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Mar 06 2013

Napoleon Chagnon talks to eSkeptic

What happened to and about Chagnon is a fascinating (and appalling) example of ideological policing in anthropology. He tells a little about it in the interview.

SK: Most importantly, let’s turn to the science. What were the two heresies you proclaimed in your publications on the Yanomamö that went against the prevailing orthodoxy in anthropological community?

NC: Well, I didn’t realize until I began committing these heresies, how entrenched that orthodoxy was. The first reaction was to my having described the Yanomamö as having wars and being quite violent in the absence of provocations from outside societies or the presence of military units from organized political societies, like a nation-state, first punishing them. At that time, they didn’t have any states surrounding them that had any influence on their behavior.

So, without realizing it, I was threatening the general attitude within anthropology that all native peoples are pacific and live an angelic kind of life, gliding through the jungle with lithe, scented bodies, being altruistic, sharing their food, and willing to cooperate with the stranger that comes in and wants to learn about them and their culture, and anxious to share their knowledge and life histories with that stranger.

Well, they aren’t that way. And my descriptions apparently [so] annoyed my colleagues that some of them began to publish statements “correcting” me.

Huh. No peoples are pacific and angelic. Peoples aren’t like that, not even native ones.

NC: Now if a scientist studying yaks, bullfrogs, bats, deer, salamanders, or any non-human animal stated that they competed for opportunities to mate, no one in biology would have taken that to be anything other than an accurate observation. But if you say that about human beings, it becomes “lurid speculation.”

SK: It’s hardly “lurid speculation” to someone like me who grew up in a mob town in Jersey and spent (or misspent) a lot of time back in my military service days shooting pool in bars. I didn’t make careful anthropological observations, but I saw that behavior regularly.

And while I was in college at the same time I was learning the prevailing orthodoxy in my introductory anthropology course, I was also taking a course on the classical culture of Ancient Greece in the very next building, where we read in The Iliad about Helen, Paris, Menelaus and the Trojan War. So why was “males fighting over females” considered so heretical?

NC: It may be that a number of cultural anthropologists come from a general class of the American public that goes to private high schools and elite colleges and universities and ends up teaching in major universities. Not enough of them have spent time in pool halls and bars, as maybe you and I have, so they haven’t anything called common sense.

Don’t they even go to movies? There are pool halls and bars in movies. Or what about summer jobs? Or, as Frank Miele says, the goddam Iliad.

SK: When the final words are written on Napoleon Chagnon and his critics in academia and in the media, what do you think they will be?

NC: I have no idea! Who’s going to write them? If they’re post-modernists they’re going to say something very different from what a scientist would say.

Are you assuming that whoever writes these words about Chagnon will be a rational human being with common sense who believes in the existence of the real world independent of its observer?

Heh. Good one.

Then Miele says something I think is quite telling.

SK: As Skeptics we have a faith which, much like a religious faith, is not itself provable. It’s a faith that in the end demonstrable truth will win out, however unpleasant or unpopular. And while there will be swings to the irrational or the incorrect here and there, in the long run reason and experiment will triumph, just as they have in medicine and so many other fields.

Yes! I’m glad he puts it that way – because it’s a faith I’ve often noticed, and one that I think is often absurd. It does get invoked as if there were some kind of magic at work that guarantees that – as Miele puts it without apparently noticing – “in the end” truth will win out. What end? What is “the end”? There is no “end.” Later he says “in the long run” and that’s a figment too. Those two phrases and the idea they carry make this figment possible – the idea that now is not “in the end” nor yet “the long run” but some other moment is, so even if truth is being buried right now, somehow in that mystical far off end/long run, it will claw its way to the surface and burst out triumphantly.

That’s just magical thinking. Truth loses all the time, and there is no end and no long run, there is only a series of nows.

So if that really is a faith that skeptics (or Skeptics – do they really refer to themselves with a capital letter?) share, then that’s just more reason for me to say I’m not one. Only it’s odd. It seems to me it’s more skeptical to be skeptical of magical ideas that truth will win “in the end” than it is to take it as faith.

 

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Nothing

    Well, I think it happens that whenever we can conclude something without a shadow of a doubt, the debate has already passed and so truth “lost”. On the other hand, as long as we keep on searching empirically and trying to find out how things work, little truths will always come to life. I can’t say whether truth will win in the end or not, but I hope we will know more of it all the time.

  2. 2
    Sastra

    I think skeptics would probably agree that as time progresses it becomes more likely that truth will be revealed, given that the scientific approach has already made such strides around the world and has embedded its ideals into so many cultures — including those which otherwise find that mindset foreign. It’s going to be very hard to put that genii back in the bottle now that there are fewer and fewer isolated enclaves which can successfully ban new ideas. That truth will eventually win out is the way to bet: reality is a strong ally. It doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

    That word “faith” has a lot of meanings. If someone asks you “do you HOPE truth will win in the end?” you’d probably answer differently than you would to “do you TRUST, with serene assurance, that truth will win in the end?” Also — what the heck is “the end” supposed to signify? A hundred years? A thousand? And are we talking about eventually discovering what causes cancer — or are we talking about discovering what Columbus ate for breakfast before sailing? As with all generalities, it’s hard to jump on board without knowing where someone is going to point that thing.

  3. 3
    Jafafa Hots

    Seems to me like the opposite is usually what happens.
    “In the long run” we’re left with only myths and legends, and maybe some artifacts to try to interpret out of context.

  4. 4
    Landon

    Back when I was an undergrad anthro major (I jumped ship when I realized I wanted to do work that wouldn’t take me too far from fast food and air conditioning), my advisor mentioned that she thought Chagnon had gotten a raw deal on this score. She, too, despised the valorizing view of primitive cultures held by most anthropologists. Of course, she was a crusty old bird who kept scotch in her office and had done her fieldwork with headhunters in New Zealand or some such absurd thing. So she wasn’t too sold on the beatific virtue of the simple life, either.

    Mind you, she also said Chagnon was a sexist pig, but that’s neither here nor there.

  5. 5
    Landon

    Sorry, I hit ‘enter’ before I actually got to my main point. Anyway, I noticed that most of my fellow anthro-peeps were granola-eating hippies (I was, too, in some ways) who had a bone to pick – real or imagined – with modern society. Seeing as how a lot of the stuff I studied in the theory classes was rather wooly-headed and derived from Francophone philosophy of questionable value, I can easily imagine that in many programs there’s little corrective for deeply subjective observations.

  6. 6
    sawells

    On the subject of our optimism (I wouldn’t say faith) re. truth winning out, you might like this little piece: http://www.poemtree.com/poems/MagnaEstVeritas.htm

    “When all its work is done, the lie shall rot; / The truth is great, and shall prevail, / when none cares whether it prevail or not.”

    If only.

  7. 7
    sawells

    Oops, should have attributed that: Coventry Patmore. Nice guy who said “I have written little, but it is all my best. I have respected posterity… and I hope it will respect me.”

  8. 8
    rnilsson

    O’Helia:

    Yes! I’m glad he puts it that way – because it’s a faith I’ve often noticed, and one that I think is often absurd. It does get invoked as if there were some kind of magic at work that guarantees that – as Miele puts it without apparently noticing – “in the end” truth will win out. What end? What is “the end”? There is no “end.” Later he says “in the long run” and that’s a figment too. Those two phrases and the idea they carry make this figment possible – the idea that now is not “in the end” nor yet “the long run” but some other moment is, so even if truth is being buried right now, somehow in that mystical far off end/long run, it will claw its way to the surface and burst out triumphantly.

    That’s just magical thinking. Truth loses all the time, and there is no end and no long run, there is only a series of nows.

    Winstonapoleon:

    This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

    Me-me meme: This is now!/ Oh, you just missed it.

  9. 9
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    they didn’t have any states surrounding them that had any influence on their behavior.

    No, there was only Chagnon.

    Yes, much of it is appalling, incorrect, and full of mis-targeted criticism. Most everyone involved seemed to get a lot wrong.

  10. 10
    Eneraldo Carneiro

    Let’s see. Where have I heard this before? One scientist against the consensus of his field (but, just a coincidence, confirming common sense bias), using such words as “ortodoxy”, “heresies”? Hhhmmm..
    Well, as a lay person I think I’ll side with the expert consensus (pdf). Or maybe, just maybe, look and see what the Yanomami themselves have to say (pdf).
    More related links here.

  11. 11
    Will

    I’m rather appalled at the accusation of “ideological policing in anthropology.” Are you kidding me? Vocal criticism is not “ideological policing.” You should know better than that.

    Chagnon is a controversial figure because he engaged in some questionable (at best–highly unethical at worst) behavior while in the field and because his data do not support his conclusions. His “science” is anything but. Please do some more reading about this topic before jumping on the Chagnon bandwagon. Stephanie Zvan posted about this on her site and there are some more links available there. I’d highly recommend starting with Jonathan Marks’ blog posts here and here on the topic as he eviscerates any notion that Chagnon’s work is scientific.

    Oh, and he’s not some airy-fairy “granola-eating hippie” stereotype of an anthropologist. I really wish people would stop trying to dismiss parts of the field they don’t understand with this absurd stereotype.

    Sorry, Landon, but you seem to have quite a narrow view of the field of anthropology from your apparently limited undergrad experience. Where is there any evidence to support your assertion that “most anthropologists” valorize and romanticize indigenous people? When were you in school to be able to make that assertion? Further, saying that Chagnon being a “sexist pig” is “neither here nor there” is actually quite here and there. Part of the controversy surrounding him is his need to fit sexist sociobiological conclusions to his data.

    Anthropologists are damn well aware that indigenous peoples are neither noble savages nor primitive brutes. At least, not anymore than anyone else is!

    Also, I balk at the assertion in the quoted closing paragraph about reason and experiment being triumphant in medicine. Talk about romanticizing!

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    I have done more reading about it but admittedly it was several years ago.

  13. 13
    Will

    Yeah, I think a lot of people are familiar with the controversy from in the early 2000s. I do highly recommend those Jonathan Marks articles at least. He lays out pretty clearly why Chagnon is full of shit, and he cites some recent work that contradicts Chagnon’s claims.

    The thing is, this whole thing was pretty much put away in Anthropology back in the early 2000s around the time Sahlins published his critique. The only reason it’s all come up again is because Chagnon is publishing a self-congratulatory book about how much of a victim he is. So things get written in the NYT by people like Nicholas Wade and they’re taken at face value, completely ignoring the fact that Wade has a specific agenda against cultural anthropology (as documented by Marks, who is a biological anthropologist).

    I do strongly urge people to not make judgments about this until they’ve read carefully and more broadly about the controversy. Just because Chagnon talks to eSkeptic does not make him a good or trustworthy scientist.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Heh! I don’t in general have a bias that tells me people who talk to eSkeptic are necessarily good or trustworthy scientists.

    :D

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    But anyway – it’s quite possible for both to be true: that Chagnon has faults and that the way the AAA handled the “investigation” into Tierney’s charges had faults.

  16. 16
  17. 17
    Will

    You’ll get no argument from me that the AAA can do stupid things. I see them happen all the time as a member of the organization. =P

    Regardless, the AAA’s botched investigation is a separate issue from whether or not Chagnon is a good scientist or anthropologist, and it doesn’t really have any bearing on the vocal criticisms of him, despite the fact that they keep getting lumped together. I doubt you’ll find many of the people criticizing him giving unwavering support to the AAA.

    I’m just sick of all these accusations about cultural anthropologists flying around like they are Truth, but they are so detached from reality. A commenter earlier did it, and Chagnon himself did it in the article you quoted:

    It may be that a number of cultural anthropologists come from a general class of the American public that goes to private high schools and elite colleges and universities and ends up teaching in major universities. Not enough of them have spent time in pool halls and bars, as maybe you and I have, so they haven’t anything called common sense.

    Seriously? What’s he basing this on? It’s a stupid thing to say and makes him look like a butthurt child.

  18. 18
    Tim Harris

    Yes, having read about Chagnon and his work, as well as ‘The Fierce People’, I definitely do not think it is a matter of woolly-minded peaceniks getting in the way of those cliches about hard-headed men of science with their truths that will win out, ‘however unpleasant or unpopular’. I advise everybody to really look at what the controversy is about.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    True about that elite colleges remark. I meant to express skepticism with my point about movies and summer jobs and the Iliad. All cultural anthropologists are sheltered rich kids; hmmmmmmmmmmm; really?

    But Tim, part of what the controversy was about was that many of Tierney’s charges were false.

    That can happen. People can make false charges. Many in Tierney’s book were found to be false.

  20. 20
    thephilosophicalprimate

    And yet again, I find an occasion for quoting Chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:

    [T]he dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries… It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.

  21. 21
    Tim Harris

    Stephanie Zvan, in her good post on the controversy, directs us to a very good analysis by Ken Weiss (who knows NC) in two parts – and it is well worth reading some of Weiss’s responses in the comments. She also directs us to a piece by John Horgan, who recounts how he came in from really rather unpleasant bullying from Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker et al after they had learned he would be reviewing Tierney’s ‘Darkness in El Dorado’.

  22. 22
    Tim Harris

    I don’t know what’s happening – am I being moderated? have I been too rude? – but comments don’t seem to get through, but I shall try again. Ken Weiss, who knows or knew Chagnon, states clearly in a rersponse to a comment on his blog, The Mermaid’s Tale’, that he is basically in agreement with Marshall Sahlins’s judgement on Chagnon, saying that it is ‘basically accurate’. Well, if it indeed is ‘basically accurate’, it is damning.

  23. 23
    Landon

    Eh, I’m no anthropologist, I’m merely reporting what I observed about: (a) what my anthro professors said about the field; (b) what I observed about my fellow majors; and (c) what I observed about a lot of the stuff I read in the theory classes. I have no personal experience to judge the field. I do know that some of the stuff I was assigned to read seemed to draw conclusions that were rather disconnected from the data, but, then again, I’m hardly an expert, am I?

    Anyway, you’re right to point out that Chagnon’s sexism is a likely a factor, and that was attested to by someone I trust a great deal. Of course, she was also the same person who said that a lot of anthropologists tended to valorize primitive cultures… but, also, she had been in the field for something near on forty years back in 1996, so maybe she was holding on to a negative view of the field that was no longer really relevant.

    So, quite right and good points.

  24. 24
    Dave W

    Well, I’m not a skeptic because I have some sort of faith that the truth will win out. I’m a skeptic because I think that striving to learn the truth (or at least its approximation) is morally better than wallowing in ignorance.

  25. 25
    barrypearson

    I’m an engineer, not a philosopher. (Nor even a scientist, although my degree is in Mathematical Physics).

    While “truth” may be a bit difficult to judge, I do have more confidence in the consequences of scientific investigation.

    My view, influenced by my engineering perspective over decades, is “sooner or later science works”. Where there are practical possibilities arising from science, for example practical consequences from better understanding of human nature, sooner or later we will get increasing practical benefits from seeking to converge with “the truth”.

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    Tim, no, you’re not being moderated! If any comments of yours disappeared I don’t know why. I’ll check the spam file…

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, they went into spam. I have no idea why. Maddening. Sorry! I took them out, so it shouldn’t happen again, at least not soon.

  28. 28
    MEFoley

    I use “skeptics” with a lower-case ‘s’, and it never occurred to me that skepticism and logic will win in “the end”; most days it looks to me like science and logic are making their last stand and the barbarians are massing at the gate.

  29. 29
    yahweh

    “It seems to me it’s more skeptical to be skeptical of magical ideas that truth will win “in the end” than it is to take it as faith.”

    I see no intrinsic reason why you cannot be properly skeptical of this ‘magical idea’ – in the constructive sense of finding a testable statement of it and testing it.

    There are surely plenty of historic examples of social structures resting on myth and there must be some which rested on empiricism, and although “the end” or “the long run” are vague and indeterminate, and the ultimate truth is something we will never reach, human history should provide sufficient scope to spot trends.

    Why not be skeptical about skepticism while your at it. Test it. Look at history to see how it compares to faith. Large scale, the Enlightment vs. established religions, small scale cults versus secular groups of some kind? Madrasas versus ordinary schools? Is it really better to be raised in benign ignorance?

    It would be challenging to come up with a testable statements of these ‘faiths’ and even harder to hit on well defined metrics but no reason why it should be impossible.

  30. 30
    Tim Harris

    What interests me about that intervention I mentioned above by Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, E.O. Wilson and others – their attempt to stop John Horgan from reviewing Tierney’s book, as well as their subsequent response to the review – is what seems to be its fundamentally political motivation: Chagnon seemed to be doing some ‘hard-headed’ evolutionary science that stood against what was characterised as the usual unscientific and woolly-minded anthropological approach, with its wincing respect for ambiguities and complexities and its mincing concern with history, religion and culture – and therefore they wanted to back Chagnon, whether he was right or wrong. Were Chagnon right, incidentally, I suspect that femininists would be being ‘encouraged’ to accommodate themselves to the ‘facts’… I remember reading, years ago, about somebody who was either in or connected with the CIA (I think): he remarked on how disgustingly delighted many high-ups were when Konrad Lorenz’s ‘On Aggression’ and some other book about aggression in animals and alpha-males came out. ‘That’s how we are, boys! Get out there an’ kick arse (or ass)!’

  31. 31
    thecynicalromantic

    “common sense” (‘kom-min ‘sens), n., glit. gen.: “No, I don’t have anything with which to back up that statement. Stop asking me questions and agree with me already!”

  32. 32
    chasstewart

    I spoke to my field school instructor about the Chagnon affair earlier this week and he said that he didn’t have a great opinion one way or another but it was damn fun to watch and that Chagnon is probably an asshole, haha.

    I’m not sure what Will means by saying that Chagnon’s work had mostly been put away in the bin because I was being taught his statistics of recorded violence in the middle and late 2000s though I don’t remember too much about Chagnon’s biggest assertion that violent men were the fittest. And, I don’t see how Will can state that it’s all about “Noble Savages” when Sahlins cited Chagnon’s appointment to the NAS as the reason for Sahlins’ resignation. I will read those blog posts cited by Will now but I’d rather see reviewed work cited rather than blogs (please I hope you don’t take offense Ophelia).

    eneraldocarneiro asks us to listen to what the Yanomami say themselves and I think this is very important if we want to understand their culture and understand the relationship between exotic cultures and anthropologists. But, the Yanomami are not the only cultures to sharply rebuke anthropologists’ views on the cultures they study. Nancy Scheper-Hughes was called a vicious liar for her ethnology Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics because of the bleak picture it painted of rural Ireland (I do recommend it because it’s fascinating) and she was told that it would have a negative affect on the people though she did an excellent job of documenting exactly why the picture in rural Ireland was so bleak.

    One thing I know is that I need to read a lot more about this (am reading Darkness in El Dorado presently).

  33. 33
    Tim Harris

    You might also, Chasstewart, look into what the Ik said about Colin Turnbull… Chagnon is not the first anthropologist to be rebuked by the people whose tongues, because of his status, he was able to own, and whose being he was able to misrepresent.

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