Napoleon the fourth - Chagnon's useful idiots

I've been reading, with maximum amusement, the usual ev psy useful idiots going gaga over Napoleon Chagnon's autobiography. The Dawkins to Pinker line is pretty hilarious - I will grant these people a certain scientific credit in their field, as why not? But they are, to say the least, the most credulous schoolboys on an outing ever when it comes to "primitive people". So I am going to reprint something I wrote in 2001, regarding Robin Fox, another ev psy stooge.

I read a rather dismal piece by the anthropologist Robin Fox today, in the London Review of Books. Fox, who is the head of the Anthropology department at Rutgers, reviewed the biography of Colin Turnbull, the man who studied the Ik and the Mbuti Pygmies. Turnbull's book on the Ik, The Mountain People, became famous in the seventies. It supposedly showed a people who had lost any claim to humanity - a people reduced, by starvation, perhaps, to an appalling, Hobbesian state of man against man (und Gott gegen alles). This view of the Ik was dramatized by Peter Brooks and was well propagated, even though it was based on a faulty observation of the Ik by an openly prejudiced man who advocated a form of cultural genocide being practiced against these people. 

Turnbull's earlier book about the Pygmies had stressed how good they were, in tacit comparison, especially, to the civilized Westerner. But the Mountain People, with its supposedly tough minded debunking of the Noble Savage myth, won the support of people like Robert Ardrey. In the seventies, along with the beginning of socio-biology, an anthropological school arose which claimed to be at once scientific and tough-minded about humankind. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox (the Rutgers Team) were early and vocal adherents of this school, and of course Ardrey was a big fellow travelor. They introduce each others books, they write about each other - you know, the clique thing. Napoleon Chagnon is another member in not so good standing, now - but his book on the Yanomamo expressed the world view of this ostensibly scientifically minded group rather well in the seventies. These people held that- when you look at primitive human groups - this group had no problem with the word primitive - you'll find violence and power struggles. You won't find cooperation or altruism. And that is how humans are. 

Now, one's immediate question is: why is the Hobbesian view more "scientific" than what Fox calls the Rousseauist view? That's a good question. In Fox's review of Turnbull, he contrasts the professional, scientific anthropologist with the subjectivism of the Margaret Mead's and Colin Turnbull's. He also sounds a note common to all the anthropologists of his tribe. It is that contemporary society is dominated by the view that human beings are innately good, and that this view is projected on primitive tribes to show that they have one or another outstanding virtue. 

Let's take the later claim first. My response to it is: are Fox and his kind out of their minds? His evidence for the idea that we believe in the innate goodness of human beings seems to come from desultory discussions in the faculty lounge. Maybe Fox should take a look at concrete, even, dare I say it, objective social phenomena and ask himself - does this reflect a society which believes in the innate goodness of man? The first exhibit, of course, would be the over one trillion dollars spent in this country alone to amass a tidy 20 to 40 thousand or so nuclear missiles, and the popular perception that this amount of weaponry can blow up the world. He might want to look at TV news casts - especially local newscasts - and add up how much news is devoted to violence, and how much to, say, works of charity. He might want to check out the standard curriculum of the American high school. In my day, it leaned heavily to Lord of the Flies kind of books - emphasizing a point which is obvious to the average adolecent, that we are born under a bad sign. Far from having disappeared, the notion of original sin, in this culture, has ramified itself in dozens of ways. In fact, this makes anthropological sense - the disappearance of a cultural trope as common in this culture as original sin really would be a surprise. 

Why would an anthropologist claim otherwise? The motif for this rhetorical move is resentment. It provides a story line in bad faith, casting such as Fox as embattled, or somehow minority, intellectuals - when in fact they are quite powerful, very networked intellectuals. It presents their opponents not only as wrong, but powerful - which of course creates the question characterstic of the politics of resentment -- how did the bad get to be powerful? There's a fascinating ritual here - a mimicry of victimage by people who are not, in any sense of the word, victims. But as this ritual plays out, increasingly any challenge to the Fox worldview is immediately interpreted as violence. In this way, a group which makes the claim to be scientific engages in a discourse that is anything but. 

Because Fox's review isn't on the Net, I'm not going to play ping pong with it on this post. Instead, lets go to another example of the misuse of the word science which is generally in keeping with the school of Fox, Tiger, et al. There's a piece in the April Scientific American that is a perfect expression of the use of science, and the connotations evoked by that word, to disguise a merely ideological construct. 

It was written by Michael Shermer, who labels himself as a Skeptic. If Shermer is a skeptic, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. 

Shermer mounts a defense of Napoleon Chagnon against a book published by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado. Tierney's book, briefly, attacks Chagnon for a number of reasons. 
1. He accuses Chagnon of provoking violence by the means he used to get information. 
2. He accuses Chagnon of being criminally careless in gathering together Yamomami Indians in 'festivals" that Chagnon filmed, knowing that some of the Indians were infected with measels. 
3. He subjects Chagnon's facts and figures to a long and complicated critique. This part of the book extends for a good one hundred pages, and even includes a humorous table showing the dates when Chagnon promised to supply his data for various article he has written, and the date when that data was actually revealed. The latter date is -- it hasn't been revealed yet. A considerable portion of Chagnon's data set, even from the seventies, has still not been made available to other researchers. 

Shermer begins his defense by his interpretation of Tierney's attack. He simplifies Tierney's points into one over-riding point: that Chagnon falsely labels the Yanomamo as Violent People. Here is Shermer's response. 

' Humans are not easily pigeonholed into such clear-cut categories. The nature and intensity of our behavior depend on a host of biological, social and historical variables. Chagnon understands this. Tierney does not. Thus, Darkness in El Dorado fails not just because he didn't get the story straight (there are countless factual errors and distortions in the book) but because the book is predicated on a misunderstanding of how science works and of the difference between anecdotes (on which Tierney's book is based) and statistical trends (on which Chagnon's book depends). " 

It is the last sentence I want to highlight here. Shermer's distinction is deeply meretricious, and, I think, syptomatic of how evolutionary anthropologists have distorted the word science. 

To say that Tierney's book is based on anecdotes is rather funny, especially when contrasted with "statistical trends." What are Chagnon's statistical trends? Well, when you track them down, they are... anecdotes. Chagnon collected a number of stories about murders. There are no police among the Yamomami - his stories about murders depend on informants. As do his other stories about violent acts. From this base, he produced his statistics. Schermer must believe that quantifying over stories given one by informants somehow transforms the anecdote into science. That belief is, to say the least, not very skeptical. 

In fact, the anecdote/science distinction is bogus, anyway. To report an occurence in a laboratory is, in one sense, to relate an anecdote. Hopefully, it is an anecdote that contains information that allows for the reconstruction of the occurence. Measurement alone is not science. I can count my fingers all day, but that doesn't make me a hand specialist. When Chagnon does quantify his research, they have a tendency to, let us say, exhibit grossly peculiar patterns. For instance, as Tierney shows, Chagnon's statistics on violence among the Yamomami show that violence among males INCREASES with age -- which, if true, would make the Yamomami a unique case. Or take the statistics on lineage based upon the blood samples taken by Chagnon and his partner, James Neel, in the sixties. According to Neel, these blood samples show a very low percentage of illegitimacy. That is, the husbands of Yamomami women usually turned out to be the real biological fathers of their children. Two things should be said about this. One is that the blood samples were taken before the technique of DNA fingerprinting was developed; so Neal and Chagnon necessarily had to use the much more unreliable blood type technique. But the other thing to say is -- what does legitimacy mean in a polyandrous society? Especially given Chagnon's own account of the prevelance of rape among the Yamomami, it is hard to know what to make of the evidence of the blood types. It is hard to know, in other words, without a supporting context of anecdotes - information from informers. 

As for Tierney's countless factual errors - well, this is a stone that the friends of Napoleon Chagnon might not want to launch. His record is filled with matters of fact and conclusions that are violently disputed by others in the field, like Douglas Good and Brian Ferguson. His attitude towards evidence is bizarrely territorial - he seems to believe that information is about loyalty rather than objective fact. His tendency to accuse his opponents of Marxism doesn't help, either.


Roger Gathman said…
PS - Brian Ferguson, one of the "Rousseauians" targeted by the fearless warrior Steven Pinker, does a little scalping of Pinker's ass in a fascinating paper on Pinker's misuse of evidence - or perhaps more kindly, ignorance of the method for compiling evidence that should constrain even the armchair social theorist. Pinker compiled a list of 20 prehistoric sites that show the extent of warfare before the state. Ferguson examines the list, and shows that in at least two cases, Pinker misunderstands site names and separates one site into two sites; that in numerous cases he seems to have overstated the certainty of archaeological evidence; and that in one extreme case, a site in India, his estimate that thirty percent of the humans uncovered died from violence is laughable. This is the 'science" gang: a sort of neo-Darwinian version of the Victorian clubman. See here: