When I first learned about the Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal a year or so before it went public, the first thing that sprang to mind was another anthropology scandal that broke out in 2000 with the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”.
Tierney’s book was an attack primarily on Napoleon Chagnon who was a leading expert on the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon rain forest, based primarily in Venezuela. Chagnon’s book on the Yanomami, until the most recent editions, was subtitled “The Fierce People”. He had developed the thesis that warfare between various Yanomami villages was endemic and that it was caused by rivalry over access to females. In a kind of survival of the fittest, the most aggressive Yanomami warriors had the greatest possibility of propagating their genes.
For those who have watched documentaries on the chimpanzees on National Geographic documentaries, you will make the connection immediately. For Chagnon, there is little difference between men and animals when it comes to the all-important question of survival. In 1979 Chagnon and William Irons co-edited a book titled “Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior” that coincided with the emergence of sociobiology as the latest trend in the sciences harking back to social Darwinism. Grasping his affinity with Napoleon Chagnon, E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, wrote a fawning introduction to Chagnon’s “Yanomami: The Last Days of Eden”, a popular adaptation of his original study, a book that has become the best-selling anthropology text of all time after Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”. Ironically, both Mead and Chagnon’s have been viewed as responsible for one-sided portrayals of their subjects flowing from their respective ideological biases. Mead sought evidence, even falsified, to support her thesis that Samoan adolescents were sexually liberated while Chagnon was only interested in data to help his argument that the Yanomami were bellicose, even to the point of staging ax fights for a movie that the participants were paid for in advance, like Hollywood extras.
Diamond and Chagnon cooked the books to demonstrate that the Papua New Guinea highland tribesmen and Yanomami Indians were warlike in exactly the same way that George W. Bush got us into war in Iraq. The weapons of mass destruction were non-existent, just as the mass killings were in PNG and the Amazon rain forests.
The idea that communal societies such as the Yanomami are more violent than those based on class ownership of the means of production is at the very heart of sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology as it is called nowadays). In an article that appears in the current issue of Greater Good Magazine, Stephen Pinker makes the argument that tribal warfare was far more horrific than anything experienced in the 20th century:
Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that “war is not an instinct but an invention.”
But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.
In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, that statement might seem hallucinatory or even obscene. But if we consider the evidence, we find that the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon: We can see the decline over millennia, centuries, decades, and years. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.
Pinker has been one of the most prominent figures associated with evolutionary psychology since the publication of “The Language Instinct” in 1994. In 1997 Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article in the New York Review titled “Darwinian Fundamentalism” that took on Daniel Dennett, one of Pinker’s co-thinkers. Dennett wrote a letter to the magazine defending his approach, as did Pinker and a group of fellow evolutionary psychologists in a subsequent issue. Gould responded to all of them, who were no doubt irked by Gould’s observation that:
Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.
In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”
Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.
I first became interested in the Yanomami in 1996 after an article appeared in Living Marxism, the magazine better known by its initials LM. Its hostility to human rights groups defending the Indians was so disturbing to me that I resolved to dig into the question of Marxism’s relationship to indigenous peoples in order to see why they had gone so wrong. LM was put out of business in a libel trial in Great Britain which victimized them for one of the few progressive stands they took—namely debunking the claims about concentration camps in Bosnia that were made an excuse for NATO intervention. After LM folded, the group evolved in a libertarian direction and in its latest permutation—Spiked Online—makes no pretense to Marxist politics.
After the libel suit, the magazine’s archives became unavailable but the article by Ann Bradley (a pen name for Ann Furedi, who was married to the LM leader) can be read on the alt.politics.socialism.trotsky newsgroup, courtesy of one of its members at the time, one Justin Flude.
I think Fiona Watson, Survival’s Brazil campaign officer, has got one hell of a cheek to write disapprovingly that ‘sadly not all Yanomami groups have been able to resist encroaching white society’. Why exactly is she so horrified that in one area ‘some of the Yanomami have slung their hammocks around the stilts supporting the abandoned [government agency] post’? Perhaps it makes it harder for her to get picturesque photos. Fiona believes we should protect the Yanomami from the advances of civilisation by declaring their lands a national park where their culture could be preserved. It sounds like a human zoo to me.
The hard truth is that, whether we value them or not, you can’t preserve cultures in the way that you can preserve jam. The Yanomami, even if they wish to, cannot remain isolated from the world system. Even if they have no interest in going into the developed world, the developed world will come to them.
Already capitalist development is having its effect on tribal people. Over the last 20 years an increasing number of gold and tin miners have moved into Yanomami’s lands bringing diseases and infections to which they have no immunity. Waste from the mining processes have poisoned the water supplies and the noise and disruption of the mining itself has scared away the animals which the tribal peoples hunt.
This article gives backhanded support to incursions into Yanomami territory even though it gives lip-service to the idea that gold and tin mining are wreaking havoc. At the time such an article was written, Survival International and other such groups were in the forefront of defending the right of the Yanomami to live as they please. Ann Furedi’s article would serve as fodder for those who believed in the forced assimilation of the Yanomami and the opening up of their territory for capitalist development. In the grotesque misuse of the Communist Manifesto that LM specialized in, all corporate assaults on native peoples and the environment were seen as essential to ushering in the benefits of civilization. In a nutshell, it was Kautskyite stagism adapted to the sensibilities of the British yuppie left of the 1990s.
As we shall see, Chagnon’s “fierce people” notions had something of the same effect. Just around the time that gold and tin mining interests were targeting Yanomami lands, articles in the mass media influenced by Chagnon’s scholarly articles served to undermine Indian sovereignty. Why bother to defend Yanomami rights when they were so bloodthirsty?
A 1976 article in Time Magazine titled “Manly or Beastly” put it this way:
Implied in Chagnon’s findings so far is a notion startling to traditional anthropology: the rather horrifying Yãnomamõ culture makes some sense in terms of animal behavior. Chagnon argues that Yãnomamõ structures closely parallel those of many primates in breeding patterns, competition for females and recognition of relatives. Like baboon troops, Yãnomamõ villages tend to split into two after they reach a certain size.
This kind of disgusting racism gave implicit support to the idea that the Yanomami had to be treated as wild animals.
Over the next week or so I am going to be blogging in some depth about the issues raised by Patrick Tierney’s book but for those who are interested in them but want to be spared the time and expense of reading “Darkness in El Dorado”, I can strongly recommend an article by Tierney that appeared in the November 6, 2000 New Yorker Magazine that was the opening salvo in a bitter war among those pro and anti-Chagnon. Although the article is behind a subscriber’s firewall, you can read it in its entirety on the W.H. Norton website, the publishers of his book.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
The New Yorker, November 6, 2000
A REPORTER AT LARGE
THE FIERCE ANTHROPOLOGIST
Did Napoleon Chagnon’s expeditions harm one of the world’s most vulnerable tribes?
BY PATRICK TIERNEY
In November, 1964, Napoleon A. Chagnon, a twenty-six-year-old American anthropology graduate student, arrived in a small jungle village in Venezuela, to study one of the most remote tribes on earth–the Yanomami Indians. At the time, the boundaries between Venezuela and Brazil were still uncertain. The upper Orinoco, with its tumultuous rapids and impassable waterfalls, had frustrated conquistadores since the sixteenth century, making its mountain redoubts a perfect blank slate for the dream of El Dorado and other fantasies about the New World. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who visited the area at the turn of the nineteenth century, wrote, “Above the Great Cataracts of the Orinoco a mythical land begins . . . the soil of fable and fairy vision.” The Yanomami themselves were rumored, by other tribes and by the earliest explorers, to be “wild” and dangerous–so dangerous that, in 1920, one of the first Americans to encounter them, the geographer Hamilton Rice, opened fire with a machine gun, fearing that the Yanomami were cannibals. Four years later, Rice met the Yanomami again and wrote that they “are not the fierce and intractable people that legends ascribe them to be, but for the most part poor, under-sized, inoffensive creatures who eke out a miserable existence.”
The reality that Chagnon encountered was, in many ways, stranger than anything previously imagined. In “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which was published in 1968, Chagnon gave both a harrowing account of a prehistoric tribe and a sobering assessment of what life was like for people whom he later referred to as “our contemporary ancestors.” “The Fierce People” eventually became one of the most widely read ethnographical books of all time, selling almost a million copies in the United States alone. Buttressed by subsequent films about the Yanomami made by Chagnon and a documentary filmmaker, Timothy Asch, the book became a standard text in anthropology classes worldwide, and it has gone through five revised editions, the last one in 1997.
“The Fierce People” was written with the verve of an adventure story but was grounded in extensive empirical research. The book opens with this description of Chagnon and an American missionary named James Barker, stumbling into a Yanomami village:
I . . . gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. . . . I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. . . . What sort of a welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you?
By 1968, Chagnon had spent nineteen months with the Yanomami. During this time, as he writes, he “acquired some proficiency in their language and, up to a point, submerged myself in their culture and their way of life.” He studied the Yanomami in a broad variety of aspects, from their travel habits to their technology, use of hallucinogens, agriculture, intellectual life, social and political structures, patterns of settlement, division of labor, marriage practices, trading, and feasting. What was most striking about them was, he wrote, “the importance of aggression in their culture.” The Yanomami, he concluded, lived in a “state of chronic warfare”:
I had the opportunity to witness a good many incidents that expressed individual vindictiveness on the one hand and collective bellicosity on the other. These ranged in seriousness from the ordinary incidents of wife beating and chest pounding to dueling and organized raiding by parties that set out with the intention of ambushing and killing men from enemy villages.
Between 1968 and 1972, Chagnon made five more expeditions into Yanomami country, exploring increasingly remote villages. In a 1974 book, “Studying the Yanomamö,” and in subsequent editions of his first book, he describes surviving a murder attempt by his hosts–whom he frightens off with a flashlight–and a close encounter with a jaguar, which sniffs him in his hammock. Despite repeated death threats, he pushes on into uncharted territory, where he discovers an isolated group, whose members he calls “the Fiercer People.” Abandoned by a Yanomami guide, he hollows out a log canoe and returns downriver.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists had been inspired to venture farther and farther afield in search of “pure” people, uncontaminated by the Industrial Revolution. In the nineteen-twenties, Margaret Mead went to the South Pacific and wrote her best-seller “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Mead described native life in idyllic terms that spoke to the war-weary mood of the time, while overlooking some of the less pleasant aspects of Samoan life, such as the high incidence of violent rape.
“The Fierce People” was the product of a different period. Chagnon, who was born in 1938, had spent an austere childhood in small-town, rural Michigan; his father was an undertaker, and he was the second of twelve children. He earned his doctorate in anthropology at the University of Michigan, and obtained a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the Yanomami. “The Fierce People” was published at the height of the Vietnam War, when violence was the subject of national debate, and it became, in effect, the ethnographic text for the sixties. In 1997, Chagnon told an interviewer for the Los Angeles Times that he had written about the Yanomami in reaction to the “garbage” he had learned in graduate school about “noble savages.“