Arquivo da tag: Sahlins

Michael Balter: When the Hagiography Stops and the Truth-Telling Begins: The Legacy of E.O. Wilson

Michael Balter

Feb. 7, 2022

Jim Harrison/ Wikimedia Commons

When an illustrious person dies, the hagiography usually starts while the body is still warm. The death of biologist E.O. Wilson last December 26 was no exception to this general rule. Of course, it’s considered impolite and in bad taste to speak ill of the dead right after they leave us; it can be the worst form of talking behind someone’s back. Yet there are no firm rules about when it is okay to do so. In some cases, colleagues, journalists, and other commenters never get around to “warts and all” portraits of the departed, especially when there are inconvenient truths involved. But all too often, defenders of the deceased’s reputation take it upon themselves to police the conversation, and attack those who do want to examine the warts, especially if they do it “too soon.”

I don’t doubt that Wilson is being rightly praised for his advocacy of biodiversity conservation and his contributions to our understanding of the natural world, especially that of ants and other insects. But the inconvenient truth is that Wilson, back in 1975, gave a major boost to genetic and evolutionary explanations for human behavior when he published his massive tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, to the acclaim of those convinced that biology played a bigger role in human affairs than previously appreciated, and the condemnation of those who thought it played an even lesser role.

In doing so, it has been argued, Wilson also provided considerable cover to racists who have long argued that inequities in human societies—most notably, socioeconomic differences between Blacks and whites in the United States—are due to biological differences rather than structural flaws in our society. And yet, at the time Wilson’s book was published, those who objected to his ideas—or more specifically, their application to human societies—were the ones who got accused of being politically motivated.

The first round of Wilson obituaries reflected this political bias very clearly. The “Sociobiology Wars,” as they came to be known, were treated in some obits as a kind of quaint and colorful ancient history, caricatured by one of their most memorable episodes: Anti-racist activists dumping a pitcher of water on Wilson’s head during a debate at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In his obituary of Wilson for the New York Times, evolution writer Carl Zimmer gave short shrift to the critics of sociobiology, describing the Sociobiology Wars as follows:

In a letter to The New York Review of Books, some denounced sociobiology as an attempt to reinvigorate tired old theories of biological determinism — theories, they claimed, that “provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”

In her book “Defenders of the Truth” (2000), Dr. Segerstrale wrote that Dr. Wilson’s critics had shown “an astounding disregard” for what he had written, arguing that they had used “Sociobiology” as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. When Dr. Wilson attended a 1978 debate about sociobiology, protesters rushed the stage shouting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” A woman dumped ice water on him, shouting, “Wilson, you are all wet!”

Likewise, in Science’s Retrospective of Wilson, Stuart Pimm of Duke University dismissed sociobiology’s critics in similar terms:

In his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Ed reported a monumental survey of the wide range of animal societies, including our own. That natural selection might shape human behaviors was questioned by some. Many critics made ad hominem attacks, which were short on scientific content. Ed responded vigorously, noting that the adaptive value of animal behaviors was not in dispute, however disturbing this might be to political philosophies. During this time, someone famously threw water onto Ed at a meeting—the amount involved grows with every telling of the story. When Ed told it, it was with a twinkle and an appreciation of this unique honor.

For anyone who was not around at the time, these hagiographic accounts (please read their entire texts for support for that statement) might leave the impression that the only opponents of Wilson’s application of sociobiological thinking to human affairs were crazy left-wing activists. But the truth is that noted scientists, including Wilson’s Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin, Ruth Hubbard, and Stephen Jay Gould, were among those who carefully examined Wilson’s ideas and found them to be in the long and sordid tradition of racial thinking about human biology. At around the same time, Harvard Medical School geneticist Jon Beckwith and others founded a Sociobiology Study Group to discuss and analyze Wilson’s book and develop a critique of his ideas, based both on solid science and the history of scientific racism.

I was around at the time, a graduate student in biology at UCLA and a member of Science for the People, the organization Beckwith and some other Wilson critics belonged to. Since most of the action was on the East Coast, especially in Boston and Cambridge, MA, I was not an active member, other than subscribing to the group’s eponymous magazine. But I did follow things closely, including the infamous water pitcher episode, and the 1976 publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which greatly expanded on the idea that humans were largely at the mercy of our genes (a conclusion that Dawkins, with limited success, has tried to refute.)

But now, barely a month after Wilson’s death and while the hagiography is still more or less in full swing, we are suddenly faced with revelations that leave little doubt Wilson was—behind the scenes, and despite his public protests—a racist, or minimally, a sympathizer of race science (which is the same thing.) The scoop goes to Science for the People magazine in its new incarnation (the publication was moribund for many years), in a February 1 article by Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons, a wife and husband team (Farina is an assistant professor at Howard University with a PhD in evolutionary biology, and Gibbons works in public health.)

Digging into Wilson’s letters held at the U.S. national archives, Farina and Gibbons came across a trove of correspondence between Wilson and the late scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton, who died in 2012. I will leave it to readers to look at this painfully clear article, but in my view it leaves no doubt that Wilson wholeheartedly supported, encouraged, and cheered on Rushton’s bogus and long discredited attempts to show that differences between Blacks and whites in IQ, socioeconomic status, and other measures were based on biological racial differences. There is no ambiguity here, which is making it very difficult for Wilson’s apologists to question the evidence (although they will still try.)

And it turns out that while Farina and Gibbons were working in the archives, an independent pair of historians of science, Mark Borrello of the University of Minnesota and David Sepkoski at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, were looking at the same documents and coming to the same conclusions. Their somewhat more comprehensive analysis, published on February 5 in The New York Review of Books, leaves little doubt about Wilson’s real thinking. And should it be that much of surprise? Nearly all the obituaries of Wilson emphasize his roots in Alabama and the segregated University of Alabama, and depict him as a southern gentleman scientist—without any examination of the possibility that the prejudices of growing up in the south might have left their mark on Wilson’s psyche.

This new evidence matters greatly, because over all these years the conceit of Wilson and his defenders has been that they were champions of scientific truth, and their critics were driven by politics and ideology. Indeed, the term “race realism,” used by Rushton and other scientific racists as a bludgeon against anti-racists and an attempt to depict them as cowards who cannot face what science allegedly tells them, can now clearly be seen as evidence of Wilson’s own attitudes and biases (Wilson was no shrinking violet in defending his ideas, as even the hagiographic retrospectives make clear.)

