One anthropologist’s place in his field’s ongoing battle over questions of power, means and ends.
Peter C. Baker
May 15, 2013 | This article appeared in the June 3, 2013 edition of The Nation.
In December 1919, Franz Boas, the German-born academic widely recognized as the father of American anthropology, published a letter in this magazine accusing four of his American colleagues—whom he did not identify—of having used their research positions as cover for engaging in espionage in Central America during the recently concluded war. Ten days later, the governing council of the American Anthropological Association voted 20 to 10 to censure Boas, claiming that his highly public letter was unjustified and in no way represented the AAA’s position. Boas was a founding member and former president of the association, so the censure was doubly humiliating; it essentially forced him to resign from both the AAA’s governing body and the National Research Council.
The Boas incident was the prelude to a century in which anthropology has been haunted by questions of means and ends. What sorts of alliances with power are worth it? What responsibilities (if any) do anthropologists have to the populations they study? Above all, to what extent has Western anthropology been fatally compromised by its associations—direct and indirect, public and covert—with a violent and imperial foreign policy? In several books, the anthropologist David Price has cataloged the substantial sums of money funneled from the military and intelligence community to academic anthropology over the years, as well as the contribution of American anthropologists to every significant war effort in modern US history. Most recently, ethnographers have joined the Army’s Human Terrain System program, designed to aid military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by decoding the nuances of local culture. Price notes that although the revelation of these collaborations has often sparked heated short-term controversy, the disputes have passed without prompting broad, discipline-wide reform—or even conversation. After all, what anthropologist wants to spend time discrediting anthropology, a discipline that relies on trust, most importantly the trust of foreign governments and the subject populations that are the source of the discipline’s prized product of local knowledge? At what point are the ethical costs of doing anthropology too high, for ethnographers as well as the people they study?
That last question applies equally to anthropologists who may not work directly for the military or do fieldwork in areas explicitly labeled war zones. There is no better example than the career of Napoleon Chagnon, author of the bestselling anthropological text of the twentieth century, a slim volume called Yanomamö. Published in 1968, when Chagnon was 30, the book describes his fieldwork among the eponymous group of about 20,000 people who lived (and still live) in rainforest villages on both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border. (Chagnon called them the Yanomamö, but most people who study the group call them the Yanomami.) Chagnon claimed—and now claims again in his recently published memoir, Noble Savages—that he arrived at his first Yanomami village in 1964 expecting to meet egalitarian natives living in harmony with nature and each other. This, he says, was what his University of Michigan anthropology professors had prepared him for. Instead, he found a way of life more reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’s notion of the “state of nature”: an aggressive people mired in a cycle of inter-village combat, revenge begetting revenge and deception begetting deception. Death by murder was strikingly common, as was brutality toward women.
For Chagnon, the shock was immediate. No sooner had he and his guide arrived than they found themselves surrounded by “a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their noses.” Whatever else might be said about this type of writing, with its blend of the lurid and the exotic, it appealed to American undergrads—or at least their professors assumed it did, and they kept assigning Yanomamö in Anthro 101. Before long, the book was in its second edition, then its third; a sixth came out last year. Chagnon has claimed, not unreasonably, that it has been read by as many as 4 million people, and it has certainly sold over 1 million copies. Unlike most other academic anthropologists, especially those writing in the 1960s, Chagnon brought lucidity and flair to his descriptions of fieldwork’s trials: the impossibility of staying clean and avoiding insects, the Sisyphean ordeal of trying to make a cup of oatmeal, the deep frustration of miscommunication, the loneliness. But it is obvious from reading Yanomamö that he also found the fieldwork to be a thrilling adventure. Trekking through the rainforest, a shotgun in one hand and a machete in the other; shooting tapir to roast over an open fire; building dugout canoes; forging friendships; tagging along for raids—Chagnon made cultural anthropology look more exciting than any textbook or tweedy professor’s lecture on kinship rituals. The book’s popularity has also benefited from the stylish films about the Yanomami that Chagnon made with the renowned visual ethnographer Timothy Asch.
In both the book and the films, there is a lot of fighting: chest-pounding matches, club fights, ax fights, raids, counter-raids, ambushes. Chagnon decided that Yanomami warfare was in large part about women, and specifically the question of who got to have sex with them. Women were regularly abducted from other villages during raids, and success in combat boosted a man’s social status, increasing his odds of securing wives for himself and his relatives. In order to reach this conclusion, Chagnon first constructed elaborate genealogies, tracing family trees across generations and far-flung villages to observe the relationship between blood ties and war patterns. This required not just learning the Yanomami language, but also overcoming his hosts’ frequent reluctance to supply the information he wanted. The most significant obstacle was a system of name taboos, including a prohibition against speaking a person’s name in that person’s presence and another against uttering the names of the dead.
