Noble Savages, right method, wrong results, right enemies

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2013 1:40 am

I read Noble Savages, Napoleon Chagnon‘s memoir, last week. There isn’t much to say about this book that’s revelatory, but it definitely was a page turner. As far as my personal tastes go there was a little too much autobiography, and not enough science, in Noble Savages. But it’s a long work, so in absolute terms there’s a lot of science to dig into if you want to skim over the personal sections (frankly, I had a hard time keeping all the various tribes and individuals straight). There have been many reviews of Noble Savages since it came out last week.  If you haven’t read the profile in The New York Time Magazine, I advise you to do so right now. At Scientific American John Horgan put up a post which illustrates how Chagnon has become a sort of token in the tribal wars between scientists (or scientists and no-scientists). You can see this in two reviews at The New York Times, one which consists of an extended sneer from a professor of cultural anthropology and gender studies, Elizabeth Povinelli, while the second treatment from Nicholas Wade reads almost as a panegyric. Charles C. Mann navigates the middle path in his review, being critical in some instances, but by and large praising the memoir.

Considering what I learned, and didn’t learn, from Noble Savages was an interesting experience for me. Though I have never read Chagnon’s prose at length (I have read his 1988 Science paper), much of what he says about anthropologists could have been written by me. Or, perhaps more accurately much of what I have written could have been written by Chagnon! This may simply be a function of the long arm of cultural influence and social networks, as those who have influenced me were influenced by Chagnon. The strength of the invective sometimes took me aback, and I think that this aspect explains Elizabeth Povinelli’s unfair review. Her rendering of Chagnon’s characterization of the people he studies is absolutely misleading. Povinelli makes out as if Chagnon depicted the Yanomami shabbily. That is not the case at all. Rather, he depicted them as human beings, with all the positives and negatives that entails. Some of the Yanomami are horrible people, while others are noble. When I say I don’t understand even where to begin with much of modern American cultural anthropology, this is the sort of thing that I’m confused about. How could anyone not expect a candid appraisal of another people to not reflect both their positives and negatives? They are after all people. On the other hand Napoleon Chagnon depicts his anthropological colleagues in a very shabby manner (I think somewhat justified, but that doesn’t change the real nastiness of the tactics here). I suspect this naturally triggers the unpleasant appraisals from individuals such as Elizabeth Povinelli. But the since no one cares if Chagnon bad-mouths anthropologists but anthropologists, they have to make out as if he is bad-mouthing the Yanomami.

There are important qualifications to make here though. In Noble Savages Chagnon outlines his break with cultural materialists, exemplified by scholars such as Marvin Harris. In his telling the materialists were too focused on acquisition of wealth as the ends of competition and Malthusian scarcity of resources. In contrast Chagnon began to focus more on a sociobiological model as his career progressed. Where Harris and company would see resources, Chagnon replaced that with reproduction. This was, and is, fundamentally a scientific dispute. In contrast in later years Chagnon tussled with a set of anthropologists who may colloquially be referred to as “postmodern,” and who place social justice and activism on equal footing with a positivistic understanding of human social phenomena. It is toward the second group that Chagnon has the greatest ill will, though it is a close thing (for example, Harris engaged in standard misrepresentations which are par for the course among those who oppose ‘genetic determinism’). The conflict with the materialists was by and large a matter of an understanding of the nature of the facts, even if it got emotional and personalized. The conflict with the postmodernists was by and large a disagreement about what anthropology should be about.

I’m not going to rehash the issue at the heart of what anthropology should be about at this point. If you are reading me, you know what I think. Since my latest round of attacks on anthropology I have received many emails. Some are from academics who appreciate my volleys. Others are from students who are confounded by the nature of academic anthropology and share my frustration. I was even told that my name and my blog had been mentioned in a lecture at a large university as an example of ‘genetic determinism.’ There is no possibility of amicable resolution of disagreement here, because many anthropologist’s disagree with someone like me on fundamental premises. Whether they accept the characterization or not, I accuse them of being enemies of truth. Obviously it is even more emotionally explosive for Napoleon Chagnon. He is an eminent anthropologist, and, he has been slandered as a ‘Josef Mengele’! I don’t expect that someone attacked as a Nazi would give any intellectual quarter to his antagonists, nor should they be expected to. The score settling in Noble Savages gets a bit tiresome, but Chagnon is running out of time to hit back at enemies who have wounded his reputation in a low manner. This reaction is simply human nature at work.

In regards to more substantive matters, the difference between science and non-science in many cases is that the former is progressive, contingent, and robust to the passage of time. In contrast, the latter is subject to fad and fashion. There will come a day when the modern social justice oriented anthropologists will be denounced by future generations of self-righteous radicals, just as the old line Marxists were pushed aside by their descendants (for example, see the estrangement between Theodore Adorno and student activists in the late 1960s). The postmodern activist contingent in modern cultural anthropology matters now insofar as it muddies the truth and addles the minds of youth, but it does not matter over the long term because future generations tire of the fictions of the past (inevitably they concoct their own delusions, but that’s another matter). In contrast, if Chagnon is right on the science his memory will persist. I see no evidence that Chagnon is a Nazi, but the reality is that the memory of people with genuine Nazi sympathies have been valorized because their science was right. The problem though is that I suspect in important ways Chagnon is wrong.

