Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2013

Chagnon’s war

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition February 22-24, 2013

The Tarzan of Anthropology

Chagnon’s War


The best way to understand Napoleon Chagnon’s contribution to anthropology is to tune in to one of those television wildlife documentaries showing an alpha-male baboon beating and biting the living bejeezus out of a rival, or being beaten into submission himself. As the narrator is wont to say, “Thus the winner of nature’s eternal battle has earned the right to enjoy the sexual privileges that guarantee survival of the fittest genes.”

In the 1960s Chagnon went down to the Amazon rainforest with the intention of proving that the Yanomami, already reduced by 75 percent through diseases spread by gold miners, ranchers and other invaders of their homeland, were the “fierce people” locked in perpetual warfare over the right to control the bodies of women. If this sounds farfetched, we can only offer up the words of Nicholas Wade, a N.Y Times science reporter, in a glowing review of Chagnon’s new memoir “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists”:

After overtaxing one of his informants, the shaman Dedeheiwä, about the reason for a succession of village fissions into smaller hostile groups, Dr. Chagnon found himself rebuked with the outburst, “Don’t ask such stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!”

Chagnon puts it somewhat more delicately in his memoir: ““The whole purpose and design of the social structure of tribesmen seems to have revolved around effectively controlling sexual access by males to nubile, reproductive-age females.”

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/

February 20, 2013

What the press is saying about Napoleon Chagnon

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 3:23 pm

Napoleon Chagnon

The best place to start is with Emily Eakin’s piece in the Sunday NY Times Magazine that provides a good background. Titled “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist”, the article can best be described as damning with faint praise. She makes sure to identify the mistakes made by Patrick Tierney in his “Darkness in El Dorado,” a book that Chagnon blames for destroying his reputation, but he could hardly be happy with her reporting:

Chagnon strides into the middle of a shabono in a loincloth and faded high tops and strikes a warrior pose — a bearded Tarzan aping his subjects, to their audible delight.

A bearded Tarzan aping his subjects? This is hardly the metaphor that a man of science should welcome although it does strike at the heart of darkness imagery that defines Chagnon’s career. As evident in his writings, Chagnon enjoyed lording it over the tiny Yanomami men. Is it any surprise that his sociobiological “Naked Ape” predilections inspired him to develop an “alpha male” relationship with those he was studying?

Meanwhile the Sunday Times Book Review didn’t bother with any faint praise business and went straight for Tarzan’s jugular. Columbia University professor of anthropology and gender studies Elizabeth Povinelli seethes:

For him, the “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous” Yanomamö stink and produce enormous amounts of “dark green snot.” They keep “vicious, underfed growling dogs,” engage in brutal “club fights” and — God forbid! — defecate in the bush. By the time the reader makes it to the sections on the Yanomamö’s political organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating Chagnon’s soiled image.

Although I have little use for the editorial decisions of Sam Tanenhaus, the neoconservative editor of the Sunday Times book review section, I almost sent him a dozen roses for assigning Professor Povinelli.

As is often the case with the N.Y. Times, unless you are Noam Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein, multiple reviews of your book will yield different conclusions. In the Science section on Tuesday, February 18, 2013, Nicholas Wade was positively glowing:

After overtaxing one of his informants, the shaman Dedeheiwä, about the reason for a succession of village fissions into smaller hostile groups, Dr. Chagnon found himself rebuked with the outburst, “Don’t ask such stupid questions! Women! Women! Women! Women! Women!”

Dr. Chagnon’s legacy… is that he was able to gain a deep insight into the last remaining tribe living in a state of nature. “Noble Savages” is a remarkable testament to an engineer’s 35-year effort to unravel the complex working of an untouched human society.

I am surprised that Chagnon did not report that the shaman told him, “Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads!”. His impact on the tribes was, after all, quite broad.

It should be mentioned that Nicholas Wade is an evolutionary psychologist (what used to be called sociobiology) himself. He wrote a book called “The Faith Instinct” that basically argued that worshipping a deity helps to guarantee “human success”. I can’t say that I am surprised to see a worshipful blurb from the National Review’s John Derbyshire on Wade’s website. Just to jog your memory, Derbyshire was fired from the National Review for writing an article elsewhere defending racial profiling in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Just the kind of guy you need to hype some sociobiological trash.