The book was controversial from the start. Chagnon presented the Yanomami as a people living in the “state of nature,” untouched by the influence of modern civilization and nation-states, and so providing something of an undiluted example of humankind’s evolutionary ancestry. The possibility that these “primitive,” “Stone Age” people were killing each other not in competition over strategic resources, but specifically to improve their “reproductive fitness”—their odds of passing on their genes, either by reproducing themselves or by boosting the reproductive prospects of their relatives—was irresistible to proponents of the emerging field of sociobiology, which looks to natural selection to explain human social behaviors like altruism, the emergence of nation-states and war. The discipline’s recognition skyrocketed after the publication of E.O. Wilson’s influentialSociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975; in subsequent editions of Yanomamö, Chagnon placed more emphasis on the role of biology in explanations of human behavior. For sociobiologists and their descendants, especially so-called evolutionary psychologists, such thinking was nothing short of a scientific revolution; for their detractors, among them cultural anthropologists, it was reductionist mumbo-jumbo at best, and politically dangerous at worst—the squeezing of the Yanomami and similar groups into categories crafted from Western assumptions to serve Western interests. The battles were heated and inseparable from competition over funding. The Yanomami became something of a prize token: for Chagnon’s defenders and critics, the fighting that occurred among this small group of people in the Amazon simply could not be what the other camp claimed it was, nor mean what the other side said it meant. Allegations of bad faith, often tinged with personal hostility, were as thick in the air as insects in the Amazon rainforest.
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Even if the Yanomami are, or were, our “contemporary ancestors,” they live on land that is claimed by modern nation-states and happens to be rich in precious minerals. When the miners arrive, the Yanomami die, mostly from disease or poisonous chemical runoff, but sometimes also from shotgun blasts. During the 1980s and ’90s, anthropologists and indigenous rights groups became concerned about the possible effect that Chagnon’s theories might have outside the academy. This concern escalated after 1988, when Chagnon published an article in Science claiming that, among the Yanomami, men who killed other men also had the most wives and children. In 1989, the Brazilian Anthropological Association wrote to the AAA’s newsletter, arguing that Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomami as a fundamentally “fierce people” (the subtitle of his book’s first three editions) was exaggerated to the point of falsehood, and less than helpful at a time when the Yanomami were under attack by miners and their allies in the Brazilian government, who were citing this supposedly endemic Yanomami violence as one of the reasons they should be segregated on twenty-one separate micro-reservations. As similar accusations circulated, it became increasingly difficult for Chagnon to obtain the permits required to do his work. In 1999, citing this obstacle, he announced his early retirement from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and returned to his home state of Michigan.
Around a year later, controversy about Chagnon’s Yanomami work reached a new level of scrutiny and public visibility, prompted by the publication of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Where previous Yanomami debates had rarely strayed beyond specialized academic venues, Tierney’s attack on Chagnon was published by W.W. Norton, a respected trade house, and garnered the attention of reviewers around the world. Tierney was at the time a journalist and indigenous rights activist; in Darkness in El Dorado, he took all the old complaints against Chagnon and wove them into a dramatic narrative of white men and the ruin they’d brought to the rainforest. His rogues’ gallery includes the French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, who for years used his store of foreign goods to pay Yanomami men and boys for sex. There was also the public television documentary crew that paid the Yanomami to dress and act differently (more “primitively”) than they otherwise would have—and then sat by, cameras rolling, while a young woman and her child died, despite having a motorboat that could have taken them to a hospital. There are miners and soldiers and corrupt politicians—and there’s Chagnon himself, whom Tierney portrays as the monomaniacal, violence-obsessed Colonel Kurtz of sociobiology, so entranced by the possibility of making a vital contribution to a beautiful, voguish theory that he lost all sight of Yanomami reality, research ethics and human decency.
