[Marxism] Marshall Sahlins on resigning from the NAS

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 14 16:02:15 MDT 2013

LRB Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013

Human Science
Marshall Sahlins

In late February I resigned in protest from the US National Academy of 
Sciences (NAS) on two grounds. The first was the academy’s recruitment 
of anthropologists to do research designed to improve the combat 
performance of the US military. One project would study the tactical 
operations of small units and their leaders in a variety of contexts 
including ‘major combat operations’; a second would develop methods for 
predicting individual and collective performance with a view to drawing 
up research agendas for the US Army Research Institute.

It turns out that in objecting to the complicity of the NAS in the 
operations of the US armed forces – which had inflicted so much harm on 
Iraqis, Afghans and Americans themselves over the past decade – I was 
naive. The only research under NAS aegis I had ever participated in 
concerned the fishing rights of native Alaskan communities. I didn’t 
learn until recently that the research arm of the academy, the National 
Research Council (NRC), had been established by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 
to study military preparedness.

The second of my grounds for protest was the election to the academy of 
Napoleon Chagnon. The serious harm Chagnon’s research has inflicted on 
native peoples of Amazonia through his discriminatory dealings with them 
and distorted representations, as well as his baseless claims that he 
practises a scientific ethnography, made my membership in the academy an 
even greater embarrassment. Chagnon has asserted that belligerence among 
the Yanomami is evidence of primordial human nature, a biological 
disposition of the species. In a notorious article published in Science 
in 1988, he set out to demonstrate the existence of natural selection 
for lethal aggression by showing that Yanomami warriors who had earned 
the coveted title of ‘killer’ had more offspring than those who had 
never slain an enemy. Among several methodological flaws invalidating 
this conclusion, Chagnon had omitted killers who were no longer living 
from his sample: the fact that, as he himself noted, killers are ‘prime 
targets’ for revenge means that their reproductive careers are often cut 
short. In any event, his claim that the Yanomami exemplify the original 
condition of mankind is preposterous. The Yanomami mode of existence in 
settled communities practising a mixed economy of agriculture and 
hunting is one or two million years removed from human cultural origins 
– though not altogether removed from the more recent influences of 
Andean and European civilisations. One could have chosen any number of 
equally bad examples, including Australian Aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen 
or Malaysian hunters, for whom as it happens, killing is not an 
estimable value.

Apparently unrelated, the two reasons for my resignation are in fact 
profoundly connected, insofar as Chagnon’s sociobiology of the selfish 
gene and the American global project of making the world safe for 
self-interest would impose cognate versions of Western individualism on 
the rest of humanity.

Chagnon poses as a champion of science and contemptuously dismisses his 
critics as ideologically driven. It’s once more to the epistemological 
breach: as they have periodically since the inception of their 
discipline, anthropologists are again abusing one another over whether 
or not they practise a natural science like physics or evolutionary 
biology. Those who believe they are engaged in a rigorous quest for 
objective truth accuse colleagues who think otherwise of indulging in 
postmodern babble or some other variety of soft-mindedness. The truth 
is, however, that the supposedly idealist anthropologists are just as 
committed to empirical investigation and to conclusions that will stand 
up to it, but their methods differ insofar as the cultural practices 
they study are different from the brute objects of the natural sciences.

When native Australians or New Guineans say that their totemic animals 
and plants are their kinsmen – that these species are persons like 
themselves, and that in offering them to others they are giving away 
part of their own substance – we have to take them seriously, which is 
to say empirically, if we want to understand the large consequences of 
these facts for how they organise their lives. The graveyard of 
ethnographic studies is strewn with the remains of reports which, thanks 
to anthropologists’ own presuppositions as to what constitutes empirical 
fact, were content to ignore or debunk the Amazonian peoples who said 
that the animals they hunted were their brothers-in-law, the Africans 
who described the way they systematically killed their kings when they 
became weak, or the Fijian chiefs who claimed they were gods. We have to 
follow the reasoning of those Australian Aboriginals for whom eating 
their own totem animals or plants would be something like incest or 
self-cannibalising, even as they ritually nourish and protect these 
species for other people’s use. We thus discover a society the opposite 
in principle of the bellicose state of nature that Hobbes posited as the 
primordial condition – an idea which is still too much with us. Of 
course the native Australians have known injurious disputes, most of 
them interpersonal. Yet instead of a Hobbesian ‘war of every man against 
every man’, each opposing others in his own self-interest, here is a 
society fundamentally organised on the premise of everyone giving 
himself to everyone.

In the earlier Germanic version of the natural science controversy, this 
human science alternative was called ‘understanding’, the implication 
being that the subject matter at issue was meaningfully or symbolically 
constructed, so that what was methodologically required was the 
penetration of its particular logic. The human scientist is not in a 
relation of a thinking person to a mute object of interest; rather, 
anthropologists and their like are of the same intellectual nature as 
the peoples they study: they are our alters and interlocutors. Indeed, 
inasmuch as these peoples are meaningfully making their modes of life, 
and inasmuch as we share the same capacities of symbolic invention and 
understanding, we have the possibility of knowing the cultures of others 
in ways that are in some respects more powerful than the ways natural 
scientists know physical objects. Radical as this claim may sound today, 
it goes back at least to the early 18th century, to the principle of 
‘the reciprocity of the made and the true’ as formulated by Giambattista 
Vico: what humans have constructed they can know truly, as opposed to 
natural things that are the work of God and are his alone to know. Or as 
Lévi-Strauss put it for his own discipline, ‘Of all the sciences, 
anthropology is without a doubt unique in making the most intimate 
subjectivity into a means of objective demonstration.’

By contrast, the more the natural scientist discovers about things, say 
the table at which I am working, the less such things are like anything 
in human thought or experience. Physics shows that there are spaces 
within and between the molecules of which it is constituted; and beyond 
that, at the level of quantum mechanics, our knowledge of things defies 
all common sense of space and time and can be expressed only in complex 
equations. We must accept, to take an elementary example, that the same 
object can be in two different places at the same time. ‘If you are not 
shocked by quantum physics,’ Niels Bohr is often quoted as having said, 
‘you don’t understand it.’

I don’t really understand it. Yet I do know that many peoples consider 
that brothers and sisters are composed of the same ancestral being. 
Actually, given our symbolic capacities, it’s easy for us to be in two 
different places at the same time. All you have to do is daydream. You 
could even share substance with or be related to yams, supposing, say, 
that they were growing in the same place as your ancestors were buried.

Natural science starts out with what is familiar and ends with something 
altogether remote; human science works the other way around. One may 
well begin with something so distant or unpleasant to us as cannibalism 
in the Fiji Islands in the 19th century, yet end up finding it ‘logical’ 
– which is, after all, a mental state of our own. In 1929, the British 
anthropologist A.M. Hocart recounted the formal speech of a Fijian chief 
presenting a reward to the carpenter who had built him a fine canoe. The 
chief apologised that he could not offer the carpenter a ‘cooked man’ or 
a ‘raw woman’, for Christianity, he explained, ‘has spoiled our feasts’. 
The ‘cooked man’ refers to an enemy cannibal victim, the ‘raw woman’ to 
a virgin daughter of the chief offered as a wife. One immediate 
anthropological question this poses is why the woman should be 
equivalent to the cannibal victim? The brief answer is that they have 
the same end or function, which is the beneficial reproduction of the 
society: the woman directly by bearing children, the cannibal victim as 
a sacrifice whose consumption in concert with the god procures divine 
benefits, notably in agricultural and human fertility. But then, the 
canoe for which these are appropriate payment is itself a sacred (taboo) 
vessel, carrying a temple on board as it is sailed in quest of foreign 
bodies in war or prized valuables in trade. Further, given the 
relationship of raw women to cooked men, one can understand why in some 
parts of Fiji a fine war club is a mandatory betrothal gift, in effect 
compensating the family for the future loss of their daughter by the 
anticipated gain of an enemy victim. Enough said? This cannibalism is 
becoming logical, and logic is something going on inside ourselves. A 
custom that at first seemed strange and remote has been assimilated and 
internalised, as our own good sense.

Since cultural practices are meaningfully constructed, and since we too 
are symbolising beings, we have the privilege of knowing others by 
reproducing in the operations of our own mind the ways they are 
culturally organised. The method and content of investigation are one: 
the most intimate subjectivity becomes the means of objective 
demonstration. Of course, this is not the only way of knowing others. We 
can also use our symbolic capacities to treat them as physical objects; 
and, as in archaeology, we can know them by their physical works. But we 
won’t get the same knowledge of the symbolically ordered ways of human 
life, of what culture is, or even the same empirical certainty.

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