For decades now controversy and acrimony have swirled around Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who studied the Yanomami living in the rainforests of northeastern South America’s Orinoco Basin. I read Chagnon’s work as an undergraduate and recall that the work was titillating, but even then understood his work as a reflection of an age old approach in cultural anthropology to see cultural groups through an evolutionary lens, progressing from simple (usually meaning hunting and gathering economies) to complex (industrial or us).
What I didn’t quite appreciate at the time was the evolutionary biological and genetic conclusion Chagnon drew ~ that described the Yanomami as “the fierce people” who are the iconic example of the innate, natural state of humans ~ a state of chronic warfare and homicidal violence.
Among anthropologists, Chagnon’s conclusions have been discredited, a case of serious over-reaching from the data. (See, for example, the Survival for Tribal Peoples for much more detail about the discrediting of Chagnon’s conclusions.) His work has value primarily as an example of what not to do if you want to do good ethnography, a methodological counter-example if you will. Marshall Sahlins coined the term research and destroy to characterize situations where anthropologists are complicit with colonial, military interests and he describes how Chagnon’s work with the Yanomami falls into this category. More broadly the negative impact of anthropologists in South America has become an important ongoing controversy that pivots around Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.
In spite of a thorough critique within the discipline, Chagnon continues to hold sway. Those who continue to laud his work see the critics as anti-science. His competence as an anthropologist is questionable yet he rumbles on and his new book Noble Savages is being promoted in the mainstream media. This book is as much an attack on anthropology as a further elucidation of the Yanomami peoples, a point Elizabeth Povinelli makes in her review of the book. While Chagnon’s book fuels the flames of this decades old controversy, his election in 2012 to the National Academy of Sciences serves to exonerate him and celebrate his work. Chagnon’s election to the NAS has provoked a resignation from the NAS by Marshall Sahlins, also a prominent anthropologist.
Historically, academic disciplines go through periods of upheaval, intellectual dust ups that sometimes result in Kuhnian paradigm shifts. The Chagnon story may be a pivotal event around which anthropology makes such a shift… but this paradigm shift, if that’s what it is, continues to play out slowly and acrimoniously. Time may tell.