In addition to rehashing—and, more than once, overcooking—the old accusations about Chagnon’s flawed assumptions, suspect methodology, dubious interpretations and their effects on the Yanomami, Tierney raised a new charge, one that seemed to dwarf the others in terms of its horror. The allegation related to a central aspect of Chagnon’s research program, one that had hardly been mentioned in his writings to date. The funding for Chagnon’s first few trips to South America came from the National Institute of Mental Health; but by 1967, Chagnon was collaborating with James Neel, a titan of modern genetics. Neel worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, the post–World War II agency created to study nuclear technology and its effects (including the infamous experiments in which Americans were exposed to large doses of radiation without their consent). As a geneticist, Neel saw the Yanomami as the closest link to our “evolutionary ancestors” he would ever get a chance to sample, an isolated population unaffected by industrialization or global conflict. Neel and Chagnon were both then based at the University of Michigan, and it was on Neel’s recommendation that Chagnon went to live with the Yanomami in the first place. Chagnon got AEC money; in return, whenever one of Neel’s teams wanted to collect blood and tissue samples, he served as their guide and translator.
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Though Neel had little concern for the specifics of Yanomami life and (according to Chagnon) a disdain for anthropology in general, he sometimes went on the sample-gathering trips. On one, in 1968, a measles outbreak was erupting just as his team arrived. In the account presented in Darkness in El Dorado, Neel and his team—despite delivering a thousand vaccines—made the epidemic worse, causing many more Yanomami to fall ill and die than would have otherwise. This was not, Tierney insinuated in the pre-publication proofs of the book sent to reviewers, a matter of neglect; instead, Neel had knowingly made the epidemic worse because it gave him the perfect chance to observe the immune systems of a virgin-soil population in action. In this account, a founding figure of modern genetics comes across as little different from a Nazi scientist, with America’s bestselling anthropologist as his willing handmaiden.
After Norton sent out the proofs of Tierney’s book, his tale of killer anthropologists started circulating at great speed on academic listservs. It was a “nightmarish story,” wrote two of Chagnon’s longtime critics in August 2000, “a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef [sic] Conrad (though not, perhaps a Josef Mengele).” Chagnon’s partisans set in motion efforts to discredit Tierney’s book page by page, hoping to stem the inevitable tide of bad press. Allies like Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser e-mailed people covering the book, urging them to denounce it. In late 2000, an excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, and the book—though still not released—was nominated for a National Book Award. Meanwhile, Tierney and Norton continued editing it, softening some of its more incendiary claims about the measles epidemic; when released, it still claimed that Neel had made the epidemic worse, but allowed that it had not been intentional.
Sensing the possibility of a public relations disaster for the entire discipline, the AAA’s leadership convened a task force to evaluate Tierney’s charges. This was highly unusual: unlike a state medical or legal board, for example, the AAA is not a licensing body; you need not be a member of the association to practice anthropology. (Chagnon canceled his membership in the late 1980s.) It has little in the way of meaningful investigative authority, and its ethics guidelines are notoriously muddled and difficult to apply. The task force’s preliminary report, released in 2001 soon after the book’s publication, concluded that Tierney’s argument was shot through with flaws: the accusation that Neel had worsened the measles epidemic, as one example, was found to be baseless and not even possible. But many of Tierney’s less sensational, more complex charges against Chagnon were substantiated, and the task force declared that the book was of definite value to the field. This satisfied no one, not least because of an obvious procedural failing: two of the task force’s members admitted to not having read the whole report.
The final report, released a few months later, was considerably more critical of Chagnon. But for his detractors, it was at best an imperfect attempt to grapple with fundamental questions, and at worst a PR move designed to hurry the discipline past an ugly episode. For Chagnon’s supporters, it was a disgraceful hatchet job, one more sign of cultural anthropology’s resentment over the encroachment of “hard” science onto its turf. Three years later, a referendum was put forth to rescind the report, on the grounds that the original task force had been illegitimate, biased and sloppy. Roughly 10 percent of the AAA’s members voted: 846 for, 338 against. The report was removed from the organization’s website, and the question of which, if any, of its conclusions had been true was left for die-hards to debate in academic journals and on their personal websites. There is little agreement even about what the controversy is exactly, and most often the people involved—tenured professors—do little more than talk past each other, bemoan the quality of debate, and then continue talking past each other. Davi Kopenawa, a prominent Yanomami activist, put it well: “I want to know how much they are making each month. How much does an anthropologist earn?… This is a lot of money. They may be fighting but they are happy. They fight and this makes them happy. They make money and fight.”
