I am Not a Cultural Anthropologist
is this kind of hostility that scientists who are aware of it find
most enigmatic. There is something medieval about it, in spite of
the hypermodern language in which it is nowadays couched. It seems
to mock the idea that, on the whole, a civilization is capable of
progressing from ignorance to insight, notwithstanding the benightedness
of some of its members. We have the sense, encountering such attitudes,
that irrationality is courted and proclaimed with pride. All the
more shocking is the fact that the challenge comes from a quarter
that views itself as fearlessly progressive–the veritable cutting
edge of the cultural future.
Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with
Science, by Paul Gross & Norman Leavitt
two incidents of anthropological interest from last year:
• The Cornell University administration consulted with the Anthropology
Department over whether it was best classified as a "social science"
or as a "humanity." The alternative presented more than a terminological
nicety: there are significant differences in the ways social science
and humanities departments are treated at Cornell. That is to say, real
resources were at stake. While there was no groundswell of support for
categorizing the department along with creative writing and comparative
literature, the bulk of the anthropology faculty hardly identifies with
fields like sociology, psychology, and economics either. There was some
suggestion that the phrase "human science" fits better (and renders
all other varieties "inhuman sciences," one assumes). The final result
was a compromise: the university now construes anthropology as both
a humanity and a science…or perhaps neither.
• Around the same time, Terence Turner, Professor of Anthropology
at Cornell, along with the University of Hawaii’s Leslie Sponsel, sent
a supposedly confidential e-mail to Louise Lamphere, president of the
Anthropological Association of America, and to Don Brenneis, the president-elect.
In the message they express a wish "to inform you of an impending scandal
that will affect the [AAA]…and arouse intense indignation and calls
for action among members of the Association." The scandal was to be
prompted by the fall publication of the book Darkness in El Dorado:
How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick
Tierney. According to Turner and Sponsel, the book "presents convincing
evidence," "well-documented," of a string of crimes "…in its scale,
ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption [that is] unparalleled
in the history of Anthropology." Among other things, Tierney charges
that a number of scientists, including the noted geneticist James V.
Neel and the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, were responsible for eugenics-inspired
biological experimentation upon the Yanomamö people of Venezuela that
killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands," as well as the fabrication of
data and the fomenting of intervillage conflicts in cynical support
of Chagnon’s "sociobiological" views of human evolution. "This nightmarish
story," Turner and Sponsel continue breathlessly, "a real anthropological
heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Josef Conrad (though
not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)will be seen (rightly in our view)
by the public, as well as anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline
The common theme in both these incidentsone prosaic, one
sensationalis the relationship between anthropology and science.
To be sure, the current cachet of the word "science" makes it so widely
and loosely applied it is truly a matter of debate what it really means.
But the state of the field pioneered in this country by Lewis Henry
Morgan, Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber et al. is arguably in even deeper
existential crisis. Just what has anthropology become, anyway? What
is this "human science"?
Cult of Culture
As a willing border-crosser from the doctoral program in anthropology
to psychology, I offer here a perspective on these questions as they
stand at Cornell. It also bears noting that Cornell’s Anthropology Department,
whose scholarly heritage includes such distinguished past figures as
C.F. Hockett and Turner (Victor, that is), is hardly unique. Much of
what follows more or less applies to departments elsewhere.
What the Cornell administration almost belatedly
found out last year is that anthropology long ago ceased to be a science.
By "science," I take to mean a project of systematic inquiry that not
only observes and describes, but makes comparisons, generates theories,
and tests predictions. Admittedly, this state of affairs is hardly a
matter of regret to many academic anthropologists. Nor should it necessarily
be; there are other ways to apprehend reality than science. But it does
represent a profound break with the discipline’s own history, which
long integrated more or less scientific approaches to its subject.
