[Marxism] An Interview With Marshall Sahlins

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 26 10:34:22 MST 2013

Counterpunch February 26, 2013
An Interview With Marshall Sahlins
The Destruction of Conscience in the National Academy of Sciences

Last Friday, esteemed University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall 
Sahlins formally resigned from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), 
the United States’ most prestigious scientific society.

Sahlins states that he resigned because of his “objections to the 
election of [Napoleon] Chagnon, and to the military research projects of 
the Academy.” Sahlins was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 
1991.  He issued the below statement explaining his resignation:

     “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.  At the same time, his “scientific” claims 
about human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence–as in 
the notorious study he published in 1988 in Science–have proven to be 
shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological 
disciple. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and 
intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy. So much so 
that my own participation in the Academy has become an embarrassment.

     Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the 
NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat 
performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken 
on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the 
suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of 
this century.  I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in 
related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to 
make war.”

Napoleon Chagnon rose to fame after his fieldwork among the Yanomami 
(also known as Yanomamo) in the rainforests of northeastern South 
America’s Orinoco Basin in the 1960s and 70s.  He wrote a bestselling 
ethnography used in introductory anthropology classes around the world, 
describing the Yanomami as “the fierce people” because of the high 
levels of intra- and inter-group warfare observed during his fieldwork, 
warfare that he would describe as innate and as representing humankind 
in some sort of imagined natural state.

Chagnon, is currently basking in the limelight of a national book tour, 
pitching a memoir (Nobel Savages) in which he castes the bulk of 
American anthropologists as soft-skulled anti-science postmodern cretins 
embroiled in a war against science.

The truth is that outside of the distortion field of the New York Times 
and a few other media vortexes, there is no “science war” raging in 
anthropology.  Instead the widespread rejection of Chagnon’s work among 
many anthropologists has everything to do with the low quality of his 
research.  On his blog, Anthropomics, anthropologist Jon Marks recently 
described Chagnon as an “incompetent anthropologist,” adding:

     “Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His 
methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside 
the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the 
Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his 
observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce” 
he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated 
any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and 
racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the 
conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.”

The widely shared rejection of Chagnon’s interpretations among 
anthropologists comes from the shoddy quality of his work and the 
sociobiological nature of his analysis, not with an opposition to science.

Among Chagnon’s most dogged critics was my dissertation chair, 
anthropologist Marvin Harris, himself an arch positivist and a staunch 
advocate of the scientific method, yet Harris rejected Chagnon and his 
sociobiological findings in fierce academic debates that lasted for 
decades, not because Harris was anti-science, but because Chagnon was a 
bad scientist (I should note that Harris and Sahlins also famously 
feuded over fundamental theoretical differences; yet both shared common 
ground objecting to the militarization of the discipline, and rejecting 
Chagnon’s sociobiological work).

I suppose if there really were battles within anthropology between 
imagined camps embracing and rejecting science, I would be about as 
firmly in the camp of science as anyone; but if such divisions actually 
existed, I would be no closer to accepting the validity and reliability 
(the hallmarks of good science) of Chagnon’s findings than those 
imagined to reject the foundations of science.

In 2000, there was of course a huge painful crisis within the American 
Anthropological Association following the publication of Patrick 
Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, in which numerous accusations of 
exploitation (and worse) were leveled against Chagnon and other 
anthropologists working with the Yanomami (see Barbara Rose Johnston’s 
essay on the José Padilha’s film, Secrets of the Tribe). weaponprice 
Without detailing all the twists and turns involved in establishing  the 
wreckage of Chagnon and the paucity of his claims, suffice it to say 
that the choice of offering one of the select seats in the National 
Academy of Sciences’ Section 51 to Dr. Chagnon is an affront to a broad 
range of anthropologists, be they self-identified as scientists or not.

Marshall Sahlins’ resignation is an heroic stand against the subversion 
of science to those claiming an innate nature of human violence, and a 
stand opposing the increasing militarization of science.  While Sahlins’ 
credentials as an activist opposing the militarization of knowledge are 
well established—he is widely recognized as the creator of the 
“teach-in,” organizing the February 1965 University of Michigan 
teach-in—it still must have been difficult for him to resign this 
prestigious position.

