Thursday, March 28, 2013

Attraverso Review: Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon

By Professor Jeffery Atik

Napoleon Chagnon's title promises a visit to two dangerous tribes: the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. He provides a disjointed treatment. The larger part of the book takes the form of memoir, a return by Chagnon to the people he studied over the greater part of his career. The later chapters address the academic scandal surrounding Chagnon's work - and his place within the evolving discipline. Chagnon defends himself here - but he does not 'scientifically' study his anthropologist accusers: their violence (as opposed to that of the Yanomamö) is not explained.

Chagnon made the Yanomamö famous: his monograph (subtitled "The Fierce People') was widely studied (it was a highlight of the undergraduate Cultural Anthropology course I took). And of course the Yanomamö made Chagnon famous.Chagnon's work was always controversial. He presented the Yanomamö as among the world's few remaining "Stone Age" people, largely isolated in the regions dividing Venezuela and Brazil. From here they subsistence agriculture from ever shifting villages. The Yanomamö were hardly unaffected by encounters with the outside -- they grew plantains and other crops that had been introduced to South America and prefered modern tools (including the machete and shotgun). Chagnon depicted the Yanomamö as a violent society, characterized by treacherous killings, inter-village raids, and systematic abduction of females. The Yanomamö were not Rousseau's noble savages.

Chagnon's scientific work with the Yanomamö involved careful collection of data over a fairly long horizon -- tempered with some theorizing that gets him into hot water. Perhaps his most controversial claim was that Yanomamö competition (which is to say, violence) was directed at the acquisition of women -- and not of material resources. And violence is celebrated: men who have killed others (known as unokais) secure status and -- Chagnon documents -- have significantly more offspring than their more peaceable neighbors. Chagnon suggests that past human experience was much more brutish than we'd like to imagine. Still in his focus on violence from the perspective of competing (and cooperating) males, he overvalues male agency and neglects to inquire of the female Yanomamö: what is it that they seek?

Chagnon also relates his struggles with the Salesians -- the Catholic order charged by Venezuela with overseeing the welfare of the Yanomamö. Both Chagnon and the Salesians use trade (the provision of tools) to advance their respective missions among the Yanomamö. This erupts in political conflict that results in Chagnon's exclusion from Yanomamö territory and thus the end of his field research.

And Chagnon acquires new theoretical habits that seem (to him at least) to fit his earlier observations. He finds much in E.O. Wilson's sociobiology that explains Yanomamö social behavior. As these ideas develop, he repositions himself in the new fields of evolutionary science. The abduction of women, the unokais' greater number of offspring -- these cultural practices (if we can term them such) reflect competition over reproductive resources.

Chagnon displayed his new orientation in "the late 1980s" by resigning from the American Anthropological Association. The AAA in 2000 famously attacked Chagnon and his work, prompted by the eventually discredited assertions made in the book Darkness in El Dorado. The accusations range from methodological shortcomings (some of these stick) to the deliberate introduction of measles (which is found to have had no foundation). The AAA shamefully flips and flops as the 'scandal' plays out.

Anthropology is a famously fractured discipline. For over a generation, most university departments have been divided into four sections: the cultural anthropologists, the physical anthropologists, the archeologists and the linguists. Yet for the most part they remain grouped in the larger unit where they engage in some of the university's most notorious infighting. Why do they not 'fission' (a word Chagnon seems to like) as do Yanamamö villages when they grow to a certain size and squabbling displaces harmony?

Why do the anthropologists fight each other? Is it over material resources (as the Marxists would suggest)? Or do they compete like the Yanamamö over reproductive resources (graduate students or journal placements)?

Why does the academy rise up and toss Chagnon out? Is he no longer sufficiently 'fierce'? Or does 'fierceness' no longer earn status within American anthropology? Professional envy goes only so far as an explanation.

Chagnon no doubt felt the need to defend himself - to correct a historical and institutional record that unfairly dismissed him and his work. And so he attacks his enemies on every ground. Time it seems is on Chagnon's side - his earlier detractors now seem puny. But a better book might have applied the kind of inquiries to the "dangerous tribe" of anthropologists that Chagnon pursued with the Yanamamö.

Follow the author on Twitter @jefferyatik.

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