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Is “Sociobiologist” Napoleon Chagnon Really a Disciple of Margaret Mead?

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


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Before I get to Margaret Mead, a bit of breaking news about the Napoleon Chagnon controversy, the subject of my previous post. Chagnon and his supporters have described his election last year to the National Academy of Sciences as “vindication,” as The New York Times Magazine put it. Now Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, has resigned from the NAS to protest Chagnon’s election, as well as NAS involvement in military research.

Explaining his resignation, Sahlins told Inside Higher Education, “By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research.” Sahlins leveled similar charges against Chagnon in 2000 in a review of Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney. Sahlins seems to be an old-style lefty peacenik, which isn’t easy in our militaristic, ultra-Darwinian age. (See also anthropologist Alex Golub‘s comments on the Sahlin resignation.)

Chagnon advocates have cited a 2011 paper by bioethicist Alice Dreger as further “vindication” of Chagnon. But to my mind Dreger’s paper—which wastes lots of verbiage bragging about all the research that she’s done and about how close she has gotten to Chagnon–generates far more heat than light. She provides some interesting insights into Tierney’s possible motives in writing Darkness in El Dorado, but she leaves untouched most of the major issues raised by Chagnon’s career.

But Dreger unwittingly highlights more ironies in a controversy chock-full of them: Dreger, who has defended Margaret Mead (as I did in a 2010 post) against the vicious attacks on her by anthropologist Derek Freeman, compares Freeman’s assaults on Mead to Tierney’s on Chagnon. Here’s one irony: Mead of course embodied the kind of progressive cultural anthropology that Chagnon supposedly opposed.

But as I said in my last post, Chagnon denied simplistic claims that warfare is a genetic, instinctive behavior. Chagnon also rejected the linkage of war to competition over food and other resources. This old Marxist idea has become popular lately among green activists such as Bill McKibben, but the evidence for it is poor, as I have pointed out previously. Chagnon found that Yanamamo tribes tended to be more warlike when they had more food, as if they had more energy for fighting.

Chagnon, when he’s being especially Chagnon-ish, likes to say that Yanomamo males fought over females, or as one of his sources put it, “Women women women women!” Illness leading to accusations of sorcery was another common trigger of violence. But in his 1992 book Yanomamo: The Last Days of Eden, Chagnon proposed that lethal raids were perpetuated by fear of war and desire for revenge. In other words, the primary cause of Yanomamo war was war itself.

He wrote: “Most wars are prolonged by motives of revenge stemming from earlier hostilities.” And: “Almost everyone, including the Yanomamo, regards war as repugnant and would prefer that it not exist. Like us, they are more than willing to quit—if the bad guys also quit. If we could get rid of all the bad guys, there wouldn’t be any war.” Of course, the “bad guys” say the same thing about their enemies. The implication is that we are trapped by our own self-perpetuating militaristic culture.

Mead presented a remarkably similar view of war in her 1940 essay “Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity,” which argued that war stems primarily not from instinct or resource competition but from war itself. War is “an invention,” Mead said, a cultural innovation, like cooking, marriage, writing, burial of the dead or trial by jury. Once a society becomes exposed to the “idea” of war, it “will sometimes go to war” under certain circumstances.

Some people, Mead stated, such as the Pueblo Indians, fight reluctantly to defend themselves against aggressors; others, such as the Plains Indians, sally forth with enthusiasm, because they have elevated martial skills to the highest of manly virtues; fighting bravely is the best way for a young man to achieve prestige and “win his sweetheart’s smile of approval.” For a more detailed defense of Mead’s theory, see my 2010 post, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory: “Margaret Mead’s war theory kicks butt of neo-Darwinian and Malthusian models.”

Final irony: Mead is a favorite whipping girl of modern sociobiologists, including some prominent defenders of Chagnon. Yet according to Dreger, Mead once “vocally objected to attempts to ban a session on sociobiology at a [American Anthropological Association] meeting that Chagnon had organized.” Maybe Mead–unlike other progressive cultural anthropologists, such as Marshall Sahlins–recognized Chagnon as, potentially, a kindred spirit.

Photos of Chagnon (top, with Yanomamo man) and Mead courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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. voyager 4:09 pm 02/27/2013

    Amazing there have been no comments. So a non-scientist can speak into the void, with some confidence. Both sides take the existence of aggression as a starting point. Well, if it’s there, then the only reason it got there is because natural selection has approved of it through time, world-wide. Whether the selection is through cultural survival or not, the persistence has to be through individuals’ inheritance.

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  2. 2. abolitionist 10:14 pm 02/27/2013

    Perhaps this merely illuminates my ignorance of the subject material, but this intellectual fracas reminds me of nothing as much as Swift’s Big-Endians versus Little-Endians.

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  3. 3. phalaris 2:02 am 02/28/2013

    “Amazing there have been no comments” : a perusal of Horgan’s earlier posts on the theme shows that this is a field the tough-minded alone.

    When he alleges that war was invented c. 15000 BP and asks :
    “…..why war spread so rapidly around the world after its initial invention….” (from http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=margaret-meads-war-theory-kicks-but-2010-11-08), the absurdity is almost palpable.

    When matters of definition, plausibility and evidence count for nothing, it’s best to leave it to others.

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  4. 4. Survival International 5:23 am 02/28/2013

    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 http://www.survivalinternational.org//articles/3272 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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  5. 5. Shmoe 11:38 am 03/1/2013

    Wow, I’m really impressed with your balanced coverage of this kerfuffle, John! Particularly, given your “peacenik” leanings. Also, putting Mead and Chagnon in the same boat, vis-a-vis the wider scientific community, is kinda delicious. You may be a dirty hippy, but you’re an intellectually honest one! Looking forward to your next Bloggingheads! Cheers!

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