My issue is encapsulated on page 237: in passing Napoleon Chagnon observes that malaria is endemic in Yanomamöland. This is a big deal: disease is a critical biological and material variable in any society. The world before malaria and after malaria is almost certain to be very different. As outlined in Charles C. Mann’s books before the arrival of Europeans and Africans many diseases we take for granted as features of life in the tropics, such as malaria, were not present in the New World. Malaria not only kills, it enervates. Malarial conditions have reshaped the human geographic landscape. As coastal Italy became malarial in the 1st millenium A.D. settlements which had flourished in antiquity relocated to the hills. This introduced an enormous economic cost, which persisted down to modern times, as villagers had to make do with marginal farmland, or were forced to endure daily treks to distant fields which were in malarial zones. On the social dimension the world of southern Italy fragmented, as mountain villages were arguably more disconnected from trade networks than their coastal predecessors had been. Italy became more localized and small scale, as endemic disease reshaped the ecological parameters under which civilization could flourish. History does not always progress linearly, rather, it is characterized by sharp corrections.

Chagnon refers to the Yanomami as a pristine and primitive people who can serve as models for man before the state. In short, they’re real life examples of the sort of societies described in War Before Civilization. But the history of humans extends for at least tens of thousands of years before civilization (you could argue millions). That history can be stylized into a monochromatic hunter-gatherer past, but I suspect that misses real diversity. Additionally, the modern hunter-gatherers we have are likely not a typical sample, because they exist in marginal territories where agricultural lifestyles are not viable. But most importantly the Yanomamö are slash and burn agriculturalists, for whom Old World crops are central to their subsistence and production. Chagnon does not hide this at all, but he seems to feel that it is of no consequence. He highlights that by elaborating how by material culture alone the Yanomami might actually be analogized to hunter-gatherers. Therefore, the focus on inter-personal relationships and reproductive output. But overall I find this attempt at recasting them as human archetypes unpersuasive.

Chagnon is certainly not unaware of these sorts of objections. He no doubt disagrees. Perhaps one day I might have a beer with Chagnon in Columbia, Missouri, to hash things out. Really I feel ridiculous having these objections on some level because I’m not an anthropologist with a strong mastery of the literature, let alone the professional experiences which he has, which might lend a certain subtly to his interpretations. I’d like to know why he believes what he believes. Even if I am not persuaded, I feel I have learned a great deal from his work at this point, and I feel I would learn more from the nature of our disagreements. I feel the same about Marvin Harris, whose work I’ve read and appreciated. Harris was not a fan of sociobiological models, but I understood what his disagreements were, and what ours would be. In fact I probably have a bias toward economic and cultural materialism to a much greater extent than Chagnon. Though I’m obviously not a Marxist in a deep sense, on occasion I can sound like one because of the importance of production as the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness.’

Humans are complex. Social sciences such as economics and psychology which are more explicitly scientific in ambition are subject to the fact that statistical analysis can be easily manipulated and misused. The same holds with biology, especially biomedical science. Obviously these problems are also rife in cultural anthropology. The study of humans by individuals who ’embed’ themselves in societies is going to cause all sorts of problems in interpretation and bias. In Noble Savages Napoleon Chagnon explicitly and implicitly acknowledges this repeatedly. His quest for a scientific cultural anthropology is a difficult one, a herculean task. Some have criticized his specific field work among the Yanomami, but Chagnon repeatedly protests in Noble Savages that the critics don’t fight statistics with statistics. Rather, they simply critique. And that is the whole problem with much of modern cultural anthropology: there isn’t even the attempt to be wrong. Being wrong can be incredibly constructive in the process of generating responses. But it is a wrongness which is clear, distinct, and precise. If you don’t know what you are wrestling with you are dancing with shadows. When it comes to the descriptive and general aspect of humans as a study much of modern cultural anthropology forgoes wrestling with reality, intractable though it may seem, for mannered ‘discourse’ and posturing. Where one can criticize economics for simplifying human interaction, much of cultural anthropology has reacted to the complexity by veering away from tackling the problem of modeling and generalizing. Instead of integrating insights from other disciplines such as cognitive science and behavioral economics to break down the wall of complexity, anthropologists bow down to specific and impenetrable complexity as if it was an unknowable God.

