Ignoble Savages & Napoleon Chagnon

When I first began studying anthropology it was de rigueur to have an opinion about Napoleon Chagnon and his work on the Yanomamo. We couldn’t just read Yanomamo: The Fierce People and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of his theory and approach. We couldn’t just debate the ethnography for what it was or was not. Instead, we were invited to stake out a position that mirrored the tendentious and political debates that swirled around Chagnon. It was, on the whole, a shameful affair that discredited most who were involved. Incredibly, Chagnon still rouses ideological passions among (mostly older) anthropologists.

In the long meantime, those of us who don’t buy into the false dichotomies of culture-biology, nature-nurture, and science-humanities have assimilated Chagnon’s work and moved far beyond those unproductive debates. Yet there are still flareups, the most recent occasioned by Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (2013) and his election to the National Academy of Sciences. The latter prompted another well-known anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, to resign from the Academy. While the older generation continues to play personal and political games, a younger generation makes four-field anthropology an altogether more vibrant and hospitable place.

Lost in all this stale sturm und drang is Chagnon’s actual work, which was the subject of a recent online symposium hosted by Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, and Daniel Dennett. This is a fairly distinguished group and they engage Chagnon with the respect he deserves. It is odd, however, that these scholars apparently operate on the mistaken assumption that the Yanomamo are “primitive” exemplars of our evolutionary past. At the outset, Dawkins implies that the Yanomamo were somehow frozen in time or outside of history:

Chagnon came along at just the right time for the Yanomamö and for scientific anthropology. Encroaching civilisation was about to close the last window on a tribal world that embodied vanishing clues to our own prehistory: a world of forest “gardens”, of kin-groups fissioning into genetically salient sub-groups, of male combat over women and trans-generational revenge, complex alliances and enmities; webs of calculated obligation, debt, grudge and gratitude that might underlie much of our social psychology and even law, ethics and economics.

This is a classic example of gradistic thinking when it comes to culture. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins should know better. As a matter of cladistic principle, all peoples and cultures are equally evolved. Appropriately enough for someone attuned to symbols and ideas, the linguist Daniel Everett catches this error and comments:

I could not disagree more with the idea that, to quote Richard Dawkins’s remarks at the outset, that what Chagnon has given us through his work is a “human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world.” No people show us the effects of human evolution more than any other group.

The Yanomamö have had outside contact for centuries (in fact, their main food staples, bananas and plaintains originated in India and they eschew the main indigenous plant of Amazonia, manioc (also known as cassava). That is, even in their basic food choices the Yanomamö show the results of centuries of interaction with other societies just like all other groups on earth. In fact, the Yanomamö are strikingly sophisticated technologically, making an array of decorative and functional objects, including their xaponos—the unusually shaped group houses that Chagnon has made famous in his writings and films.

Everett is here alluding to R. Brian Ferguson’s compelling scholarship showing that the Yanomamo not only have a history, but that this history is in no small part the product of a long transformational process involving expanding empires and states. Unlike anthropologists who denounce Chagnon for political or personal reasons, Ferguson engages Chagnon in a scholarly manner (i.e., on the relative merits of the case).

In Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, Ferguson provides alternative explanations for the violence that Chagnon undoubtedly observed and meticulously chronicled. Ferguson has also published a series of open access articles on the same subject, with the gist of his argument being presented in “A Savage Encounter: Western Contact and the Yanomami War Complex” (open). It is also worth noting that Ferguson has ably dissected Steven Pinker’s progressivist argument that “primitive” violence was more prevalent in our prehistoric past. For those interested in the Whiggish ways Pinker massages his numbers to make modernity look so angelic, these skeptics have the scoop.

All this aside, the Chagnon symposium is worth a long (and critical) look.



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7 thoughts on “Ignoble Savages & Napoleon Chagnon

  1. Pingback: Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature, Goodbye to all that

  2. Joe Miller

    I don’t understand how one could present a group of horticulturalists who use *iron* tools and live in *South America* as a case study for early human culture with a straight face, but that’s just me.

  3. Dominik Lukes

    I’m surprised you would call that group distinguished. In fact, I’d find it difficult to imagine a group of more unreliable and predictable thinkers than Pinker, Dennett and Dawkins. Not that they’re not worth keeping an eye on for insights but I would find it hard to expect anything new or particularly new on this subject from them.

    I do think that Chagnon presented a useful case study (and did not deserve the witch hunt) but his work is being put to questionable conceptual uses.

    (Thanks for the link to Ferguson – one of my favorite thinkers in anthropology)

  4. Cris Post author

    My use of “distinguished” there signifies the larger, public perception. I also find Dawkins’ work in evolutionary biology quite good; Pinker’s work on language is also not bad. I’ve never been impressed by any of Dennett’s work.

    Ferguson’s work deserves wider recognition; I’m just now reading an ethnography titled Society and Cosmos: Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia, and it appears to validate Ferguson’s main (and often repeated) argument that humans can live peacefully and are not perpetually in conflict or at war. It’s a splendid ethnography that I think you would enjoy.

  5. Pingback: Primitivist Assumption | Genealogy of Religion

  6. Jason

    I’m not sure everybody is past the “false dichotomies of culture-biology, nature-nurture, and science-humanities”. Nor am I sure that these are false. Please show me evidence of where these have been deemed “false” and how they were resolved?

  7. Cris Post author

    If you haven’t discovered through your own reading and thinking that these are false dichotomies, then nothing I can say will get you there or cause you to see it. The evidence which you seek can only come from extensive reading and thinking. If you aren’t past these simplistic binaries, I suggest you should be.

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