I was anxious to see what Charles Mann had to say about Chagnon in the February 18 Wall Street Journal. Mann is the author of “1491” and “1493”, two history books that can be described as pro-Indian.

Mann was an intriguing choice since an article extracted from “1491” that appeared in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly depicts the pre-Columbian Amazon rainforest largely as “a human artifact” and no virgin wilderness. That viewpoint shapes the powerful conclusion of his review:

Implicit in his ideas is the presumption that the Yanomamo he met in 1964 are representative of the way all or most people were in the distant past — they are, as Mr. Chagnon puts it, “pure,” “pristine,” even “wild.” They were frozen in time, like insects in amber. But is that true? Researchers like Mr. Ferguson, Jacques Lizot, Ernest Migliazza and Neil Whitehead argue that the Yanomamo probably used to live hundreds of miles south, on the Rio Negro, a big tributary of the Amazon. Prior to 1492, these researchers say, this portion of central Amazonia was a prosperous, cosmopolitan, multiethnic network of big villages, fed by fish from the great river and reliant upon a multitude of forest products. When that network was thrown into turmoil by the arrival of European slavers and European diseases, the Yanomamo and many other groups fled into the hinterlands, where they now reside.

If this is correct, these people are not “pure” or “pristine”; they are dispossessed. And their existence in small bands is reflective not of humankind’s ancient past but of a shattered society that has preserved its liberty by retreat. It would be risky to base conclusions about the evolution of society on the study of posses of refugees, perhaps especially those who have survived both a holocaust and a diaspora.

Before the book hit the stands, Matt Ridley wrote a puff piece in the January 25 Wall Street Journal titled naturally enough “Farewell to the Myth of the Noble Savage”. It should be stressed, of course, that Chagnon’s adversaries in the academy were not into Rousseau, but Karl Marx. Marxist anthropology and its close relative cultural materialism do not posit a pure Eden-like status that is sullied by civilization. Instead they simply try to explain phenomena such as warfare in terms of class relationships. Furthermore, in pre-class formation such as hunting-and-gathering societies, there is little attempt to glorify an often-harsh existence except for the tendency to enjoy a kind of Stone Age leisure that Marshall Sahlins examined.

Ridley writes:

Meanwhile the science has been going Dr. Chagnon’s way. Recent studies have confirmed that mortality from violence is very common in small-scale societies today and in the past. Almost one-third of such people die in raids and fights, and the death rate is twice as high among men as among women. This is a far higher death rate than experienced even in countries worst hit by World War II. Thomas Hobbes’s “war of each against all” looks more accurate for humanity in a state of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” though anthropologists today prefer to see a continuum between these extremes.

This, of course, is the argument made by Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond in recent books that argue we’ve never had it so good. Civilization not only gives us hot showers in the morning but also keeps us from being clubbed to death by people with green snot pouring out of their nose. When I hear this sort of thing, I harken back to what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in “The Junius Pamphlet” at the beginning of WWI:

For bourgeois-liberal economists and politicians, railroads, Swedish matches, sewer systems, and department stores are “progress” and “civilization.” In themselves these works grafted onto primitive conditions are neither civilization nor progress, for they are bought with the rapid economic and cultural ruin of peoples who must experience simultaneously the full misery and horror of two eras: the traditional natural economic system and the most modern and rapacious capitalist system of exploitation. Thus, the capitalist victory parade and all its works bear the stamp of progress in the historical sense only because they create the material preconditions for the abolition of capitalist domination and class society in general. And in this sense imperialism ultimately works for us.

At this point it should not come as any surprise to learn that Matt Ridley is a sociobiologist himself. Written in 1993, his first book “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” is par for the course. The book is filled with stunning observations such as: “Anaxagoras’ belief that lying on the right side during sex would produce a boy was so influential that centuries later some French aristocrats had their left testicles amputated.” I can’t say that I was surprised to find no reference to such occurrences in JSTOR. Ridley probably had it right when he wrote in the same book: “Half the ideas in this book are probably wrong.”

John Horgan has a blog post on Scientific American titled “The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair” that is a must-read. Back in 2000 Horgan was asked by he N.Y. Times to review Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”. When word leaked out that he was the reviewer, he was contacted by a who’s who of sociobiologists:

I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer.

One might wonder why they didn’t threaten to come to his house with clubs, beat him senseless, and drag off his wife by her hair. He continues:

I was so disturbed by the pressure from Dawkins et al—who seemed to be defending not Chagnon per se but the sociobiology paradigm–that I ended up making my review of Darkness more positive. I wanted Darkness to be read and discussed, to get a hearing. After all, Tierney leveled what I found to be credible accusations against not only Chagnon but also other scientists and journalists.

To Horgan’s credit, he withstood the pressure and was even tougher on Chagnon than he might be today. This was what he wrote back in 2000:

Tierney has convinced me that Chagnon’s critics were right after all. First, the visits of Chagnon — or any outsiders — to the Yanomami exposed them to pathogens to which they were extremely vulnerable. Because the Yanomami attributed illness to the sorcery of enemies, they blamed one another for infections caused by foreigners.

Perhaps reflecting Chagnon’s vindication by the anthropology establishment and Tierney’s eventual repudiation, Horgan strikes a rueful note:

I have one major regret concerning my review: I should have noted that Chagnon is a much more subtle theorist of human nature than Tierney and other critics have suggested. In fact, Chagnon has never been as much of a genetic determinist as, say, Wilson or anthropologist Richard Wrangham, who have cited Chagnon’s work as evidence that warfare has deep biological roots. (See my rebuttal of this hypothesis here.)

I first interviewed Chagnon in 1988, after Science published his report that Yanamamo killers fathered more offspring than male non-killers. Chagnon was funny and profane. He called non-killers “wimps,” and he denounced his detractors as left-wing peaceniks clinging to the “myth of the noble savage.” But when it came to the theoretical implications of his work, he chose his words with surprising care.

Saying he had been falsely accused of claiming that there is a “warfare gene,” he denied that Yanomamo warriors are innately warlike. He noted that Yanomamo headmen usually employed violence in a controlled manner; compulsively violent males often did not live long enough to bear children. Yanomamo males engaged in raids and other violent behavior, Chagnon proposed, not out of instinct but because their culture esteemed violent behavior. Many Yanomamo warriors had confessed to Chagnon that they loathed war and wished it could be abolished from their culture.

Chagnon reiterated this view when I interviewed him for “The New Social Darwinists,” a critique of evolutionary psychology published in Scientific American in October 1995. He said he was disturbed at the degree to which some sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists downplayed the role of culture in human behavior. I said he sounded like Stephen Jay Gould, a vehement critic of genetic explanations of human behavior. I meant to goad Chagnon with the comparison, but he embraced it. “Steve Gould and I probably agree on a lot of things,” Chagnon said.

Well, it would have been interesting to see how “Steve Gould” would have responded to Chagnon’s comment but somehow I doubt it. Gould was an enemy of biological determinism and despite Horgan’s assertion that Chagnon was falsely accused of claiming that there was a “warfare gene”, there is little doubt that he was committed to a “spread your seed gene”. In other words, Chagnon viewed the need for men to get as many “women, women, women, women” under their control as innate. The violence, of course, was instrumental to their achieving that goal.

One thing is damned sure, however. James V. Neel, Napoleon Chagnon’s research partner in Yanomami territory, was committed to eugenics, the bogus science that Stephen Jay Gould dismantled in “Mismeasure of Man”. In the torrent of articles and email that followed the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado”, Terence Turner, a member of the anthropology department at Cornell University, delivered the goods on Neel’s “science”. He quotes from a Neel article [emphasis added]:

There is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure– small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future.

Turner offers these thoughts [emphasis added]:

The same ideas and eugenic claims for Yanomama-type society are repeated, in less developed form, in Chapter 17 of Neel’s autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool. Dr Neel also expressed some of these ideas to me in personal conversation. Shortly after my return from my first field trip to the Kayapo in the winter of 1964, Neel invited me to Ann Arbor to give a lecture to his students and colleagues about practical aspects of field research in the Amazon. This initiated a period of loose collaboration with the project organized by Neel and the distinguished Brazilian biological anthropologist, Francisco Salzano, for comparative research on the population genetics of Amazonian indigenous groups. My main contribution to the project was a genealogical census of a Kayapo community that I believe comprises the project’s main data base on the Kayapo. After my lecture to Neel’s group at Ann Arbor, there was a small reception. I found myself standing next to Dr. Neel, who startled me by exclaiming, “Maybe now we can really find the leadership gene” (these were his exact words as I remember them). Incredulous, I in turn exclaimed, “You can’t be serious!”. He replied in words to the effect that he did not think it unreasonable to suppose that in small, relatively isolated societies like those of contemporary Amazonian peoples, men would rise to leadership by virtue of superior genetic endowment, and as polygamists be able to reproduce their genes more than less dominant monogamous men.

