Chagnon (Again)

I was toying a bit with going to the American Anthropological Association meetings again this year given that they’re right here in Philadelphia, but I’m up to my ears in overdue work of various sorts, and I’ve had a busy few weeks of meetings and talks and so on.

I did see via Inside Higher Education that the controversy over the work of Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomamo has flared up again, which isn’t terribly surprising. The confrontation is still mired on the most explosive ethical charges laid against Chagnon by Patrick Tierney, which is somewhat irritating. It’s somewhat typical of anthropology as a discipline, however, that what ought to be a debate about the content and uses of scholarly work has swerved into charges about the ethics of fieldwork, and the charge of deliberately spreading measles aside, into some pretty tedious back-and-forth about proper consent and compliance with bureaucratic procedure and such.

The real issue, I think, is that there’s plenty of reason to believe, even just from a straight-up close reading of Chagnon’s The Fierce People, that his account of the Yanomamo should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. I tend to think that Chagnon is a good scholar to read alongside Margaret Mead, because both exhibit an interesting, often compelling tendency to craft “total cultures” that neatly confirm Enlightenment-style conjectures about the essential or natural state of human beings.

As such, they each have attracted intellectual communities with the same outlook who use their work as straightforward authoritative confirmation of general claims. That’s really the issue for me. At this point, most of the folks who would have cited Mead as a straightforward authority about Pacific societies a generation ago have learned to bracket her off and see her more in the context of an intellectual moment, as a cultural philosopher of sexuality and gender, who found the Samoans she studied “good to think”. Derek Freeman’s critique of Mead, whatever its own merits and demerits in terms of the charges he laid against Mead, was something of a misfire in the starkness of its binary view of anthropology: that an ethnographic study is either right or wrong, that informants either are truthful or mislead. Mead didn’t invent the Samoa she described out of whole cloth, in accordance with her vision of what human beings ought to be, but neither was the narration of what she observed unaffected by what she felt her own society ought to become. What irritates me more, reading today, is not Mead but the later uses of Mead as scientific authorization for projects of cultural or moral transformation.

That goes for Chagnon, too. What’s frustrating is to see his work footnoted across a span of sociobiological and evo-psych scholarship as a blandly scientific verification of the proposition that environment of evolutionary adaptedness humanity was shaped by certain kinds of male aggression and violence. At the least, that should be a footnote followed by an asterix, or a citation used with a certain reserve, with a qualified sense of its authoritative value.

I mean, think about it: if you built a pile of a certain kind of 20th Century popular anthropology (as opposed to the mainstream of scholarly anthropology), here’s are some of the authoritative claims you’d have about human beings “in the state of nature”:

Harmless and peaceful
Sexually liberated and gender-equitable
Male-dominated and violent
Intrinsically cooperative

At least the Enlightenment philosophes mostly knew they were mucking around with hypotheticals and postulates.

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3 Responses to Chagnon (Again)

  1. I’m a little surprised. Anthropology was the first social science to adopt poststructural points about the relationship between perspective and presentation and truth, about the structured nature of social relations: I’d expect a much more nuanced discussion.

  2. PQuincy says:

    Ah, but if you simply juxtapose the views:

    Sexually liberated and gender-equitable VS. Male-dominated and violent
    Intrinsically cooperative VS. selfish and possessive,

    And then link the juxtapositions, you’ve made it all the way from Chagnon to Levi-Strauss!

    And then if you wonder about the meaning of “equitable” in cultural context, you’re up to Geertz.

    Then, admit that we have no idea what those folks think or why they do what they do, and you’re up to the 1980s…

  3. And if you realize that it’s more interesting to examine your own reactions to these externalized dichotomies, you’ve reached the 90s.

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