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Darkness in Anthropology

It was an aside in an article by Alice Dreger that first told me there was something more than usually controversial about anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. I had heard of the Yanomamo, of course. I’m not sure it’s possible to be friends with an anthropologist who’s studied a hunter-gatherer population or possible to have followed the disputes over the nature of genetic contributions to behavior without having heard of them. I’m sure I’d even heard Chagnon’s name before, but it hadn’t stuck with me. This time, with the whiff of scientific scandal about it, I remembered it.

It probably helped that I had to remember it for less than three weeks before Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, came out. Following hot on its heels came all sorts of information about why Chagnon was controversial, how the controversy had led to charges of bad behavior and some actual bad behavior from multiple quarters, and how the process of science continued on its way despite the bad behavior to improve our understanding of our world and ourselves. This sort of thing fascinates me, as regular readers will know, and I’d like to thank the anthropologists who kept putting new information on this under my nose, in particular Daniel Lende and Jason Antrosio.

There are a lot of links in this post, and I think they’re all worth reading to get a sense of how this whole story, which spans three decades, is put together. However, there are three posts by Ken Weiss of The Mermaids Tale that I recommend using as a framework for making sense of all the rest. Weiss is roughly a contemporary of Chagnon’s with overlapping academic interests, and his posts help keep the rest from getting too inside baseball.

His first post provides an overview of the politics around Chagnon’s research, where Chagnon has fit among ideas that have frequently not been left to compete on their own merits.

Nap’s interpretation of the Yanomami were a reflection of his time.  Animal behavior was being studied widely, and interpreted in the Darwinian context of attempts to explain the behavior in survival-of-the-fittest (SOTF) terms–that is, the traits we see today were assumed to be due to past natural selection essentially for the trait per se.  The term ‘sociobiology’ was coined by EO Wilson some years later, but the idea was already rampant.

The question being studied involved many different components, one of which was a genetic question related to issues of the amount of harmful genetic variation that our primitive ancestors carried in their populations (related, at the time, to what chemical and nuclear fallout might be doing to our much larger and more socially complex populations).  Looking at (or, perhaps more accurately, for) cultures today that were frozen replicates of our past was an objective of the evolutionary perspective of anthropology in the ’60s and for a while thereafter.

It’s a short post, but it covers decades, and it prepares you to dive into the competing profiles/reviews at The New York Times: “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist“, which references Indiana Jones, and this review by Elizabeth Povinelli, which refers to “Chagnon’s soiled image”. You can probably guess which is the more positive look at Chagnon and the book.

Taking a brief detour to demonstrate how a reputation can stay soiled, particularly in popular culture, even after it’s been rehabilitated academically, it’s worth reading Alice Dreger’s “Sex, Lies, and Separating Science From Ideology“. This is not about Chagnon, but about Margaret Mead, whose legacy has been hit hard and unfairly. Dreger chronicles how that happened.

This seems to be a specialty of Dreger’s as she did an investigation into allegations that Chagnon had helped geneticist James Neel run a eugenics experiment on the Yanomamo involving a measles vaccine. These allegations were presented in Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon by Patrick Tierney. As Dreger researched the allegations, she found conflict of interest, misrepresentations, and outright fabricated citations. She also found that American Anthropological Association (AAA) had done anything but cover itself with glory in dealing with the allegations. Her report is long but full of the kind of politics and bad behavior generally found in murder mystery novels.

Of course, being innocent on one charge does not make you innocent of all charges. Chagnon, like Indiana Jones, had his own ways of getting what he wanted, and, as with Indiana Jones, a certain amount of damage may have resulted from that. Marshall Sahlins, emeritus professor of anthropology, was so disgusted by the fact that Chagnon was elected to the National Academy of Sciences that he very recently, very publicly resigned his membership. He detailed what he considered to be Chagnon’s unforgivable failings last year in a piece titled, “Jungle Fever“.

The AAA has found itself playing some defense over the first NYT article as well. First of all, they’re really not happy with with the idea that Indiana Jones should be considered any kind of scientific role model. From her comment there about their new statement of ethics, I would guess that their president feels much the same way about Chagnon. They’re also not thrilled about the meme that the AAA is trying to take the science out of anthropology.

So, now that you know more than you might have wanted to about what has happened to and possibly because of Chagnon over time, let’s go back to Ken Weiss for a grounding in the science. I’m going to point you to his third post next. This post steps back a little bit to cover the general trends over time in thinking about the source of behavior. It also discusses how other theories, such as kin selection, have been adopted because they fit the general framework of their time.

The idea of self-sacrifice, or altruism, that was in a sense partly behind the Wynne-Edwards and other traits that were being documented, raised a challenge to Darwinism.  Wynne-Edwards’ view was vigorously challenged from a classical Darwinist viewpoint, because there were few credible situations in which genes ‘for’ self-limitation or self-sacrifice for the good of the group could advance in frequency–organisms without the genes could just lay low and wait till the sacrificer had been sacrificed, and then move in on the newly available females!   William Hamilton proposed his inclusive fitness kin selection theory to account for the evolution of altruism:  genetic variation that leads you to sacrifice your own reproduction could advance in frequency if it led to a greater reproductive output of your relatives. Other rationales were also offered, for example, for why people would save drowners  who weren’t their relatives, or would be willing to risk their lives by going to war, but in a kindred spirit.   Hamilton’s rule ruled in many circles.

Again, strongly committed Darwinists swooned over these explanations, a acceptance of nature as really red in tooth and claw.   EO Wilson coined the term Sociobiology in 1975 in his book of that name, culpably (in my view) adding a final, very badly superficial, chapter on humans, after discussing more legitimate examples like ants, that he knew very well, in the rest of the book.  Like Wynne-Edwards, Wilson’s subtitle (The New Synthesis) reached high if not pompously, playing on ‘the modern evolutionary synthesis’ a self-congratulatory characterization of evolutionary biology in the ’40s.

Once you see this pattern of behavior on the part of the strong adaptationists, it is easier to understand the charges of “Advocacy!” that follow so many scientific claims–or criticism of other claims. That makes it all the more fascinating to see members of the AAA step up to say that advocacy and science are not incompatible. In fact, these researchers make the case that good advocacy makes for better science.

On the other hand, we have John Horgan’s response to the rather eminent group–Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Mark Hauser (not so eminent now), Steven Pinker, and E. O. Wilson–when they wrote to him about reviewing Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado. “Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.” Horgan was unimpressed, made his review more positive (his one regret about the review is fascinating), and wrote a letter suggesting they were the ones damaging the reputations of their field.

Finally, we have Weiss’s post talking about how our understanding of the Yanomamo’s circumstances at the time of Chagnon’s research–and what that means for how we are able to generalize research done on them–has changed over time.

The idea was that if they are an archetype of the ur-human, Alley Oop in the flesh, then studying them can be used to extrapolate our societal and behavioral nature and their origins into our evolutionary past.  Specifically, and most controversially, do we live a Hobbesian life in which male violence and dominance hierarchies determine who reproduces, and violence is largely about capturing women?  Is our behavior based on a history of a species engaged in relentless, winner-take-all striving to spread our genes? Does it explain (or justify) warfare, or the sexual seizure of women?

By designating them as ‘the fierce people’ in the title of his most famous book, which was the monograph on ‘primitive’ people for many years, Nap essentially made such an argument, as did others in the research group, prominently including Neel who was the leader of the medical team involved in the classical Yanomami studies.  Neel had his own biomedical genetic reasons for accepting the head-man theory of life; reproduction highly concentrated in one or a few males  provided a way to understand the amount of harmful recessive genetic variation that our species had evolved to carry at any given time, as a comparison to large, modern societies exposed to chemicals and radiation, which cause genetic mutations and could heavily increase our burden of harmful variation.

Weiss then notes that, even free of any alleged misbehavior or poor research practices, the Yanomamo can’t tell the stories that so many people (including, famously and recently, Steven Pinker) wish to use them to tell.

The Yanomamo are, of course, not alone in being used for the purpose of extrapolating from nonindustrial humanity to ancestral humanity. Jason Antrosio elaborates, both for the Yanomamo and for several other groups recently cited by Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, on why this is inappropriate.