In their next to last paragraph, Borrello and Sepkoski lay out clearly what is at stake in a proper and accurate understanding of Wilson’s real legacy when it comes to his writings on sociobiology, which have been very influential in the years since:

Preserving a naively hagiographic picture of his career obscures the extent to which racist and sexist bias remains a glaring vulnerability of the science that has been built on his theories; indeed, such bias can motivate and blind scientists to deeply flawed interpretations of data. Racism in science, today, rarely announces itself with a white hood. Rather, it persists in tacit and unspoken assumptions, and hides behind claims of the inherent objectivity of scientific research. 

In what follows, I would like to go back over the history of the Sociobiology Wars, and attempt to salvage—as others have tried over the years—the true history of these debates. They did not consist only of activists running around with water pitchers, a very minor part of the story, but serious and conscientious scientists trying to point out fallacies in a theory of human behavior that has left its damaging marks in today’s discourse about race and justice.

My purpose is not to do a deep dive into sociobiology and the arguments pro and con, but simply to remind readers—and alert those new to the debate—that there were serious scientific issues involved, not just left vs. right politics.

“The use and abuse of biology”

The late anthropologist Marshall Sahlins/ Elkziz/ Wikimedia Commons

In 1976, the year after Wilson’s Sociobiology was published and the same year Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene appeared, Marshall Sahlins—a major figure in anthropology who died last year—published his own contribution to this literature: The use and abuse of biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology.

It’s a slim volume, only 120 pages, but certainly not a political diatribe. Sahlins argues, in effect, that anthropology is too important and too laden with its own facts and data to be left to geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists who often know more about ants and fruit flies than about human beings. Moreover, as Sahlins points out with many examples from societies around the world, human culture is too complicated—too cultural, as it were—to be reduced to simple biology, or even complex biology.

Sahlins spends a lot of the book discussing sociobiological notions of kinship and kin selection, which have been key to the thinking of sociobiologists over the decades (Wilson developed his own spin on how natural selection was acting, which I will get to shortly.) In essence, organisms, including humans, act in such ways as to increase the likelihood that their genes will get passed on to future generations. While not all proponents of this concept endorse Dawkins’ depressing contention that genes evolved to “swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control”—especially because the lumbering robots included us humans—the idea that human behavior can be largely explained by what is best for the replication of our genes has stuck hard in much biological thinking, even today.

(I should point out here that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists—the latter being sort of latter-day sociobiologists—are always quick to insist that they recognize a role for the environment, and Wilson always did so when criticized. The problem is that it’s a no-brainer that environment is involved, and this disclaimer often serves to justify returning to a focus on genes as if some sort of technicality has been dealt with.)

In his book, Sahlins provided a lot of examples of cultures, studied by anthropologists, in which kinship is not defined by those who are genetically closest, but in all kinds of other ways, including ties that have nothing to do with genealogy. In doing so, he paints a much more realistic portrait of human relationships, in which we often may be more willing to die for someone who is not genetically related to us at all than a close relative (eg, an estranged sibling or parent.)

Sahlins writes:

The reason why human social behavior is not organized by the individual maximization of genetic interest is that human beings are not socially defined by their organic qualities but in terms of symbolic attributes; and a symbol is precisely a meaningful value—such as “close kinship” or “shared blood”—which cannot be determined by the physical properties of that to which it refers.

Before leaving Sahlins, I should qualify what I say above by pointing out that he did not argue that a “political framework” should not be used in analyzing sociobiology and its weaknesses in explaining human behavior. But what he did insist on is that the politics is at its root anthropological, ie, the way we describe human societies. Thus sociobiology is itself profoundly political, he concluded:

What is inscribed in the theory of sociobiology is the entrenched ideology of Western society: the assurance of its naturalness, and the claim of its inevitability.”

There is an interesting wrinkle in Wilson’s view of how natural selection operated, however, which eventually diverged from the strict focus on kin or individual selection. Dawkins and others before him, including the British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, waged a fierce war against the concept of group selection, in which natural selection is postulated to act on groups of individuals rather than individuals themselves. Wilson, however, eventually threw in his lot with advocates of “multilevel” selection (what might perhaps be called group selection lite, or kin selection heavy), particularly in collaboration with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (no relation)—the proposition that evolution can act on both the group and individual level. The two Wilsons published, in 2007, a paper in The Quarterly Review of Biology, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” which led some diehard kin selection theorists to declare that E.O. Wilson had betrayed his own cause.

Thinking and studying sociobiology

Jonathan Marks /University of North Carolina

Marshall Sahlins’ foray into the sociobiology wars was just one example of anthropologists trying to weigh in with their own insights into human behavior. One of the best critiques, in my opinion, was penned by Jonathan Marks—now an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of “What it means to be 98% chimpanzee” and “Why I am not a scientist”—when he was still a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

In a 1980 paper for the Arizona Anthropologist, “Sociobiology, Selfish Genes, and Human Behavior: A Bio-Cultural Critique”, Marks engaged in a witty but cogent skewering of sociobiology’s misconceptions. Among his most important criticisms, in my view, is the use by sociobiologists of what the naturalist Ernst Mayr called “beanbag genetics,” in which genes are imagined as discrete entities which code for complex behaviors such as altruism, aggression, selfishness, conformity, and other attributes. Looking at genes that way made the mathematics of calculating the effects of kin selection on evolution easier, Marks pointed out; but it has resulted in severe oversimplifications that actually obscure what is going on, especially in the evolution of human behavior (if, indeed, human behavior is something that actually genetically evolves.)

Marks wrote:

Given the knowledge that a simple behavior such as aggregation in slime molds involves the interaction of fifty genes (May 1976), one may conclude that ‘conformity’ in humans, if genetically based, would be a very formidable genetic system.

This critique, by Marks and others, was prophetic. Modern genetic research reveals that there are unlikely to be individual genes for “altruism” or other traits that geneticists have tried to mathematically model in the past, but rather a constellation of hundreds or thousands of genes involved, each one adding a tiny statistical weight to the genetic makeup of an individual—and, in the end, rendering the notion of genetic determinism for any human trait essentially meaningless. This is certainly the lesson of today’s Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which often require cohorts of many thousands of subjects to detect any genetic variation at all. (For more on this, I highly recommend the writings of Eric Turkheimer, a behavior geneticist who has questioned some of the commons assumptions of his field.)

Marks again:

Sociobiology of humans, without theoretical underpinnings in ‘beanbag genetics’… is a statement of social philosophy, not science; for without genes for altruism, one cannot speak of its evolution, except in a metaphorical sense. And to accept a metaphor as literally binding is surely a breach of logic.

