Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chagnon, Sahlins, and science

Napoleon Chagnon is all over the Internet these days. His memoir, Noble Savages, was recently published, along with a variety of articles and posts about the Darkness-in-El-Dorado affair (in which Chagnon was attacked by journalist Patrick Tierney with outrageous stories of ineptitude and malfeasance in the Amazon). Chagnon was elected to the National Academy of Sciences last year, and last week Marshal Sahlins resigned from that organization, citing two reasons: (1) Chagnon's election; and (2) the involvement of NAS in military research.

I don't want to rehash these things here. For Sahlins' resignation, see Serena Golden's post in Inside Higher Education. For information and lots of anthropological opinions about all this, see recent posts in Savage Minds by Alex Golub and a tweet from David Graeber, each with a bunch of comments. And for a hard-hitting account of the Chagnon-Tierney affair and the role of the American Anthropological Association, see the scholarly analysis by Alice Dreger,  2011,  Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale. Human Nature 22(3):225-246. The actions of the AAA, as described by Dreger, are part of the reason I resigned from the American Anthropological Association; when they dropped the word "science" from their description of the field of anthropology, it was the last straw for me and I resigned.

Right now, I just want to react to a statement by John Hawks. In his post yesterday on Sahlins and Chagnon (where I got the link to Inside Higher Education), John concludes, "I think it's time to reclaim the name "anthropology" from this earlier generation." Sociobiology and cultural explanations each have their uses, and each also have their limitations. So to trumpet one side and denigrate the other without attempting some form of integration (or at least objective evaluation) is bad science and bad scholarship (another part of the reason I resigned from the AAA).

What about archaeology? Are we exempt from this kind of serious but silly debate? We certainly have our sociobiologists and our cultural explanations partisans. Mostly they talk past one another, and if they do happen to engage, discourse takes the form of "Is so!" "Is not!" "Is too!"  I've commented on a parallel manifestation of the serious but silly debates about the role of drought in the Maya collapse, and archaeological opinions on Jared Diamond's collapse book.

When we allow personal ideological bias rule to our scholarly work, we limit the value of our research to answer real questions and to contribute to broader social and scientific debates. If you have an ideological axe to grind, either leave scholarship and go into politics, or else find ways to achieve a level of scholarly objectivity in your research and writing. (yeah, I know, the postmodernists are going to smirk about how naive I am to even use the word "objectivity." Check out my past posts on epistemology; one can employ objective methods and maintain an overall level of objectivity while admitting that the world is messy and researchers are never free of preconceptions or bias.).

To paraphrase John Hawks, "I think its time to reclaim the name 'archaeology" from past generations." We have lots of data and ideas to contribute to major scholarly and public debates today, but too often our writing and epistemological stance work against any wider relevance.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this.
- Grad Student (Evolutionary Anthropology)

Marcus said...

I largely agree with your comments on ideology, but the Darwinians also continue to irritate me profoundly. They criticise cultural evolution as outdated and false (Dunnell and Shennan do), without offering alternative models to study states.

Do you know any Darwinian model that has addressed the archaeological records of early civilisations or more complex polities like the Roman empire in a comprehensive and convincing way? I don't. If they can't provide them, they should do well to shut up about work that has actually addressed the data. I'll take the oldies of White, Steward, Wolf, Sanders & Webster, McAdams, and yes, Sahlins, any time over the Darwinian crowd.

Michael E. Smith said...


Try some of these. The only one i've read is Dubreuil, and it is very very good, not a simplistic Darwinian model at all. The others are contemporary studies that do address early states, but I haven't read them.

Dubreuil, BenoƮt
2010 Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies: The State of Nature. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Currie, Thomas E., Simon J. Greenhill, Russell D. Gray, Toshikazu Hasegawa, and Ruth Mace
2010 Rise and Fall of Political Complexity in ISouth-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature 467:801-804.

Currie, Thomas E. and Ruth Mace
2011 Mode and tempo in the evolution of socio-political organization: reconciling ‘Darwinian’ and Spencerian’ evolutionary approaches in anthropology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B 366:1108-1117.

Rosenberg, Michael
2009 Proximate Causation, Group Selection, and the Evolution of Hierarchical Human Societies: System, Process, and Pattern. In Macroevolution in Human Prehistory, edited by Anna Marie Prentiss, Ian Kuijt, and James C. Chatters, pp. 23-49. Springer, New York.

Marcus said...

Thank you for the references, I could only check the one by Currie & Mace. I'm afraid it left me unconvinced, especially since they keep talking about Spencerian cultural evolution, which is strange since he is not important at all in archaeological theory.

The abstract by Rosenberg seems much more interesting, but then he is an archaeologist. I'm all for looking at cross-cultural features and connecting them to our biological makeup, but perhaps we should come up with more theories to account for this ourselves. Frankly, I do not feel that all of these biologists can be trusted to do that for us, since they refer to outdated 'Spencerian' ideas and miss key works like that of Trigger (surely the first place to go to look for regularities).

Survival International said...

Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on the Chagnon debate, and how Chagnon's work has been disastrous for the tribe.

Visit http://www.survivalinternational.org//articles/3272 for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami.

They 'disagree with Napoleon Chagnon's public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. [and] deplore how Chagnon's work has been used throughout the years - and could still be used - by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.'

Michael E. Smith said...

I recall a discussion on Savage Minds last week to the effect that, many years ago, anthropologists who depicted the !Kung San as peaceful people were critiqued for the very same reason - that this representation contributed to their exploitation by their neighbors.

What bothers me the most about the controversies surrounding Chagnon is the conflation of four things: (1) scientific research (his studies and their results); (2) the historical facts and context of that research (his role in relation to measles outbreaks); (3) political ideology (as in the previous comment about the putative effects of Chagnon's depiction of the group as violent); and (4) personal attacks on Chagnon's personality, character, and integrity. Tierney jumbled these things up together, and most subsequent discussion has only partially disentangled them.

I am agnostic on these four factors and how they relate (or not) to one another. I would be more inclined to believe accounts of how Chagnon's fieldwork might have caused harm to his subjects if they were made in a more objective, less ideological, fashion, and not mixed up with a bunch of extraneous material.