version, making the vaccine issue more problematic–and to that
    extent, the chapter self-contradictory. Other issues, such as whether
    Neel was doing some kind of experiment that got out of hand, remain
    unresolved as of this writing.

    The brouhaha in cyberspace seemed to help Chagnon’s reputation as much
    as Neel’s, for in the fallout from the latter’s defense many academics
    also took the opportunity to make tendentious arguments on Chagnon’s
    behalf. Against Tierney’s brief that Chagnon acted as an
    anthro-provocateur of certain conflicts among the Yanomami, one
    anthropologist solemnly demonstrated that warfare was endemic and
    prehistoric in the Amazon. Such feckless debate is the more remarkable
    because most of the criticisms of Chagnon rehearsed by Tierney have
    been circulating among anthropologists for years, and the best
    evidence for them can be found in Chagnon’s writings going back to the

    The ’60s were the longest decade of the 20th century, and Vietnam was
    the longest war. In the West, the war prolonged itself in arrogant
    perceptions of the weaker peoples as instrumental means of the global
    projects of the stronger. In the human sciences, the war persists in
    an obsessive search for power in every nook and cranny of our society
    and history, and an equally strong postmodern urge to “deconstruct”
    it. For his part, Chagnon writes popular textbooks that describe his
    ethnography among the Yanomami in the 1960s in terms of gaining
    control over people.

    Demonstrating his own power has been not only a necessary condition of
    Chagnon’s fieldwork, but a main technique of investigation. In a
    scientific reprise of a losing military tactic, he also attempted to
    win the hearts and minds of the people by a calculated redistribution
    of material wealth, and in so doing, managed to further destabilize
    the countryside and escalate the violence. Tierney quotes a prominent
    Yanomami leader: “Chagnon is fierce. Chagnon is very dangerous. He has
    his own personal war.” Meanwhile, back in California a defender of
    Chagnon in the e-mail battles has lauded him as “perhaps the world’s
    most famous living social anthropologist.” The Kurtzian narrative of
    how Chagnon achieved the political status of a monster in Amazonia and
    a hero in academia is truly the heart of Darkness in El Dorado. While
    some of Tierney’s reporting has come under fire, this is nonetheless a
    revealing book, with a cautionary message that extends well beyond the
    field of anthropology. It reads like an allegory of American power and
    culture since Vietnam.

    “I soon learned that I had to become very much like the Yanomami to be
    able to get along with them on their terms: sly, aggressive, and
    intimidating,” Chagnon writes in his famous study Yanomamo: The Fierce
    People. This was not the usual stance toward fieldwork in the 1960s,
    when the anthropologist already enjoyed the protection of the colonial
    masters. Chagnon was working in the Amazonian Wild West, populated by
    small, independent and mobile communities in uneasy relations of
    alliance and hostility that could readily escalate to death by
    poisoned arrow. Moreover, when Chagnon began to collaborate with
    biological scientists, his fieldwork became highly peripatetic itself,
    and highly demanding of the Yanomami’s compliance. By 1974, he had
    visited 40 to 50 villages in less than as many months, collecting
    blood, urine and genealogies–a tour punctuated by stints of
    filmmaking with the noted cineaste Timothy Asch. Hitting-and-running,
    Chagnon did fieldwork in the mode of a military campaign.

    This helps explain why many other anthropologists who have done longer
    and more sedentary work in particular Yanomami villages, including
    former students and colleagues of Chagnon, have disavowed his
    one-sided depiction of the Yanomami as “a fierce people.” “The biggest
    misnomer in the history of anthropology,” said anthropologist Kenneth
    Good of Chagnon’s use of that phrase in the title of his popular

    Good and other Yanomami specialists make it clear that the supreme
    accolade of Yanomami personhood–the term waiteri that Chagnon
    translates as “fierce people”–involves a subtle combination of valor,
    humor and generosity. All of these, moreover, are reciprocal
    relations. One should return blow for blow, and Chagnon is hardly the
    only male anthropologist to get into dust-ups with Yanomami warriors.
    But according to his own account, while Chagnon readily joined the
    negative game of holding one’s ground, he knowingly brought contempt
    on himself by refusing to be generous with food. Continuous
    food-sharing is a basic criterion of humanity for Yanomami, the
    material foundation of their sociality.

    Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his
    visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only
    in loincloth, body painted red, feathered–and carrying a shotgun. His
    field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric
    stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical
    power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic seances. When someone stole
    from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the
    favor by carrying off the latter’s hammock until he got his stuff
    back. But when it came to the reciprocity of food sharing, he
    protested that he could not feed the whole village. On the contrary,
    he disgusted curious Yanomami by telling them the canned frankfurters
    he was eating were animal penises, and peanut butter likewise was just
    what it looked like. Unselfconsciously, he acknowledges that his
    unwillingness to share food generously or widely made him “despicable
    in their eyes.”

    “The next morning,” he writes, “I began the delicate task of
    identifying everyone by name and numbering them with indelible ink to
    make sure that everyone had only one name and identity.” Chagnon
    inscribed these indelible identification numbers on people’s
    arms–barely 20 years after World War II.

    But he indeed had a delicate problem. He badly needed to know the
    people’s names and their genealogies. This information was
    indispensable to the AEC biological studies. He was also engaged in an
    absurdist anthropological project, which he took seriously, of finding
    ancestor-based lineage institutions among a people who by taboo could
    not know, could not trace and could not name their ancestors–or for
    that matter, could not bear to hear their own names. To utter people’s
    names in their presence is the gravest offense, a horror: “In battle
    they shout out the name because they are enemies.” As for the dead,
    they are completely excluded from Yanomami society, ritually as well
    as verbally, as a necessary condition of the continued existence of
    the living. But for the sake of science, Chagnon had to know–and so
    set in motion an opposition between their humanity and his
    epistemology that developed progressively through his professorial

    Chagnon invented draconian devices for getting around the name taboos.
    He exploited animosities within the village to induce some people to
    tell on others. He “bribed” (his quotation marks) children to disclose
    names when their elders were not around. Most productive of all, he
    went to enemy villages to get people’s genealogies, and then confirmed
    the information by seeing if they got angry when he recited the names
    to their faces. By the early 1970s Chagnon had collected some 10,000
    Yanomami names, including 7,000 names of the dead. It must have caused
    a lot of pain and hate.

    Collecting names and blood was destabilizing not only for the insults
    it required, but because Chagnon was buying these with large payments
    of machetes, axes, utensils and other steel trade goods. These were
    prize objects of Yanomami desire, but not simply because of their
    economic advantages. The history of native Americans is too often
    written as if there had to be a white man behind every red man.
    Incorporating the foreign technology in their own cultural order, the
    Yanomami became the authors of its distinctive historical effects.
    They placed imported steel in the highest category of their own
    hierarchy of values, together with their most precious things, a
    position to which the foreign objects were entitled because of their
    analogous associations with marvelous powers–in this case, European
    powers. Surely steel was useful, but its utility was transcendent,
    beyond the ways Yanomami knew of making or controlling things. And as
    signs and means of power, the foreign goods were engaged in the
    fundamental transactions of a native Yanomami system of alliance and
    competition. They were materials of feasting, marriage payments,
    trading, making alliances, attracting followers, sorcerizing and much
    more. More than producing food, trade goods produced and reproduced
    Yanomami culture, hence every kind of satisfaction the Yanomami know.
    Accordingly, the foreign goods themselves became objects of native
    competition–as did their human sources, notably Napoleon Chagnon.

    Chagnon was not the only outsider whose distribution of steel goods
    plunged him in a maelstrom of Yanomami violence, although it’s
    doubtful that any other anthropologist became so involved in
    participant-instigation. “The distribution of trade goods,” as Chagnon
    observed early on, “would always anger people who did not receive
    something they wanted, and it was useless to try and work any longer
    in the village.” Yet moving could only generate further contention,
    now among the villages so favored and disfavored by Chagnon’s
    presence. Hostilities thus tracked the always-changing geopolitics of
    Chagnon-wealth, including even pre-emptive attacks to deny others
    access to him. As one Yanomami man recently related to Tierney: “Shaki
    [Chagnon] promised us many things, and that’s why other communities
    were jealous and began to fight against us.”

    Movie-making was an additional mode of provocation, especially when
    Chagnon and Timothy Asch used wealth to broker alliances among
    previously hostile groups for that purpose. The allies were then
    disposed to cement their newfound amity by combining in magical or
    actual raids on Yanomami third parties. Deaths from disease were also
    known to follow filming, prompting Tierney to observe that Chagnon and
    Asch were being awarded prizes for “the greatest snuff films of all

    Over time, the demands on Chagnon’s person and goods became more
    importuning and aggressive, to which he would respond with an equal
    and opposite display of machismo. (“He glared at me with naked hatred
    in his eyes, and I glared back at him in the same fashion.”) Soon
    enough he had good reason to fear for his life, by magical as well as
    physical attack–including the time when some erstwhile Yanomami
    friends shot arrows into an effigy of him. Yet Chagnon also knew how
    to mobilize his own camp. Early on, he fostered what was to become a
    life-long sociology of conflicts whose “basic logic,” as Tierney put
    it, saw “Yanomami villages opposed to Chagnon attacking those villages
    that received him.”

    By 1976, however, Chagnon’s ethnography had cost him official
    anthropological support in Caracas, and for nearly a decade he was
    unable to secure a permit to resume fieldwork. In 1985, when he did
    return, in the company of one of his students, the latter reported
    they were greeted by a crowd of Indians shouting the Yanomami version
    of “Chagnon go home!” In 1989 Chagnon was again kept out because the
    law required that foreign researchers collaborate with Venezuelan
    scientists, and, as he complained to a missionary whose help he
    sought, “the local anthropologists do not like me.” Bereft of
    legitimate support, Chagnon returned in 1990 under the dubious aegis
    of Cecelia Matos, the mistress of then-president of Venezuela, and one
    Charles Brewer Carias, a self-proclaimed naturalist, known opponent of
    Indian land rights and entrepreneur with a reputation for illegal gold
    mining. The trio had concocted a scheme to create a Yanomami reserve
    and scientific biosphere in 6,000 square miles of the remote Siapa
    Highlands, to be directed by Brewer and Chagnon and subsidized by a
    foundation set up by Matos. According to Tierney, Brewer had his eye
    on rich tin resources in Yanomami territory. In an intensified
    repetition of a now-established pattern, the huge amount of goods that
    military aircraft ferried in for the project helped set off the
    bloodiest war in Yanomami history, with Chagnon’s people pitted
    against a coalition of Yanomami opponents, directed by a charismatic
    leader of their own.

    In three years, the scheme collapsed. Matos was eventually indicted
    for corruption, in part for her role in commandeering military support
    for the reserve caper, and she remains a fugitive from Venezuelan
    justice. In September 1993, in the wake of huge protests that followed
    from their appointment as administrators of the reserve, Chagnon and
    Brewer were expelled from Yanomami territory by judicial decree.
    (Among the protesters were the 300 Indians representing 19 tribes at
    the first Amazon Indian Congress, who took to the streets against
    Chagnon and Brewer in the town of Porto Ayachuco.) An army colonel
    escorted Chagnon to Caracas and advised him to leave the country,
    which he did forthwith.

    In America anyhow, he suffered no such indignities. On the contrary,
    the more unwanted Chagnon became in the Venezuelan jungle, the more
    celebrated he was in American science. The day before his last
    expulsion from Yanomami land, the New York Academy of Sciences held a
    special meeting devoted to his work.

    In the course of Chagnon’s career, the further away he got from any
    sort of anthropological humanism, the more he became a natural
    scientist. (This could be a lesson for us all.) Whatever the
    accusations of ferocity and inhumanity made against his ethnography,
    he increasingly justified it by claims of empirical-scientific value.
    So he was able to answer his growing chorus of critics by the
    scientific assertion that they were “left-wing anthropologists,”
    “anti-Darwinian romantics” and other such practitioners of the
    “politically correct.” One might say that Chagnon made a scientific
    value of the belligerence in which he was entangled, elevating it to
    the status of the sociobiological theory that human social evolution
    positively selects for homicidal violence. Whatever the other
    consolations of this theory, it brought Chagnon the massive support of
    prominent sociobiologists. The support remained constant right through
    the fiasco that attended his attempt in 1988 to prove the reproductive
    (hence genetic) advantages of killing in the pages of Science.

