[Marxism] Book review of Chagnon memoir

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 17 12:20:21 MST 2013

What a pleasant surprise. It got ripped to shreds in the right-leaning 
NY Times book review section. It must really be awful!

NY Times Sunday Book Review February 15, 2013
Tribal Warfare


My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists
By Napoleon A. Chagnon
Illustrated. 531 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50.

As I read “Noble Savages,” Napoleon A. Chagnon’s memoir of his years 
among the Yanomamö, an isolated Amazonian tribe, I started hearing Linda 
Ronstadt’s cover of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” first as a low background 
hum that grew louder and more insistent across the book’s 500-plus pages.

For the uninitiated, Chagnon is an American anthropologist whose 1968 
book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which argued that “primitive” people 
didn’t live in the peaceable societies Rousseau had imagined but instead 
fought bitterly, put him at the center of several long-­running 
controversies. In “Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), the writer Patrick 
Tierney claimed that Chagnon and his research partner, the geneticist 
James V. Neel, exacerbated the 1968 measles epidemic among the Yanomamö; 
and that Chagnon aggravated the violence he claimed was endemic by 
distributing machetes and guns as payment to his informants.

The American Anthropological Association convened a special task force 
to look into the accusations. Its two-­volume report concluded that 
while Chagnon may have misrepresented the Yanomamö, no evidence backed 
up the measles allegations. The committee was split over whether Neel’s 
fervor for observing the “differential fitness of headmen and other 
members of the Yanomami population” through vaccine reactions 
constituted the use of the Yanomamö as a Tuskegee-­like experimental 

Heavy charges, grave deliberations, fraught conclusions: what better 
context for a meditation on how truth is produced in the social 
sciences? But while “Noble Savages” — a lively and paranoid romp through 
the thick jungles of the Amazon and the thicker tangles of academic and 
religious intrigue — might generate more publicity for Chagnon, I doubt 
it will do his reputation much good.

Portraying himself as an innocent caught between two dangerous tribes, 
Chagnon spares no perceived enemy, including, it seems, the people on 
whose backs he built his career. Perhaps it’s politically correct to 
wonder whether the book would have benefited from opening with a serious 
reflection on the extensive suffering and substantial death toll among 
the Yanomamö in the wake of the measles outbreak, whether or not Chagnon 
bore any responsibility for it. Does their pain and grief matter less 
even if we believe, as he seems to, that they were brutal Neolithic 
remnants in a land that time forgot? For him, the “burly, naked, sweaty, 
hideous” Yanomamö stink and produce enormous amounts of “dark green 
snot.” They keep “vicious, underfed growling dogs,” engage in brutal 
“club fights” and — God forbid! — defecate in the bush. By the time the 
reader makes it to the sections on the Yanomamö’s political 
organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the 
argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real 
disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating 
Chagnon’s soiled image.

But the problems bedeviling “Noble Savages” are not the stinking 
“primitives” or the politically correct academy, but the book’s 
Manichaean rhetorical structure, simplistic representation of the 
discipline and questionable syllogisms. This final problem is especially 
acute given that Chagnon contends that cultural anthropology lacks a 
rigorous evidence-based scientific outlook. In “Noble Savages,” the good 
guys and bad guys are easy to discern. Marxists and cultural 
anthropologists are, by definition, bad. Rousseau was wrong and is bad. 
Hobbes got it right and is good. “Sinister” Salesian Catholic 
missionaries have been out to get Chagnon ever since he refused their 
request to murder one of their own, who fathered a child with a local 
woman, and for revealing that they were distributing shotguns among the 
tribe. (When Chagnon handed out guns, he suggests, he inconvenienced 
himself, not the Yanomamö.) The Yanomamö are a deceitful, stubborn and 
murderous people. “Real” scientists are always good, and Chagnon is 
eager to convince us he is a real scientist, exploding myths and 
speaking truth to power. Yet his arguments in this book rely on slippery 
qualifications, dubious presumptions and nonreplicable claims. Chagnon’s 
findings can’t be tested since, as he takes pains to remind us, most 
contemporary Yanomamö are now “acculturated,” their “wild” eyes dimmed.

Obviously one doesn’t have to be among “Stone Age warriors” to be 
mortally threatened, attacked by bugs or lack a proper coffee maker. But 
you cannot experience Chagnon’s fantastic journey to the heart of 
darkness unless you believe, as he does, that you are peering across 
eons of time. Ditto with his core set of rhetorical syllogisms: (a) 
Neolithic man was a Hobbesian creature brutally competing for Darwinian 
reproductive advantage; (b) the Yanomamö are Neolithic men who desire 
women; therefore, (c) the Yanomamö are competing for reproductive 
advantage. But paying attention to desire and sexuality need not entail 
a theoretical paradigm of reproductive fitness. A different set of 
presuppositions would lead you elsewhere.

And what of these “primitives,” who “duck-waddled in closer and wiggled 
in to have their feel” of their first white man? Leave aside the 
contrasting comparative data from other societies: we discover midway 
through the memoir that a “jungle grapevine” had long ago sent very 
accurate portraits of him to far distant groups. Surely bush telegraphs 
also conveyed word of what was likely to occur when white men showed up 
with guns and machetes. And yet, perhaps knowing this all too well, the 
Yanomamö look after Chagnon when he is stranded or in need. Like most 
people, the Yanomamö seem to combine forms of care with those of violence.

No doubt facing public accusations of large-scale wrongdoing must be 
harrowing. But “Noble Savages” starts by backing out of one tragedy only 
to end in another. It is less an exposé of truth than an act of revenge. 
If your belief in your culture’s superiority is founded on thinking of 
other societies as prehistoric time capsules, then you will enjoy this 
book. If not, say a requiem for the trees and make an offering to the 
pulp mill.

Elizabeth Povinelli is a professor of anthropology and gender studies at 
Columbia University. She is the author, most recently, of “Economies of 
Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism.”

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