But where in one area many anthropologists have fled from clarity, in another they have become much more aggressive. In Noble Savages Chagnon heaps contempt upon his critics and professional rivals who he perceives to have become political and social actors more than scholars. There is a whole area of anthropology where the emphasis is on a vision of human affairs informed by justice. This is anthropology as values, not scholarship, because even most anthropologists would agree that there is no easy universal set of values across human societies aside from the basics (e.g., don’t eat your babies, don’t have sex with your mother, etc.). It is crystal clear that Napoleon Chagnon has biases which color his interpretation of events. That he was an actor in the very affairs he describes. But it strikes me as implausible that any of his critics have clean hands in this domain. When pushed on the matter many of Chagnon’s critics may admit that they have their own commitments and biases, but in pragmatic events which impact careers and public perception of their field it is Chagnon and others with whom they have political disagreements with who are enemies of people whom they study, while they are the protectors. This is fine in politics, that is the game that is played in that domain. But it is not so edifying for scholarship, which benefits from a level of emotional detachment from the world, allowing for reflective contemplation. There are causes we all care about, but there are organizations and people who are active in promoting those causes, without confusing the matter with the idea that their passions are informed by reason and scholarship. Politics channels values, Ph.D. theses which are a collection of facts do little to forward that project. In contrast, Ph.D. theses are sullied and tainted by political associations.

Noble Savages is useful as a personal historiography of anthropology. Napoleon Chagnon’s career has spanned the ascendancy of cultural materialists, the eruption of sociobology, and now the dominance of activists and those who are skeptical of science. Chagnon is not subtle or sneaky about his biases, so even if you find his perspective distasteful, it is easy enough to extract the personal color from the relevant historical details. Much of the narrative reads like an adventure travel log, and no doubt that will be what “hooks” some, though hopefully they’ll stay for the science. On many substantive points it may be that Chagnon’s model will be seen to be too simplistic. The evolutionary biology which he drank up a generation ago has moved on and developed itself. But a future scientific understanding of anthropology will extend and build up from the sort of outlook which people such as Chagnon bring to the table. They are of course flawed human beings, but one can confidently state that that is the norm, not the exception. The other stream of cultural anthropology will continue to evolve and fissure, as a thousand ‘discourses’ bloom. Ultimately I hope that the two viewpoints move past each other’s horizons, never to meet again. Astronomy has benefited from its divorce from astrology. Just like the Yanomami the tribes of scholars may need to fission to preserve social harmony, lest a club-fight break out.


Comments (6)

  1. razibkhan

    1) the book wasn’t mostly about this science. the 1988 article basically encapsulates chagnon’s science in any case.

    2) dude, between juggling grad school, being a mediocre dad & husband, socializing with friends, doing consulting on projects on the side, maintaining my intellectual interests, excuse fucking me that i don’t write the sort of review you fucking want in the fucking 2.5 hours i allotted to blogging at the end of a long fucking weekend where i try to catch up on other shit. i think i fucking made it clear that i’m skeptical of chagnon’s science. being wrong on science, and even engaging in things which we now perceive to be ethically shady, does not make you a fucking nazi. k. weiss basically what i would have said re: swidden agriculture in substantive terms.

    3) the interview with john horgan on made ferguson seem like a d-bag. i think i’d rather prefer interacting with him through his publications, which i have checked out (i’m reading *the end of war* while i’m not writing the reviews which don’t satisfy you).

  2. razibkhan

    thanks john. to be clear, i clearly am part of a ‘tribe’ here, and that is of chagnon, despite his wrongness (in fact, because of it!) and whatever unpleasantness may accrue around him. even bad stands are superior to evasion and obfuscation. that being said, Epoché is quite useful and enlightening, so i try 🙂

  3. peter steager

    Good job, Razib. You have taken on what is a true snake pit and survived intact. I was trained as an anthropologist in the late 1960’s, at the time when a lot of the fault lines within the discipline were only beginning to take shape. Chagnon is a member of what I would call the old school; years of fieldwork in an ‘exotic’ culture with the unspoken assumption that what you were describing was not going to survive the inroads of modern civilization. It was more akin to history than to science. Since then much of the discipline has been engaged in a frantic effort to play catch-up with science, with very mixed results and immense amounts of animosity.

    • razibkhan

      not of my own skills. i am surely more evil than chagnon in the eyes of his attackers. the primary reason i don’t stand with the people who i may agree with on some particulars in this issue factually is because i am skeptical that they would have my back if their intellectual stalinist colleagues came after me. as you say, this is vicious tribal warfare, alas 🙁

  4. razibkhan

    you’re like a christian fundamentalist sagely explaining to me the nicene creed, as if i’m too pigheaded to understand the obviousness of it all. all this makes self evident sense to you, but i find a lot of what you are saying to be totally incoherent. also, you misrepresent a lot of what i’m even trying to say. but i think that’s because you can’t even read what i’m saying without interpolating your own presuppositions into the narrative (where i try to be nuanced, you just push me into a nearly maximalist position i wouldn’t agree to). the discourses have totally fractured and are absolutely incommensurable. i want to understand human affairs more before i die. your field is useless, and perhaps even inimical to that. that’s that. now, some of your kind are angered i don’t engage with you. but i’m aware of my mortality, and there are interesting things to learned out there. i think napoleon chagnon was wrong in many areas, but his signposts are there to follow up. hopefully others will go and find the truth.

  5. Re “….wonder why so much theoretical weight was given to one man’s perspective of one little tribe”

    I am in the trade and I can’t see how any “theoretical weight” was given to Nap’s description of the violence. If you want the source of theoretical weight look at Keeley’s War Before Civilization.

    Nap did make an important contribution with his analysis of how fitness followed from having a large kin groups.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar