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The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I have a few things to get off my chest regarding Napoleon Chagnon, who is back in the news with a score-settling memoir, Noble Savages. On Sunday, Savages was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, and Chagnon was profiled in a Times Magazine article: “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist.” Both pieces focus on the 2000 book Darkness in El Dorado by Chagnon’s nemesis, journalist Patrick Tierney. Neither piece mentions a remarkable irony at the heart of Chagnon’s career, which I’ll get to soon.

First, some background. In the summer of 2000, The Times Book Review asked me to review Darkness and sent me galleys. The book was packed with allegations of misconduct by scientists and journalists scrutinizing the Yanomamo, a tribe of Amazonian hunters and horticulturalists. Tierney’s chief villain was Chagnon, whose 1968 book Yanomamo: The Fierce People depicted Yanomamo males as, well, savages mired in chronic warfare. Chagnon’s work was embraced by sociobiology and its repackaged successor evolutionary psychology, which emphasize the genetic underpinnings of warfare and other human behaviors and downplay cultural factors.

In Darkness, Tierney accused Chagnon of projecting his belligerent personality onto the Yanomamo and of inciting their violence. (Biologist Edward Wilson inadvertently lent credence to the projection charge when he noted, in a foreword to Chagnon’s 1992 book Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden, that he “strikes many of his friends and colleagues as basically similar [to the Yanomamo] in personality: tough, feisty, courageous.”)

Tierney’s book made headlines even before it was published. In an edited excerpt in the October 9, 2000, New Yorker, Tierney suggested that in 1968 Chagnon and geneticist James Neel might have started or exacerbated a measles outbreak among the Yanomamo by giving them a flawed vaccine. Meanwhile defenders of Chagnon denounced Tierney’s book as a “hoax.”

I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.

I responded that I could not discuss a review with them prior to publication. (Only Dennett persisted in questioning my intentions, and I finally had to tell him, rudely, to leave me alone. I am reconstructing these exchanges from memory; I did not print them out.) I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon so much as the sociobiology paradigm–that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness to be read and discussed, to get a hearing. After all, Tierney leveled what I found to be credible accusations against not only Chagnon but also other scientists and journalists.

My November 12, 2000, review of Darkness pointed out flaws, notably a lack of adequate evidence for the charges involving the 1968 measles epidemic. But I concluded that the faults of Tierney’s book were “outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field studies.”

I have one major regret concerning my review: I should have noted that Chagnon is a much more subtle theorist of human nature than Tierney and other critics have suggested. In fact, Chagnon has never been as much of a genetic determinist as, say, Wilson or anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who have cited Chagnon’s work as evidence that warfare has deep biological roots. (See my rebuttal of this hypothesis here.)

I first interviewed Chagnon in 1988, after Science published his report that Yanamamo killers fathered more offspring than male non-killers. Chagnon was funny and profane. He called non-killers “wimps,” and he denounced his detractors as left-wing peaceniks clinging to the “myth of the noble savage.” But when it came to the theoretical implications of his work, he chose his words with surprising care.

Saying he had been falsely accused of claiming that there is a “warfare gene,” he denied that Yanomamo warriors are innately warlike. He noted that Yanomamo headmen usually employed violence in a controlled manner; compulsively violent males often did not live long enough to bear children. Yanomamo males engaged in raids and other violent behavior, Chagnon proposed, not out of instinct but because their culture esteemed violent behavior. Many Yanomamo warriors had confessed to Chagnon that they loathed war and wished it could be abolished from their culture.

Chagnon reiterated this view when I interviewed him for “The New Social Darwinists,” a critique of evolutionary psychology published in Scientific American in October 1995. 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. I included this quote in “The New Social Darwinists.”

Darkness in Eldorado did not reveal these subtleties in Chagnon’s thinking, nor did my review of the book. After my review was published, the editor-in-chief of The Times Book Review called to say he’d gotten many responses to my review but one stood out: a letter signed by Dawkins et al. The editor asked if I wanted to respond to the letter and I said sure. Here is an edited version of the exchange:

To the Editor:

In Darkness in El Dorado, Patrick Tierney accuses scientists of inciting lethal violence among the Yanomami and deliberately or negligently spreading a devastating epidemic among them. These are extraordinary charges, and call for a serious evaluation. Your reviewer, John Horgan, writes only that Tierney ”should have worked harder” to prove them. He failed to mention that the charges have been examined in detail and shown to be false. The National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have consulted the historians, physicians, epidemiologists, filmmakers and anthropologists with firsthand knowledge of the events in Tierney’s book, and they have systematically refuted its accusations….” Richard Dawkins, Oxford, England. Daniel C. Dennett, Medford, Mass. Marc Hauser, Cambridge, Mass. Steven Pinker,
Cambridge, Mass. 
E. O. Wilson,
Cambridge, Mass.

John Horgan replies:

Richard Dawkins et al. are understandably concerned about the impact of Darkness in El Dorado on the reputation of Darwinian social science. But as representatives of that enterprise, they risk further damaging its reputation–and exposing themselves as defenders not of truth but of sociobiological dogma–by declaring that Tierney’s book has been ”systematically refuted.” The evidence they cite comes not from impartial evaluations of Darkness but from partisan attacks… Tierney’s book raises painful, embarrassing questions about how scientists and journalists have treated isolated, indigenous people. I believe that in the long run, science and journalism — and the human objects of their observations — will benefit if these questions are faced rather than suppressed. “

I still stand by that statement, and by my review of Darkness. I’m only sorry that my review did not point out the irony that Chagnon—unlike some of his hard-core Darwinian champions and like many of his critics—rejects the view of war as an instinct. However else Chagnon is judged, science, I am confident, will eventually confirm his view of war.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. syzygyygyzys 10:12 am 02/19/2013

    After reading comment 1, It appears that the Yanomami have a poor understanding of the English language and can’t do math. To their credit however, they can hot-wire a Bugatti and now have internet access.

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  2. 2. StephenCorry 1:31 pm 02/19/2013

    This article is important. It’s tragic that the myth of the Brutal Savage should be rearing its head once again, and backed by such prominent authors, such as Diamond and Pinker – all using Chagnon as a key source. It’s not scientific, not true and hurts a lot of people.

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  3. 3. drglennking 2:38 pm 02/19/2013

    I want to add a personal note about the atmosphere in which Chagnon presented his findings. After hearing a paper at an American Anthropological Association meeting, I suggested that it might be worthwhile to do research on why some cultural anthropologists were so vehement in their rejection of sociobiology. Instead of receiving an answer, I was accused of being a Nazi (which was applauded. Much more recently, in the newsletter of the AAA, an archeologist equated sociobiologists with the Ku Klux Klan. Hearing or reading some critiques of sociobiology by cultural anthropologists is like listening to Fox News. They are indeed a dangerous tribe. A comment made above is also appropriate here. Fanatic left-wing criticisms of human behavioral evolution studies (not just sociobiology) are not scientific and they hurt a lot of people.

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  4. 4. centromere 6:59 pm 02/19/2013

    As it has been few years now, I may be shooting wide of the mark, but if I do recall correctly, this type of “toe the party line” aggressiveness experienced by Mr. Hogan was of the kind Dr. Mann et al. from the University of East Anglia used to apply to those who strayed too far from orthodoxy.

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  5. 5. voyager 7:27 pm 02/19/2013

    An admitted, nay avowed hockey-player, denying the innate violence of men…. Contradiction or patent hypocrisy or what?

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  6. 6. clacroix 8:25 pm 02/19/2013

    A good and balanced article. I am reminded of Herbert Spencer’s dictum:

    ‘A sad race of im*eciles would our schemers fill the world with, could their plans last. A sorry kind of human constitution would they make for us-a constitution lacking the power to uphold itself, and requiring to be kept alive by superintendence from without-a constitution continually going wrong, and needing to be set right again-a constitution even tending to self-destruction. Why the whole effort of nature is to get rid of such-to clear the world of them and make room for better.’

    could their plans last..

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  7. 7. JasonAntrosio 8:44 pm 02/19/2013

    Hi John, thank you for these reflections. I agree they indeed reveal some layers of weird irony. However, for me it raises more questions: do you still find Chagnon to be a more subtle theorist today than in this 1988-2000 period, or do you believe the post-2000 period altered this subtlety? I ask because in none of the current interviews, profiles, or reviews of the current book do I find this distancing, reference to culture, or kind words for someone like Gould.