They say you are known by the company you keep. If Neel was Chagnon’s closest collaborator in the Amazon rainforest, you really are kidding yourself if you think he had anything in common with “Steve Gould”.

Of these articles or reviews on Napoleon Chagnon timed to coincide with the release of his memoir “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists”, the two most negative were written by women.

Although this is impossible to prove, I strongly suspect that men are less offended by Chagnon’s theory that Yanomami violence is a function of men trying to gain access to as many women as possible in order to help propagate their genes.

Jacques Lizot, a Levi-Strauss disciple who worked among the same tribes as Chagnon, and Sarah Dart wrote a paper titled “On Warfare: an answer to N. A. Chagnon” for the November 1994 issue of “American Ethnologist”.

In examining the warfare between the villages that supposedly proved Chagnon’s thesis, Lizot discovered that only 0.3 percent of the were with women taken from an enemy group. Based on these figures, there is no cost-benefit involved with fighting in order to secure childbearing females. Unlike the Trojan War, this bloodletting in the Amazon had nothing to do with stealing women.

Lizot and Dart apply the coup de grace to Chagnon:

Chagnon’s point of view is, moreover, marked by an underlying male chauvinism, and sociobiology is a garment that suits him well. According to his conception of things, women, in the quarrels of the men, are nothing but beings without initiative and will.

February 17, 2013

The Comanches and the Yanomami

Filed under: indigenous,Jared Diamond,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Napoleon Chagnon

Almost five years ago to the day, I resolved to begin researching the Comanche Indians of the southern Plains after reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, a novel that was committed to the idea that this tribe (for lack of a better word) was no better than the white settlers who would eventually slaughter them into submission and drive the survivors into reservations. “Blood Meridian” is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Now, after having read between 4 and 5 thousand pages on the Comanches, I am finally putting together an article for a special issue on indigenous peoples in “Capitalism, Nature, and Socialism”. The last book I am in the progress of reading that will help me finalize my thesis—namely, that the Comanches were bit players in the capitalist transformation of the southern Plains—is David J. Weber’s “Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment”.

On page 76 he gets to the heart of the matter, whether kin-based societies (ie., tribes) were warlike and violent and that “primitive man is a…warrior”. The scholars who defend this view go so far as to say that war is an expression of “human biology”. Other scholars, according to Weber, view warfare as “a response to material conditions in general and to European influences in particular.”

As it turns out Weber’s footnotes mention Brian Ferguson as a leading authority defending the “material conditions” outlook. Just three days ago I had emailed Brian to see if he could recommend any material on the Comanches. I knew of his prior work on Yanomami “warfare”, alluded to in Weber’s notes:

Brian Ferguson offers some of the most compelling arguments that Western contacts generated Native warfare. See, for example, Ferguson, 1900b, 237-57, and Ferguson, 1995, where he makes a case that Yanomamis (Chagnon’s “fierce people” who inhabit a remote mountainous country between Brazil and Venezuela), were not fierce or warlike until European manufactured goods altered their trading relationships with neighboring peoples.

It is more than coincidence that the Chagnon story came up twice this week, once in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine section. Both articles are geared to the 74 year old anthropologist’s new memoir titled “Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists” [Chagnon uses “Yanomamo; other anthropologists prefer “Yanomami”].

I first learned of Chagnon in 2000 when the Chronicle of Higher Education began reporting on a huge controversy that had erupted over the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that charged Chagnon with a number of crimes. Chief among them was  a genocide based on the supposed administration of a faulty measles vaccine designed to support an experiment on native resistance to the disease.

The Tierney-Chagnon wars are reviewed in considerable detail in the article titled “Who are the Real Savages?” by Emily Eakin that is surprisingly objective. Given the NY Times’s tendency to side with the establishment, I fully expected a whitewash of Chagnon. He instead comes across as fairly despicable even if he is cleared at the end of the article as being mostly wronged by Tierney. In my view, Tierney’s biggest mistake was the measles vaccine accusation that was far too much an expression of conspiracist thinking. Most of the damage that Chagnon did to the Yanomami was attributable to his own bullheaded insensitivity rather than conscious evil. This excerpt from Eakin’s article will give you an idea of what he was up to:

He spent his first few months trying to learn the villagers’ names and kinship ties, a standard practice at the time and a particular challenge in this case, given the Yanomami’s name taboos: to call someone by his name is often an insult, and the names of the dead aren’t supposed to be uttered at all. Chagnon rewarded informants with fish hooks, matches and, for men who really dished, knives and machetes. (The Yanomami made no metal tools themselves.) Then, on a visit to another village, Chagnon cautiously mentioned the names of the Bisaasi-teri headman and his wife. The residents burst out laughing. He realized that he’d been had: the names he’d been given were slang for genitalia.

I actually prefer Chagnon’s telling of the story in a 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population”. It is almost enough for me to feel kindly toward the elderly sociobiologist:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

The title of Chagnon’s memoir should give you a good idea of where he is coming from. “Noble Savages” is the term coined by Rousseau that people such as Napoleon Chagnon hoped to debunk through an empirical study of a tribal people who made war in order to take women as booty. By having access to multiple sexual partners, the “savage” had a better chance of propagating his genes as Eakins puts it:

Chagnon believed that biology was essential to understanding the tribe’s warfare over women. After all, more women meant more opportunities to pass on genes through reproduction — a basic tenet of evolutionary thought. But biology had no place in the cultural-materialist paradigm. And explanations of human behavior that relied on evolutionary theory were typically met with suspicion in anthropological circles, a legacy of the American eugenics movement, which invoked Darwinian ideas to justify racist efforts to “improve” the gene pool. “The last bastions of resistance to evolutionary theory,” Chagnon told me, “are organized religion and cultural anthropology.”

The article cites Steven Pinker as an expert for the defense:

Scientists have since endorsed Chagnon’s Science article. “It shouldn’t be a shocking finding,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist who cites the paper in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” told me. “As a pattern in history, it’s well documented.” Pinker said that he was troubled by the notion that social scientists should suppress unflattering information about their subjects because it could be exploited by others. “This whole tactic is a terrible mistake: always putting your moral action in jeopardy of empirical findings,” he told me. “Once you have the equation that the Yanomami are nonviolent and deserve to be protected, the converse is that if they are violent they don’t deserve to be protected.”

For those who haven’t kept track of the science wars, “evolutionary psychologist” is just another way of saying sociobiologist, a term that has become tarnished over the years for its obvious connection to social Darwinism. Pinker’s views about the warlike character of pre-class societies have been echoed by Jared Diamond, whose new book “The World until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” will likely repeat the points he has made in the past.

On February 3rd the Guardian reported on the reaction of Survival International to Diamond’s new book:

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

“It’s a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us,” said Survival’s Jonathan Mazower. “It simply isn’t true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people’s rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative.”

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that “tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace”. He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as “primitive brutish barbarians” or as “noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes”

Of course Diamond raises the “noble savage” canard as if his opponents think that indigenous peoples lived in a Garden of Eden. In reality the primary focus among Marxists, or their closest relatives cultural materialists like Marvin Harris, is on the social and economic factors that lead to peace or violence. To invoke the term “noble savage” is tantamount to a kind of essentialism that people like Brian Ferguson are anxious to eschew at all costs.

Like the Yanomamo, the Comanches of the 19th century have become poster boys for those who would line up with Pinker, Diamond and Chagnon, even if they are not so committed to evolutionary psychology. Two recent scholarly books “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are replete with descriptions of wanton Comanche violence. Reports of scalping, rape, kidnapping, and murder appear on every few pages.

