Addendum to Chagnon in the NYT

In the fallout from Sahlins’ departure from the NAS and Rex’s coverage of it on Savage Minds, I noticed a conversation in a friend’s Facebook status about whether some biological anthropologist might write a letter to the editor contributing their voice and perspective. Letters had been written, it was alleged, but the papers had declined to publish them.

I emailed Agustin Fuentes and Jon Marks about the matter. Both were willing to have their comments reposted here. Though our own conversation surrounding the issues has evolved, I thought I would include them in a brief post nevertheless.

Jon wrote to the NYT,

Elizabeth Povinelli’s review certainly captured the judgment of most of the anthropological community, that Yanomamo violence is to be understood as the product of complex social and political history, rather than as the expression of their primordial nature. However, in the two other recent articles on the Yanomamo (Emily Eakin, “How Napoleon Chagnon became our Most Controversial Anthropologist” and Nicholas Wade, “Napoleon Chagnon’s War Stories”), we are exposed to several inaccuracies, among them: that Margaret Mead was hoaxed (a politicized claim that has been comprehensively falsified); that the American Anthropological Association voted to delete the word “science” from its long-range plan (it actually voted to reject the recommendation of the committee that suggested it); and that anthropologists have snubbed Napoleon Chagnon’s interpretations of the Yanomamo for irrational, political reasons. The scientific judgment, however, is that those interpretations were methodologically, epistemologically, and statistically flawed.

The suggestion that anthropology is under a delusional cloud is one that we are more accustomed to hearing from creationists and other anti-intellectuals. For example, in a letter published in the New York Times on October 24, 1962, two segregationists wrote that the “race-equality dogma” was part of a “socialistic ideology” promoted by a “cult” of anthropologists. Except that the “cult” was actually the mainstream science of anthropology, and that claim was a highly political and anti-intellectual dissimulation. It still is.

Agustin stated, “Mine was actually on a related post by Wade where he misrepresents and racializes a recent study in an essay a few days prior to the Chagnon one.” This reply was posted on the AAA site, but is shared again here.

Nicolas Wade’s article of Feb. 14th, 2013, presents erroneous notions of race and human biology. Wade distorts the findings of two studies on human genetic variation by couching the research in racialized terms not used by the scientists themselves. One of the studies proposes possible explanations for a genetic variant common in North-east Asian Han peoples (via human genes inserted into mice) and the other looks at patterns of genetic variation across 179 people from Nigeria, Utah, Beijing and Tokyo. Humans vary in complex and important ways, but Wade’s categories of “East Asian,” “African,” and “European” are not biologically valid groups. His assertions of what the two studies tell us ignore abundant genomic, morphological and physiological data and act to reinforce public misunderstandings of science. I urge the readership of the New York Times not to accept the myths offered by Wade, but rather to seek out what we actually know about human biology and evolution for themselves.

Thanks to both JM and AF. Perhaps someday a biological anthropologist will join the Savage Minds team!

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

15 thoughts on “Addendum to Chagnon in the NYT

  1. I understand the critique of Chagnon’s book. I get it that Chagnon himself wrote an intemperate book in response to this critique.

    What I don’t understand is, if Chagnon’s book is so widely reviled, how it became required reading in so many Anthropology classes taught by people who had PhDs in Anthropology? It seems to me that that there is quite a rift within the discipline, with the Anthropologists at the teaching institutions rather liking Chagnon, while those at Savage Minds and other blogs are so critical of his basic competence and ethics. Something about Anthropology as a discipline doesn’t quite compute right…perhaps someone could elaborate for me?

  2. I got “Yanomamo: The Fierce People” in my first semester as a freshman in college. Mostly I remember the pictures of men with snot running down their chins after having the hallucinatory snuff blown into their sinuses.

  3. @Tony:

    I read Chagnon during my first two years of anthro in community college. His was just another book among many of those slim intro texts. I read his “Yanomamo” alongside stuff by and about Boas, Mead, Benedict, Richard B Lee, Geertz and others. My earliest classes were steeped in 1970s (and earlier) anthropology with a big focus on the four field Boasian anthro and the New Archaeology school (Binford, etc). After transferring to a four year, things were very different since the rest of my undergrad training was heavily influenced by the whole postmodern turn and neo-Marxian anthro (Wolf, etc). It was a bit shocking, since pretty much everything I thought of as “anthropology” was called into question. I have since gone back and put some of the foundations back into place. But even with all that, Chagnon was never a central character or villain in my schooling–although I knew about the controversies in general.

  4. @Ryan

    Bravo. Thanks for adding this perspective. It is positively weird, isn’t it that people who would react with rage to pointing to a drug cartel member and pontificating about Colombians or Mexicans bring the same illogic to generalizing about anthropologists from one, possibly very sour, apple in the barrel.

  5. I had a look at A sixth edition of Yamamamo, was recently issued by Wadsworth. “The FIerce People” had been dropped as a subtitle, and substitute with the blander “Legacy Edition.” The cover picture has a picture of a man wearing a decorative feathers and leaves which at first I mistook for flowers.

    Comments by readers indicate that they liked the book for its readability. Judging by its ranking, Wadsworth’s marketing style, and the comments, it is still required reading in Introductory Anthropology classes.

  6. @John:

    Don’t get me wrong. I think Chagnon should be taken to task for any and all issues with his work and behavior in the field. There is no reason to just look the other way when these kinds of issues come up. We should take them head on…but also try to keep our heads on.

    At the same time, I think that we lose something in giving so much public attention to Chagnon. I think Stoller said it in his piece: we are basically caught up in fighting a caricature of ourselves in this whole battle with the “swashbuckling” Chagnon and all of his misdeeds, ego, etc. I know a lot of people are worried about the general public getting the wrong idea about anthropology…but my answer is to go another way: Focus on getting the work of all the excellent anthros out there in the public realm. Part of the problem here, as I see it, is that Chagnon is getting a lot of attention (from the NY Times, etc). Which is probably what he wanted. From the perspective of the general public, well, who else do they have to compare with Chagnon if they want to see what “good anthropology” is all about? Sure, there are plenty, but since we rarely write for or engage with the general public most people haven’t heard of Setha Low, or Paul Farmer, or Leith Mullings, etc. The good thing is that there are indeed people who are working on changing that trend and breaking out of our isolationist predicament. Like Stoller on HuffPo, Clancy on Scientific American, and Barbara King on NPR.

  7. @Tony,

    Like Ryan, I too read Chagnon in my early undergrad days in a four-field Anth department at UF. We were taught the criticisms and issues with his work. We made up our own minds looked deeper into the other literature.

    It was nice having people like Heck, and others, to challenge us to ask better questions. It certainly has made my archaeology better and I hope relevant and meaningful to the communities I work and live in. But I still have work to do on that front.

    There is something to learn from all ethnographies, even ones fraught with methodological or interpretive flaws. Hopefully, you learn from them and carry those lessons forward. I tend to agree with Ryan in that we need to do a better job of highlighting good, powerful, and important works. In my mind, American anthropologists need to be better engaged; seeking public dialogue on current issues in our local communities and sharing lessons from the world of anthropology.

    I also teach, part-time, at a small polytechnic uni and I do this out of love but also responsibility – it’s my opportunity to share with young people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds the life of anthropology and challenge them as well as learn from them and listen to their voices. I discuss Chagnon and his work, to some degree, in my intro cultural anthro course, but I tend to make my students read a mix of articles – really current pieces and important works of the past – I also highlight people and work I think makes a great contribution to anthropology, from Zora Neale Hurston to TJ Ferguson, and others outside N. America.

    In the end, I don’t see a rift within the discipline, rather I say be honest and open with every bit of work you teach and read. Shortcomings need to be discussed and read, but let’s also focus on the really inspiring stuff and the works that completely challenge your place in anthropology, and the larger world we inhabit.

  8. @ Tony. Put simply: the ethnography, along with some other older ethnographies, are used to teach students what kinds of mistakes to avoid when doing their own work.

  9. “that Yanomamo violence is to be understood as the product of complex social and political history, rather than as the expression of their primordial nature.”

    Whoever wrote that forgot the fact that history in colonized nations and primitive cultures is a western project and alien concept. Indigenous peoples I know have oral stories that are not the same as histories we know that are about social conditions and institutions.

    Why can’t an anthropologist use biology in understanding violence? If some can use Marxism in studying it, why can’t I use aesthetics if my background is in anthropology of art? I observe instances where art encourages violence.

    The culprit here is anthropology as an interpretive discipline. Anthropologists use it to prove a theory. I wonder why one has to use a theory in studying, interpreting, writing culture. It seems to me anthropology is the study of theoretical possibilities and probabilities about humans.

    I can’t really criticize anthropologists who use biology and genetics in relation to headhunting, for example. If the groups they study have cultures that value the fierce courage and perceived virility of headhunters, who get the most desired women who are also daughters of other headhunters as prizes, wives, peace offerings, or hostages, I don’t see any reason why those same anthropologists cannot use reproduction and genetics in their interpretation.

    For real, why do anthropologists have to be Feminist, Marxist, or Postmodernist in studying culture? Have you heard of a “Einsteinian physicist” who study a physical phenomenon with only Einstein in mind? A real scientist studies science empirically using numbers and experimental methods to arrive at consistent results and replicable conclusions.

    Is anthropology really a science?

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