    I also wonder why Chagnon ever thought that a group of people practicing slash-and-burn horticulture with steel axes were some sort of window into human nature or even human evolutionary history. Did he miss the “Man the Hunter” conference with Richard Lee, Marshall Sahlins, et al.? It’s not like those issues weren’t on the table in the 1960s.

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  8. 8. bricology 5:08 pm 02/20/2013

    Stephen Corry wrote “It’s tragic that the myth of the Brutal Savage should be rearing its head once again…It’s not scientific, not true and hurts a lot of people.”

    The irony is that far more people are hurt by the myth of the Noble Savage. For just one example, you should look into the practices of the various tribes of Papua New Guinea (Etoro, Baruya, et al) that force boys as young as 7 or 8 into years of being sodomized by their elders and being forced to drink their semen.

    Oh, but who are we to judge? Let’s just allow those noble tribesmen to continue to institutionally rape their children. To do otherwise would be to be culturally insensitive.

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  9. 9. Asgard 5:22 pm 02/20/2013

    Tierney’s claims about Chagnon have indeed been systematically refuted. Dawkins et al. are right on this. The most recent systematic review is Alice Dreger’s 2011 article published in Human Nature. She is neither partisan nor “a dogmatic sociobiologist.” Horgan strives hard to present the sociobiologists as fanatical dogmatists but the weird irony is that he is the dogmatist himself. Just take a look at his insistent misunderstandings and distortions of the sociobiologists’ views in the last decade.

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  10. 10. diane47 4:40 am 02/21/2013

    Perhaps you would like to review Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature” and then reconsider whether evolutionary psychologists “emphasize the genetic underpinnings of warfare and other human behaviors and downplay cultural factors”.

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  11. 11. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 6:59 pm 02/22/2013

    I did review it, for Slate,

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  12. 12. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 7:07 pm 02/22/2013

    Yup, there’s anti-sociobiological tribalism, but there’s plenty on the other side too.

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  13. 13. Survival International 12:39 pm 02/26/2013

    Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on the Chagnon debate, and how Chagnon’s work has been disastrous for the tribe.

    Visit for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami. They ‘disagree with Napoleon Chagnon’s public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. [and] deplore how Chagnon’s work has been used throughout the years – and could still be used – by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.’

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  14. 14. Thursday 8:00 pm 02/27/2013

    OK, but all this just brings up the question of why humans took so easily and enthusiastically to war once it was introduced? Surely there has to be some background in our genes for that to be possible.

    For example, there are studies of people fantasizing about killing others quite frequently. I am doubtful that that is recent trait and would think it would have been acted on more in a stateless society.

    One also has to wonder at how easily people form us vs. them groups.

    In other words, there had to be pre-existing traits that would enable us to come up with warfare, and those traits would have had to have been in use before war was allegedly invented 10 000 years ago.

    IIRC, we also have known instances of ethnic cleansing where one tribe pushes another out with little genetic mixture, such as the Inuit pushing out the Dene from the far north. Whether or not we can find fossils with evidence of violence, I can’t imagine that that was a peaceful process or simply involved individuals fighting other individuals.

    I take the point that at low population densities people will fight less. After all, if you have a choice between fighting and moving to land that is as or almost as good as what you’re leaving behind, of course you’d move rather than fight.

    But that is a fairly trivial observation. As soon as there was something worth fighting over, whether territory or nearby young women, humans seem to have fought over it. That should tell you something.

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  15. 15. Thursday 8:03 pm 02/27/2013

    As others have pointed out, species vary considerably in how aggressive they are when placed in close proximity with strangers.

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  16. 16. Thursday 8:10 pm 02/27/2013

    I also have to wonder if it is any surprise that our propensity for violence (which I don’t think our host would deny), plus our tendency to form groups to help us get what we want, would come together to create coalitional violence. While obviously not inevitable in all circumstance, given that both such things have deep roots in our species, it doesn’t seem surprising that they have come together so often.

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