Chagnon’s War

The best way to understand Napoleon Chagnon’s contribution to anthropology is to tune in to one of those television wildlife documentaries showing an alpha-male baboon beating and biting the living bejeezus out of a rival, or being beaten into submission himself. As the narrator is wont to say, “Thus the winner of nature’s eternal battle has earned the right to enjoy the sexual privileges that guarantee survival of the fittest genes.”

In the 1960s Chagnon went down to the Amazon rainforest with the intention of proving that the Yanomami, already reduced by 75 percent through diseases spread by gold miners, ranchers and other invaders of their homeland, were the “fierce people” locked in perpetual warfare over the right to control the bodies of women. If this sounds farfetched, we can only offer up the words of Nicholas Wade, a N.Y Times science reporter, in a glowing review of Chagnon’s new memoir “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists”:

After overtaxing one of his informants, the shaman Dedeheiwä, about the reason for a succession of village fissions into smaller hostile groups, Dr. Chagnon found himself rebuked with the outburst, “Don’t ask such stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!”

Chagnon puts it somewhat more delicately in his memoir: ““The whole purpose and design of the social structure of tribesmen seems to have revolved around effectively controlling sexual access by males to nubile, reproductive-age females.”

After spending 11 years researching Chagnon’s work, journalist Patrick Tierney published “Darkness in El Dorado” in 2000, a book that hit anthropology like a bunker buster bomb. As someone with an interest in the academic “science wars” going back to the Sokal affair as well as a concern with the rights of indigenous peoples that led me to visits to the Blackfoot reservations in Montana and Alberta, I made it my business to read Tierney’s book and to follow the furious debates between the pro and anti-Chagnon camps.

The American Anthropological Association eventually decided that Chagnon was not guilty of some of the specific charges leveled against him, such as treating the Yanomami with an inadequate measles vaccine during an outbreak to test their immune systems, much of the damage was beyond repair. Tierney’s portrait of an intrusive and provocative outsider encouraging Indians to act aggressively in order to substantiate his hypothesis was indelible. Even a complimentary N.Y. Times Magazine article timed to coincide with the release of his memoir could not resist an unflattering comparison:

Chagnon strides into the middle of a shabono in a loincloth and faded high tops and strikes a warrior pose — a bearded Tarzan aping his subjects, to their audible delight.

In the flurry of articles that accompanied the arrival of Chagnon’s memoir, there’s a blog post at the Scientific American by John Horgan who gave a favorable review of Tierney’s book for the Times back in 2000 despite warnings by three of the biggest guns in the sociobiology world–Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker—that such a review would ruin his career. Over the past 13 years Horgan has mellowed to some extent, now giving credit to Chagnon for having a more nuanced position on genes and warfare than he originally considered. Supposedly, Chagnon is not that much of a biological determinist compared to E.O. Wilson and even merits comparison to Stephen Jay Gould:

He said he was disturbed at the degree to which some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists downplayed the role of culture in human behavior. I said he sounded like Stephen Jay Gould, a vehement critic of genetic explanations of human behavior. I meant to goad Chagnon with the comparison, but he embraced it. “Steve Gould and I probably agree on a lot of things,” Chagnon said.

Since Gould is dead, we have no way of determining whether such agreement was plausible. But I seriously doubt that the author of “The Mismeasure of Man” would agree with the views of Chagnon’s research partner James V. Neel on eugenics:

There is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure…in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future.

“On Being Headman”, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 23 (277- 94) Winter 1980

Though academics are trained to explain away practically anything, I was shocked to see this article described by Chagnon supporters as having nothing to do with the racist theories so in vogue in early 20th century America and Nazi Germany.

One of the major flaws of sociobiologists such as Napoleon Chagnon is assuming that “primitive” peoples to whom they ascribe murderous intentions in the New Guinea highlands or the Amazon rainforest live in some kind of pristine world untouched by Western civilization. In the age of capitalist globalization, it is very difficult to find peoples who were like the Arawaks that Columbus encountered when he got off the boat in 1492.

That being said, it is worth pointing out that they were not the “fierce” enemies of civilization that a state system with all its laws, cops and armies are meant to hold at bay in Hobbesian fashion.

This is from Columbus’s journal:

Saturday, 13 October 1492: …They brought us sticks of the cotton thread and parrots and other little things which it would be tedious to list, and exchanged everything for whatever we offered them. I kept my eyes open and tried to find out if there was any gold, and I saw that some of them had a little piece hanging from a hole in their nose. I gathered from their signs that if one goes south, or around the south side of the island, there is a king with great jars full of it, enormous amounts. I tried to persuade them to go there, But I saw that the idea was not to their liking…

Sunday, 14 October 1492: …These people have little knowledge of fighting, as Your Majesties will see from the seven I have had captured to take away with us so as to teach them our language and return them, unless Your Majesties’ orders are that they all be taken to Spain or held captive on the island itself, for with fifty men one could keep the whole population in subjection and make them do whatever one wanted.

Taking a step back from the questions in dispute, it is worth meditating on the peculiar relationship between anthropologists, whether they are pigs like Chagnon or not, and their subjects. Isn’t it a problem that the investigations are always conducted by denizens of the North and the City on those that dwell in the South and the Countryside? When is the last time that a team of Yanomami went door to door in a place like Teaneck, New Jersey asking people whether they used the missionary position when they had sex or some other positions? And if the people living in a split-level home felt that they were being intruded upon, would the Yanomami butter them up by offering gifts like a pet parrot? Well, of course not.

In some ways, not much has changed since the profession of anthropology was in its infancy in the mid-19th century, a time when social Darwinism—a precursor to sociobiology or evolutionary psychology in many ways–was at its zenith. With social Darwinism seeing progress from barbarism to civilization as a way of eliminating the “unfit”, whether dinosaurs or naked savages in the jungle, it would inevitably affect the discipline especially during a period of rapidly expanding empire.

To dramatize how pervasive the imperial mindset was, we can turn to the example of Franz Boas who despite being on the forefront of opposing war and supporting a more enlightened understanding of those “lower” on the social ladder historically could demonstrate Chagnon-like behavior.

While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that the Inuit were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Inuit that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Inuit had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, Boas and Wallace convinced him that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”

So if someone as enlightened as Boas could be so retrograde on this occasion, you can only imagine what a latter-day Tarzan like Chagnon could be capable of.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.