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College Quarterly
Summer 2011 - Volume 14 Number 3
Nature, Nurture and Story Telling—Part 2: The Case of Napoleon Chagnon
By Howard A. Doughty
Books Discussed:

Napoleon Chagnon, The Fierce People 5th ed. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1997).

Patrick Tierney, Darkness at El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

In Part 1 of this essay (The College Quarterly 14(2), Spring, 2011, the great debate about the work of anthropological legend Margaret Mead was discussed. The dispute over her work has been argued on at least three levels—personal, political and professional. Her critics are relentless on all counts and her defenders are no less steadfast.

Second only to the brouhaha about Margaret Mead and her optimism about social progress creating happier and healthier people is the ruckus surrounding Napoleon Chagnon and his pessimism about alleged social decline enabled by weak and craven people who are eroding the strength of our species and leading us to some sort of socialist, feminist, egalitarian collapse. The debate about Chagnon is also personal, political and professional and may be even more raucous than the one about Mead.

As I have written elsewhere (Doughty, 2001), Napoleon Chagnon, in his science as in his life, assumes the role of a hard-hearted, reactionary sociobiologist. His Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968) sold over 400,000 copies in its first year of publication, and has gone on to become anthropology’s all-time marketing success as a textbook. As much or more as Margaret Mead might have idealized the placidness and innocence of the Samoans, Napoleon Chagnon enthused over the aggressiveness of the Yanomamö. Praised by sociobiologists (not least the virtual founder of the field, E. O. Wilson), in articles, books, films and public lectures, Chagnon put the Amazonian tribe on display as perhaps the last remaining example of human nature in the raw.

Of more than passing interest is the question of the degree to which the Melanesian Islanders and the Amazonians were, in fact, uncontaminated traditional peoples, never mind models of what human culture had been in times immemorial. It is, after all, tricky enough to generalize about primordial human culture from a single instance, but to do so using as the chief exhibit people who are measurably removed from their traditions is fatal.

In Mead’s case the answer is pretty clear. Though they may have maintained a good part of their tribal customs and beliefs, Samoans had also been in contact with Europeans ever since their “discovery” in 1722 by the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen. They had been “converted” by British missionaries since the 1830s, and they had experienced a taste of Western culture as witnesses to the tensions between Americans and Germans in the late 19th century. Formally controlled by the United States since 1900 and named “American Samoa” in 1911, the island Mead most thoroughly explored had already been used for some time as a US Naval Station by the time she arrived to study the natives. Moreover, a little over a decade after Mead’s departure, American naval personnel outnumbered the native peoples. In Mead’s time, therefore, the site of her fieldwork was not exactly a remote location, nor were its inhabitants utterly unfamiliar with Western culture. It could legitimately be argued that the people were no longer so-called “primitives” at all, when Margaret Mead dropped in on them in the late 1920s. Any insights she may have won about their traditional culture had already been compromised. They were, for example, no longer pagans; they were Christians, with all that that entails.

Chagnon, in the alternative, declared the Yanomamö to be the largest “intact” and “untouched” human community on Earth. He regarded them as a unique and invaluable human resource, and one that reflected as accurately as possible the character of “natural man.” It was not a pretty picture. Chagnon committed over thirty years to fieldwork and to teaching and writing about the Yanomamö people. He reported that “violence by men against women, violence among men in the same village, and warfare between villages are part of their daily life and the focus of their culture. Yanomamo myth,” he continued, “points to their origin as a violent people coming from blood.” The main motivation among the warlike Yanomamö was the desire to obtain women. There was said to be an almost constant state of internal fighting among Yanomamö villages. Their lives thus described a Hobbesian war of all (villages and individuals within villages) against all. Life was, indeed, “nasty, brutish and short, and Chagnon saw that it was good.” There were no sissies among the Yanomamö warriors. They were “manly” men—men, Chagnon insisted, as they were meant to be.