Even in a world of squabbles and scandals, the standards of science need to be upheld.


  1. says

    Nice coverage, Stephanie.

    It’s worth pointing out that Marshall Sahlins’ resignation is quite impactful because Sahlins is one of the most influential anthropologists living today, if not in the history of anthropology.

    I think it’s also worth linking to a couple of blog posts by Jonathan Marks and Rex over at Savage Minds for some more insight into how anthropologists are viewing this whole controversy.

  2. great1american1satan says

    I remember an old documentary about Amazon tribes where there was a big ceremony done, and everybody put on some “traditional” body paint. But I noticed one of the natives putting the cap back on the marker. It’s no big deal (though I’d suggest using sharpies on your skin might be bad for your health), but there was a great deal of effort made to show this as some untainted tribe of primitives. It was a tip to a hidden truth about the proceedings. Would these people have marked themselves up normally (just not with marker), or was that for show too?

    I had no idea what a scumbag that guy was. Sahlins’s article is brutal.

  3. says

    Your point about that documentary also serves as support for the concluding remarks of Stephanie’s post. Indigenous people are not living fossils of our ancient past, and they’re not completely untouched by modernization and the West. The fact that they’re used as such by the likes of Pinker and Diamond is not science-based–its mythologizing.

    And this is not a new critique of that kind of thinking–for example, see Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History…from 1982.

  4. watry says

    If my program is at all representative (I’m an undergraduate phys anthro student) the scientific problems with the Yanomamo research are already being taught even to beginners. The history of anthropology is FULL of this kind of thing, and it’s embarrassing when we haven’t learned better.

  5. says

    watry, I think that part of the reason for the conflict is that the field has largely learned better, but it happened very quickly. Nothing like old school and new school sitting next to each other for some real unhappiness.

  6. says

    I’m still reading up on this issue, so I withhold judgement. But I have to say Chagnon’s book title is pretty clever!

    When I was a kid I remember National Geographic articles about the Tasaday. Apparently there was a certain amount of “here come the researchers! hide the television set!” there, too. It’s a weird feeling when you discover you grew up adopting a lie, and it takes some doing to get it fixed in your memory.

  7. says

    This was good to see. A lot of anthropologists are writing about the Chagnon issue, but I am not sure how much non-anthropologists hear of it. In the media the controversy is usually framed as “Science under attack by Political Correctnesss”, so seeing the actual arguments put before a wider audience is great.

    @Will, I kind of like it when sociobiology/evopsych pops up in the media yet again, because it means Jon Marks is about to go on anothe tear– “What would it mean if Yanomamo murderers outbred non-murderers? Well, if you believe that this is a bi-allelic system, then the Yanomamo murderer alleles would quickly swamp out the non-murderer alleles. But of course only a fucking idiot would believe that.” Heh.

  8. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    watry@6, Marcus Ranum@8,

    i’m inclined to think there is something of a systemic problem in anthropology, in the way individual researchers are seen, within the anthropological research community, to “own” the particular small-scale societies they have lived with and studied, so that what they say about “their” research subjects is difficult to check; this is partly just a practical matter, as studies of such societies are hugely time-consuming and emotionally demanding, but I think there is also a feeling that one should not trespass on another anthropologist’s turf. Another example of the problem recently (and I’m not making any judgement about whether his interpretation is right) is Daniel Everett’s study of the Pirahã, whom he claims to have no religion (so rather appealing to many atheists), and a language which demands that the source of any information be specified, and does not include supposedly universal features such as recursion and relative clauses. All these things would be remarkable and extremely interesting scientifically if true, but in effect, we just have to take or leave what Everett says – at least until someone else does a follow-up study. Even then, cultures that are being studied anthropologically have, ipso facto, been subjected to the influence of industrial mega-society, and so are no longer “pristine” after the initial study. (I’m sure I’ve heard an anecdote somewhere about an anthropologist questioning a native informant about cultural practices, being puzzled that the informant would often retreat inside a nearby dwelling for a while before answering, and found that they were consulting an anthropological textbook for the “right answers”!)

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