That subject, as traditionally understood,
was people. The purview was deliberately broad. The venerable but now
endangered Boasian conception of the discipline is that it was composed
of four subfields: linguistics, physical anthropology, archaeology,
and sociocultural studies. The subfields cumulatively encompass much
of what constitutes the experience of our species, both synchronically
and diachronically, from language to practice, from the forms of human
bodies to the patterns of human material lives. The practical consequence
was to equip students to go out into "the field" and make ethnographic
reports of other peoples–reports that competently treat of everything
from the minutiae of a native verb system to the broad themes of kinship
to the techniques of craft and beyond. This data became the material,
in turn, for ethnological theorizing, including the comparison of cultures.
Some departments, such as at the University
of Michigan and Arizona, reportedly still train their graduate students
in the four fields approach. In most others, however, the old model
of anthropology has devolved into something far more modest. There are
a few reasons for this. The development and professionalization of linguistics,
for one, has made it impractical for most anthropologists to acquire
more than a basic knowledge of that subject. Something similar has occurred
in archaeology, leading to semi-autonomous sub-departments in many cases.
Perhaps most importantly, both the need and the taste for totalizing
descriptions of colonial "others" no longer exists. Indeed, the ethnographic
project itself is lately in diminished repute, suffering as it inevitably
does from observer bias and a lingering whiff of objectivizing arrogance
redolent of the field’s imperialist origins.
What counts as anthropology in many university
departments now is just cultural anthropology. To put it another way,
the subject of anthropology is no longer people, but culture.
It would be difficult to overestimate the fundamental importance of
this single concept to the modern discipline. Indeed, there are very
few explicatory notions in any academic discipline that so fully seem
to dominate a field as this—plate tectonics, for instance, is of momentous
importance to modern geology, but we hardly can define geology as "the
study of crustal plates." Nor have we (yet) to see any departments of
Evolution or Deconstruction or Reception Theory instead of Biology,
English or Art History, respectively. Yet anthropology has become, in
The appeal of the culture concept might be
better understood by considering its very first use in the modern sense.
Marshall Sahlins, one of the leading lights in the field, has characterized
both it and its antithesis, civilization:
of the modern anthropological persuasion originated in Germany...in
the late eighteenth century, but precisely in defiance of the global
pretensions of Anglo-French ‘civilization’...For the German bourgeois
intellectuals...bereft of power or even political unity, cultural
differences became essential. Defending a national Kultur
at once against the rationalism of the philosophes and a Francophile
Prussian court, Herder (most notably) opposed ways of life to stages
of development and a social mind to natural reason…Unlike "civilization",
which is transferable between peoples...culture was what truly identified
and differentiated a people...Culture came in kinds, not degrees...2
is certainly ironic that Kultur could be so useful both to German
intellectuals rationalizing their woeful lack of colonies, and
to post-colonialist anthropologists desperate to disavow their field’s
roots in the imperialist experience. Indeed, the political climate in
anthropology being what it is today, the discrimination of societies
by any sort of would-be objective metric, by any sense of "degree" not
kind, carries an unmistakable taint of rationalist "civilization," and
therefore of Western triumphalism. Even at the outset, then, the culture
concept had (and has) a powerful political valence. Useful or not, fruitful
or misleading, it is impossible to practice anthropology in the current
context without it.
One reason cultural anthropology is not a science,
then, is that the culture concept a la mode originated in a revolt
against rationalism. Essential activities of science, for example, are
comparison, abstraction, explanation. To engage in cultural comparison,
though, is at best to pointlessly compare apples and oranges. To abstract
cross-cultural descriptors or (egad!) descriptive principles is, as
cultural anthropologist Nancy Jay wrote of the term sacrifice,
"…more like doing sacrifice than understanding it…The victim has indeed
been brought under a kind of analytic control, but in the process it
has been killed."3 To engage in explanation or the positing
of universals is to miss the essential point that culture thrives in
the details, or as Clifford Geertz has argued, that it is "in the cultural
particularities of peoplein their odditiesthat some of the
most instructive revelations of what it is to be generically human are
to be found…" The analysis of culture, Geertz has influentially written
(albeit not to universal agreement), is "…not an experimental science
in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."4
One "explains" a culture no more than one "explains" a poem or a painting.
There’s always been something cultish, if not downright occult, about
the prevailing notion of culture.
The rationale, if not the rationality, of modern
cultural anthropology also has a vital historical impetus. Colonialismas
well as other recent instances of disastrously abused genetic and biological
scientisms, such as fascist racial "anthropology"has understandably
left many within the discipline with an almost visceral reaction against
all the modes of reductionist explanation. Such modes now go under the
generalized pejoratives reductionism, evolutionism, structural-functionalism
et. al., and are excluded from the current mainstream of "progressive"
sociocultural discourse through the application of values "proper" to
the study of humankind. As they affirm the importance of particularism,
collaboration and mutual respect, these values also assure that the
field never seems to sort, classify, interrogate, integrate, reducethat
is, never seems to explainits cultural objects. This is
because, as Derrida and Bourdieu have argued in their own ways, to explain
is to presume to encompass, to posit a fictional, higher externality
where the view is clearer. The implicit orthodoxy (it is never discussed,
and therefore never questioned) is that humans are a blank slate written
on by culture only. They have no essential natureor, none worth
thinking much about. In fact, to suggest otherwise is to flirt with
But the flight from colonialist and fascist
bogeys begs a number of significant questions. Is it possible to conduct
scholarly inquiry that is entirely "nonmanipulative" and "non-violent,"
yet is also free to answer all of the questions that are constitutive
of anthropology itself? Can or should we be satisfied with conclusions
reached in scholarship overdetermined by a well-meaning consensus? Is
it really fair to say that an anthropology that takes knowledge
as its primary value will necessarily produce results that are "repressive?"
Finally, doesn’t a tabula rasa view of human nature likewise
lead to an ethical deadfall? Bolsheviks, for instance, firmly believed
and acted upon what they regarded (to paraphrase George Orwell) as the
infinite malleability of human nature.
What we appear to be left with, then, is a
discipline content with celebrations of cultural difference that amounts
to a form of professional stamp collecting. Discourse is dominated by
tissues of bootless speculation rooted in personal anecdote, post hoc
rationalization, and the secular equivalent of liberation theology.
Indeed, as the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby
have suggested (and year after year of Cornell’s Friday colloquia attendees
can attest) discourse in the modern field can seem like
nightmarish story Borges might have written, where [social] scientists
are condemned by their unexamined assumptions to study the nature
of mirrors only by cataloguing and investigating everything that
mirrors can reflect. It is an endless process that never makes progress,
that never reaches closure, that generates endless debate between
those who have seen different reflected images, and whose enduring
product is voluminous descriptions of particular phenomena.5
of course, the point isn’t "closure" at all. Instead, it is a program
of circumlocution that builds up a rich loam of half-digested verbiage
in which scholarship sprouts, toadstool like. The compost is salted
by buzzwords and phrases ("globalization," "identity," "habitus," "big
lack," "intersubjective spacetime extension") imported from economics,
psychology, and au courant lit-crit, each deployed as if to swell
debate but rarely to clarify it. In a particularly ubiquitous terminological
mannerism, cultural phenomena are invariably "dynamic," "dialectical,"
"structured," or "constructed"opposed, one assumes, to a discarded
view of culture that is "unitary," "linear," or "substantive." Indeed,
it is all reminiscent of the ontological musings of the pre-Socratic
Greeks, who were divided between those who saw reality as monistic and
unchangeable, and those who imagined everything was "flux." Such arguments,
then and now, seem based not so much on descriptive utility but on highly
selective attention to the evidence.
The prevailing hostility to systematic empirical
approaches to understanding human behavior takes many forms. The requirements
for a graduate education, for instance, include no training at all in
quantitative methods, such as statistics. Considering that most modern
ethnographies contain more interpretation of cultural "texts" than tables
of numbers, there just doesn’t seem to be any need for future anthropologists
to be capable of formulating statistical arguments. Archaeologists,
alas, find it more difficult to do without quantitative information.
The result is that the culturologists mostly ignore, sometimes bemusedly
tolerate, archaeological discourse, unless it is steeped in the "proper"
theoretical arcana of cultural anthropology.
Ironically, the current dread of quantitative approaches
among cultural anthropologists amounts to a kind of unilateral disarmament
in the struggle against the reductionists, the sociobiologists, the
evolutionary psychologists. The latter very often adduce numerical data
and mathematical models to advance their views. While numbers aren’t
magic, the fact that an entire cohort of professionals is being turned
out which can’t begin to evaluate a statistical argument seems oddly
self-defeating. True, such self-perpetuating insularity can serve as
its own defense, but that goes only so far. Against the barbarians-at-the-gate,
the biological determinists, culturologists ultimately appeal to politically
congenial outsiders, such as Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Lewontin.
And indeed, the anthropological left seems to resort to Gould and Lewontin
about as regularly as the political right trots out Colin Powell. (Gould’s
Mismeasure of Man, for instance, is regularly touted by those
who would happily ditch the entire enterprise of physical anthropology,
yet who wouldn’t know a multivariate analysis if one came up and bit
them on the habitus.)
Instead of describing, comparing, and elucidating
human behavior, the main occupation of the modern cultural anthropologist
now appears to be to "help" native people. Indeed, this impulse appears
to provide the moralistic thrust behind the Turner/Sponsel crusade against
Neel and Chagnon. This is not the place to give this notion the full
examination it deserves. Certainly, many native people do need political
support against unscrupulous developers, prospectors, miners, politicians,
etc. Everyone can probably agree on the injunction to "do no harm."
But the insistence that anthropologists must advocate for natives is,
in its own way, patronizing and historically myopic. Many previous workerssuch
as Christian missionaries and educatorsalso fervently believed
they were "helping" matters. Insofar as tales of lab-coated thugs deliberately
spreading disease and death inspire avoidance and mistrust of medical
personnel, native people are not "helped" at all. Nor is any clear
served, let alone some naïve but still compelling ideal of "truth,"
when culturologists collaborate in constructions of innately non-violent,
non-exploitative native prehistories that serve to flatter, not illuminate,
the past. Brown University’s Shepard Krech has been particularly articulate
about such mythmaking with respect to Native America.6
Ax Fights and Long Knives
The dismantling of anthropological science has broken into the open
with the ongoing furor over Tierney’s book. The original Turner/Sponsel
portrayal of what Neel, Chagnon et. al., wrought seems designed to render
horribly literal Nancy Jay’s nightmare of the anthropological subject
brought under analytic control, but in the process killed. A full review
of the rap sheet was recently published in these pages by Turner himself.7
The most flagrant of many offenses leveled by Patrick Tierney are 1)
that Neel, under the aegis of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and
with Chagnon’s assistance, did knowingly innoculate many Yanomamö people
with a virulent form of measles vaccine that ended up causing, not forestalling,
an epidemic, 2) that Chagnon’s premise that the Yanomamö are innately
warlike and "fierce" is a misrepresentation rooted in Chagnon’s own
disruptive effect on that tribe’s society, such as handing out steel
axes like party favors and pitting villages against each other;
that Chagnon, with the increasingly reluctant complicity of filmmaker
Tim Asch, cynically and recklessly orchestrated the action portrayed
in their classic ethnographic film, The Ax Fight, among others.
This writer is not in a position to judge the veracity
of all the book’s charges. The concern here is not the conduct of the
journalist Tierney, but rather that of certain academics who appear
to have received his story with a suspicious degree of credulity. (It
should also be noted that this essay was written before the 2000 American
Anthropological Association meetings, and whatever revelations its sessions
might have produced, were completed.)
It is certainly convenient for the accusers that
Neel (d. February, 2000) and Asch (d. 1994) are unavailable to answer
them. Nor is there much doubt that Napoleon Chagnon is regarded as more
of a cowboy than as a serious thinker by his academic competition. The
University of New Mexico’s Kim Hill, renowned for his extensive work
among the Ache of eastern Paraguay, and who has criticized Chagnon in
the past, writes
complaints that I heard were about his lack of material support
for the tribe despite having made an entire career (and a good deal
of money) from working with them, and his lack of sensitivity concerning
some cultural issues and the use of film portrayals. However, I
think most of Chagnon’s shortcomings amount to little more than
bad judgment and an occasional penchant for self promotion (something
which seems to infuriate Yanomamö specialists who are less well
known than Chagnon).8
self-promotion and episodes of backcountry egomania attributed to him
might stem from an oddly close identification with his namesake: Chagnon
reportedly keeps a portrait of the little Corsican on display in his
study. Like Bonaparte, Chagnon also has had a chequered history of relations
with the Catholic Church. According to a January 30, 2000 Los Angeles
Times Magazine profile published long before the Tierney story broke,
Chagnon freely admits having antagonized Venezuela’s Salesian missionaries
and mocked their proselytizing activities. Though indicted as an arms
dealer by Tierney, Chagnon apparently annoyed the missionary establishment
by going public with his opposition to the order’s policy of handing
out shotguns to the Yanomamö, citing evidence of rising firearm-related
deaths as a direct result of that policy. Notes Marvin Harris: "I’m
not sure Chagnon understood the role the Church plays in that part of
the world…or that he has rubbed the Salesians the wrong way."9
Terry Turner, interestingly, makes no mention
of this important aspect of Chagnon’s problems in his review. Nor does
he appear to be aware of evidence that the Salesians have been witnessed
"coaching" the Yanomamö to denounce Chagnon.8 While Turner quite properly
insists in his review that "It is finally time to hear their story from
the Yanomami themselves," it appears that some parties are working very
hard to ensure the Yanomamö finger the "correct" villain.
In both his original e-mail and his review
Turner credits Tierney with uncovering "convincing evidence", "well-documented."
In fact, there is a thickening docket of objections to Tierney’s own
methods and conclusions. The 1968 measles epidemic could not have been
started by Neel & Co. because it began before they arrived. That
the Edmonton B vaccine could or has caused a full-blown case of measles,
even after millions of inoculations around the world, has been dismissed
by numerous medical experts, including Dr. Samuel Katz, developer of
the vaccine.10 The President of the National Academy of
Sciences testifies that Tierney got himself confused about the relationship
between the Atomic Energy Commission and Neel’s outfit, the Atomic Bomb
Casualty Commission, and that he grossly misreports the latter’s research
activities on radiation.11 To the charge that he was a
eugenicist, Neel’s supporters point to a career devoted to combating
simpleminded genetic determinism. Kim Hill finds hypocrisy in Tierney’s
indictments of Chagnon’s gift-giving and travel to remote villages (sans
truly effective quarantine) when Tierney committed the very same "crimes."
Anyone who has actually paid attention to The Ax Fight knows
that, far from an
attempt to hoodwink the viewer that the filmed incident is a piece of
unmediated reality, Asch and Chagnon memorably highlight the constructedness
of cine-ethnographic "truth." After showing the film to a group of mission-based
Yanomamö in 1991, Asch reported "They looked at the films attentively
and said that while they thought that the films were quite accurate,
it would be the ‘kiss of death’ for people to think that the Yanomamö
still live today the way they appear to in the films. They suggested
that I make a film about the way they live today"12 (emphasis
added). Kim Hill concludes "His [Tierney’s] evidence far from being
‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is instead a shoddy collection of distortions,
exaggerations, misrepresentations and fabrications".8
himself subsequently performed an about-face regarding Tierney’s genocide
charge. Interestingly, that the book’s central accusation may well be
spun out of whole Terrycloth has not appeared to diminish Turner’s enthusiasm
for his ongoing ax fight with Chagnon. In the same Los Angeles Times
Magazine profile, we hear how Turner dramatically ambushed Chagnon
at the 1994 meeting of the AAA, rising from the crowd to pronounce him
a "sociopath" and the source of "lies [that] damage the Yanomamö." (As
a graduate student in anthropology in 1996, I recall Turner’s graduate
advisee likewise spreading vague rumors of Chagnon’s "evil.") "His [Chagnon’s]
politics are bad," Turner tells the Los Angeles Times. "His ideas
are used by miners and politicians, especially in Brazil, to argue for
a breakup of Yanomamö land." That Turner blames Chagnon because third
parties might exploit Chagnon’s ideas about the uses of violence in
Yanomamö society is a striking piece of illogic. Are we to expect, therefore,
that Turner, a Marxist, will soon rise to publicly denounce Karl Marx
for crimes committed by left-wing
extremists (governmental and otherwise) in his name?
Indeed, as remarkable as Turner’s reversal
on the genocide charge is the moralistic flourish in which his pirouette
was performed. In his Bookpress review, he laments
the British and American press about "Nazi experiments that killed
thousands" have made the book famous, or infamous, before its publication.
The headlines are in fact wildly inaccurate. Unfortunately, the
book has already become a succés de scandale through such irresponsible,
and unfounded, journalistic hyperbole. There is no hard evidence
that the use of the vaccine actually caused deaths, and Neel, though
he seems to have held eugenic ideas, can scarcely be described as
sensationalist headlines Turner rues are, in fact, accurately reflecting
the tenor and the substance of the "leaked" memo that, as he actually
writes, "two anthropologists" sent to the AAA–that is, the e-mail by
Sponsel and Turner themselves! The newspapers didn’t have to make up
tales of Neel’s "fascistic eugenics" and atrocities worthy of Josef
Mengele. Turner and Sponsel did that for them. Nor was the ostensibly
confidential memo the first time Turner has resorted to such "hyperbole."
In the Los Angeles Times profile of Chagnon, Turner quite publicly
pronounces his straw-man distortion of Chagnon’s work on differential
reproductive success among Yanomamö males as "very close to the Nazi
idea that there’s a leadership gene…"
The fact that Turner and Sponsel call their
e-mail to the President and President-elect of the AAA "confidential"
does not render it acceptable for them to endorse wild, deeply damaging
charges based on a single secondary source. They were, after all, writing
to the leaders of the premier professional organization of their discipline.
The very gravity of the indictment, including as it does a genocidal
pandemic, would seem to call for caution, not gilding the lily. Private
indictments need to be responsible too.
Considering the relevance of genetics, immunology,
and epidemiology to this story, the degree of handwaving about biology
here is remarkable. The crux of the botched vaccination charge, as reported
by Turner and Sponsel, is that Neel wanted to prove that the genetic
supermen among the Yanomamö, the ones who "eliminate or subordinate
the male losers in the competition for leadership and women, and [amass]
harems of brood females…," would preferentially survive exogenous epidemics
by quickly building up immunity to a disease like measles. "It is possible
that he [Neel] thought that genetically superior members of such groups
might prove to have differential levels of immunity and thus higher
rates of survival to imported disease," they speculate.
The trouble with this theory (beyond that it
fails to accurately reflect Neel’s actual views) is that there would
be no reason for Neel to have assumed that immunity to any particular
disease would be genetically linked to traits for "leadership." That
great men can easily be struck down by lowly bugs has been known at
least since Pericles fell victim to plague in Athens in 429 BC. Considering
that even now, with the human genome almost entirely mapped, we have
very little evidence for direct genetic influence on complex human behaviors
like "leadership," there would have been even less reason for Neel (who
was no fool) to assume some linkage between Machiavellianism and microbe-resistance.