There were two other referendums on the ballot when the AAA voted to rescind the El Dorado report. One expressed a strong preference for holding the annual meetings at facilities staffed by unions; it passed by a vote of 695 to 624. The other was a repudiation of the 1919 censure of Franz Boas, whose accusations about anthropologist-spies had since been confirmed by researchers—including the fact that some of the men who voted to censure him were the spies he had declined to name out of respect for their safety. The language of the 2005 repudiation implied that the original censure had been a regrettable error from another era, the sort of mistake anthropology didn’t make anymore and hadn’t made for a long time. It passed by an overwhelming margin: 1,245 to 73.
* * *
Chagnon’s retirement was not what he’d hoped for. In 2000, overcome by the stress of working to clear his name, but nonetheless seeing his alleged complicity with genocide become headline news around the world, he collapsed and was hospitalized. In subsequent years, he found it impossible to put the affair behind him:
I did not travel much, did not fish much, did not hunt grouse and pheasants over my German short-haired pointers, did not go to many concerts, did not read much fiction for pleasure, and did not spend more time with members of my family.
Instead, he set to work on a memoir. But he repeatedly scrapped what he’d written “because of the anger that kept creeping into my writing, giving it a very depressive tone.”
In Secrets of the Tribe, a recent documentary about anthropologists and the Yanomami, Chagnon responds to his critics mostly by repeating simplified versions of their charges in a sanctimonious tone. Despite his attempts to expunge the anger from his memoir, much of Noble Savages has a similar quality. As Chagnon sees it, his critics are a coalition of anthropological “ayatollahs” scrambling to protect their own authority from scientific rigor, “Marxist”-style “Thought Police” guarding the “politically correct” conventional wisdom, “postmodernists” unqualified to make claims about his conduct because they can’t even decide if the world exists, Catholic missionaries who wanted the Yanomami for themselves, and “barefoot” “activist” types less interested in studying the people of the world than in leading a witch hunt for the bad guy in the “office down the hall.” (The long history of overlap between American anthropology and the American military-intelligence sector is not mentioned.) These are the sorts of people, we are given to understand, who don’t care about what is true or not—the sort willing to smear a man to keep an ideology alive.
But Chagnon is in a bind: he’s written a memoir to refute the charges against him, but he finds the charges so baseless, and their existence so revolting, that he can barely be bothered to address them, or even to characterize them accurately. (In this sense, Noble Savages mirrors Darkness in El Dorado, which might have been more rigorous if Tierney hadn’t been so furious.) A telling example is Chagnon’s response to criticism from his fellow anthropologist Brian Ferguson. In 1995, Ferguson published Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, a book centrally concerned with countering Chagnon’s analysis of Yanomami life and violence. He disputed Chagnon’s interpretations of his own data (convincingly, I think), but also advanced a more fundamental objection: that the Yanomami had been in contact, direct and otherwise, with the “outside” world at several points long before Chagnon’s arrival, and that these moments of contact had influenced everything from where their villages were established to how they related to each other. Warfare was not the Yanomami historical norm, Ferguson said, and when war did break out, it had at least as much to do with the effects of encroaching nation-states and empires as it did with women and revenge. One crucial result of these moments of contact was the Yanomami’s acquistion of steel. Steel tools are many times more efficient than stone ones; when some villages came to possess more than others, it tilted the scales toward conflict, especially in times of hardship and deprivation, such as those caused by disease outbreaks (which even by Chagnon’s calculations were a more common cause of Yanomami death than violence).
Whatever the soundness and validity of Ferguson’s complex argument, it deserves more of a response than the single sentence that Chagnon has buried in an endnote: “Ferguson also claimed that I caused animosity, jealousy, and conflicts by the way I gave metal tools to the Yanomamö.” You can almost hear Chagnon snorting in disbelief. Because the endnotes lack corresponding numbers in the main text, the path the reader must take to them is unmarked. No reader will learn from Chagnon what Ferguson actually thinks. It is true that, in Yanomamö, Chagnon admitted to intentionally exploiting local animosities and conflicts to gain information, especially in his efforts to work past the Yanomami’s pesky name taboos. It is also true that Ferguson discusses Chagnon and other anthropologists’ habit of handing out steels tools in exchange for information, labor and blood samples. But to make this the centerpiece of his critique is absurd. It is also a measure of Chagnon’s narcissism that he reduces an argument about hundreds of years of history, empires and culture to an argument about himself. (Tierney is guilty of a similar fixation: when he cites Ferguson’s arguments in Darkness in El Dorado, he is also seemingly obsessed with the possibility that Chagnon himself had caused Yanomami warfare.)
