Friday, February 15, 2013

Napoleon Chagnon

Allow me to tell two stories.  One happened in 2005 when I attended the Association of Life Sciences annual conference in Washington D.C.  The keynote speaker was Napoleon Chagnon.  His talk was wonderful.  I asked a question which I now cannot remember.  All I do remember is that he said in reply that he didn’t believe in group selection.  I was a great admirer of Dr. Chagnon, so speaking to him in that venue was pretty exciting. 
Later that evening I wondered into the bar looking for someone and a voice to my right suggested that I sit down.  It was Chagnon, along with a couple of other folks from the conference.  I spent a couple of hours and few dollars for beer talking to “this country’s best-known living anthropologist”.  He was gracious and easy to talk to.  Okay, this is name-dropping, but you have to admit it is a pretty cool bit of that. 
The other story seems unrelated but bear with me.  A friend of mine who is a movement conservative discovered, back in the 1980’s, when the Soviet Union was still in business, that an article of his had been denounced in the Soviet journal Pravda.  He had the page framed and hung it in his office.  The point here is that one’s status can be confirmed by the attention of one’s enemies. 
Napoleon Chagnon is indeed the best known anthropologist of his times.  This would be true on the strength of his work alone but his status has been magnified by the attention of his enemies.  The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy piece on Chagnon, which I am still digesting.  I do get the sense that Chagnon, however wounded by the many vicious attacks he suffered from barbaric anthropologists, has emerged as the victor. 
Chagnon went into the Venezuelan jungle in 1964 to encounter the Yanomamö, an isolated tribe.  What he discovered was that these folk were not the gentle people he had been led to expect by previous anthropological research.  His work upset the notion of the noble savage and with it the idea that human violence was an artifact of civilization.  When he published his findings, he committed the unforgivable.  He departed from the party line. 
One day I went into the NSU library and found on the new book shelf Darkness In El Dorado.  It contained more than a scathing rebuke of Chagnon’s scholarship.  It accused him of killing the people he studied. 
In 2000, the simmering criticisms erupted in public with the release of “Darkness in El Dorado,” by the journalist Patrick Tierney. A true-life jungle horror story redolent with allusions to Conrad, the book charged Chagnon with grave misdeeds: not just fomenting violence but also fabricating data, staging documentary films and, most sensational, participating in a biomedical expedition that may have caused or worsened a measles epidemic that resulted in hundreds of Yanomami deaths. Advance word of the book was enough to plunge anthropology into a global public-relations crisis — a typical headline: “Scientist ‘Killed Amazon Indians to Test Race Theory.’ ” But even today, after thousands of pages of discussion, including a lengthy investigation by the American Anthropological Association (A.A.A.), there is no consensus about what, if anything, Chagnon did wrong.
That is a gentle way of saying that Tierney’s book was a piece of steaming crap.  I am sure that it made Chagnon’s life very difficult.  It also confirmed his status and strengthened the case he had been making.  The likelihood of something being true is proportional to the number of people trying to prove it wrong multiplied by the intensity of their efforts.  By that standard, Chagnon’s work is near to gold. 
I have let it known that I have a personal reason for backing Chagnon.  I argue that there are strong independent reasons for admiring his life and work.  Let us wait for his new book to see if I am right. 


  1. Napoleon Chagnon's new book has triggered a wave of protests among experts and Yanomami Indians.

    Marshall Sahlins, 'the world's most respect anthropologist alive today' has resigned from the US National Academy of Sciences in protest at Chagnon's election to the Academy.

    Davi Kopenawa, a spokesman for the Yanomami and President of a Yanomami association has also spoken out.

    A long list of anthropologists specialising in the Brazilian and Venezuelan Yanomami have issued a joint statement condemning Chagnon's work.

    For more information, visit Survival International's website:

  2. Survival International confirms at least one thing: Napoleon Chagnon is very, very politically incorrect. I note that political correctness is not a virtue in science.