Napoleon Chagnon is Still Standing

I was surprised by this fairly objective article in the NY Times on the remarkable life and controversial career of cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. This story is an example in microcosm of the descent of cultural anthropology over the last thirty years into mindless political correctness.

Chagnon was famous for his 1960s field work with the Yanomamo, and his book on them was required reading in a number of classes I took both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. Over the years his description of the Yanomamo as an inherently violent people fell out of favor as flawed and too judgmental, but his biggest sin in the eyes of many cultural anthropologists was his opinion that some aspects of human behavior are based on genetic information passed from parents to children. To many anthropologists, that smacked of the Eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that used Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. Lamentably, his critics quickly defaulted to calling him a racist and a Nazi in the late 1970s, and the battle has been on ever since.

The attacks culminated in a non-scholarly book published in 2000 that accused him of fabricating field work results and of intentionally conspiring to cause a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo. An objective view of these charges would indicate most of them are specious. Chagnon hasn’t helped himself by alienating some people with his large ego and prickly personality, but the attacks on him have gone far beyond anything reasonable. Advanced genetic research over the last 10-15 years shows he wasn’t far off on some of his opinions. Chagnon feels vindicated by his election to the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Key quotes:

From Chagnon – “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory are organized religion and cultural anthropology.” Speaks for itself.

From one of Chagnon’s critics, Leslie Sponsel – “The charges have not all been disproven by any means.” Love the attitude – guilty until proven innocent.

Read The Whole Thing.

11 thoughts on “Napoleon Chagnon is Still Standing”

  1. My copy of the autobiography was pre-ordered three weeks ago, and has shipped. 'Nuff said.

    Also pre-ordered: Ullica Segerscale's bio of evolutionary theorist and world- class eccentric William Hamilton. Hamilton is a pioneer of modern evo thinking but is often neglected as a primary source because of the alleged difficulties of his math.

    Perhaps. But if you can find them look at his 3 volume collected works, paperback but unfortunately usually expensive, The Narrow Roads of Gene land. Plenty of math, essays, letters to the Vatican, field memories, pix of him looking rather like a member of Monty Python in the Seventies, more math, entomology, and a eulogy by Richard Dawkins that contains an entire Anglican hymn, with musical score…

    He appears in a story in Redmond O'Hanlon's Trawler, having such a good time talking about insect behavior that he doesn't understand that his wife, also at the table, is announcing that she is leaving.

    He died (probably) because he forgot to take his malaria meds. A little to close to home for happy memories!

    Segerscale already wrote the definitive account of the Sociobiology battles that raged around Harvard and other places in the Seventies, and the persecution of Ed Wilson. Look who is still standing…

    Maybe this wants to be a post? (;-))

  2. I have no problem believing there are genetic behavioural racial differences in people, just as there are in dog breeds and ALL other animals–and I don't think this is a derogatory thing, but a FASCINATING thing! But NOT something to use for evil political reasons. In dealing with humans, though, that's always going to be a problem. Just look at the Pit Bull witch hunt!…I recently read an interesting account of the Yanomamo from a YANOMAMO'S point-of-view, which included some of this Chagnon/Anthropologists vs. missionaries/modernization controversy. It is somewhat dissapointing to anyone who likes the idea of "noble savages" living in harmony with Nature, and not "corrupted" by modern notions and desires, but not suprisingly, many natives WANT clothes(for protection from insects, etc.) modern weapons for hunting and protection, more modern housing and entertainments–and how resentful toward some of the Anthropologists they become for trying to repress these ideas/acquisitions so the Anthropologists studies can continue–as self-serving as the missionaries trying to "civilize" them. I think the books title(I borrowed it–not in my library yet) is "Spirit Of The Rainforest"–definetely an interesting perspective on this whole controversy…….L.B.

  3. Anthropologist and social 'scientists' make me want to believe in god. Because I want to believe in a bloodthirsty war god that will nuke their flabby asses now, tomorrow and in whatever afterlife, forevermore. Or just pass me some pliers, I feel medieval…

    Where shall we start moving this incredible pile of bullshit? It would be at least funny, were it not a pile of racist crap all around.

    So, off with a disclaimer. I pay my mortgage by working in human genetics. Studying it! I know, I feel so dirty, but hey, it's money. Second disclaimer, I did bother reading not just the anthropologists, but also Popper. The poor fools would not know how to write S-C-I-E-N-C-E to save their kids lives, let alone do it. So, aside that the whole of anthropology and social 'science' is riddle with basic mistakes in methodology, bullshit, gullible crap, inability to understand how hypotheses are falsified, complete and utter inability to analyse data with rigorous stats, it is kind of fun.

    But but but… differences in genetics between populations? any tests of that (aside from 'it's a nice story people will believe in as plausible, because they are too flipping stupid to understand falsification')? Pass me those pliers.

    People are just that — people. Because people like stereotypes that conform to their petty bullshit view of the world (i.e. they are racist and sentimental at the same time) there is this idea that you know, them savages are different, all they want is not an iPhone and indoor plumbing, it's fish hooks! My ass I say. "Let's roam the bush, because we're brown! Who wants to be an engineer when you can cash welfare and live in a wasteland (i.e. the great outdoors) nobody managed to make productive!"

    Just give me the pliers, and lemme get close enough to the fuckers…

  4. Popper wields Occam's razor.

    I don't think Chagnon ever said " savages" were different from you & me– his saying we were ALL violent and acquisitive was what offended the academics of the day.

    I cannot speak to differences between populations– know zilch about it.

    Every "Third World" friend, poor hunter, nominal tribal guy I have ever known wanted about what every average Joe wants, good and bad. I have watched Britney Spears videos in an adobe house in "Kurdistan" while the teenaged wives came up from the basement to serve us, and seen badly dubbed (one Russian voice doing all the parts loudly over muted English) Spongebob Squarepants in Kazakstan. Followed by Rambo ditto.

    On the other hand, poorer Kazakhs in Mongolia happily made use of plastic as well as leather in their eagle equipment, truck tires for perches, good optics– and discovered the joys of modern hi- tech clothing for warmth– from then on I sent lots of Patagonia, to the disgust of one rich photographer who said it corrupted them. I took pictures of their hybrid equipment– how wonderful to adapt new things to an ancient practice!

    Some of the same buggers think that western medicine, including the modern meds that keep me (sometimes barely ) walking and typing, are evil. I say fuck 'em.

  5. The problem with violence is a problem of perception. RB Lee, in his 'The !Kung San. Men, Women. and Work in a Foraging Sociey' did count the murders in a number of Ju/Wasi communities. He did not like what he found, i.e. a number of murders that did not make his subjects look good compared to the then current American crime figures, so he decided to compare his figures with WWII — the Ju/Wasi came out as pretty mild then.

    The issue is, Americans have an institutionalised approach to rule enforcement, with police and courts (i.e. the justice system). They also have armed forces. The Ju/Wasi did not have such institutions — hence they did not have an immediate distinction between 'homicide', 'capital punishment' and 'war casualty' for instance. It is then difficult to say who is more violent, because we end up comparing apples and pears.

    Finally, and inconveniently, violence matters in society because the bottom line is, if you push enough rules will be enforced with force, i.e. violence. Any rule that is not considered important enough to be enforced is not a rule.

  6. How can anyone NOT realize there are visible, obvious genetic differences between different races of people? And why only think of that as a NEGATIVE thing? I majored in Anthropology(and have really never stopped my "education" on the subject), so I have some experience with the subject as well. I would agree that a lot of Anthropology is hardly an "exact" science like some other subjects, and I KNOW "scientists" can be some of the STOOPIDEST people out there, but sorry, there ARE genetic differences in humans, and for very real, adaptive reasons. Darker skin resists the sun better, lighter skin absorbs vitamin D better. African populations have genetic resistance to malaria(ever heard of sickle cell anemia?), Inuit peoples are shorter and stockier–better adapted to heat retention in the cold–desert Africans are taller and thinner–better adapted to heat dispersion. San(bushmen) store fat in their buttocks in a unique way to other peoples. Andes Indians have more capillaries in their fingers to increase blood flow and keep their fingers from freezing as quickly in their high, frigid mountain homes–I can go on and on. I find all this FASCINATING, not derogatory. It shows we humans ARE a part of this planet and the processes of evolution, not above it, on some lonely, arrogant pedestal. Can human behaviour be genetically influenced? Why not,if we accept that animal behaviour can be? True, with human culture being such an enormous influence, it can be difficult to seperate culture from genetics, but I don't doubt it for a second! If aggression is selected for for generations in a population(or any other behavioural characteristic), then it would be illogical to think it WASN'T being selected genetically over time. Taking a moral high ground and denouncing "politically incorrect" ideas/theories because that's what sounds proper to the society you live in, WON'T help us understand ourselves, likely to our eventual detriment. But again, such differences shouldn't be used to form unfair and untrue prejudices. But ALL of us are genetically different!(well, except for perhaps some of my former neighbors where I used to live in rural Appalachia–ahem!)…….L.B.

  7. LB, I hate to break it to you, you are 50% banana (and so is everybody else). 50% similarity is quite a lot, but people and bananas vote for different constituencies last time I checked. People are also 98% chimps (or, chimps are 98% people). All figures are in shared genomic sequence btw.

    We know that human cloning as been going on for quite a while, under the sneaky name of 'identical twins'. Identical twins are clones of the same genome, but are two different people. My brother and I are NOT twins, but that still means that 50% of our genomes are identical, and the remaining 50% is something like 49.9% identical because we are human beings. The net genomic differences are 0.1%? And my bro and I are pretty damn different.

    Bottom line? genetic differences between people and groups are normally so small they are reasonably trivial. The issue is, how much weight do we want to give to trivial genetic differences? That *is* the question, and is a question of perception and value, not a question of reproducible differences. And, dammit, I want to add that all the potentially genetic diferences among human groups are anthropometric, pretty damn scant evidence on behaviour.

    After WWII US troops took over Japan. Some of the GIs were white, some black. But they were NOT japanese, obviously. Despite the fact that being black or white was pretty damn important in the US of A at the time, the mother of Ryokichi Kotaro (a teacher of Shinkage ryu) did not notice the difference between the two groups of soldiers until someone told her — until then they were all gaijins, and indistinguishable from one another. So a massive difference in the US was 0 difference in the eyes of an old Japanese obasan. Purely a matter of judgement…

    Finally, it is now obvious from my previous posts that I am an obnoxious bastard with a knack for pissing people off. Accusing me of political correctness is a first.

  8. You haven't pissed me off. And despite that lovely diatribe, those genetic differences(regardless of "percents" and other "anthropocentric" statistics) are still FACTS. I personally find being 98% Chimpanzee a compliment(some of my best friends in the past were chimps)–but no question there is a LOT of difference in that 2%! Behavioural and physical qualities! I agree that such few physical differences SHOULD NOT be used to suppress ANYONE, but one way to do that is to not try and pretend that racial differences don't exist, but to celebrate them and make them positive things. And recognize that, like it or not(I LIKE it!) we ARE a part of the evolutionary process of this planet. Alas, such few unique racial characteristics as there are are being lost due to lack of isolation in this modern world. I, for one, find it sad if we all end up some boring homogenized species across the planet. Hopefully at least different ACCENTS will be preserved–I personally would be mortified at the loss of all the wonderful accents exhibited by humans!…..L.B.

  9. Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on the Chagnon debate, and how Chagnon's work has been disastrous for the tribe.

    Visit for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami. They 'disagree with Napoleon Chagnon's public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. [and] deplore how Chagnon's work has been used throughout the years – and could still be used – by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.'

  10. I find it difficult to believe that Survival International is a regular reader of this blog and assume this comment is just a spambot paste-in reply to a search set on this subject.

    It's interesting to see – and this spam is just another example – that Chagnon's detractors never seem able to disprove his facts, just to "deplore" how his interpretation of them may be "misused." In short, it isn't about science, but about politically correct politics. It's not about knowledge, but all about power.

    Sorry, nice try


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