This problem would have confounded interpretation of Neel’s "experiment"
no matter what "result" he got. There would have been very little motive
for him to trigger an epidemic that could not have falsified or confirmed
his hypothesis. Indeed, if Neel really was interested in establishing
a correlation between immunity and hostility, why didn’t he just turn
to something at least a bit more interpretable, such as the relationship
between aggression and, say, parasite loads among Yanomamö men?
That a highly regarded cultural anthropologist
like Turner was initially moved to endorse Tierney’s story does not
do credit to his judgment of matters biological. Unfortunately, it is
not a unique incident. In 1997 Cornell’s department hosted a colloquium
talk by the physical anthropologist Peter Rodman. After Rodman’s lecture
on the evolution of mating systems among great apes, Turner delivered
a peroration that boiled down to the question "Why do the apes shun
incest if they don’t rationally know the genetic costs of inbreeding?"
The audience, which was dominated by faculty
and students interested in issues of primate behavior and evolution,
was stunned. Rodman was momentarily thrown by the question, but recovered
with an appeal to the Westermarck effect. Clearly, if organisms needed
to "know" the consequences of their behaviors in order for the laws
of natural selection to apply, Darwinian evolution itself would be on
very shaky ground. The question might as well have been asked, "How
can birds fly without knowing the principles of aerodynamics?"
In Turner’s defense, perhaps he had in mind
some Tinbergen-esque partitioning of behavioral explanation into proximate
and ultimate causations. It didn’t really sound that way, but perhaps.
Still, he is not the first first-rate cultural anthropologist to puzzle
over how natural selection works. In his book The Use and Abuse of
Biology, Sahlins (half-facetiously, one hopes) wonders how kin selection
is supposed to work if native people cannot rationalize partial relatedness
because they lack the linguistic terms to express fractional relationships.
To this, Richard (The Selfish Gene) Dawkins sarcastically replied
|A snail shell
is an exquisite logarithmic spiral, but where does the snail keep
its log tables; how indeed does it read them, since the lens in
its eye lacks ‘linguistic support’ for calculating µ, the coefficient
has produced a considerable body of thoughtful ethnographic and theoretical
work over his career. His analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus in terms
of kinship and kin symbolism, for instance, is one of the most penetrating
works of anthropologically-inspired literary criticism I’m aware of.14
Culturologists do the study of behavior a service when they express
legitimate skepticism about overly enthusiastic genetic and biological
reductionisms. I have expressed like skepticism about certain popular
tenets among evolutionary psychologists, such as Stephen Pinker.15
Pinker, incidentally, has publicly supported Chagnon against Tierney’s
What is implicit in this entire sad episode,
however, is a hostility to science far more virulent than the Edmonton
B vaccine. In a characteristic passage, Turner and Sponsel write "Tierney’s
analysis is a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled
ego, of lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence"
(emphasis added). It is interesting that the authors felt the need to
add the words "in science" to their warning; one would think, after
all, that an "uncontrolled ego" would be dangerous in any context, including
among cultural anthropologists.
One of Neel and Chagnon’s real crimes, it appears,
is to dare to root an explanation for one aspect of Yanomamö social
life at some order of integration other than sociocultural. Chagnon,
in particular, rankled the sensibilities of many culturologists by publishing
a study in Science that purported to demonstrate (with statistics,
no less) that Yanomamö who killed male enemies had more wives and children
than those who hadn’t.16 This would presumably give behaviorally
dominant males a fitness advantage over others, promoting the frequency
of certain behaviorally-relevant alleles in the population. Genetic
relatedness, moreover, was claimed by Chagnon to be a better predictor
of overall observed patterns of violence than political or cultural
factors. In other words, Chagnon actually attempted to explain
an aspect of Yanomamö social behavior, not just to describe it, celebrate
it, or invoke its cultural ramifications.
Even worse, he stands accused of portraying
the tribe in a state of "Hobbesian savagery," red in tooth and claw,
and therefore of naturalizing/rationalizing extermination or dispossession
of the Yanomamö. This runs despite the fact that Chagnon notes, in the
very same Science paper, that notwithstanding the prestige attached
in the tribe to the epithet waiteri ("fierce"), "I suspect the
amount of violence in Yanomamö culture would not be atypical if we had
comparative measures of precontact violence in other similar tribes."
That any portrayal of "savagery" among the Yanomamö should scarcely
excuse savagery against the Yanomamö seems not to have occurred to the
immaculate advocates. As Gross and Leavitt observe in Higher Superstition,
"The academic left’s critiques of science have come to exert a remarkable
influence. The primary reason for their success is not that they put
forward sound arguments, but rather that they resort constantly and
shamelessly to moral one-upmanship"17 (emphasis
Depending on whom you read, Chagnon’s sociobiological
claims have been either falsified or supported. One clear flaw in his
presentation is his failure to quantify degrees of relatedness not only
within villages, but between them (fission appears to be a regular event
at the village level); another is the general problem of evaluating
whether this or that degree of relatedness may be behaviorally relevant.
In short, Chagnon may well be wrong, and could be proven so. This stands
in stark contrast to the vague admixtures of Delphic lit-crit cant,
political slogans, and ad hoc anecdotage typical of much recent
Unfortunately, in some anthropological circles
theses that might just seem unflattering to native people must not only
be disproved. Rather, their scientistic advocates must be professionally
destroyed. In accord with Tierney’s highly tendentious, highly
disputed version of what happened on the upper Orinoco in 1968, Turner
and Sponsel write "He [Neel] insisted to his colleagues that they were
only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must
stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help"1
(emphasis added). Inhuman sciences, indeed.
Efforts to address the questions that first
animated anthropology, about the origin, evolution, and variety of human
experience, have not vanished but only moved elsewhere. One model for
this shift is the fissioning of Stanford University’s department into
a department of Anthropological Science and a Department of Social and
Cultural Anthropology. Another is the process long underway at Cornell,
where such fields as Psychology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Rural Sociology,
and Human Development (among others) have steadily taken up many of
the preoccupations of traditional anthropology. The joke may ultimately
be on militant moralists like Turner and Sponsel: as they help render
anthropology into a post-scientific enterprise, their field becomes
less and less relevant beyond its own rapidly contracting horizon.
is a doctoral student in Psychology at Cornell University. He is the
producer of Science or Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology and
the Law, a video documentary distributed by the University of California
Center for Media and Independent Learning.
Terence, and Leslie Sponsel. (2000) http://www.egroups.com/message/evolutionary-psychology/7180.
M. (1995) How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example.
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Nancy. (1992) Throughout Your Generations Forever. Chicago:
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Clifford. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New
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6. Cf. Krech,
Shepard III (1999) The Ecological Indian: Myth and History.
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Terence. (2000) "Heart of Darkness," The Bookpress. Vol.10,
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Kim (2000) http://www.psych. ucsb.edu/research/cep/eldorado/kimhill.html.
M. (2000) "Napoleon Chagnon’s War of Discovery," Los Angeles
Times Magazine. 1/30/00.
S.L. (2000) http://www.egroups. com/message/evolutionary-psychology/7341.
B. (2000) "Setting the Record Straight Regarding Darkness in
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Jay (1995) "Out of Sync: The Cinema of Tim Asch," Visual
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R. (1995) "Reply to Lucy Sullivan," Philosophical Transactions
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T. (1969) "Oedipus: Time and Structure in Narrative Form," in
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ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 26-68.
N. (1998) "How Pinker’s Mind Works," The Bookpress. Vol.7,
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N. (1988) "Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal
Population," Science. 239, 985-92.
P. and N. Leavitt (1994) Higher Superstition: The Academic
Left and Its Quarrels with Science Baltimore: The Johns
Hopkins University Press. 8.