Two words: Napoleon Chagnon

By Razib Khan | February 13, 2013 6:58 am

Just pre-ordered a Kindle Edition of Napoleon Chagnon‘s new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. I didn’t even know this was coming out next week, but The New York Times Magazine has a piece up, The Indiana Jones of Anthropology, which chronicles the controversial the life & times of Chagnon. My previous posts about cultural anthropology were written with no knowledge about the impending publication of this article, or Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir. But the timing is fortuitous. One complaint by rightfully enraged cultural anthropologists (I didn’t deny that I was attacking their profession in the most extreme terms) is that I didn’t really offer an argument. As I said, the reason is that life is short and I’m not interested in convincing anyone.

But here’s a section of the article above which reflects just what I was alluding to:

The A.A.A.’s El Dorado task force was the most ambitious investigation to date but was undermined by a lack of due process. The group went so far as to interview Yanomami in Venezuela but, according to Chagnon, failed to give him an opportunity to respond to its verdicts. As Gregor and Gross put it, what the inquiry most clearly demonstrated was not Chagnon’s guilt or innocence but rather anthropology’s “culture of accusation,” a “tendency within the discipline to attack its own methods and practitioners.”

At least one task-force member had doubts about the exercise. In April 2002, shortly before the group released its report, Jane Hill, the task force’s chairwoman and a former president of the A.A.A. wrote an e-mail to a colleague in which she called Tierney’s book “just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that).” Nevertheless, she said, the A.A.A. had to act: anthropologists’ work with indigenous groups in Latin America “was put seriously at risk by its accusations,” and “silence on the part of the A.A.A would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.”

Again, this doesn’t prove anything. But it isn’t as if the perception that cultural anthropology tends to eat its own came out of a vacuum. Personally I find the behavior of Jane Hill even more disturbing. Is it truly the case that on occasion an innocent man must die so that we should respect the law?

Ultimately I have to admit that over the years I’ve been a lot less sure about the evolutionary framework that Napoleon Chagnon works within. Not because I reject evolutionary frameworks, but because the devil is in the details of the logic and data. Chagnon is right, evolution needs to be brought into the discussion. But if so, it has to be done subtly and with due respect for the complexity of the topic. Shouting “Nazi!” is only going to distract from the hard working of figuring the shape of reality.

  • Robert Ford

    I first became aware of him in “Secrets of the Tribe” which is a documentary about all of his arguments and conflicts over the years. I don’t remember it well but I also don’t remember it being a very good movie. I was more interested in his research and it was all about his social life.

  • Al West

    Chagnon produced one of most jarring introductory ethnographic monographs out there. It is well worth reading, especially at undergraduate level, and it complements the other literature on the Yanomami (Jacques Lizot, etc) nicely. It’s a great shame that it has been wrapped up in this ridiculous farrago.

    Jane Hill, by the way, assuming I’ve got the right Jane Hill, has produced some excellent work on placing the Uto-Aztecan homeland. She espouses the view that proto-Uto-Aztecan was spoken by farmers or horticulturalists, rather than the nomadic foraging Chichimecs they were assumed to be. She has defended the view well, although it doesn’t appear to be settled (IANA Uto-Aztecan specialist, although I’m reasonably familiar with the primary literature). Not a kook by any measure. That *is* a very troubling quote, however. Perhaps a better academic than an association president.

    • stevesailer

      Jacques Lizot — I’m fascinated with why Chagnon is the controversial researcher into the Yanomami, while so little attention is paid to Lizot. Yet, when I read about Lizot’s activities with the Yanomami, the name “Jerry Sandusky” leaps to mind.

  • jason malloy

    Patrick Tierney was a bad card for cultural anthropologists to play against their Darwinian nemeses.

    Oddly, there has been much less sound and fury over Paul Shankman’s ‘The Trashing of Margaret Mead’. Derek Freeman has long been a key figure in the sociobiologist critique of anthropology, but Freeman’s case against Mead now appears to have been shoddy itself.


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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


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