I recommend reading Marks’ entire paper, as well as Chapter 9 in Jon Beckwith’s memoir, Making Genes, Making Waves, “It’s the Devil in Your DNA,” a chronicle of the Sociobiology Study Group and the Sociobiology Wars which certainly corresponds to how I myself remember them. Beckwith points out that the publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology was accompanied (as his death is now) with multitudes of uncritical media stories heralding the new biological explanations for sometimes mysterious human behavior—in the New York Times, People, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Time (a cover story), Reader’s Digest, and even House and Garden.

To try to counter these one-sided accounts, Beckwith and other critics of sociobiology argued that genetic determinism (they insisted that was what sociobiology was, even if glossed up in a more sophisticated scientific veneer) was a key principle of eugenics, Nazism, and, in our day, attempts to justify unequal treatment of different groups in employment, housing, education, and other areas of life.

And of course, sociobiology was not the end of it. Some researchers believe that evolutionary psychology is the heir to sociobiology, with its panoply of “just-so” evolutionary stories for complex human behavior; and that every few years or so there is a media frenzy over recycled theories of human racial differences (The Bell Curve, published in 1994 by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is still the subject of lively debate today; for evidence that racially motivated theories in science are again on the rise, please see Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini.)

Jon Beckwith/ Harvard Medical School

It’s going to be interesting to see what Wilson’s defenders and apologists make of his newly revealed correspondence with Rushton. Some will no doubt insist that Wilson was simply encouraging Rushton’s right to free academic inquiry, not endorsing his racist conclusions. I think that’s going to be a hard case to make; and the inquiry into Wilson’s true views is not likely to be over. There will be other letters, hidden away in archives or in the files of his friends, which may also see the light of day.

Wilson vociferously insisted, from the 1975 publication of his famous book to pretty much the day he died, that his critics were driven by political bias, but not him. That was never a credible claim. Now, with the revelations of his personal racism, it has no credibility at all.

Suggested reading.

Beckwith, Jon. Making Genes, Making Waves: A social activist in science. (2002)

Sahlins, Marshall. The use and abuse of biology: An anthropological critique of sociobiology. (1976)

Saini, Angela. Superior: The return of race science. (2019)

Segerstrale, Ullica. Defenders of the Truth. (2000)

In addition, Jon Beckwith provided me with a detailed bibliography of papers by members of the Sociobiology Study Group and other critics:

Sociobiology: The Debate Evolves. A Special Double Issue (The Philosophical Forum: A Quarterly, vol XIII, nos 2-3, 1981-82) 

Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature, by Philip Kitcher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985)

Allen, E. et al. Against Sociobiology. The New York Review of Books. pp. 182, 184-6 (Nov. 13, 1975)  Reprinted in A. Caplan- . in The Sociobiology Debate.  ed. by A. Caplan.  Harper & Row. New York . pp. 259-264 (1978) 

Alper, J.S., Beckwith, J.. Chorover, S., Hunt, J., Inouye, H., Judd, T., Lange, R.V., and Sternberg, P.  The Implications of Sociobiology: Science.192:424-427 (1976). 

Alper, J., Beckwith, J., and Miller, L.  Sociobiology is a Political Issue. in The Sociobiology Debate.  ed. by A. Caplan.  Harper & Row. New York 476‑488 (l978).  

Alper, J., Beckwith, J. and Egelman, E. Misusing Sociobiology. The Harvard Crimson. Nov. 19, 1979.  

Beckwith, J. Triumphalism in science. (A review of The Triumph of Sociobiology, by J. Alcock., Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). American Scientist. 89:461-472 (2001). 

Beckwith, J.  The Political Uses of Sociobiology in the United States and Europe.  The Philosophical Forum. XIII, #2, Winter, l98l, p. 3ll‑32l.  

Beckwith, J.  Biological Backlash: A book review of K. Bock. Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology.  Technology Review. Oct. l98l. p.30.  

A Thousand Kinds of Life: Culture, Nature, and Anthropology (Dissent)

Yanomami villagers at an indigenous expo in Caracas (Luigino Bracci, 2011, Flickr creative commons)

By David Moberg – March 21, 2013

In the latest twist in an unusually public academic dispute, one of the world’s most influential and highly regarded anthropologists resigned in protest from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in late February. In quitting the academy, Marshall Sahlins took aim in part at the work of fellow anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose contentious memoir, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanamamö and the Anthropologists, was recently published by Simon & Schuster. But his action is also a skirmish in a much longer and very important debate over what it means to be human—a debate with consequences for the broader public discussion.

Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, said that he was leaving the 150-year-old academy for two reasons: the election of Chagnon to the NAS last year and the involvement of the NAS in research for the military. His action prompted an outpouring of petitions and statements of support from colleagues, including several hundred in Brazil.

The academy says that principled resignations like Sahlins’ are “rare”—so rare that the only precedent anyone could identify was famed Harvard biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin’s 1971 departure in protest against NAS military work related to the war in Vietnam. In the 1960s Sahlins himself was helping to launch campus teach-ins against the Vietnam War and to raise issues about the relationship of anthropology to the military.

Sahlins initially tried to resign last year in May, after Chagnon was named to the NAS, then again in October, when he received a request sent to all eighty-four anthropologists at the academy for advice on two research projects aimed at making the military more effective. The request arrived at a time when a controversy was already smoldering in the field about anthropologists’ involvement in implementing the Human Terrain Systems counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the October request for help appears unrelated to HTS). The academy had indirectly been involved in military research since the allied National Research Council was established in 1916 specifically for military research. But Sahlins objected to any NAS involvement in projects such as the two proposed in October. One focused on “contextual factors that influence individual and small unit behavior,” and the other sought scientifically valid methods, including any suggested by neuroscience, for improving individual and group military performance.

The publication of Chagnon’s memoirs prompted a third, successful attempt at resignation. Sahlins had objected to the NAS admitting Chagnon—formerly at the Universities of Michigan and of California at Santa Barbara, now at the University of Missouri—because of the quality of his research and his ethics in the field. Sahlins is also critical of both the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of sociobiology, more often referred to now as evolutionary psychology. A minority of anthropologists adopt its viewpoint. But many non-anthropologists—such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Jared Diamond—have used the work of Chagnon and like-minded anthropologists to reach a large audience.

Fundamentally, this group of writers and researchers see biology as destiny. They argue that biological evolution defines human nature through the inheritance of traits that provide individuals with a reproductive advantage—that is, with more offspring.

In the late 1960s Chagnon worked among the Yanomami people living on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Brazil. He portrayed the Yanomami—which he dubbed “the fierce people,” for their frequent inter-village warfare—as living in a “state of nature” essentially like that of our Paleolithic ancestors. And he claimed to present evidence that men who were “killers” had many more offspring—which, even when he occasionally hedged, others took as proof that evolution favored and preserved traits for male aggression and violence.

Anthropologists, including Sahlins, have since criticized nearly every aspect of Chagnon’s research. (See “Natural Born Nonkillers.”) For example, many note that other tribal people have relatively peaceful, cooperative cultures. Research from various perspectives also runs counter to Chagnon’s argument that evolution rewards killers with more offspring—including computer simulations of evolution, studies of animal behavior showing that killing within a species is rare, even military studies of how men in combat try to avoid killing others. In any case, critics say, the Yanomami were not in a pristine state of nature when Chagnon first visited: they had a history, including likely displacement from their original land by pressures from European colonial settlers and some continuing contact with the wider world that led to the acquisition of a few trade goods. There were many more charges that his data were flawed. To take one example, Chagnon categorized Yanomami men as killers or not killers based on their own classification as unokai or not unokai. But the term identifies a man who has gone through a purification ritual, which was used by both real “killers” and by men who, say, had employed sorcery.

In 2000 journalist Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado, which accused Chagnon of spreading fatal diseases (like measles) through his collaboration with geneticist James V. Neel, of fomenting some of the inter-village fighting, and other ethical offenses. The American Anthropological Association established a taskforce that dismissed some of Tierney’s most lurid charges but concluded that Chagnon, among other lapses, did not get informed consent from Yanomami research subjects and may have improperly delayed immunizations he and Neel were providing. At its convention, the AAA adopted the taskforce’s report and criticisms, but later Chagnon’s supporters moved to rescind the report largely on procedural grounds. With only 10 percent of members voting, the AAA reversed its endorsement of the report—which Chagnon backers inappropriately claimed as the profession’s vindication of his work.

Sahlins first weighed in against sociobiology in the mid-1970s with The Use and Abuse of Biology, but he has continued to pursue many of the same critical themes in recent books, such as What Kinship Is—And Is Not and The Western Illusion of Human Nature. He argues that human nature is culture—that is, the learned values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that social groups follow or believe they should follow, as well as the capacity to change those ideas passed from previous generations. Culture—and not some special features of biological evolution, like a carnivore’s teeth or the short beak of a seed-eating bird—provides humans with a flexible, varied means of adapting to a wide and changing variety of circumstances.

Homo sapiens evolved biologically and mentally from our hominid ancestors over several million years within the context of the hominid tool-making culture. “What evolved was our capacity to realize biological necessities, from sex to nutrition, in the thousand different ways that different societies have developed,” Sahlins says. “Hence, culture, the symbolically organized modes of the ways we live, including our bodily functioning, is the specifically ‘human nature.’”

Sahlins argues against the sociobiologists’ neo-Hobbesian view of human nature as a war of all against all—with a brutal, competitive nature clashing with culture. This view of human nature has deep roots in Western cultural traditions, he writes, but it also projects a more modern capitalist view of self-interested, even selfish, behavior on both humanity and the rest of the natural world. In many other societies, people do not see the same sharp division between nature and culture. And all human societies have systems of kinship, which Sahlins defines as “mutuality of being,” meaning that “kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence.”

“Symbolically and emotionally, kinfolk live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths,” Sahlins says. “Why don’t scientists base their ideas of human nature on this truly universal condition—a condition in which self-interest at the expense of others is precluded by definition, insofar as people are parts of one another?” Sahlins cites a classic definition of kinship first developed by Aristotle: kinfolk are in various degrees other selves of ourselves.

Moreover, this kinship is not biological. There are many ways besides birth that societies have developed notions of mutual being, Sahlins says. For example, in the highlands of New Guinea, strangers can become your kin by eating from the land where your ancestors are buried. The food raised on that land is in effect the transubstantiation of the ancestors. Accordingly, people who eat from it share ancestral being. In the local conception, they are as much kin to each other as people who have the same parents.

In the West, and even in much anthropological writing past and present, kinship is treated as genealogy, or biology. But even biological reproduction, Sahlins argues, takes place within the context of a particular kinship system, and to reproduce children is to reproduce that culturally defined kinship order. And in most cultures, notions of kinship diverge, often dramatically, from our “folk theory,” with its emphasis on biological genealogy. In any case, all human societies exist within some framework of “mutuality of being,” which starkly contrasts with the view of human life run by selfish genes.

In an email interview, Sahlins responded to a few questions about his resignation, incorporating some passages from his recent writings.

DM: You offered two reasons for your resignation from the National Academy of Sciences. Starting with the election of Napoleon Chagnon to the NAS, what were your most important objections to that election—the quality of his scholarship, professional ethics in the field, or other issues?

MS: He deals in caricature: of the people he studies, of science, of anthropological theory, of fellow anthropologists, and of himself as a beleaguered “fierce person.” His vicious misrepresentations of Yanomami as savage and disgusting have, as many local scholars have pointed out, aided and abetted national and entrepreneurial forces anxious to exploit and pollute their land and, directly or indirectly, drive them to extinction. Likewise, his own fieldwork methods have contributed to the sufferings and destabilization of the Yanomami (as I discussed in an article for the Washington Post).

The idea that the Yanomami represent the primordial human condition of the Stone Age is preposterous. Why them and not the numerous other, quite different societies—including many, such as Australian aboriginals, with just as modest economies but a quite different social order and inter-group relationships? In fact, all have long histories, including dynamic relations with other societies, that remove them as far from the Paleolithic as modern nations. Moreover, as other studies of Yanomami show, they have a richness of oral tradition (so-called mythology), a spiritual pantheon, and a metaphysics of culture and nature that is virtually totally ignored by Chagnon where it is not simply dismissed.

Compared to the rich fieldwork of many Amazonian anthropologists, his ethnography is shallow. His generalizations are sophomoric. His thesis about the reproductive success of Yanomami warriors, contradicted by his own data, has been thoroughly refuted by others. His evolutionary anthropology is from the ancien régime, outdated by almost a century.

DM: You argue that “biologism” is the problem, that “human nature is culture,” and that Western thought in general is dominated by the idea that there is a conflict between a disruptive human nature and vulnerable culture. How would you address a predictable layperson’s view that surely human nature must be at least in part an independent biology as well as culture? What essential qualities, if any, do you think “human nature” may have if it is indeed defined in terms of culture?

MS: Yes, all cultures have sex, aggression, etc., but whether and how it is expressed is subordinate to the cultural order. Sociobiologists say that individuals achieve immortality by having many children, but apparently no one ever told that to the Catholic clergy. The important point is not that all cultures have sex, but that all sex has culture, that is, social norms that specify with whom, how, where, and when sexual relations are appropriate or inappropriate. Culture preceded modern human physical form by a million years or more. The body of the modern human species, Homo sapiens, was formed under the aegis of culture. What evolved was the ability and necessity to realize our bodily needs and dispositions in cultural forms.

Biology became the dependent variable. These needs had to be subordinate to and encompassed by their cultural forms of expression, otherwise how could the same needs or dispositions be realized in the thousands of different ways known to history and ethnography—the various cultural ways of having sex, eating, being aggressive, and the like? As Clifford Geertz put it, we “all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” That can only be if our natural dispositions were subject to cultural ordering rather than the source thereof.

For over two thousand years, Western people have been haunted recurrently by the specter of their own inner being: an apparition of human nature so covetous and contentious that unless it is somehow governed it will plunge society into anarchy. Indeed, by the twentieth century the worst in us had become the best. In the neoliberal view, self-interest in the form of each person’s pursuit of happiness at the cost of whom it might concern was a god-given right. The insatiable love of the flesh that for Augustine was slavery became “freedom” itself. Likewise, then, political Augustinism has been reversed: self-interest having been transformed from slavery to liberty, the least government is now the best. Although for neoliberalism the ancient vice of self-love is greatly to be desired, in other native anthropologies it remains a potentially fatal quality of the human make-up.

DM: Given the harsh criticism of Chagnon’s work by the American Anthropological Association, the leading professional academic organization in the field, how do you account for the NAS decision and for the apparent popular appeal of his work, such as suggested by two recent, highly sympathetic articles about him and his new memoir in the New York Times?

MS: NAS decision? I am not sure, but I believe that many members, those who elected him, have a natural science sense of anthropology, as archaeologists almost have by necessity, and Chagnon promotes himself under that description. Popularity? Mostly on college campuses, I would think, from his textbooks and movies, which resonate with certain popular undergraduate preoccupations: sex, drugs, and violence. America.

DM: You also said that you were resigning because the NAS was supporting social science research on improving combat performance of the U.S. military. To what extent is support for such military-related research a new or growing development within the NAS?

MS: Since resigning I have learned that the NAS, with its charter of research for the nation, engaged in secret military research as far back as the Vietnam War, and who knows how much before or since. At least one prominent scientist, the extraordinary biologist Richard Lewontin, has resigned from the NAS for that reason. Professor Lewontin did so in 1971.

DM: You suggest that NAS should instead, if it does anything in the field, study how to promote peace. Do you have any suggestions about what sort of research would be useful for anthropologists or others to pursue to that end?

MS: What are the consequences of attempts to forcefully impose democracy on societies with no such traditions? Especially, how does the imposition of “winner-take-all” democratic elections in ethnically divided societies exacerbate violence, as has happened time and again in many postcolonial societies in recent decades? How does the reframing of local differences in terms of international issues, backed by opposed international forces, create a virtual state of nature, as happened in Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, and many other similar situations, going back to the encompassment of local disputes in the opposition between democratic-imperial Athens and oligarchic Sparta in the Peloponnesian War? (See “Iraq, The State of Nature Effect.”)

DM: Finally, do you see any connection between your two reasons for resigning or are they independent motivations?

MS: There is a connection: it is referenced in one of my answers in a Counterpunch article by David Price. The premise of American overseas aggression, according to Donald Rumsfeld and others, is something like the line in the movie Full Metal Jacket: “inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.” All we have to do to liberate this innately freedom-loving, self-interested, democracy-needing, capitalist-in-waiting is to rid him of the oppressive, evil-minded regime holding him down—by force if necessary. That is, Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest. It is the same native Western ideology of the innate character of mankind. A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times.

Notas sobre a violência – De antropólogos e outras tribos ferozes (Folha de S.Paulo)



RESUMO Antropólogo Napoleon Chagnon retoma em novo livro teoria sobre agressividade ianomâmi e ataca adversários da sociobiologia. Jared Diamond escreve obra de bases semelhantes, mas mais generosa com ‘primitivos’, aproximando-se de adversários de Chagnon, como Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, que lança coletânea.

É preciso ter estômago forte para digerir a narrativa de um antropólogo que escolhe iniciar o relato de seu primeiro dia de campo entre os ianomâmis -meio século depois- com a frase: “Nunca antes tinha visto tanto ranho verde”. Não é a antropologia, porém, a disciplina que ensina a combinar o máximo de disciplina com o mínimo de conforto em benefício do entendimento do homem?

Leia-se então com dose generosa de bonomia antropológica a obra mais recente do americano Napoleon Chagnon, “Noble Savages – My Life among two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists” [Simon & Schuster, 531 págs., R$ 87,50]. Em desagravo, que seja, porque Chagnon pagou um preço alto demais por sua crença nas explicações ultradarwinistas do comportamento, cuja matriz -a natureza humana- acredita ter desvendado nas selvas do Orinoco.

O estudioso americano dedicou pelo menos duas décadas de sua vida a longas permanências em terras ianomâmis, quase sempre na Venezuela (com desastradas incursões também do lado brasileiro). As três seguintes ele ocupou em defesa da carreira e da reputação quase arruinadas por dois outros livros: “O Povo Feroz” (1968), trabalho acadêmico de sua própria lavra, e “Trevas no Eldorado”, um panfleto do jornalista Patrick Tierney (2000).

Os que desconhecem a crônica dessa guerra entre os clãs cultural e biológico da antropologia encontrarão um resumo devastador das acusações mútuas no documentário “Os Segredos da Tribo”, de José Padilha. Não se recomenda o consumo de pipoca na sessão de barbaridades que a fita apresenta.

O povo feroz do título de Chagnon são os ianomâmis. Sua caracterização pelo antropólogo como uma etnia violenta, de homens “maliciosos, agressivos e intimidadores”, que acumulam homicídios para obter mais mulheres e maior sucesso reprodutivo, despertou a ira dos antropólogos culturalistas.

Primeiro, Chagnon foi acusado de distorcer a imagem do grupo e, assim, facilitar sua dizimação por brancos dos dois lados da fronteira. Depois, foi denunciado por Tierney como genocida, pois teria -intencional ou negligentemente, sob a tutela do médico americano James V. Neel- contribuído para uma epidemia de sarampo que matou centenas de índios.

BOM SELVAGEM “Noble Savages” (“bons selvagens”) é um acerto de contas com as duas tribos que infernizaram sua vida. A partir da descrição para o público não especializado de seu convívio de cinco anos com os ianomâmis, Chagnon retoma sua conclusão de que o “bom selvagem” concebido por Rousseau é um mito politicamente correto e que só há uma resposta biológica (evolucionista) -e simploriamente hobbesiana- para a questão de por que seres humanos são sociais: a luta de todos contra todos para aumentar a própria prole (ou pôr mais cópias dos próprios genes no mundo, na vulgata sociobiológica).

Não faltam páginas desairosas para os ianomâmis no livro. “Olhei para cima e arfei, em choque, quando vi uma dúzia de homens corpulentos, nus, suados e pavorosos nos encarando por trás dos caniços de suas setas apontadas!” -conta sobre a primeira visita a uma casa coletiva dos índios.

“Imensos rolos de tabaco verde estavam enfiados entre os dentes e os lábios inferiores, tornando sua aparência ainda mais pavorosa. Veios de ranho verde escuro pingavam ou pendiam de suas narinas -tão longos que se desprendiam de seus queixos, caíam sobre os músculos peitorais e escorriam preguiçosamente sobre seus ventres, mesclando-se com a pintura vermelha e o suor.”

Chagnon também não economiza relatos sobre tentativas mal sucedidas de engodo dos ianomâmis contra ele. Sempre eficazes, por outro lado, eram seus próprios ardis para levá-los a ceder amostras de sangue (para Neel) e a revelar nomes de ancestrais mortos -um tabu- para rechear suas genealogias e estatísticas. As mesmas informações, pagas com machados, facas e panelas de metal, que lhe permitiriam afirmar, depois, serem os homens com mais homicídios nas costas também os de prole mais numerosa.

Muito antes das acusações de Tierney, as conclusões sociobiológicas e os métodos traficantes de Chagnon já vinham sendo questionados por seus pares na comunidade antropológica. Até a correlação estatística entre ferocidade e fertilidade masculina, formulada num famigerado artigo de 1988 para a revista acadêmica “Science”, teve seus dados postos em dúvida (o autor foi acusado de excluir da amostra aqueles pais que já haviam sido mortos por vingança, portanto sem meios de multiplicar descendência).

Os antropólogos culturais, refratários à moldura biológica em que Chagnon queria enquadrar o painel exuberante das culturas, já estavam no seu encalço. Nada se compara, porém, com a virulência do ataque de Tierney. Assim que um capítulo do livro foi publicado na revista “New Yorker”, em outubro de 2000, a Associação Antropológica Americana entrou na briga -do lado dos culturalistas. Foi montado um comitê de investigação, que acabou por inocentar o médico Neel e descartar a epidemia intencional, mas recriminou Chagnon por desvios éticos.

O caso teve enorme repercussão na imprensa mundial, brasileira inclusive. Contudo, quando a obra do “jornalista investigativo” Tierney e os próprios investigadores da AAA passaram a ser investigados, a começar pela historiadora da ciência Susan Lindee, o vento virou.

Forçada por um referendo entre seus membros, a associação renegaria o relatório. As acusações de Tierney não paravam de pé, como reconstitui com farta documentação um ensaio demolidor da também historiadora Alice Dreger publicado em 2011 no periódico acadêmico “Human Nature”, sob o título “Darkness’s descent on the American Anthropological Association. A cautionary tale” (trevas sobre a Associação Antropológica Americana – uma fábula moral; leia em

Dreger puxa vários fios da teia de perseguição a Chagnon. Levanta a suspeita, intrigante, de que a cruzada de Tierney pode ter ocorrido sob o patrocínio da Igreja Católica, mais especificamente da ordem de padres salesianos, que já mantinha missões junto aos ianomâmis da Venezuela quando o antropólogo por lá baixou.

Após alguns meses de convívio e cooperação, cientista e religiosos se estranharam. Na versão fantástica narrada em “Noble Savages”, isso ocorreu depois de um hierarca pedir a Chagnon ajuda para matar um padre amasiado com índia. Na passagem do livro que mais se avizinha do estilo de Tierney, o antropólogo também acusa os salesianos de distribuir espingardas cartucheiras entre os índios para conquistar seu favor.

A inconsistência mais relevante da obra, porém, não decorre do ânimo retaliatório, e sim da pretensão de ter localizado entre os ianomâmis as nascentes da agressividade que supõe inerente à natureza humana. A antropóloga Elizabeth Povinelli assinalou, numa resenha escaldante de “Noble Savages” para o “New York Times”, que a tese se assenta sobre a premissa falaciosa de que os ianomâmis sejam relíquias de uma infância neolítica da humanidade.

FÓSSEIS Desde esse ponto de vista, compreende-se melhor o esforço retórico de Chagnon em degradar os ianomâmis, acentuando nas suas descrições uma animalidade que serve para relocar sua cultura na vizinhança da biologia. Ora, não há básica empírica nenhuma para afirmar que sociedades “primitivas” como a dos ianomâmis se mantiveram à margem da história, fósseis de um passado inaugural da espécie humana.

Como lembra Manuela Carneiro da Cunha -que presidia a Associação Brasileira de Antropologia quando esta cerrou fileiras contra Chagnon- na coletânea de ensaios “Índios no Brasil – História, Direitos e Cidadania” [Claro Enigma, 160 págs., R$ 29,50], essa é uma visão originária do século 19, que atribui “à natureza e à fatalidade de suas leis o que é produto de política e práticas humanas, […] consoladoras para todos à exceção de suas vítimas”.

Os ianomâmis, por exemplo, só permaneceram mais ou menos isolados (na realidade, longas redes de contatos já lhes garantiam acesso a artefatos de metal) porque suas terras montanhosas não interessavam a colonizador algum.

A perspectiva adotada por Chagnon -um engenheiro convertido para a antropologia- faz tábula rasa de tudo que há de peculiar no modo de vida ianomâmi. Por que cargas d’água esses índios cremam seus mortos, moem os ossos calcinados e ingerem as cinzas com um mingau de banana? É esse tipo de manifestação simbólica que a antropologia cultural se esforça por sistematizar e elucidar, mas que a obra de Chagnon relega à penumbra dos detalhes irrelevantes para a “natureza humana”.

Ótica semelhante anima o último best-seller de outro adepto declarado da sociobiologia (rebatizada psicologia evolucionista), Jared Diamond, mas com resultados muito diversos, se não opostos. Em “The World until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” [Viking, 512 págs., R$ 96,90], Diamond acredita piamente ter aberto uma janela para o passado nas suas décadas de visitas à Nova Guiné para estudar pássaros.

A ilha, fervilhante com centenas de tribos e línguas em contato e conflito, constitui um continente cultural descoberto como tal por ocidentais só nas primeiras décadas do século 20. Fornece a Diamond, portanto, o equivalente dos ianomâmis para Chagnon, em matéria de isolamento e primitivismo.

As diferenças entre esses dois generalizadores prodigiosos, contudo, salta já do título de Diamond. Ao contrário de Chagnon, ele está aberto -mais que isso, interessado- a aprender algo com os nativos, e não só sobre eles. São muitas as lições úteis que o observador de pássaros e homens extrai para o aperfeiçoamento marginal do indubitavelmente superior modo de vida ocidental: ingerir menos sal, aleitar bebês à vontade até os três anos, dar educação bilíngue às crianças, fazer refeições lentamente com amigos…

Até das ameaças constantes da natureza e do estado de guerra crônica entre os primitivos Diamond retira um ensinamento, centro de gravidade do livro, que chama de “paranoia construtiva”: o estado de vigilância permanente para os muitos perigos que a vida oferece aos homens. Depois de embasbacar multidões com as generalizações audazes de “Armas, Germes e Aço” (livro pelo qual ganhou o Pulitzer em 1998), Diamond corteja com leveza o gênero da autoajuda e compila um volume de leitura bem mais amena que

“Noble Savages”. Os ilhéus são feios e sujos como os ianomâmis, mas simpáticos e sábios.

Já a paranoia de Chagnon, se cabe falar assim, é corrosiva. Nos termos da controvérsia que animou o Brasil escravizador de índios nos séculos 18 e 19, relatada por Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, eles podem ser encarados como cães, canibais e ferozes, ou como homens, diferentes e por isso exemplares de capacidade adaptativa e perfectibilidade. É uma questão de escolha, ou de ponto de vista.

Como diz a antropóloga, repetindo o que ouviu em conferência de Claude Lévi-Strauss, a sociodiversidade pode ser tão preciosa quanto a biodiversidade: “Creio, com efeito, que ela constitui essa reserva de achados na qual as futuras gerações poderão encontrar exemplos -e quem sabe novos pontos de partida- de processos e sínteses sociais já postos à prova”.


Em 2012, Napoleon Chagnon foi eleito para a prestigiada Academia Nacional de Ciências (NAS) dos Estados Unidos. Ato contínuo, em protesto, o antropólogo Marshall Sahlins -que em 2000 se engajara na campanha contra ele- renunciou à sua cadeira na NAS.

Manifesto de 17 antropólogos que trabalham com ianomâmis deblaterou mais uma vez contra a noção de “povo feroz” reiterada no novo livro, que poderia ser usada por governos para prejudicar a etnia. Uma nota do líder ianomâmi David Kopenawa sobre a obra aponta as guerras dos brancos como muito mais ferozes que as de seu povo -uma observação antropologicamente perspicaz, ao menos no que respeita às tribos dos culturalistas e dos sociobiólogos.

The Destruction of Conscience in the National Academy of Sciences (Counter Punch)

FEBRUARY 26, 2013

An Interview With Marshall Sahlins


Last Friday, esteemed University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins formally resigned from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the United States’ most prestigious scientific society.

Sahlins states that he resigned because of his “objections to the election of [Napoleon] Chagnon, and to the military research projects of the Academy.” Sahlins was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991.  He issued the below statement explaining his resignation:

“By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research.  At the same time, his “scientific” claims about human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence–as in the notorious study he published in 1988 in Science–have proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy. So much so that my own participation in the Academy has become an embarrassment.

Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century.  I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”

Napoleon Chagnon rose to fame after his fieldwork among the Yanomami (also known as Yanomamo) in the rainforests of northeastern South America’s Orinoco Basin in the 1960s and 70s.  He wrote a bestselling ethnography used in introductory anthropology classes around the world, describing the Yanomami as “the fierce people” because of the high levels of intra- and inter-group warfare observed during his fieldwork, warfare that he would describe as innate and as representing humankind in some sort of imagined natural state.

Chagnon, is currently basking in the limelight of a national book tour, pitching a memoir (Nobel Savages) in which he castes the bulk of American anthropologists as soft-skulled anti-science postmodern cretins embroiled in a war against science.

The truth is that outside of the distortion field of the New York Times and a few other media vortexesthere is no “science war” raging in anthropology.  Instead the widespread rejection of Chagnon’s work among many anthropologists has everything to do with the low quality of his research.  On his blog, Anthropomics, anthropologist Jon Marks recently described Chagnon as an “incompetent anthropologist,” adding:

“Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce”  he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.”

The widely shared rejection of Chagnon’s interpretations among anthropologists comes from the shoddy quality of his work and the sociobiological nature of his analysis, not with an opposition to science.

Among Chagnon’s most dogged critics was my dissertation chair, anthropologist Marvin Harris, himself an arch positivist and a staunch advocate of the scientific method, yet Harris rejected Chagnon and his sociobiological findings in fierce academic debates that lasted for decades, not because Harris was anti-science, but because Chagnon was a bad scientist (I should note that Harris and Sahlins also famously feuded over fundamental theoretical differences; yet both shared common ground objecting to the militarization of the discipline, and rejecting Chagnon’s sociobiological work).

I suppose if there really were battles within anthropology between imagined camps embracing and rejecting science, I would be about as firmly in the camp of science as anyone; but if such divisions actually existed, I would be no closer to accepting the validity and reliability (the hallmarks of good science) of Chagnon’s findings than those imagined to reject the foundations of science.

In 2000, there was of course a huge painful crisis within the American Anthropological Association following the publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, in which numerous accusations of exploitation (and worse) were leveled against Chagnon and other anthropologists working with the Yanomami (see Barbara Rose Johnston’s essay on the José Padilha’s film, Secrets of the Tribe). Without detailing all the twists and turns involved in establishing  the wreckage of Chagnon and the paucity of his claims, suffice it to say that the choice of offering one of the select seats in the National Academy of Sciences’ Section 51 to Dr. Chagnon is an affront to a broad range of anthropologists, be they self-identified as scientists or not.

Marshall Sahlins’ resignation is an heroic stand against the subversion of science to those claiming an innate nature of human violence, and a stand opposing the increasing militarization of science.  While Sahlins’ credentials as an activist opposing the militarization of knowledge are well established—he is widely recognized as the creator of the “teach-in,” organizing the February 1965 University of Michigan teach-in—it still must have been difficult for him to resign this prestigious position.

In late 1965 Sahlins traveled to Vietnam to learn firsthand about the war and the Americans fighting it, work that resulted in his seminal essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.”   He became one of the clearest and most forceful anthropological voices speaking out against efforts (in the 1960s and 70s, and in again in post-9/11 America) to militarize anthropology.