After one public celebration of ferocity within the all too civilized confines of an American university, Chagnon was asked by an ingenuous yet incredulous graduate student if he found not a single example of a gentle, cooperative and peaceful man in all his years among his “fierce people.” Chagnon dodged the question, but it is reported that he nonetheless summoned the resolve to sneer from his podium that he did not go into the jungle to study “cowards.” Chagnon seems convinced that Western society has gone soft. The wellbeing of the human race, he believes, depends upon returning to our roots, recovering our warrior virtues and disposing with the suicidal compassion that is rapidly corrupting our gene pool. Napoleon Chagnon emerges as the embodiment of a coarse social Darwinism in which acts of charity merely reward indolence and may fatally deprive us of what he claimed the Yanomamö had in abundance—innate aggression.

Of course, like the nurturing Margaret Mead, the naturalist Napoleon Chagnon also has an abundance of intense critics. If Margaret Mead found her arch-adversary in Derick Freeman, Chagnon’s functional equivalent is Patrick Tierney. In his book, Darkness at El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (2000), Tierney set out accusations against Chagnon that went far beyond Freeman’s comparatively respectful effort to demolish the legacy of Margaret Mead. Tierney accused Chagnon of falsifying data, introducing the very violence he claimed to be innate by supplying some of the Yanomamö with weapons (machetes, axes and shotguns) and inciting the violence he purported to have discovered in order to show the (vastly inflated and temporary) ferocity of the Yanomamö. He added that Chagnon staged brutal episodes for his films and utterly ignored the fact that the number of violent deaths in the Yanomamö population of about 15,000 was barely two per year, which would be roughly equivalent to the homicide rates of Memphis, Tennessee or Tulsa, Oklahoma and less than a third that of St. Louis, Missouri. What’s more, most of the Yanomamö killings occurred in three brief outbreaks of violence immediately after Chagnon and others had entered Yanomamö territory and distributed machetes to his favourites.

Margaret Mead’s science may have been shoddy; but, according to Tierney, Chagnon’s behaviour was irredeemably unethical and his research was empirically incorrect. Indeed, as I have previously reported, “Tierney stopped just a libel suit short of charging Chagnon with spreading … an epidemic of measles that killed hundreds and possibly thousands of aboriginals.” He also strongly implied that Chagnon was in cahoots with “unsavory local characters including mining executives and corrupt politicians,” who had their own reasons to deal harshly with the Yanomamö. A full-scale ethical inquiry into Chagnon’s actions acquitted him of the more serious accusations; but, it also made it plain that his research fell significantly short of established scientific and ethical standards, and that his representations of the people he studied had done them considerable harm. The scandal amazed and dazed American anthropology and, a decade later, it shows few signs of fading. In fact, award-winning Brazilian feature film director José Padilha was acclaimed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for his documentary, Secrets of the Tribe. It rekindled the emotional controversy about ethical breaches including “inappropriate interactions with the tribe” involving “sexual and medical violations.”

The film, incidentally, is described by the Sundance Internet Post (SUNfiltered) advertising its World Documentary Competition as “a juicy, often horrifying academic dogfight whose feuding parties are only too happy to rip into one another on camera (the notable exception is the French researcher Jacques Lizot, a Claude Levi-Strauss disciple who reportedly had a taste for Yanomami boys and who declined to be interviewed). It’s clear that there is no room for agreement here, and Padilha’s expertly constructed film—which keeps shifting, deftly and almost dizzyingly, among irreconcilable perspectives—turns inconclusiveness into a strength.” Wow! Padhila, by the way, has recently been hired to direct the new Robocop movie. So it goes.

In the end, I suppose that the worst to be said of Mead is that she was a naïve social reformer whose gullibility (or, perhaps, ideological blinders) set her political agenda back a good deal because her scientific work seemed so slapdash. Her genuine contributions to social science and her political cause both lost a considerable amount of credibility. Meanwhile, in Tierney’s account, Chagnon comes close to meeting the clinical definition of a sociopath whose efforts were consciously directed toward one of the most apparently mendacious research programs in the history of the human science. There is much to be learned here; and a good portion of it has to do with the virtue of modesty.

Reference:

Doughty, H. A. (2001). “Nor Commit a Social Science,” The Innovation Journal 7(2). Available online at innovation.cc.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches degree-level courses in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca