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.
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.