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The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair

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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.

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

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