The irony is that in Noble Savages, a story of an allegedly Stone Age people, steel and its influence are ubiquitous. One village Chagnon visited exists where it does, a missionary tells him, because its residents wanted to be near the missionaries and the steel tools they brought with them. His hosts lie to him about other villages—how far away they are, the dangers he can expect en route—so that he won’t leave and share his steel gifts with others. When he’s not watching, they break into his supplies and make off with knives and fishhooks. “The very word madohe [trade goods] stirs people,” Chagnon says. If machetes or axes are present, he observes, club fights can escalate to machete fights, increasing the likelihood of their participants being crippled or killed. Even after pointing all this out, Chagnon takes a position worthy of the National Rifle Association: machetes don’t kill Yanomami, Yanomami do.
Elsewhere in his memoir, though, he insists that the introduction of new technology can alter—and has altered—the way people relate to each other, even by encouraging them to kill each other. Missionaries from the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic charity, gave shotguns to the Yanomami, something Chagnon refused to do “as a matter of principle.” The results, he says, were disastrous. “Although the shotguns did not make the Yanomamö warlike, I believe that they probably caused an increase in mortality rates…. Shotguns may have even made the Yanomamö more willing to attack their enemies because the shotguns were more efficient killing weapons than their bows and arrows.” And: “The introduction of shotguns at Salesian missions would most likely change traditional Yanomamö warfare patterns.”
The Salesians might be the only people Chagnon dislikes more than cultural anthropologists. From his perspective, they were determined to make the rainforest into a theocracy, controlling who came and went (including anthropologists) and luring the heathen Yanomami to their settlements so as to render them dependent on the goods they supplied. It was the Salesians, Chagnon theorizes, who pulled strings to get Tierney the permits he needed to do his research in the Amazon for Darkness in El Dorado. In 2010, he even speculated that they paid Tierney to write his book. As with the postmodern barefoot ayatollahs of anthropology, the Salesians are presented to us as ruthless Machiavellians. Chagnon all but accuses them of turning a blind eye to the inevitable result of their largesse: if the guns were being used for raids, or even making the raids more common, so be it—this would make the guns more valuable, and the missionaries with the guns more powerful still. So shotguns, it seems, can influence warfare patterns, but never machetes—and anyway, Chagnon writes, the Yanomami (a supposedly untouched people) had “possessed steel tools many years prior to my first trip.
Now and then, Chagnon will recognize that, yes, war is complicated, a cumulative result of many intertwined factors. He even draws attention to the difference between motive, on the one hand, and human statements about motive, on the other. If a Yanomami was bitten by a snake and died, Chagnon recalls, his fellow villagers might decide that the snake had been sent by a rival village—therefore providing a pretext for revenge, which might involve seizing control of some strategic resources. Such behavior should sound familiar: quite recently, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth organized the invasion of another, oil-rich nation, claiming that he was acting on God’s personal instructions. The leader of the invaders also pointed out that, in addition to possessing terrible new weapons, the oil-rich country’s leader had once tried to kill his father. Oil was never mentioned: the history of war is a history of obfuscation about its motives. But whenever the Yanomami tell Chagnon that they’re fighting over women, he takes it as a direct expression of fact—one that, conveniently enough, supports the theory that for the Yanomami, as for all our ancestors, warfare was essentially about reproduction and its kissing cousin, revenge.
* * *
For all his claims to be working in opposition to the archetype of the noble savage, Chagnon is implicitly committed to the idea that the Yanomami he met were in some sense completely different from us—that they lived, to borrow a phrase from the pop science writer Jared Diamond, in a premodern sliver of the “world until yesterday” preserved in our midst. The Yanomami are, at different points in Chagnon’s book, “wild,” “primitive” and “Stone Age”—never mind all their steel, or the fact that they rely on farming, not hunting or gathering, for 70 percent of their diet. Never mind that none of their primary crops—bananas and plantains—are indigenous to the Amazon or even South America. No, the Yanomami are “pristine,” “pure,” “special,” even noble: “I have chosen to call this book Noble Savages,” Chagnon writes, “in part because the Yanomamö I lived among had a certain kind of nobility that most anthropologists rarely see in acculturated and depopulated tribes that have been defeated by and incorporated into the political states in whose jurisdiction they reside.”
