Sahlins versus Chagnon — at least anthropology is in the news?

The past couple of months have witnessed a modest uptick in popular media discussions of anthropology, thanks to a couple of noteworthy events: first, the National Academy of Sciences elected the divisive anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Napoleon Chagnon as a member.  In response–and also in protest of NAS’ support for military initiatives to incorporate social science into its warfare and nation-building aims–another famous anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, announced his resignation.  The press has focused on the science vs non-science aspect of the story, but Sahlins and his supporters are quick to respond that they aren’t anti-science so much as they oppose bad pseudo-science. The National Academy of Sciences is a pretty elite club: there are 62 anthropologists in NAS, plus a few more foreign associates and emeritus members.  (I have to plug my own university, Washington University, which has a couple of members–an archaeologist and a specialist in Neanderthals. Neither of them have resigned.)  Chagnon recently became a neighbor of ours, taking a job at the nearby University of Missouri. David Moberg provides a nice overview of the situation for Dissent Magazine, followed by an interview with Marshall Sahlins. He includes this pithy quote from Sahlins, in response to a question about the relationship between the dual reasons for his resignation–awarding Chagnon and supporting military research:

“Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest. It is the same native Western ideology of the innate character of mankind. A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.” — Marshall Sahlins

I won’t recount the vast literature that has critiqued Chagnon’s evolutionary explanations for Yanomamo behavior, nor the ethical concerns over his research methods or the violent, often tragic consequences of his depiction of the Yanomamo as a “fierce” warrior people.  There are lots of other blogs covering those issues recently, as well as more scholarly texts (including the AAA’s own task force report on the ‘El Dorado’ incident) — some of which I may link to in a later edit.  I agree in part with Chagnon’s claim that he has been unfairly demonized–at the very least, most of the claims that Patrick Tierney made in his Darkness in El Dorado have been disproved multiple times by independent scholars and institutions (e.g., see Alice Dreger’s open access article here).

I just wanted to add some of my own thoughts, based on how I’ve encountered Chagnon during my own career and training as an anthropologist.  I was assigned Yanomamo: The Fierce People as a freshman in my very first anthropology course (thanks, Julian!), and we later viewed Tim Asch’s The Ax Fight in a class on ethnographic films and film-making.  Asch turned to Chagnon’s usual framework for explaining social relations within the Yanomamo world, namely the inevitable fission/fusion cycles that caused villages to break apart whenever the population rose to an unstable level.  The fight, thus encapsulated, was seen as a sign of competition for scarce resources, between groups that were defined primarily along genetic lines.

Apparently, Tim Asch himself grew somewhat disenchanted with Chagnon’s theoretical explanation as he went about editing the final cut of The Ax FightIn an interview with Jay Ruby, he responded:

“You know the joy of The Ax Fight…is that because Chagnon was so stuck in simple theories that, right away, the film became a real joke. It is funny with its simplistic, straight-jacketed, one-sided explanation….One of the things I liked about it was that it’s a pretty funny film. And it’s a very dated film if you are going to take it as a piece of serious work. It belongs in another era. But I think also that the film is harbinger of postmodernism long before we get postmodernism…and I was feeling, you know, halfway into making the film, this great suspicion of the whole field beginning to fall apart before my eyes as I was putting The Ax Fight together. I had a powerful piece of material and it was suddenly looking kind of foolish. But it was kind of fun.”

I always found it revealing that Asch came to doubt the explanations that his own film conveyed.

Finally, Chagnon has displayed impatience and possibly hostility toward the possibility that his presence–and the presence of a film crew–could have played a role in the Ax Fight, particularly, and in the violence that he recorded between and within  Yanomamo commounities more generally.  See his reaction in this 2007 interview with a BBC film crew for a documentary series about human nature.  On a broader, meta level, his abrupt departure from the set stands at odds with his assertion that the presence of a camera has no effect.

Just some more food for thought… what are others’ perspectives?

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