[Marxism] Sociobiologist defends Chagnon

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 19 07:57:27 MST 2013

This puff piece, which refers to Chagnon's hostility to Marxism, was 
written by the author of "The Faith Instinct", a typical evolutionary 
psychology book.

NY Times February 18, 2013
An Anthropologist’s War Stories

What were our early ancestors really like as they accomplished the 
transition from hunter-gathering bands to more complex settled 
societies? The anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon may have come closest 
to the answer in his 35-year study of a remarkable population, the 
Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil.

His new book, “Noble Savages,” has three themes. First, it is a 
beautifully written adventure story of how Dr. Chagnon learned to 
survive in an entirely alien culture and environment, among villages 
locked in perpetual warfare and jaguars that would stalk his tracks 
through the jungle. Second, it describes the author’s gradual piecing 
together of how Yanomamö society actually works, a matter of great 
relevance to recent human evolution. Third, it recounts his travails at 
the hands of the American Anthropological Association.

Most tribes studied by anthropologists have lost much of their culture 
and structure under Western influences. In the 1960s, when Dr. Chagnon 
first visited them, the Yanomamö were probably as close as could be to 
people living in a state of nature. Their warfare had not been 
suppressed by colonial powers. They had been isolated for so long, even 
from other tribes in the Amazon, that their language bears little or no 
relationship to any other. Consisting of some 25,000 people, living in 
250 villages, the Yanomamö cultivated plantains, hunted wild animals and 
raided one another incessantly.

Trained as an engineer before taking up anthropology, Dr. Chagnon was 
interested in the mechanics of how the Yanomamö worked. He perceived 
that kinship was the glue that held societies together, so he started to 
construct an elaborate genealogy of the Yanomamö (often spelled Yanomani.)

The genealogy took many years, in part because of the Yanomamö taboo on 
mentioning the names of the dead. When completed, it held the key to 
unlocking many important features of Yanomamö society. One of Dr. 
Chagnon’s discoveries was that warriors who had killed a man in battle 
sired three times more children than men who had not killed.

His report, published in Science in 1988, set off a storm among 
anthropologists who believed that peace, not war, was the natural state 
of human existence. Dr. Chagnon’s descriptions of Yanomamö warfare had 
been bad enough; now he seemed to be saying that aggression was rewarded 
and could be inherited.

A repeated theme in his book is the clash between his empirical findings 
and the ideology of his fellow anthropologists. The general bias in 
anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes. 
His colleagues insisted that the Yanomamö were fighting over material 
possessions, whereas Dr. Chagnon believed the fights were about 
something much more basic — access to nubile young women.

In his view, evolution and sociobiology, not Marxist theory, held the 
best promise of understanding human societies. In this light, he writes, 
it made perfect sense that the struggle among the Yanomamö, and probably 
among all human societies at such a stage in their history, was for 
reproductive advantage.

Men form coalitions to gain access to women. Because some men will be 
able to have many wives, others must share a wife or go without, 
creating a great scarcity of women. This is why Yanomamö villages 
constantly raid one another.

The raiding over women creates a more complex problem, that of 
maintaining the social cohesion required to support warfare. A major 
cause of a village’s splitting up is fights over women. But a smaller 
village is less able to defend itself against larger neighbors. The most 
efficient strategy to keep a village both large and cohesive through 
kinship bonds is for two male lineage groups to exchange cousins in 
marriage. Dr. Chagnon found that this is indeed the general system 
practiced by the Yanomamö.

After overtaxing one of his informants, the shaman Dedeheiwä, about the 
reason for a succession of village fissions into smaller hostile groups, 
Dr. Chagnon found himself rebuked with the outburst, “Don’t ask such 
stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!”

During his years of working among the Yanomamö, Dr. Chagnon fell into 
cross purposes with the Salesians, the Catholic missionary group that 
was the major Western influence in the Yanomamö region. Instead of 
traveling by canoe and foot to the remote Yanomamö villages, the 
Salesians preferred to induce the Yanomami to settle near their mission 
sites, even though it exposed them to Western diseases to which they had 
little or no immunity, Dr. Chagnon writes. He also objected to the 
Salesians’ offering the Yanomamö guns, which tribe members used to kill 
one another as well as for hunting.

The Salesians and Dr. Chagnon’s academic enemies saw the chance to join 
forces against him when the writer Patrick Tierney published a book, 
“Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), accusing Dr. Chagnon and the well-known 
medical geneticist James V. Neel of having deliberately caused a measles 
epidemic among the Yanomamö in 1968.

On the basis of these accusations, two of Dr. Chagnon’s academic critics 
denounced him to the American Anthropological Association, comparing him 
with the Nazi physician Josef Mengele. The association appointed a 
committee that, though it cleared Dr. Chagnon of the measles charge, was 
nevertheless hostile, accusing him of going against the Yanomamös’ 

In 2005, the association’s members voted by a 2-to-1 margin to rescind 
acceptance of the committee’s report. But the damage was done. Dr. 
Chagnon’s opponents in Brazil were able to block further research trips. 
His final years of research on the Yanomamö were disrupted.

In 2010 the A.A.A. voted to strip the word “science” from its long-range 
mission plan and focus instead on “public understanding.” Its distaste 
for science and its attack on Dr. Chagnon are now an indelible part of 
its record.

Dr. Chagnon’s legacy, on the other hand, is that he was able to gain a 
deep insight into the last remaining tribe living in a state of nature. 
“Noble Savages” is a remarkable testament to an engineer’s 35-year 
effort to unravel the complex working of an untouched human society.

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