When it comes to describing the definitively unpristine Yanomami—those who, even by his standard, have had extended contact with “civilization”—Chagnon vacillates between pity, disdain and (most often) disinterest. Readers of Noble Savages will learn almost nothing of contemporary Yanomami or their politics. They will certainly not learn about the assemblies at which representatives from different villages discuss the ongoing threats to their existence posed by mining interests, and the future of their relationships with Venezuela and Brazil. Yanomami have even traveled to the United States—not just to speak about the Chagnon controversy, but also to request the return of the blood samples gathered by research teams, including those led by James Neel. The Yanomami argue that they never consented to the indefinite storage of bodily materials in far-away freezers, a practice that violates their burial customs. (In 2010, several research facilities agreed to return the blood.) Chagnon says not one word about any of this; he’s too busy calling Yanomami leaders the puppets of Salesian missionaries, who are using them to advance their anti-Chagnon, anti-science agenda.
Chagnon’s fixation on those Yanomami he judged “pristine,” and his disinterest in any he’d determined to be “acculturated,” took its most explicit turn in 1990, when he was contacted by Cecilia Matos, the mistress of Venezuela’s then-president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. As Chagnon tells it, Pérez’s political career was winding down, and Matos wanted him to beef up his legacy by doing something to benefit people like the Yanomami. Though Chagnon had started a Yanomami Survival Fund in 1988, there is no evidence that he ever delivered any money to the people it was named for. The one time he was asked for advice about safeguarding the Yanomami’s living conditions, Chagnon recommended a rainforest biosphere project that would protect their land—but not all of it, just those parts whose inhabitants Chagnon deemed sufficiently untouched. About four-fifths of Yanomami lands in Venezuela would be unprotected, and so more open to mining concerns.
This aspect of the proposal goes unmentioned in Noble Savages; all Chagnon says, in his three-page account of the incident, is that before the project could be implemented, the usual network of detractors went to work spreading lies, which prompted hysterical protests, and so the project died. He doesn’t say that a similar project that included almost all Yanomami land was launched the following year. More damningly, he doesn’t tell his readers that in 1993 Pérez was impeached, removed from office and jailed after getting caught siphoning millions of dollars’ worth of public funds to private accounts he shared with his mistress. Matos was to be arrested too, but she fled the country; on her arrest order, she was accused of, among other things, misappropriating state resources to get a noble-sounding biosphere project running as a front for more profitable activities. Almost every commentator on the Chagnon saga, even among his army of vociferous allies, has agreed that his participation in this project, however tangential, was at the very least bad judgment. In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Chagnon swatted away such accusations. In exchange for his help, Pérez had restored his research permit. “I got a year’s worth of data,” he said. “It was worth it for that reason.”
At the end of the Secrets of the Tribe documentary, Patrick Tierney says, “I don’t think that there’s any way [Chagnon’s defenders] can salvage [him] in the long run.” Time will tell, but I’d wager that Tierney is wrong: he is too enamored of the idea that scandal might lead to change, and too optimistic about facts trumping ideology (which is, of course, what Chagnon claims to hope for, too). Chagnon’s basic conclusions about the Yanomami were cited uncritically in Jared Diamond’s bestseller The World Until Yesterday, published in December [see Stephen Wertheim, “Hunter-Blatherer,” April 22]. Early reviews of Noble Savages were almost all positive. In a triumphant blurb, the anthropologist Robin Fox calls it the “final knockout punch in a fight [Chagnon] didn’t pick but has most assuredly won.” Chagnon was recently asked by the University of Michigan, his alma mater, to organize his life’s work into a digital archive for use by academics around the world. And last year, he was voted into the National Academy of Sciences.
In response, his old University of Michigan professor Marshall Sahlins resigned from the academy, citing not only Chagnon’s election but also the recruitment of NAS anthropologists by the US military. “The two are connected,” he told me recently. “Chagnon’s research and the imperial venture are both based on the same assumption, that pursuit of material self-interest is the natural human condition—the obvious, natural, best thing for the individual and the nation.”
Online, Chagnon’s fans have been selling T-shirts that caricature his critics’ positions as: Napoleon Chagnon kicked my dog! Word is the man himself thinks they’re hilarious and has ordered a bunch for friends and family. This semester, at age 74, Chagnon joined the anthropology department at the University of Missouri. “I feel like a battleship,” he told the campus newspaper, “shaking off the mothballs and taking to the high seas again.” Let’s christen it the USS Machete.
In “Library Man” (Feb. 7, 2011), Thomas Meaney reviewed Patrick Wilcken’s biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss, “a poet in the laboratory of anthropology.”