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“Let us say it straightaway: sociobiology is only in very imperfect agreement with modern genetics; it is linked to an outdated conception of Darwinism and to a series of ideas that were abandoned nearly half a century ago.”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.