    The truth claims of the argument presented by Chagnon in Science may
    have had the shortest half-life of any study ever published in that
    august journal. Chagnon set out to demonstrate statistically that
    known killers among the Yanomami had more than twice as many wives and
    three times as many children as non-killers. This would prove that
    humans (i.e., men) do indeed compete for reproductive advantages, as
    sociobiologists claimed, and homicidal violence is a main means of the
    competition. Allowing the further (and fatuous) assumption that the
    Yanomami represent a primitive stage of human evolution, Chagnon’s
    findings would support the theory that violence has been progressively
    inscribed in our genes.

    But Chagnon’s statistics were hardly out before Yanomami specialists
    dismembered them by showing, among other things, that designated
    killers among this people have not necessarily killed, nor have
    designated fathers necessarily fathered. Many more Yanomami are known
    as killers than there are people killed because the Yanomami accord
    the ritual status of man-slayer to sorcerers who do death magic and
    warriors who shoot arrows into already wounded or dead enemies.
    Anyhow, it is a wise father who knows his own child (or vice versa) in
    a society that practices wife-sharing and adultery as much as the
    Yanomami do. Archkillers, besides, are likely to father fewer children
    inasmuch as they are prime targets for vengeance, a possibility
    Chagnon conveniently omitted from his statistics by not including dead
    fathers of living children. Nor did his calculations allow for the
    effects of age, shamanistic attainments, headship, hunting ability or
    trading skill–all of which are known on ethnographic grounds to
    confer marital advantages for Yanomami men.

    Supporters of Chagnon, and lately Chagnon himself, have defended his
    sociobiology by referring to several other studies showing that men
    who incarnate the values of their society, whatever these values may
    be, have the most sex and children. Even granting this to be
    true–except for our society, where the rich get richer but the poor
    get children–this claim only demonstrates that the genetic impulses
    of a people are under the control of their culture rather than the
    other way around. For dominant cultural values vary from society to
    society, even as they may change rapidly in any given society. There
    is no universal selective pressure for violence or any other genetic
    disposition, nor could genes track the behavioral values varying
    rapidly and independently of them. It follows that what is strongly
    selected for in human beings is the ability to realize innate
    biological dispositions in a variety of meaningful ways, by a great
    number of cultural means. Violence may be inherently satisfying, but
    we humans can make war on the playing fields of Eton, by sorcery, by
    desecrating the flag or a thousand other ways of “kicking butt,”
    including writing book reviews. What evolution has allowed us is the
    symbolic capacity to sublimate our impulses in all the kinds of
    cultural forms that human history has known.

    In time, Chagnon became a legend of ferocity in the Amazon.
    Representations of him grew more monstrous in proportion to the scale
    of the struggles he provoked, and even his trade goods were poisoned
    with the memories of death. Tierney reports that shamans now portray
    his cameras, guns, helicopters and blood-collecting equipment as
    machinery of black magic, the products of a factory of xawara wakeshi,
    the deadly smoke of disease.

    Yet in America, the scientific doctors accord the sociobiological
    gases emanating from this same technology the highest esteem, worthy
    of hours and hours of inhalation in the rooms of the New York Academy
    of Sciences. On college campuses across the country, Chagnon’s name is
    a dormitory word. His textbooks have sold in the millions. In the huge
    undergraduate courses that pass for education in major universities,
    his prize-winning films are able to hold late adolescents spellbound
    by primitivizing, hence, eternalizing, their own fascination with
    drugs, sex and violence. America.

    Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service
    Professor of Anthropology emeritus at the University of Chicago. He is
    the author of the just-published essay collection “Culture in

    © 2000 The Washington Post Company

    Comment by Charles — August 7, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

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