In late 1965 Sahlins traveled to Vietnam to learn firsthand about the 
war and the Americans fighting it, work that resulted in his seminal 
essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.”   He became one of the 
clearest and most forceful anthropological voices speaking out against 
efforts (in the 1960s and 70s, and in again in post-9/11 America) to 
militarize anthropology.

In 2009 I was part of a conference at the University of Chicago 
critically examining renewed efforts by U.S. military and intelligence 
agencies to use anthropological data for counterinsurgency projects. 
Sahlins’ paper at the conference argued that, “in Vietnam, the famous 
anti-insurgency strategy was search and destroy; here it is research and 
destroy.  One might think it good news that the military’s appropriation 
of anthropological theory is incoherent, simplistic and outmoded – not 
to mention tedious – even as its ethnographic protocols for learning the 
local society and culture amount to unworkable fantasies. ”

Yesterday, Sahlins sent me an email that had been circulated to NAS 
Section 51 (Anthropology) members, announcing two new “consensus 
projects” under sponsorship of the Army Research Institute.  The first 
project examined “The Context of Military Environments: Social and 
Organizational Factors,”  the second, “Measuring Human Capabilities: 
Performance Potential of Individuals and Collectives.”   Reading the 
announcement of these projects forwarded by Sahlins, it is apparent that 
the military wants the help of social scientists who can streamline 
military operations, using social science and social engineering to 
enable interchangeable units of people working on military projects to 
smoothly interface.  This seems to be increasingly becoming the role 
Americans see for anthropologists and other social scientists: that of 
military facilitator.

Below is the exchange, I had with Sahlins yesterday discussing his 
resignation, Chagnon’s election to the National Academy of Sciences, and 
the Academy’s links to military projects.

Price:  How has Chagnon so successfully turned numerous attacks on his 
ethically troubling research and scientifically questionable methods and 
findings into what is widely seen as an attack on science itself?

Sahlins: There has been no address of the issues on Chagnon’s part, 
notably of the criticism of his supposed empirical results, as in the 
1988 Science article, and the numerous criticisms from Amazonian 
anthropologists of his shallow ethnography and villainously distorted 
portrayal of Yanomami.  These Cro-Chagnon scientists simply refuse to 
discuss the facts of the ethnographic case.  Instead they issue ad 
hominem attacks–before it was against the Marxists, now it is the 
‘fuzzy-headed humanists.’ Meanwhile they try to make it an ideological 
anti-science persecution–again ironically as a diversion from discussing 
the empirical findings.  Meanwhile the serious harm, bodily and 
emotionally, inflicted on the Yanomami, plus the reckless instigation of 
war by his field methods, are completely ignored in the name of science. 
Research and destroy, as I called the method. A total moral copout.

Price: Most of the publicity surrounding your resignation from the 
National Academy of Sciences focuses either exclusively on Napoleon 
Chagnon’s election to the Association, or on the supposed “science wars” 
in anthropology, while little media attention has focused on your 
statements opposing the NAS’s increasing links to military projects. 
What were the reactions within NAS Section 51 to the October 2012 call 
to members of the Academy to conduct research aimed at improving the 
military’s mission effectiveness?

Sahlins: The National Association of Science would not itself do the war 
research. It would rather enlist recruits from its sections–as in the 
section 51 memos–and probably thus participate in the vetting of reports 
before publication.  The National Research Council organizes the actual 
research, obviously in collaboration with the NAS. Here is another 
tentacle of the militarization of anthropology and other social 
sciences, of which the Human Terrain Systems is a familiar example. This 
one as insidious as it is perfidious.

Price: Was there any internal dialogue between members of NAS Section 51 
when these calls for these new Army Research Institute funded projects 
were issued?

Sahlins: I was not privy to any correspondence, whether to the Section 
officers or between the fellows, if there was any–which I don’t know.

Price: What, if any reaction have you had from other NAS members?

Sahlins: Virtually none. One said I was always opposed to sociobiology

Price: To combine themes embedded in Chagnon’s claims of human nature, 
and the National Academy of Sciences supporting to social science for 
American military projects; can you comment on the role of science and 
scientific societies in a culture as centrally dominated by military 
culture as ours?

Sahlins: There is a paragraph or two in my pamphlet on The Western 
Illusion of Human Nature, of which I have no copy on hand, which cites 
Rumsfeld to the effect (paraphrasing Full Metal Jacket) that inside 
every Middle eastern Muslim there’s an American ready to come out, a 
self-interested freedom loving American, and we just have to force it 
out or force out the demons who are perpetrating other ideas [see page 
42 of Sahlins; The Western Illusions of Human Nature].  Isn’t American 
global policy, especially neo-con policy, based on the confusion of 
capitalist greed and human nature? Just got to liberate them from their 
mistaken, externally imposed ideologies. For the alternative see the 
above mentioned pamphlet on the one true universal, kinship, and the 
little book I published last month: What Kinship Is–And Is Not.

Price: You mention a desire to shift funding streams from those offering 
military support, to those supporting peace.  Do you have any insight on 
how we can work to achieve this shift?

Sahlins:  I have not thought about it, probably because the idea that 
the National Academy of Sciences would so such a thing is essentially 
unthinkable today.

There is a rising international response supporting Sahlins’ stance. 
Marshall shared with me a message he received form Professor, Eduardo 
Viveiros de Castro, of the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, in which de 
Castro wrote,

     “Chagnon’s writings on the Yanomami of Amazonia have contributed 
powerfully to reinforce the worst prejudices against this indigenous 
people, who certainly do not need the kind of stereotyping 
pseudo-scientific anthropology Chagnon has chosen to pursue at their 
cost. The Yanomami are anything but the nasty, callous sociobiological 
robots Chagnon makes them look – projecting, in all likelihood, his 
perception of his own society (or personality) onto the Yanomami. They 
are an indigenous people who have managed, against all odds, to survive 
in their traditional ways in an Amazonia increasingly threatened by 
social and environmental destruction. Their culture is original, robust 
and inventive; their society is infinitely less “violent” than Brazilian 
or American societies.

     Virtually all anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, 
many of them with far larger field experience with this people than 
Chagnon, find his research methods objectionable (to put it mildly) and 
his ethnographic characterizations fantastic. Chagnon’s election to the 
NAS does not do honor to American science nor to anthropology as a 
discipline, and it also bodes ill to the Yanomami. As far as I am 
concerned, I deem Chagnon an enemy of Amazonian Indians. I can only 
thank Prof. Sahlins for his courageous and firm position in support of 
the Yanomami and of anthropological science.”

We are left to wonder what is to become of science, whether practiced 
with a capital (at times blind) “S” or a lower case inquisitive variety, 
when those questioning some its practices, misapplications and outcomes 
are increasingly marginalized, while those whose findings align with our 
broader cultural values of warfare are embraced.  The NAS’s rallying 
around such a divisive figure as Chagnon, demonizing his critics, 
claiming they are attacking not his practices and theories, but science 
itself damages the credibility of these scientists.  It is unfortunate 
that the National Academy of Sciences has backed itself into this corner.

The dynamics of such divisiveness are not unique to this small segment 
of the scientific community. In his 1966 essay on, “The Destruction of 
Conscience in Vietnam,” Sahlins argued that to continue wage the war, 
America had to destroy its own conscience—that facing those destroyed by 
our actions was too much for the nation to otherwise bare, writing: 
“Conscience must be destroyed: it has to end at the barrel of a gun, it 
cannot extend to the bullet.  So all peripheral rationales fade into the 
background.  It becomes a war of transcendent purpose, and in such a war 
all efforts on the side of Good are virtuous, and all deaths unfortunate 
necessary.  The end justifies the means.”

It is a tragic state of affairs when good people of conscience see the 
only acceptable act before them to be that of resignation; but sometimes 
the choice of disassociation is the strongest statement one can 
courageously make.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in 
Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social 
Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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