Noble Savages

9780684855103Napoleon Chagnon
2013 (February 19th)

The publisher’s note at the start of my galley copy of Noble Savages calls Napoleon Chagnon’s first extended popular treatment of his decades-long research among the Yanomamö “one of the most significant works of anthropology ever published, indeed one of the most significant scientific memoirs ever written.”

I don’t know about all that, but I do know that Noble Savages is the most achingly personal book of social “science” that I have ever read.

The full title of the book is Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. As its title suggests, the book combines a detailed and fascinating summary of Chagnon’s work among the Yanomamö with an equally elaborate first-person defense of the author’s research and career — and not least, character — against the often vicious attacks directed against him and against the theoretical basis of his work.

The outcome of this two-sided narrative is a conflicted mix of objective observation and subjective self-justification. Conflicted, and often jarring.

I found myself wishing time after time that Chagnon had separated his two subjects, devoting a book to his work and an essay or EDGE interview to his self-defense. That approach might have let the scientific observation shine through more clearly.

It’s not that I don’t have considerable sympathy for the often outrageous ways that Chagnon has been maligned over the years. I do. His early embrace of sociobiology — of the influence of biology on culture — and his depiction of the Yanomamö as something quite different than the “noble savages” of his title made him a target and a pariah among his cultural anthropologist “colleagues.” Their treatment of his was as ad hominem as it was intellectually vicious.

What made the attacks even worse was that they typically were based not on criticisms of his competence or his methods but on objections to the negative implications of his results for the theories favoured by his critics. Chagnon’s critics were (and are) the same anthropologists who recently removed all reference to “science” from the long-term plan of the American Anthropological Association (a purely political, anti-intellectual action about which I wrote at the time).

So while I sympathize much more with Chagnon’s belief that there are important biological components to human societies than I do with the short-sighted notions that everything comes from culture and culture comes only from environmental factors, I have to say again that I think that Noble Savages is weakened by its dual focus.

That’s too bad, for what Chagnon reveals about the bases of Yanomamö society makes for an engrossing read.

Chagnon shows that reproductive pressures, expressed most often as violent competitions for power and status among adult males and as conflicts over fertile women, lie at the heart of Yanomamö culture.

Males within one “line” compete for dominance within the group, with the top male in the top bloodline emerging as a village’s headman. Different patrilinear groups cement alliances through “sister-swapping” marriages. And the males of different villages engage in both opportunistic and purposeful abductions of nubile females as a way of increasing their status — and the number of their offspring.

So much for the gentle, non-violent, always co-operative hunter-gatherer societies so often depicted in the literature. The Romantic view of the innocent primitive, free from the environmental and social pressures that popular theory claims cause all of our problems, is weakened by every bit of evidence produced by researchers like Chagnon.

And it’s the contrary nature of the evidence that makes it unacceptable to the theory-driven anthropologists who long have labelled Chagnon a racist, an imperialist, and worse, and who go so far as to charge him with faking his results. After all, if the theory says that these can’t be real results, and if you’re not willing to modify the theory, what’s left but to dispute the validity of the results themselves?

Maybe these guys were right to remove all reference to science from the long-term plan of their professional association. After all, truth in advertising is a good thing.


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