Sahlins resigns from NAS as Chagnon enters

Since David Graeber’s widely cited tweet on Saturday, Savage Minds has been able to confirm (read: Marshall sent me an email) that Marshall Sahlins has resigned from the National Academy of Sciences and that his resignation has been accepted. As Sahlins tells it, his main reason for the resignation is Chagnon’s election to the US’s National Academy of Sciences:

By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of
others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the
region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities
among whom he did research. (See my review of Tierney in the Washington
Post, 2000, below). At the same time, his “scientific” claims about
human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence–as in the
notorious study he published in 1988 in Science–have proven to be
shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological
disciple. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and
intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy. So much so
that my own participation in the Academy has become an embarrassment.

Sahlins’s low opinion of Chagnon is as old as everybody else’s, and amply documented in his widely-cited review of Darkness in El Dorado. There, he writes that

The truth claims of the argument presented by Chagnon in Science may have had the shortest half-life of any study ever published in that august journal. Chagnon set out to demonstrate statistically that known killers among the Yanomami had more than twice as many wives and three times as many children as non-killers. This would prove that humans (i.e., men) do indeed compete for reproductive advantages, as sociobiologists claimed, and homicidal violence is a main means of the competition. Allowing the further (and fatuous) assumption that the Yanomami represent a primitive stage of human evolution, Chagnon’s findings would support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in our genes.

But Chagnon’s statistics were hardly out before Yanomami specialists dismembered them by showing, among other things, that designated killers among this people have not necessarily killed, nor have designated fathers necessarily fathered. Many more Yanomami are known as killers than there are people killed because the Yanomami accord the ritual status of man-slayer to sorcerers who do death magic and warriors who shoot arrows into already wounded or dead enemies. Anyhow, it is a wise father who knows his own child (or vice versa) in a society that practices wife-sharing and adultery as much as the Yanomami do. Archkillers, besides, are likely to father fewer children inasmuch as they are prime targets for vengeance, a possibility Chagnon conveniently omitted from his statistics by not including dead fathers of living children. Nor did his calculations allow for the effects of age, shamanistic attainments, headship, hunting ability or trading skill–all of which are known on ethnographic grounds to confer marital advantages for Yanomami men.

Supporters of Chagnon, and lately Chagnon himself, have defended his sociobiology by referring to several other studies showing that men who incarnate the values of their society, whatever these values may be, have the most sex and children. Even granting this to be true–except for our society, where the rich get richer but the poor get children–this claim only demonstrates that the genetic impulses of a people are under the control of their culture rather than the other way around. For dominant cultural values vary from society to society, even as they may change rapidly in any given society. There is no universal selective pressure for violence or any other genetic disposition, nor could genes track the behavioral values varying rapidly and independently of them. It follows that what is strongly selected for in human beings is the ability to realize innate biological dispositions in a variety of meaningful ways, by a great number of cultural means. Violence may be inherently satisfying, but we humans can make war on the playing fields of Eton, by sorcery, by desecrating the flag or a thousand other ways of “kicking butt,” including writing book reviews. What evolution has allowed us is the symbolic capacity to sublimate our impulses in all the kinds of cultural forms that human history has known.

Sahlins is particularly suited to analyze debates about Chagnon because Sahlins has examined in detail how micro histories become macro histories and vice versa. Debates about the quality of Chagnon’s work really are not about Chagnon himself. Rather, they are opportunities for politically engaged anthropologists and holier than thou Anthropological Scientists to have their favorite argument. Again. The result is what Sahlins calls the ‘structural amplification’ of local disputes:

Feuding local groups assume the identities of larger collectivities – the way Catalan villagers, for example, became Frenchmen and Spaniards – and thereby engage these collectivities in their own petty issues. The structural effect is a chiastic pattern of affinities and enmities, as the greater entities also enter the lists against the lesser factions of the other side. In the upshot, the local causes are prosecuted as larger oppositions, and  the larger oppositions as local causes

I expect pissed-off lefties like Terry Turner to be ready to take the fight to the enemy. What I always find so depressing about these periods of academic blood letting is how poorly the ‘scientists’ behave as they extol an ideal of dispassionate objectivity while simultaneously savaging anyone who suggests to them that they may not be living up to their own ego ideal.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Jared Diamond because, despite his empirical errors, he has a program for a science of humanity that he has thought a lot about, and which is worthy of consideration. I don’t agree with most of what he says, but it is worth engaging, because thinking through it makes one smarter. None of this is true of Chagnon. I think Jon Marks is right on the money when he writes:

Napoleon Chagnon is a sadder story [than Jared Diamond], because he is not a pseudo-anthropologist, but an incompetent anthropologist.  Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce”  he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.

It’s hard for me to claim to give an objective response to Sahlins’s decision to resign. The man was my thesis advisor. He was a guest at my wedding. So when I applaud his decision to leave NAS you can decide for yourself how you want to take it. In my opinion, NAS is losing a great scholar and scientist, and gaining the Ward Churchill of anthropology.

After all is said and done, the facts about Chagnon are straightforward: just because some of your enemies distrust science doesn’t mean you’re any good at it.And just because some people dislike your work for political reasons doesn’t mean every criticism of your work is invalid. In the struggle to create a healthy, empirical, and robust anthropology for the twenty-first century, NAS has chosen the wrong side.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

87 thoughts on “Sahlins resigns from NAS as Chagnon enters

  1. @Al West

    “Yes, I thought he had said something along those lines – I was rather hoping for something newer, though, especially given that many of the earlier models have been overturned (‘tropical forest culture’, etc), and given that there is now much more data to go by. Thanks for the hint, though.”

    In fact, they were surprised that Lathrap hypothesis was somewhat corroborated by the data found in various archaeological sites. And well, this was just part of a huge conference, and their research is far more elaborated them what I can possibly present here. You should go after Goés Neves bibliography. His students have been researching in other places in Central Amazonia and there are lots of good thesis and papers coming out, and there is a lot of digging to be done still.

    @David B. Halmo

    Meggers hypothesis to Amazonian pre-colonial societies were made in a time where scientists did not have as much data as they do now.

  2. Not all of Meggers’ hypotheses were the result of inadequate data. Her view that Valdivian pottery originated in Jomon Japan was far from the most sensible interpretation of the evidence, even such as was available at the time. But yes, the dark earths, discoveries of organised settlements far from the varzea, etc, probably couldn’t have been predicted.

    I’ll absolutely check out Goés Neves – looking through the articles on my Kindle, it seems that I have come across him before, albeit solely as a collaborator of Heckenberger. Fascinating to hear that Lathrap was right. It seems The Upper Amazon is still worth reading (good to know, as it forms the basis of my tiny collection of works on the region!).

  3. Don’t ask why, but I’ve decided to share, for what it’s worth, a hypothesis of my own regarding the origins of human aggression, competition and institutionalized violence. And right off the bat I’ll state my problem with Chagnon’s view — though it’s a problem shared by the great majority of today’s cultural — and biological — anthropologists. The problem, in short, is the overvaluation of that great sacred cow to which everyone bows: the fieldwork model.

    While fieldwork with a specific “ethnic” group can be a great source of data and even insight, and also a wonderful personal experience, it’s a woefully limited method for the investigation of fundamental issues relating to the origins and meaning of any particular type of human behavior, tradition, value system, etc. Thus, in order for Chagnon to posit violence as fundamental to human nature, it is necessary for him to argue for the privileged historical status of the particular group he’s chosen to study, and this is already, from the start, a huge drawback, forcing him to base his thinking on assumptions rather than facts.

    As I see it, the ONLY meaningful approach to the most basic issues is via broad-based comparative research, which means, God help me, what has been all too often denigrated as “armchair” anthropology. The good news is that “armchair” anthropology can be done with the shirt either on or off, and at no risk of ever being accused of manipulating, bribing, deceiving, or murdering any “native” person.

    The first item I need to report is my finding that “modern humans” are NOT inherently competitive, aggressive or violent. In other words, they are more like bonobos than chimps. What makes me think that? You’ll have to read the argument presented in the first four chapters of my book, unfortunately. For a summary of the methodology I’ve used to (provisionally) reconstruct the ancestral culture, I’ll refer you to the Introduction ( For a summary of what’s most essential to the question at hand, I recommend the segment entitled Core Values, in Chapter Four (

    So. As I see it, we started out with a value system that actively discouraged competitiveness, aggression and violence. And if you happen to accept my hypothesis (hey, why not?), then you’ll have to agree that the opposite values, promoting traditions that favor these three behaviors, must have had a beginning at some point or points in human history. (More presently.)

  4. To continue from where I left off:

    One could, of course, posit some universal evolutionary and/or biological process that inexorably turns nice, liberal, egalitarian, cooperative, pacifist humans into selfish, greedy, violent, gun-toting conservative banksters and war mongers. But there is no evidence of that. A great many of us living today, both indigenous peoples and “Westerners,” are relatively nice, cooperative, non-violent and generally progressive folk, so if there is some inexorable process at work, why weren’t “we” affected?

    No. I think the most likely clue that could account for such a fundamental change of outlook, would have to do primarily with what can be called the “contingencies” of history, and not evolution. Although on second thought, what IS Darwinian evolution based on if not contingencies?

    That clue, as I see it, is strongly related to what the geneticists call “population bottlenecks.” Such “bottlenecks” are often, though not always, produced by some disastrous event that drastically reduces the size of the population. Imagine, for example, a major drought that has the effect of wiping out, say, 80% of the population of some group. In population genetic terms, that produces a “founder effect,” in which a certain genetic “profile” that might have originally been in the minority emerges as that of the majority, simply because those representing the mainstream have not survived. NB: I’m not talking, yet, about genes in anything other than the pop. gen. sense, i.e., the sort of “neutral markers” that can be used to trace early migrations and such.

    Now let’s return to that disastrous bottleneck producing event. The survivors might have survived purely by chance, simply by being in the right place at the right time. However, in many cases, the survivors would have survived simply because they were: more competitive; more aggressive; more violent. Which means it’s very likely that their descendants will also be: more competitive; more aggressive; more violent.

    Why? Two reasons. Perhaps you can guess. (More presently.)

  5. If you’ve been following me so far, you’ll hopefully accept the possibility that the traditions and values of a given society can be, literally, turned upside down by some disastrous event that forces members of the group to compete in ways that were previously unheard of. And it stands to reason that, after such an event, a new set of traditions, reflecting the values and proclivities of those previously in the minority, could emerge.

    And one thing about tradition that is often overlooked by Anthropologists, but was not overlooked by the author whose work gave rise to Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Aleichem, once a tradition is established it is often almost impossible to alter, or even understand, even long after the conditions that gave rise to it have ceased to exist.

    So far, we have a perfectly nice, cultural explanation for the emergence of a society that tends to favor those who are more competitive, aggressive and violent. At the moment when things are most in flux, those with a very different outlook take control, and this is their opportunity to initiate a new set of traditions and values, so if they have survived because they are more competitive, aggressive and violent, then competition, aggressiveness and violence will not only become the norm, but also constitute the heart of a new value system to be passed on to their descendants into perpetuity.

    However. We cannot ignore the very real biological consequences of such a drastic shift. And this is where, like it or not, the Darwinian component kicks in. If there is, in fact, a gene (or genes) for competitiveness, aggression and violence, then the carriers of that gene might well be favored under the circumstances, and a gene that might have been found only in the minority might well emerge from the bottleneck as representative of the surviving majority. And in this sense, Chagnon’s biological approach does seem reasonable, and well worth investigating.

    Of course, until such a gene, assuming one exists at all, is actually identified, this will always remain well withing the realm of speculation. But as I see it, there is no reason to assume it could not be a factor when we consider the greater propensity toward such behaviors in certain populations rather than others.

  6. @DWP The relationship in question involves a sense of proportion. You allude to Counterpunch and speak hyperbolically about an international movement. The cynical ad man who’s part of my own experience observes that Counterpunch readers are a minuscule fraction of the world’s population and Counterpunch itself is caught up in the same urgent search for something new as other media in today’s hyperlinked, 24-hour news cycle world. I predict with some confidence that a month from now this story will have disappeared from the radar, but Justin Bieber’s Twitter stream will still be news.

  7. That was not me speaking ‘hyperbolically’, John. The entire comment was an excerpt from the Counterpunch article.

  8. The tenor of these comments is fascinating. As a non-anthropologist with a love for the humanities and a deep affinity for Enlightenment rationalism and reason rather than postmodern deconstructionism, it’s as if I were Milton Friedman listening attentively and agape to a policy discussion between Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao. The chasm between left-dominated academia and those of us with a classically liberal Western education is indeed vast. Next stop Wonderland, good fellows…

  9. “Any filmmaker will tell you that moral questions are the most important ones. To a humanist they’re the most interesting and most fun. They’re the good stuff. Everything else and you’re just a bricklayer or a file clerk of some sort or another.”

    But you can’t really have an evolved and rational conception of morality if you don’t also understand bricklaying and fileclerking. By which I mean, we’re just acting from purely subjective feeling and irrational emotion (which are necessarily instinctual, culturally-biased, and parochial, rather than universal) unless we base our morality on some sort of attempt–however incomplete and unsuccessful it may be due to our own cultural conditioning and biological predispositions–to be objective and impartial, scientific and concerned with facts over feelings.

    I won’t bore with details, but after many years of trying to study the humanities and sciences with as open and impartial and scientific a mind as I can muster, I’ve come to conclusions about morality and ethics which are the polar opposites of the “natural” morals and ethics I felt in youth.

    “But here the good stuff is treated as a side issue that’s gotten in the way of science. ‘The Great Kalahari Debate’ The moral questions are front and center. But the debate itself makes people uncomfortable.”

    I can only speak for myself, and say that it makes me uncomfortable because it’s often irrational and filled with non-sequiturs. I just can’t comprehend the irrational non-sequitur point of view–common in debates like these–that anyone recounting simple facts as they see them, and formulating theories based upon those facts, could be doing something immoral or unethical merely by so doing. This is just science at work. If the facts are incorrect or poorly interpreted, that’s simply a matter to be corrected by further investigation. If the theory is incorrect or flawed, this too is simply a matter to be corrected by developing better theories. Any politics, or moral/ethical issues, engendered thereby are merely irrelevant from a rational scientific perspective. Science is science, morality and ethics are morality and ethics, politics are politics–and for science to remain science, it must by its very definition be inherently free from these latter considerations. One should of course be moral and ethical, as one understands those things, when conducting activities regarding science just as he should be moral and ethical in _all_ his activities; but merely reporting facts as one sees them and theorizing based upon those facts cannot be inherently immoral and unethical–regardless of any consequences–because being factual and truthful are inherently moral and ethical activities in any rational moral and ethical framework which has any hope of universal applicability. Hypocrisy and counterfactuality and dishonesty are inherently morally and ethically repugnant in any rationally workable system, and any morality and ethics which promotes them is self-contradictory and false. Kant is a great starting point.

    “The offense taken at Zero Dark 30 was that questions had gotten in the way of answers. What if torture works sometimes, as it did in Germany 10 years ago (Magnus Gäfgen) and it’s still wrong? In Lincoln and Argo it was the other way around. Too many answers not enough questions. And the CIA won the oscar for best picture. Chagnon would never have ended up as important as he is if moral questions were seen as interesting in themselves.”

    I find them very interesting, but believe most people view them far too simplistically and merely jam them into some sort of parochial culturally-derived worldview as a result of having not studied them rationally.

    As an example, most people confronted with torture vs. lifesaving, as in _Zero Dark 30_, immediately polarize into either the “torture is never acceptable and can never be done under any circumstances” camp or the “if we can save innocent lives by torturing a criminal we’re justified in doing it” camp. More nuanced views might include the one I’d take when confronted by this conundrum–“it’s always wrong to torture another human being because it violated basic human rights, and anyone who does so must be punished–but faced with a high likelihood of saving many innocent lives, there are some people who would volunteer to compromise themselves by torturing a known criminal, even knowing that punishment awaits such a torturer.” I know that I’d regretfully volunteer for such duty in order to likely save innocent lives, provided the imprisonment awaiting me were serious enough to be a just punishment but not severe enough as to be draconian and unrecoverable. We need not descend into simplistic and partisan ideological dichotomies.

    “I predict with some confidence that a month from now this story will have disappeared from the radar, but Justin Bieber’s Twitter stream will still be news.”

    I’m okay with that. We’re far from the only species to give attention, deference, and/or adulation to the socially higher-ranked, and given that Bieber is physically attractive and is talented at an activity we almost universally find pleasing, it’s unsurprising that he’s more socially higher-ranked than almost all of the rest of us. It would be nice if our culture would evolve toward giving such adulation to more talented intellectuals as well–but then again my own personal wish-list for our cultural evolution is long and likely to be contested. 😉

  10. “But you can’t really have an evolved and rational conception of morality if you don’t also understand bricklaying and fileclerking.”


    Welcome to the conversation.

  11. “Science is science, morality and ethics are morality and ethics, politics are politics–and for science to remain science, it must by its very definition be inherently free from these latter considerations.”
    Interesting that this kind of thinking would justify the experiments of Josef Mengele, and he himself would have used such arguments to justify his experiments. So there are certainly times when people seem to think that ethical and moral considerations should in fact drive the scientific questions asked, why they are being asked, and how researchers go about answering those questions.

    Interesting who gets a free pass, when, and why. Some lives matter more I guess.

    But as I am just an ‘irrational’ woman, what would I really know.

  12. “Science is science, morality and ethics are morality and ethics, politics are politics–and for science to remain science, it must by its very definition be inherently free from these latter considerations.”

    How socially and politically marginalized groups are represented is already inherently political. Saying you need to ignore that fact in favor of empiricism isn’t apolitical, it’s being willfully ignorant of your politics.

  13. @Sergei & @DWP

    Good. You both make excellent points. However:

    Sergei, I’m sorry you chose to politicize your otherwise reasonable argument. Chagnon has also taken that tack, and imo it’s a mistake. Karl Marx was no soft-hearted “moralist.” The essence of his argument had far less to do with morality and far more to do with his interpretation of human history, based on what he considered to be reliable evidence. Although he attacked the status quo as immoral, the burning issue for him was the question of why the overwhelming mass of humanity was so willing to accept outrageous conditions that were so contrary to its own self interest. THAT is a rational position, at least as rational as anything Milton Friedman ever came up with.

    DWP, are you really willing to equate Napoleon Chagnon with Josef Mengele? I see no evidence that Chagnon ever conducted any “experiments” among the Yanoama, although he’s certainly been accused of that — and worse. Nor do I see any evidence that he ever altered any of the data he collected to make it conform to his preconceived theories. He certainly pushed the envelope when it came to gathering data, in a manner that apparently offended at least some Yanoama — though my guess is that most could have cared less.

    There is a long history of bitter disputes between native peoples and anthropologists, and many accusations very similar to those directed at Chagnon specifically have been leveled at almost everyone who’s ever done fieldwork among indigenous peoples. Does that make anthropologists Nazis?

    There are certainly important issues being raised in the current debate, touching on both morality and rationalism, and to that extent I welcome it. But I draw the line at conducting an inquisition, especially when there is so much heat and so little evidence being generated.

  14. @docG: I obviously was not saying Chagnon was as unethical as Mengele and the Nazis. My comment was a sarcastic rendering of what justaguy said more eloquently. But I do think it is worth questioning how identification with victims v. perpetrators changes what behavior one is willing to rationalize such that it is not the behavior itself which is being judged acceptable or not, but the value placed on the victims and perpetrators of the unethical behavior. And we should not pretend otherwise. So no, you won’t see many saying ‘science is just science’ in relation to how Mengele justified his work, but this justification is trotted out for Chagnon.

  15. “How socially and politically marginalized groups are represented is already inherently political.”

    Arguments among physicists are political. All arguments are political because language is politics. Remove language, and you’ll remove politics.

    Humanism and enlightenment rationalism are two different things. Humanism begins, or returns, with the renaissance and the rebirth of an interest in history. The humanist’s relation to dreams of utopia are both sympathetic and ironic. The enlightenment slowly removed the irony.
    Chicago School economics is the last modernist utopian ideology.

    If you ever go to court, you’ll want a lawyer. The most appropriate response to Anglo-American scientism isn’t Continental theory, based on the inquisitorial system of justice (as both are based on individual actors scientists and judges) but the Anglo-American adversarial system of justice where jobbing lawyers are central. Lawyers are tradesmen not scientists. Just ask one.

    The difference between a writer and a file clerk is the difference between a bricklayer and a sculptor.

    And your response to the torture “conundrum” relies on the “natural” morality of your youth. The problem with the use of torture is that it breaks political bonds within a society predicated on equality. The same with the famous “trolley problem”. Simple utilitarianism can’t be made to function in a society built on equality. That’s why military officers are forbidden from becoming friends with enlisted men. You do not send your friends to their death. Such friendships are “taboo” (the relation of the military to civilian politics in a democracy is defined by tension) Your proposal does the same for torture. The mandatory sentence for torture in the line of duty is 25 years without the right of appeal or pardon. The punishment for torture resulting in death, is death, without the right of appeal or pardon. Agreement signed before the acts are committed.

  16. Things are true regardless of whether it is moral that they be true. This, I believe, is the point Sergei was making. This should be uncontroversial. The alternative is to believe that it is possible for humans to wish things into being true, which isn’t valid. In this sense, science is separate from morality.

    Of course there should be ethical limits on scientific inquiry, but what we wish to be true should not cloud our views of what actually is.

  17. “Arguments among physicists are political. All arguments are political because language is politics. Remove language, and you’ll remove politics.”

    That’s a somewhat different issue, and while I agree with your general point you’re using a much broader understanding of politics than I was. Sure, disagreements between scientists can be considered political, as can any human activity whatsoever. But, a physicist doesn’t have to consider potential negative consequence which might befall a subatomic particle based on what he writes about it. Anthropologists, on the other hand, do. How we write about a population can have negative consequences for them, and we need to be mindful of those consequences.

    This is often a source of misunderstanding from scientists working in other disciplines. When some non anthropologists see us take issue with Jared Diamond or Chagnon’s portrayal of indigenous groups they think the only issue should be the accuracy of their descriptions. Considerations outside of empiricism are described as the imposition of emotions or politics in a field where it doesn’t belong, and we are told to choose between being activists or scientists. But, as I understand it taking the consequences of your research on the people you study comes from the same ethical commitments that any scientist researching humans has. It just manifests differently in our work than in that of a medical researcher due to the uniqueness of what we study.

    So, while there is a very productive conversation to be had about how all knowledge production is inherently political, I see it as a separate one. Though, I confess I don’t really understand the point you’re making about humanism, scientists lawyers and file clerks, so I’m probably missing something.

  18. justaguy,
    I was describing all relationship as political, even or especially marriages and friendships. Social life is politics. “Socially and politically marginalized groups” lack political agency but putting them in the category “the political” implies an enlightened unanimity among the rest. You’re left with stable categories of us and them.

    “Considerations outside of empiricism are described as the imposition of emotions or politics in a field where it doesn’t belong, and we are told to choose between being activists or scientists.”

    An MD talking with patients is not a researcher. If anthros call themselves scientists and not scholars then medicine would be a better model. And again, diagnosticians are a special case.

  19. Seth,
    Sure, all social life is politics in a sense, but I’d just suggest that any definition of the political which can’t make a meaningful distinction between my failing a student, and the Sands Creek Massacre – which, to be sure, are both instances of people enacting power across social hierarchies – isn’t very useful, either for people interested in theorizing about society, or folks interested in thinking carefully about the way they act in the world. I’m not sure how you care to make that distinction, I was doing so by using the folk definition of political, which is what I read the comment I was replying to as doing. And I would disagree that suggesting that some people share structurally similar relationships to institutions such as the nation state and market which leaves them vulnerable to violence or exploitation implies that those of us in different positions are uniform or superior. Nor did I say that they’re the only groups which are involved in “the political”, so I’m not sure where you’re seeing us and them into my comments.

  20. @justaguy

    Nicely put. Once again what is lacking in the use of “politics” — not to mention “power”—in these sorts of discussions is the lack of a sense of proportion. People get so hung up in what and why that they fail to ask how much and what difference it makes.

  21. @DWP: “Interesting that this kind of thinking would justify the experiments of Josef Mengele, and he himself would have used such arguments to justify his experiments.”

    From zero to Nazi in two posts–nice. 😉 But as I said, one should of course conduct _all_ of one’s actions, scientific or otherwise, morally and ethically, insofar as one understands those things. My “kind of thinking” doesn’t justify Mengele’s experiments any more than yours does; I’d argue in fact that Mengele’s understanding of morality and ethics was objectively deficient in that he either lacked an inherent concept of universal human rights, or was using a faulty definition of humanity which excluded certain peoples. More on that below.

    More relevant here, I see nothing morally or ethically deficient in Chagnon’s research, and any faults one can reasonably assign to him are mere errors in scientific analysis. After all, Chagnon’s actions were merely to analyze Yanomamo culture, and devise ways to fit within and between it to study the Yanomamo. If he was “fierce,” it’s because he saw the Yanomamo as fierce and tried to respond to that in a like manner–perhaps he was mistaken in his analysis, but that’s a deficiency in rational analysis not in morals or ethics.

    My own moral and ethical system is one of absolutes based on a specific understanding of fundamental human rights; but many in these debates seem to be relativists. Under a relativist system, the important question about Chagnon would be, What did Chagnon do that the Yanomamo themselves found immoral and inherently objectionable at the time? He refused to share food and he spoke names–his only arguably genuine moral or ethical lapses, but ones which are highly culture-specific. Other than these two issues, his behavior was defensible within a Yanomamo moral and ethical framework _as Chagnon understood them_, rendering any other such lapses again errors in analysis rather than immorality or unethicality. As for the lack of food sharing and speaking of names, they’re certainly serious transgressions within a Yanomamo framework–yet the Yanomamo themselves had adequate ability to respond to them, and sometimes chose to do so and other times chose to overlook them. Surely such culturally-specific transgressions are properly dealt with within those specific cultural frameworks by members of those cultures, and there’s no rational point in importing them elsewhere into cultures like “ours” (yes, a loaded and debatable word choice) where such things aren’t transgressions in and of themselves at all. While among the Yanomamo, Chagnon was in danger of paying for his transgressions with his life, and nearly did so; he also paid for his transgressions by being banished from many Yanomamo groups by these groups themselves, and eventually by being effectively banished from all of them by a larger government. Chagnon’s culture-specific transgressions have been addressed through the proper culture-specific frameworks; importing them further, outside those specific cultural frameworks, is irrational and misguided.

    @DWP: “So there are certainly times when people seem to think that ethical and moral considerations should in fact drive the scientific questions asked, why they are being asked, and how researchers go about answering those questions.”

    This is the sort of thinking which I just can’t understand. It appears to be irrational, or in the hands of some even anti-rational. How is it ever inherently immoral or unethical to simply ask a scientific question? Especially if we assume it’s asked in good faith out of the mere pursuit of knowledge, I don’t think it can ever be immoral or unethical to ask a scientific question. (Note of course that I’m relying on a certain common understanding of what we mean by “ask a scientific question,” so I hope we don’t have to digress into the esoterica of some constructed straw-man such as the framing of questions in _deliberately_ biased/unscientific ways, etc.) The answers can sometimes elucidate moral and ethical problems, but of course those problems were always present; we were simply ignorant of their existence. Facts are mere facts, knowledge is mere knowledge, and these things are not immoral or unethical in themselves. Deliberate ignorance, and especially _enforced_ ignorance, is however arguably immoral and unethical.

    As for “why” any given scientific questions are being asked, the reasons can never in themselves detract from the validity of the questions. A question either has scientific merit or not in and of itself, regardless of the motivations (conscious or unconscious) of the questioner. We can ask why other questions aren’t additionally being asked, or whether better questions can be asked, and discuss whether cultural biases are at work when we ask certain questions (in certain ways) but not others–but always the answer is to ask _more_ questions, or better questions, not fewer questions. 😉

    @DWP: “Interesting who gets a free pass, when, and why. Some lives matter more I guess.”

    I happen to think that all human lives have the same intrinsic and fundamental value, regardless of any extrinsic value which specific individuals may additionally have in particular contexts (e.g. to their families, tribes, professions, etc.). This is a logically derivable consequence of the existence of human rights. To save space let’s skip the arguments about whether or not “human rights” exist; let’s just assume that either they do, or that we can at least agree that we’d be better off if we assume human rights exist than we would be if we don’t.* Let’s additionally save space by defining “human rights” conventionally as “the most fundamental, inalienable rights to which a person is entitled merely by his/her existence as a human being–which rights are universal (applicable everywhere and to all people) and egalitarian (identical for everyone).” If we accept that human rights of some sort exist, then we necessarily accept that there is an objective/unbiased standpoint from which all human lives matter equally and have the same value since no one has “more” or “different” human rights than anyone else.

    To digress and raise the stakes a bit, I’d posit that if we accept the existence of human rights (as conventionally understood, as above), that it becomes almost self-evident that “human rights” must be libertarian “negative rights” of non-interference rather than positive rights of action or provision.

    If our human rights are truly all universal (applying everywhere and to all people) and egalitarian (identical for everyone), as they are by most commonly accepted definitions, then they can extend only so far as they don’t encroach on the human rights of any other. Positive rights are rights that permit or oblige actions, or oblige provision of resources–i.e., they’re “the right to do something” or “the right to have something provided to you” and are inherently active. These would necessarily frequently come into conflict with one another, because one person’s right to act would easily interfere with another’s, and one person’s right to a resource would necessarily limit another’s (or even obligate another person to act to provide that resource, or access to it). The very ability of positive rights to be universal and egalitarian is therefore severely compromised from the start. Negative rights, however, don’t suffer the same inherent limitations, since they’re “the right not to have something done to you or taken from you” and are inherently passive as opposed to the positive and aggressive “right to do something or to be given something.” Human rights are by definition universal and egalitarian, and therefore must be libertarian negative rights “to not be interfered with” rather than positive rights.

    But I digress with this last bit. 😉

    *: Kant–“If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real.”

  22. justaguy,
    “any definition of the political which can’t make a meaningful distinction between my failing a student, and the Sands Creek Massacre… isn’t very useful,”
    If you start by assuming that the political begins in relations with outgroups you’re hardening your definition of yourself and your “peers”. If you begin with the assumption that politics begins the moment you engage with anyone then you’re reminding yourself that you’re subject to being judged as you’re willing to judge others. Assumptions make you sloppy. DeLong attacked William Safire repeatedly and viciously but wrote a short memorial to Jeane Kirkpatrick because she was a friend of the family. As matter of loyalty it’s human but to defend making the distinction as a matter of an objective knowledge of history is something else. “Of course I’m a feminist… Honey could you get me another beer!” DeLong in his public persona in own imagination has no foibles.

    What’s the difference between a medical researcher and at general practitioner, between someone who works with data points abstracted from people and someone who interacts with them and has to respond to questions? My father didn’t allow his students to address him by his first name. Dr., Professor, Mr., that didn’t matter. And they could request to be addressed as Mr Miss or Ms or Mrs. But he made clear he wasn’t their friend: friends can’t give you an F. That wasn’t only an acknowledgement of his authority over his students but of their autonomy and of human frailty since friendship would weaken his judgement. That’s the importance if the rule of law. Reason says “we’re all in this together”; pessimism says power corrupts. But pessimism and irony are the roots of comedy. Which is why Jon Stewart is so important and why Bassem Youssef is even more so. And it makes sense that Youssef’s started out as a heart surgeon and not a cancer researcher. I’m sure the scalpel’s slipped one or twice. it happens.

  23. @Sergei

    Excellent post, I agree with just about everything you wrote (though I must say I find Kant’s prose rather deadening). I’ll add that many other anthropologists are “guilty” of some of the same sins Chagnon is being vilified for. Here are some quotes, for example, from “The Evolution of Highland Papua New Guinea Societies”, By Daryl K. Feil:

    “In the Eastern Highlands, as we have seen, warfare, not exchange, was the method of dealing with outsiders, and despotism must be seen in this context of prevailing aggression, enmity and insecurity. . . . Endemic warfare occurred in the Eastern Highlands and despotic leadership was a response to constant threat . . .” (p. 99). (

    So, if Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanoama as “fierce” caused them harm, then what of Feil’s references to endemic warfare and despotism in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea? And if we are to attack Feil, then sorry, but we’ll have to go after many others as well, since references to “endemic warfare” are themselves endemic in the anthropological literature.

    There is something very very wrong with all these very personal and vicious attacks on Chagnon. It looks as though certain people who feel threatened by his ideas, or are simply jealous of all the attention he’s received, are looking for any stones they can find to cast in his direction.

    That said, I must add that certain aspects of evolutionary biology, as endorsed by Chagnon, strike me as extremely naive, reflecting a fundamental ignorance of some of the most basic principles of Darwinian evolution. But that’s another story for another day. If the attacks were based strictly on his science and weren’t so personal, and so vicious, I would understand.

  24. @Sergei: please find someone else to argue with. I am not going to spend my time arguing that ‘scientific’ inquiry which proceeds from the assumption that some human beings are de facto less human than others (and evolutionary throwbacks) is not unethical, or that it is amoral and apolitical and disinterested in anything but furthering scientific knowledge. And given that AAA race statements (and corollary ethics statements and expectations) are directly related to Nazi abuses of science for racist ends, the Mengele reference is not in fact a logical fallacy or throwaway argument strategy.

  25. @justaguy: “How socially and politically marginalized groups are represented is already inherently political. Saying you need to ignore that fact in favor of empiricism isn’t apolitical, it’s being willfully ignorant of your politics.”

    Translation: “To choose not to engage in politics is to engage in politics, since we’ve decided to change the definition of politics to include everything.” I see what you did there… 😉 But isn’t it immoral and unethical to essentially force others to engage in activities (like politics) unwillingly, even if you’re doing so through the coercion of semantic deconstruction and revisionism rather than by less subtle force? So, let’s see if this kind of thinking is rational and consistent: it’s immoral and unethical for someone to walk into a village with a bunch of stuff and say, “If you’re willing to let me stay here and do x, I will give you this stuff,” thereby giving people a choice whether or not to allow him in and to participate in an activity with him. But it’s moral and ethical to unilaterally deconstruct and revise formerly shared semantic understanding to force people who would otherwise choose not to engage in an activity with you, to engage in that activity with you. Hmmmm…

    That doesn’t even touch upon the diminution of indigenous moral agency and personhood consequent from any attempt to protect them from the choice of whether to engage with people like Chagnon. Unless there’s a fraud or misrepresentation involved, such protectionism is rather imperial, despite the good intentions.

  26. Chagnon could not have been more explicit in considering Yanomami people exemplary human beings. He was tactless, certainly, but he definitely considered Yanomami people to be human in the most basic and important sense. He said that they were sometimes violent, dirty, and ignorant – just like every other group of humans – and that if they did certain things more often, like snorting drugs or fighting feuds, it wasn’t because they lacked human mental features. He didn’t proceed from the assumption that Yanomami people are any less human than ‘us’, as you claim.

  27. @DWP: If you’re not interested in further discussion I’ll merely conclude by saying that you’ve made unproven assumptions that scientific inquiry (Chagnon’s specifically, or perhaps _all_ of it?) has proceeded from a standpoint that some people are “less human” than others, while I’ve always worked from a framework that assumes both universal human equality and good faith on the part of those with whom I agree and disagree alike. There is a complete absence of evidence of bad faith here in the Chagnon affair–except _perhaps_ on the part of a few of Chagnon’s detractors, who’ve made serious allegations and painted with broad ideological brushes (despite having no evidence and no pretense of impartial rationalism).

    But a word about the AAA race and ethics statements being “directly related to Nazi abuses of science for racist ends”–the West has been busy lobotomizing itself and madly scourging its own intellectual flesh for the last 50 years trying to punish itself for its deficiencies, when rather ironically anthropology has taught us that these deficiencies are not at all unique and isolated. The further and more serious irony is that progressive Western cultures were the first to become so self-aware of these deficiencies and make dedicated efforts to correct them–thanks in large part to a canon of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific inquiry into the humanities which is now often marginalized in the Western academy due to all that self-lobotomization and self-flagellation. The dangers of such unmooring from the foundations which made this self-awareness and introspection possible should be obvious–especially since this attitude has long since entered the popular culture from academia, weakening many of the very institutions which had made this enlightenment possible in the first place. The perfect truly has become the enemy of the good, and we’ll probably keep flagellelating ourselves until there’s nothing left on our deconstructed foundations and we just collapse.

    But I digress. I find a recent quote by the historian John Lukacs occasioning the Pope’s resignation to be apropos of the decline of rationalism in the humanities departments of Western academia, and perhaps now Western culture at large: “Prelates [of the past] were blinded by the pursuit of worldly power. Six centuries later, the church’s challenges are utterly different: a decline in churchgoing and religious vocations in the West, and the rise of Islam, especially in Europe.

    The modern age, the age of Europe, is over — and probably many of the ideas of the so-called Enlightenment, too. A hardly conscious but deeply felt spiritual hunger remains.”

    Enlightenment rationalism, you’ll be sorely missed… I hope the “different ways of knowing” we’ll have will take us as far as fast, but I have good reason to doubt.

  28. “Translation: “To choose not to engage in politics is to engage in politics, since we’ve decided to change the definition of politics to include everything.” I see what you did there… 😉 But isn’t it immoral and unethical to essentially force others to engage in activities (like politics) unwillingly, even if you’re doing so through the coercion of semantic deconstruction and revisionism rather than by less subtle force?”

    No, I’m not trying to make some theoretical point about power, I’m talking about the practical consequences of how we describe people. Let me give an example.

    In the US today there is a public debate about same sex marriage in which claims about what is “natural” in terms of gender, sexuality and marriage are used to justify policies which have a concrete impact on the lived of sexual minorities. In this context, you can’t separate empiricism from politics, because empirical descriptions have political consequences.

    So, if Zombie Margaret Mead was called to testify before congressional hearings on same sex marriage she could say,

    “Throughout different cultures and historical periods, there is a wide variation between different gender ideals, forms of socially approved or stigmatized sexual practices and construction of kinship, especially marriage. Thus, while heterosexual marriage has been widely seen as normative in American culture, this doesn’t reflect anything fundamental about human nature and can change as our culture changes.”

    or “Outside of modern Western societies, there has never been any societies with gay marriage understood in the same way as proposed by same sex marriage advocates.”

    Are those descriptions empirical or political? I would suggested they’re both, because commonly held understandings of gender, sexuality and kinship have concrete consequences on the lives of sexual minorities. The consequences exist regardless if you want to recognize it, thus choosing to ignore them is not “avoiding politics”.

    Not all empirical research has significant political consequences, and most people are content to ignore what anthropologists have to say most of the time. But any meaningful conception of anthropological ethics requires us to be mindful of the possible consequences of the research we do.

  29. @Al: your comment points to a naïveté (at best) related to the lack of discussion of racism in (US) anthropology addressed in Ryan’s most recent post, and the reason I do not care to keep engaging Sergei’s comments. There is a reason I chose the word de facto, because what people claim to believe about racial equality and what their actions belie are not one in the same (e.g. de jure v. de facto racism/segregation; implicit bias and aversive racism). Simply saying one is rational and scientific, or saying one sees the Yanomami as equally human, does not mean that one is not also subject to racist implicit biases which will directly affect the questions one chooses to ask and the observations and conclusions one makes. Sorry, but there was never anything objective and scientific about Chagnon starting from the premise that the Yanomami were an evolutionary throwback.

  30. @Sergei, you write,

    “while I’ve always worked from a framework that assumes both universal human equality and good faith on the part of those with whom I agree and disagree alike”

    Could we add “unless given good reason to think otherwise?”

    Anthropologically speaking, the critical question here may be what counts as good faith. I have just begun reading a fascinating book by Susan Blum at Notre Dame. The book is titled Lies that Bind and analyses Chinese views of what counts as truth-telling. The frankness assumed by “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is regarded by educated urban Chinese as naive, a sign of idiocy in the original Greek sense, an innocent stupidity that ignores social context.

  31. @justaguy

    But any meaningful conception of anthropological ethics requires us to be mindful of the possible consequences of the research we do.

    Of course.

    The next question is, What should we be mindful of? The rule “First, do no harm” comes to mind. I recall, however, the situation of those of us who did research in Taiwan in the 1960s, when Chiang Kai-Shek was still in power and the Republic of China was an ally of the USA in the Vietnam War. Taiwanese who spoke openly against the government could be arrested or “disappeared.” Foreign scholars could, at worst, be deported and have their careers ruined. One truly diabolical thing was that no one knew just where the line was drawn. The ambiguity of what would count as going to far was, in my estimation, a far more effective form of social control than drawing a hard and fast line that could have been openly challenged. To protect both anthropologists and the people whose lives they shared, we generally kept to safe topics. ritual, religion, kinship and marriage, and largely ignored the historical context in which we were working, with the Cold War turned hot in Vietnam and the memories of the 228 (February 28, 1947) incident in which supporters of Taiwan independence were massacred still raw enough for the police to go on special alert when that date came around. Were we right or wrong to do so? Were we mindful enough? Or too willing to conceal what we all knew when writing up our research?

  32. @John
    As someone doing research in China, I feel you. There too, the lines which you can’t cross are vague in a way that keeps people on their toes. While there is room to write about things critical of the Chinese state (until, of course, there isn’t which could be anytime between today and never), anyone writing on Xinjiang or Fa Lun Gong can expect to be banned. I picked a field site I though would be innocuous, but then some friends got into trouble with the State during one of the most politically sensitive times since 1989. Should I have tried to draw attention to their situation? Would it have helped them, or brought them more negative attention? They protected me by telling me to stay away, and I assumed they knew best. And yet… China is, of course, different from Taiwan in the 1960s as there are plenty of other voices criticizing the Chinese state.

    I’m really glad you wrote this, because it fills in the human dimension of something I noticed in research on Taiwan in that era. When I started reading research on “Chinese culture” in Taiwan I was shocked at the seeming lack of awareness of the violence involved in establishing Taiwan as Chinese. But after talking to people who were there during the White Terror, it was obvious they knew, they just weren’t in a position to write about it. And I can see how the prospect of publishing something which would be more likely to bring retribution on your interlocutors than positive political change wouldn’t feel like a good idea. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to the question. So, yeah, I feel you.

  33. @justaguy

    If you don’t mind me asking, where are you based? It would be good to get together and swap war stories from the field.

    Two thoughts. First, have you read Susan Blum’s Lies that Bind? I would be interested in the reaction to it of someone who has also worked on the mainland. Second, I wonder what you are thinking of when you mention “the violence involved in establishing Taiwan as Chinese.” I suspect that you have in mind the mainlander takeover following WWII and the nastiness that accompanied consolidation of KMT control after Chiang, et al, fled the mainland. When I read those words, however, I find myself recalling that Chinese settlement in Taiwan began in earnest around the same time that the first English-speaking colonies in North America were being established and that Taiwan has its own history of warfare between the colonists and the aborigines as well as among the colonists themselves. Until the island’s pacification by the Japanese, after it was ceded to Japan in 1895, Taiwan was very much a frontier, Wild West, kind of place. A tropical island of peaceful farmers living together in bucolic harmony it was not.

  34. @justaguy

    P.S. Just checking. You are aware, I expect, that the persistence of “Chinese tradition” on Taiwan is at least in part an artifact of Japanese colonial policy. Aiming to secure for themselves a reputation as enlightened colonizers, the Japanese emulated the British and opted for a form of indirect rule. A lot of what we think we know about Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 is taken from ethnological research conducted on behalf of the colonial government, which was interested in figuring out what local law and custom were. Anyway, as in Hong Kong, colonization resulted in the preservation of older social and cultural norms, partly as a matter of policy, and partly because, especially in Taiwan’s case, the island was politically isolated from wars and revolutions on the mainland. In my particular case, my fieldwork involved becoming the disciple of a Daoist magician (法师) whose WWII experience was serving in the Japanese military police in Manchuria. Yes, there was a lot we didn’t write about when we wrote up. (Not to worry, by the way, my master is dead, and his experience is the kind of thing that people on Taiwan now talk openly about.)

  35. Not again (and again and again!). The “facts about Chagnon are straighforward”? Re-read Chagnon (or for the first time, perhaps…). Sorry, but you’ll find none of the determinism Sahlins reads into the work. Sahlins misunderstood evolutionary theory in 1977, as he does still. Perhaps we can make allowances for his current behavior; after all, he was soundly and roundly criticized by evolutionary biologists back then, and wounded feelings can last a long time. But no one else has any excuse for the intellectural laziness required to go after Chagnon in this manner. It would be good for you to cite Chagnon’s “incompetent anthropology” directly instead of leaving it to his enemies to characterize it. As I said, lazy.

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