In 2009 I was part of a conference at the University of Chicago critically examining renewed efforts by U.S. military and intelligence agencies to use anthropological data for counterinsurgency projects.  Sahlins’ paper at the conference argued that, “in Vietnam, the famous anti-insurgency strategy was search and destroy; here it is research and destroy.  One might think it good news that the military’s appropriation of anthropological theory is incoherent, simplistic and outmoded – not to mention tedious – even as its ethnographic protocols for learning the local society and culture amount to unworkable fantasies. ”

Yesterday, Sahlins sent me an email that had been circulated to NAS Section 51 (Anthropology) members, announcing two new “consensus projects” under sponsorship of the Army Research Institute.  The first project examined “The Context of Military Environments: Social and Organizational Factors,”  the second, “Measuring Human Capabilities: Performance Potential of Individuals and Collectives.”   Reading the announcement of these projects forwarded by Sahlins, it is apparent that the military wants the help of social scientists who can streamline military operations, using social science and social engineering to enable interchangeable units of people working on military projects to smoothly interface.  This seems to be increasingly becoming the role Americans see for anthropologists and other social scientists: that of military facilitator.

Below is the exchange, I had with Sahlins yesterday discussing his resignation, Chagnon’s election to the National Academy of Sciences, and the Academy’s links to military projects.

Price:  How has Chagnon so successfully turned numerous attacks on his ethically troubling research and scientifically questionable methods and findings into what is widely seen as an attack on science itself?

Sahlins: There has been no address of the issues on Chagnon’s part, notably of the criticism of his supposed empirical results, as in the 1988 Science article, and the numerous criticisms from Amazonian anthropologists of his shallow ethnography and villainously distorted portrayal of Yanomami.  These Cro-Chagnon scientists simply refuse to discuss the facts of the ethnographic case.  Instead they issue ad hominem attacks–before it was against the Marxists, now it is the ‘fuzzy-headed humanists.’ Meanwhile they try to make it an ideological anti-science persecution–again ironically as a diversion from discussing the empirical findings.  Meanwhile the serious harm, bodily and emotionally, inflicted on the Yanomami, plus the reckless instigation of war by his field methods, are completely ignored in the name of science. Research and destroy, as I called the method. A total moral copout.

Price: Most of the publicity surrounding your resignation from the National Academy of Sciences focuses either exclusively on Napoleon Chagnon’s election to the Association, or on the supposed “science wars” in anthropology, while little media attention has focused on your statements opposing the NAS’s increasing links to military projects.   What were the reactions within NAS Section 51 to the October 2012 call to members of the Academy to conduct research aimed at improving the military’s mission effectiveness?

Sahlins: The National Association of Science would not itself do the war research. It would rather enlist recruits from its sections–as in the section 51 memos–and probably thus participate in the vetting of reports before publication.  The National Research Council organizes the actual research, obviously in collaboration with the NAS. Here is another tentacle of the militarization of anthropology and other social sciences, of which the Human Terrain Systems is a familiar example. This one as insidious as it is perfidious.

Price: Was there any internal dialogue between members of NAS Section 51 when these calls for these new Army Research Institute funded projects were issued?

Sahlins: I was not privy to any correspondence, whether to the Section officers or between the fellows, if there was any–which I don’t know.

Price: What, if any reaction have you had from other NAS members?

Sahlins: Virtually none. One said I was always opposed to sociobiology

Price: To combine themes embedded in Chagnon’s claims of human nature, and the National Academy of Sciences supporting to social science for American military projects; can you comment on the role of science and scientific societies in a culture as centrally dominated by military culture as ours?

Sahlins: There is a paragraph or two in my pamphlet on The Western Illusion of Human Nature, of which I have no copy on hand, which cites Rumsfeld to the effect (paraphrasing Full Metal Jacket) that inside every Middle eastern Muslim there’s an American ready to come out, a self-interested freedom loving American, and we just have to force it out or force out the demons who are perpetrating other ideas [see page 42 of Sahlins; The Western Illusions of Human Nature].  Isn’t American global policy, especially neo-con policy, based on the confusion of capitalist greed and human nature? Just got to liberate them from their mistaken, externally imposed ideologies. For the alternative see the above mentioned pamphlet on the one true universal, kinship, and the little book I published last month: What Kinship Is–And Is Not.

Price: You mention a desire to shift funding streams from those offering military support, to those supporting peace.  Do you have any insight on how we can work to achieve this shift?

Sahlins:  I have not thought about it, probably because the idea that the National Academy of Sciences would so such a thing is essentially unthinkable today.

There is a rising international response supporting Sahlins’ stance.  Marshall shared with me a message he received form Professor, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, of the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, in which de Castro wrote,

“Chagnon’s writings on the Yanomami of Amazonia have contributed powerfully to reinforce the worst prejudices against this indigenous people, who certainly do not need the kind of stereotyping pseudo-scientific anthropology Chagnon has chosen to pursue at their cost. The Yanomami are anything but the nasty, callous sociobiological robots Chagnon makes them look – projecting, in all likelihood, his perception of his own society (or personality) onto the Yanomami. They are an indigenous people who have managed, against all odds, to survive in their traditional ways in an Amazonia increasingly threatened by social and environmental destruction. Their culture is original, robust and inventive; their society is infinitely less “violent” than Brazilian or American societies.

Virtually all anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, many of them with far larger field experience with this people than Chagnon, find his research methods objectionable (to put it mildly) and his ethnographic characterizations fantastic. Chagnon’s election to the NAS does not do honor to American science nor to anthropology as a discipline, and it also bodes ill to the Yanomami. As far as I am concerned, I deem Chagnon an enemy of Amazonian Indians. I can only thank Prof. Sahlins for his courageous and firm position in support of the Yanomami and of anthropological science.”

We are left to wonder what is to become of science, whether practiced with a capital (at times blind) “S” or a lower case inquisitive variety, when those questioning some its practices, misapplications and outcomes are increasingly marginalized, while those whose findings align with our broader cultural values of warfare are embraced.  The NAS’s rallying around such a divisive figure as Chagnon, demonizing his critics, claiming they are attacking not his practices and theories, but science itself damages the credibility of these scientists.  It is unfortunate that the National Academy of Sciences has backed itself into this corner.

The dynamics of such divisiveness are not unique to this small segment of the scientific community. In his 1966 essay on, “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam,” Sahlins argued that to continue wage the war, America had to destroy its own conscience—that facing those destroyed by our actions was too much for the nation to otherwise bare, writing: “Conscience must be destroyed: it has to end at the barrel of a gun, it cannot extend to the bullet.  So all peripheral rationales fade into the background.  It becomes a war of transcendent purpose, and in such a war all efforts on the side of Good are virtuous, and all deaths unfortunate necessary.  The end justifies the means.”

It is a tragic state of affairs when good people of conscience see the only acceptable act before them to be that of resignation; but sometimes the choice of disassociation is the strongest statement one can courageously make.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.