Napoleon Chagnon, the controversial anthropologist, whose work provoked fierce debates about the roots of war, has died at the age of 81. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on his career, which once intersected with mine in a dramatic way, about which I feel some regret.*

First, some background. In 1964, as a 26-year-old graduate student, Chagnon began studying the Yanomamö, a polygynous tribal people who forage, garden and hunt in the rain forests of Amazonia, near the border of Venezuela and Brazil. Chagnon had sought out the Yanomamö, one of the few isolated tribes left in the world, hoping to discover clues to human evolution. He recalled his first encounter as follows:

I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils-strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins…What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you?.. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from physics and engineering in the first place.

Chagnon survived this inauspicious meeting. He discovered later that he had arrived right after a fight over women between these men and those in a neighboring village. Yanomamö males, Chagnon learned subsequently, were almost comically violent. To resolve disputes, or even just for sport, men in the same village whacked each other over the head with enormous clubs until one combatant quit or was knocked cold. Men displayed the lumps and scars on their heads like status symbols.

Less amusingly, Yanomamö men from different villages also attacked each other in lethal raids. These conflicts usually stemmed from disputes over “reproductive resources”--that is, females. Typically, men from one village would kidnap a female from another village, triggering a Hatfields-McCoys-style feud, in which men killed to avenge past killings and scarcely remembered how the war had started.

Chagnon’s riveting 1968 account of his field work, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, surpassed Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa to become the bestselling work of ethnography ever. The book’s success was perhaps not surprising, since Chagnon packed it with tales of sex, violence and drugs. (The Yanomamö intoxicate themselves with tobacco as well as a hallucinogenic snuff.)

Published at the height of the Vietnam War, Chagnon’s book seemed to rebut the Rousseau-ian proposition that prior to civilization, humans were “noble savages” living in harmony with each other. 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 1988 Chagnon made headlines again with a report in Science that Yanomamö killers, called “unokai,” had twice as many wives and three times as many children as nonkillers. This finding implied that natural selection might have favored men with a predisposition to violence before the rise of civilization. Although his claims were challenged, I found them persuasive enough to write a positive report on them for Scientific American in 1988.

In 2000, I wrote about Chagnon again, after the New York Times Book Review asked me to review Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by journalist Patrick Tierney. The book contained allegations of misconduct by scientists and journalists scrutinizing the Yanomamö. Tierney’s chief villain was Chagnon, whom Tierney accused of projecting his belligerent personality onto the Yanomamö and of inciting their violence.

Tierney's book made headlines even before it was published. In an edited excerpt in the New Yorker, Tierney suggested that in 1968 Chagnon and geneticist James Neel might have started or exacerbated a measles outbreak among the Yanomamö by giving them a flawed vaccine. In Slate, evolutionary psychologist John Tooby denounced Tierney's book as "fiction" and an apparent "hoax." 

I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Edward Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. They had learned (none said how, although I suspected via a friend 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. I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon per se but the sociobiology paradigm--that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness 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 in the book, notably a lack of adequate evidence for the charges involving the 1968 measles epidemic. But I concluded that the book’s faults 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 was a much more subtle theorist of human nature than Tierney and other critics had suggested. In fact, Chagnon was never as much of a genetic determinist as, say, biologist Edward Wilson or anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who cited Chagnon's work as evidence that warfare has deep biological roots.

I liked Chagnon. When I interviewed him in 1988, after Science published his report that Yanamamo killers fathered more offspring than non-killers, he was funny and profane. He called Yanomamö non-killers "wimps," and he denounced his detractors as left-wing peaceniks. 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 Yanomamö warriors are innately warlike. He noted that Yanomamö headmen generally employed violence in a controlled manner; compulsively violent males often did not live long enough to father children. Yanomamö males engaged in raids and other violent behavior, Chagnon proposed, not out of instinct but because their culture esteemed violent behavior. Many Yanomamö 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," he said.

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—rejected the view of war as an instinct. 

One final story. In 2008, while I was working on an article about the roots of war, I reached out to Chagnon by email. I wrote:

I would very much like to talk to you further about your views, and particularly the relevance of your Yanomamo work to the question of whether war is inevitable, in our genes, etc. I would certainly understand if you are suspicious of me, given my review of the Tierney book. All I can say is, I called it as I saw it at the time. My major regret is that I did not indicate in the review that, based on our conversations over the years, your views of the role of biology in warfare are much more subtle and less gene-centric than your critics usually claim. That's what I'd like to discuss with you now. Can I call you? … I think it's very important for your legacy for your true views on warfare to be known.

Chagnon declined my offer. He replied:

I just re-read your review of Tierney’s book  in the NYT (and Richard Dawkins’ letter to the Editor about your review). You need not bother to call me about an interview… Your apparent altruistic and selfless concern about my ‘legacy’ suggests that you should read some of Trivers’ works on the evolution of deception and self-deception...or even Mark Twain on why some lies are more effective than others: the only effective lie is the sincere lie.

Chagnon’s distrust and anger were all too understandable. However else he is judged, science, I am confident, will eventually confirm his subtle, non-deterministic view of war.

[*This column includes material from my previous writings on Chagnon.]

Further Reading

Is "Sociobiologist" Napoleon Chagon Really a Disciple of Margaret Mead?

New Study of Foragers Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

Meta-Post: Posts on War and Peace

For a detailed critique of Chagnon’s research, and its alleged support for the claim that war is innate, see anthropologist Brian Ferguson’s 2015 paper “History, explanation, and war among the Yanomami.”

See also my portrait of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers (mentioned by Chagnon above) in my free online book Mind-Body Problems.