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.