Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Napoleon Chagnon and "Liberal McCarthyism"

From a rather nasty screed against liberal academics in the Spectator, I extract a nugget that I think deserves a response:
Which makes it all the more ironic that McCarthyism is alive and well and being practiced by the liberal intelligentsia. . . . [Consider] the punishment meted out to Napoleon Chagnon, the evolutionary anthropologist whose work on the indigenous population of the Amazonian rain forest challenged liberal pieties about the goodness of man in his prelapsarian state. Chagnon was essentially blacklisted by the people who control the anthropology industry.
It is certainly true, as I have written, that many anthropologists hate Napoleon Chagnon, and one of them actually wrote a nasty book about him full of false accusations. (It also contained several true accusations, of which more in a minute.)

What the Spectator gets wrong is why anthropologists hate Chagnon. Chagnon is not hated because he believes that our ancestry is violent; plenty of respectable tenured anthropologists think that. He is not hated because he thinks violence has been a successful evolutionary strategy for humans; plenty of tenured anthropologists think that, too. To be fair, his evolutionary theories probably haven't helped him, but they are not the main reason he is so controversial.

Anthropologists hate Chagnon because of the way he interacted with the people he studied. Most American anthropologists consider themselves to be, first and foremost, advocates for indigenous or oppressed peoples, and advocates more broadly for the preservation of cultural diversity. Chagnon despised that sort of thing, which he called "fluff." He considered himself an evolutionary scientist, and he made no secret of his dislike for the subjects of his studies. As he famously said,
Real Indians sweat, they smell bad, they take hallucinogenic drugs, they belch after they eat, they covet and at times steal their neighbour’s wife, they fornicate, and they make war.
Most anthropologists want to get to know the people they study on their own terms, to become as much as possible part of their society. Chagnon had no time for that; in pursuit of the information he wanted he routinely violated taboos, exacerbated social tensions, threatened violence, and more. He caused so much trouble that the government of Venezuela eventually banned him from the country. He called the Yanomamö the "fierce people," but many of them feared him.

Over my adult lifetime theory has not really excited academics very much. What matters is politics in a more down-to-earth sense: where do you stand on global inequality, pollution, trans rights, oil exploration in the rain forest, and other particular causes. Your theories about anthropology are much less important, and in fact if you are the right sort of anarchistic leftist you can say whatever you want about human evolution. I personally have no fear of offering any sort of theory about the periods I study, but I could conceivably get in all sorts of trouble for opposing the rights of Indian Tribes to control the treatment of ancient Indian skeletons. That sort of concern for the beliefs and desires of living groups of people is what the left cares about now.


David said...

FWIW, as a card-carrying liberal academic, I'd say the essay isn't terribly nasty and actually seems pretty sensible. Mostly it's not about Chagnon, but about the blackballing of a book by a neuroscientist who claims to have identified common negative personality traits among welfare recipients. Whatever one thinks of this research, the essay author does seem to have a point about the blackballing of the book. I particularly like his denunciation of the sociologist who refused even to review it "on the grounds that any book linking benefit dependency to personality must be nonsense because personality is a ‘capitalist construct’."

Based on what little I know, I don't much respect Chagnon and his approach of goading his subjects until they prove his point by acting out. But I suspect the attack on him may partake more of outraged Rousseauianism than you are allowing.

G. Verloren said...

Never heard of this Chagnon before, but I've already heard enough - he's no anthropologist.

A biologist doesn't study biology by disrupting ecosystems. An economist doesn't study economics by disrupting markets. A psychologist doesn't study the mind by inflicting mental illness. A surgeon doesn't study human anatomy through vivisection. A fireman doesn't study firefighting by performing arson. A police officer doesn't study policing by cultivating crime.

When you introduce destructive and harmful methodology into your supposed academic study, you cross a line.