While the authors of “Comanche Empire” and “War of a Thousand Deserts” are unknown to the average American, a recent book by a journalist that obviously draws from their scholarship was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a best seller. This is how author S.C. Gwynne described the Comanches in “Empire of the Summer Moon”:

Thus some chroniclers ignore the brutal side of Indian life altogether; others, particularly historians who suggest that before white men arrived Indian-to-Indian warfare was a relatively bloodless affair involving a minimum of bloodshed, deny it altogether.16 But certain facts are inescapable: American Indians were warlike by nature, and they were warlike for centuries before Columbus stumbled upon them. They fought over hunting grounds, to be sure, but they also made a good deal of brutal and bloody war that was completely unnecessary. The Comanches’ relentless and never-ending pursuit of the hapless Tonkawas was a good example of this, as was their harassment of Apaches long after they had been driven from the buffalo grounds. Such behavior was common to all Indians in the Americas. The more civilized agrarian tribes of the east, in fact, were far more adept at devising lengthy and agonizing tortures than the Comanches or other plains tribes.17 The difference lay in the Plains Indians’ treatment of female captives and victims. Rape or abuse, including maiming, of females had existed when eastern tribes had sold captives as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that practice had been long ago abandoned. Some tribes, including the giant Iroquois federation, had never treated women captives that way.’ Women could be killed, and scalped. But not gang-raped. What happened to the Parker captives could only have happened west of the Mississippi. If the Comanches were better known for cruelty and violence, that was because, as one of history’s great warring peoples, they were in a position to inflict far more pain than they ever received.

Most important, the Indians themselves saw absolutely nothing wrong with these acts. For westering settlers, the great majority of whom believed in the idea of absolute good and evil, and thus of universal standards of moral behavior, this was nearly impossible to understand. Part of it had to do with the Comanches’ theory of the nature of the universe, which was vastly different from that of the civilized West. Comanches had no dominant, unified religion, or anything like a single God. Though in interviews after their defeat they often seemed to go along with the idea of a “Great Spirit,” Comanche ethnographers Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel were extremely skeptical of any creation myths that involved a single spirit or an “evil one.”19 “We never gave much consideration to creation,” said an old Comanche named Post Oak Jim in an interview in the 1930s. “We just knew we were here. Our thoughts were mostly directed toward understanding the spirits.”‘

The Comanches lived in a world alive with magic and taboo; spirits lived everywhere, in rocks, trees, and in animals. The main idea of their religion was to find a way to harness the powers of these spirits. Such powers thus became “puha,” or “medicine.” There was no dogma, no priestly class to impose systematic religion, no tendency to view the world as anything but a set of isolated episodes, with no deeper meaning. There were behavioral codes, to be sure—a man could not steal another man’s wife without paying penalties, for example. But there was no ultimate good and evil: just actions and consequences; injuries and damages due.

Enemies, meanwhile, were enemies, and the rules for dealing with them had come down through a thousand years. A Comanche brave who captured a live Ute would torture him to death without question. It was what every-one had always done, what the Sioux did to the Assiniboine, what the Crow did to the Blackfeet. A Comanche captured by a Ute would expect to receive exactly the same treatment (thus making him weirdly consistent with the idea of the Golden Rule), which was why Indians always fought to their last breath on battlefields, to the astonishment of Europeans and Americans. There were no exceptions. Of course, the same Indians also believed, quite as deeply, in blood vengeance. The life of the warrior tortured to death would be paid for with another torture-killing if possible, preferably even more hideous than the first. This, too, was seen as fair play by all Indians in the Americas.

What explains such a radical difference in the moral systems of the Comanches and the whites they confronted? Part of it has to do with the relative progress of civilizations in the Americas compared to the rest of the world. The discovery of agriculture, which took place in Asia and the Middle East, roughly simultaneously, around 6,500 BC, allowed the transition from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to the higher civilizations that followed. But in the Americas, farming was not discovered until 2,500 BC, fully four thousand years later and well after advanced cultures had already sprung up in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This was an enormous gap. Once the Indians figured out how to plant seeds and cultivate crops, civilizations in North and South America progressed at roughly the same pace as they had in the Old World. Cities were built. Highly organized social structures evolved. Pyramids were designed. Empires were assembled, of which the Aztecs and Incas were the last. (As in the Old World, nomadism and hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside the higher civilizations.) But the Americas, isolated and in any case without the benefit of the horse or the ox, could never close the time gap. They were three to four millennia behind the Europeans and Asians, and the arrival of Columbus in 1492 guaranteed that they would never catch up. The nonagrarian Plains Indians, of course, were even further behind. Thus the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp—as though the former were looking backward thousands of years at premoral, pre-Christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves. The Celtic peoples, ancestors of huge numbers of immigrants to America in the nineteenth century, offer a rough parallel. Celts of the fifth century BC were described by Herodotus as “fierce warriors who fought with seeming disregard for their own lives.”‘ Like Comanches they were savage, filthy, wore their hair long, and had a hideous keening battle cry. They were superb horsemen, inordinately fond of alcohol, and did terrible things to their enemies and captives that included decapitation, a practice that horrified the civilized Greeks and Romans!’ The old Celts, forebears of the Scots-Irish who formed the vanguard of America’s western migrations, would have had no “moral” problem with the Comanche practice of torture.

The civilized Greeks and Romans? Only someone steeped in the imperialist and racist ideology of a republic borne from the savage Greco-Roman bowels could ever make such a statement.

The best antidote to this way of thinking is a BBC documentary narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones that can be see in part here:

Jones quotes the words of a Celtic general as found in the writings of Tacitus. Although Tacitus was a Roman, he was not above allowing one of the “barbarians” to make an eloquent case for his people. It includes the famous dictum: “They built a wilderness (or solitude) and call it peace”, an apt description of Iraq today.

 To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Chagnon’s memoir was eviscerated in the Sunday Times Book Review.

March 29, 2011

Secrets of the Tribe

Filed under: Film,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

As someone with a more than a passing interest in the Napoleon Chagnon/Yanomami controversy, I found the HBO documentary “Secrets of the Tribe” totally riveting. For those who are not familiar with the ideological warfare that followed in the trail of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, the film is a terrific introduction. It interviews all the major figures in the debate, as well as the Yanomami people who encountered them for better or—mostly—for worse.

Although I have been reading about these characters for years, this was my first opportunity to see them defend themselves. Their stories beggar the imagination and embody the cliché that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Here are the cast of characters:

Napoleon Chagnon: Chagnon developed the thesis of the Yanomami as the “fierce people”. He claimed that 40 percent of the men he interviewed confessed that they had killed at least one man from another tribe. He tried to explain the warfare in terms of sociobiology. The dominant males were those who were most likely to propagate their genes.

Kenneth Good: Originally an assistant to Chagnon, he became an early adversary. Charged with the responsibility of evaluating food intake in Yanomami territory, a possible generator of conflict in line with Marvin Harris’s materialist anthropology, he found himself growing skeptical of Chagnon’s data. Chagnon insisted that the Yanomami had plenty of food to eat and only fought for sexual reasons. As proof, he cited a village that was well-fed in a 1979 Science article. When Good discovered that the village was not in the forest but attached to a missionary complex that included a general store, Science refused to publish it. Good became as controversial a figure as Chagnon eventually after he married a 13 year old Yanomami girl.

Jacques Lizot: Lizot was a protégé of Claude Levi-Strauss who, like Good, became estranged from Chagnon after initially working closely with him. Unlike Chagnon and Good, he refused to be interviewed. A major scandal erupted after it was learned that Lizot was a homosexual pedophile who kept a retinue of Yanomami boys attending to his sexual needs in exchange for gifts of various sorts. A number of them are interviewed.

Patrick Tierney: Tierney was not an anthropologist but an investigative journalist who spent years pursuing the facts on Chagnon. While the film makes a scrupulous attempt not to favor any of the principals, it effectively supports the case made against Chagnon in Tierney’s book.

In addition to these four principals, there are a host of other anthropologists and native people who offer their opinions. Of the greatest interest to me was Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers professor who spent far less time in the field than Chagnon, Good or Lizot but whose theoretical contribution is enormous. As author of “Yanamami Warfare: A Political History”, Ferguson puts the question of sociobiology in the foreground. As good as Tierney is on the investigative journalism front, he really lacks the theoretical depth of Ferguson. I recommend a short article by Ferguson titled “A Reputation for War” as a good introduction to his views:

In the first decade of this century, for example, the frenzied rubber-tapping boom in Amazonia led to a surge in Western trade goods passing along the Uraricoera and other rivers near Brazilian Yanomami territory. In a series of raids, ambushes, and at least one pitched battle, some local Yanomami groups carved out a niche in the trade system. They then gave up raiding, but soon were pressed from behind by the “wild” Yanomami in the mountains.

For some Yanomami, including those living around the mission posts of the upper Orinoco River, contact with resident outsiders has led to a much more sedentary way of life. Over time, hunting depleted local game supplies and was replaced by fishing, more intensive cultivation, and consumption of mission foods. Having lost their mobile way of life, these groups are unable to follow the traditional option of moving away when frictions arise. And with little hunting, they lose the custom of sharing meat, which as Kenneth Good has observed, is a source of solidarity. Worst of all, their exposure to outsiders brings them new diseases, with epidemics tearing great holes in the social fabric. For some Yanomami, such as those encountered by Chagnon, long and strong contact with the outside world created so much disruption that, for a time, violence became almost normal in interpersonal relations.

The Yanomami case shows the extraordinary reach and transforming effects a centrally governed society, or state, may have, extending way beyond its last outpost. The impact of disease, trade goods, migrations, and political restructurings can spread far in advance of face-to-face contact, and when the state’s advance agents do arrive, they commonly bring even more destruction with them. Because they may possess firearms or dispense coveted trade goods, even contemporary missionaries and anthropologists can become important players in these conflicts and the focus of violent competition.

Anybody who has studied North American indigenous peoples can testify to the accuracy of this. As a rule of thumb, it is very difficult to isolate the Indian from the web of capitalist social relations that pervaded the Western Hemisphere from the moment that Columbus arrived.

For those who have a subscription to HBO, the film can be downloaded at any time like any of their other shows. I discovered this feature not long after I upgraded to my new HDTV but have a feeling it was always available.

For those who do not have HBO, the film can be downloaded as a bit torrent. Please contact me if you need some help in getting set up for bit torrent. It is really quite simple and a tremendous source of valuable material, especially films that cannot be rented from Netflix.

Finally, my articles on the Yanomami can be accessed by clicking https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/yanomami/.

September 8, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part seven

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

The more I study the adventures of anthropologists in Yanomami-land, the more surreally cinematic they seem. From the pistol-packing Napoleon Chagnon in a loincloth to Jacques Lizot’s homosexual harem, the need for a Francis Ford Coppola or a Werner Herzog cries out.

I began reading Kenneth Good’s memoir “Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomamo” mostly in search of information that ran counter to Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis. (There are at least three acceptable ways of spelling their tribal name: Yanomami, the most common, as well as Yanomamo and Yanomama.) But the more I read, the more convinced I became that Kenneth Good is one of the most remarkable denizens of this world imaginable. Indeed, so compelling was his story that Hollywood took out an option to turn his memoir into a movie but it was never made. Now that would have been something I would have paid top dollar to see.

Kenneth Good first came to Yanomami territory in 1974 as a 34-year-old graduate student. Despite traveling there under the auspices of Napoleon Chagnon, he was much closer to Marvin Harris philosophically. As I discussed in a previous post, Harris challenged Chagnon’s “fierceness” theory on the basis of cultural materialism, making the point that it was a struggle for food rather than females that explained clashes among the Stone Age peoples.

As Good grew closer to the people he was studying, he was offered one of their daughters as a bride. As it turned out she was 9 years old at the time. More about this subsequently.

When Good arrived in the Venezuela rainforest, Chagnon and Lizot had not yet had their falling out. They welcomed the new arrival in a kind of hazing stunt that thoroughly antagonized him. His first night in their camp, the two anthropologists burst into his darkened tent screaming “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!”, hoping to scare the living daylights out of him. Since the Yanomami had the reputation of being “fierce” and since they had welcomed Good earlier that day from the riverbank brandishing bows and arrows menacingly, Chagnon and Lizot anticipated that their MTV type “Jackass” stunt would have the desired effect. Not only was Good frightened out of his wits, the physical altercation resulted in his mosquito net being torn—not  a good thing in malaria country.

To give you an idea how polarized the Chagnon /Tierney dispute would become, the hazing incident became subject to multiple interpretations. Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, a publication that has consistently taken the side of intrusive scientists against indigenous peoples, wrote one that favored Chagnon as a harmless prankster. Against Tierney’s description of the hazing as a violent and aggressive act, Shermer wrote in the March 24, 2001 The Globe and Mail (Canada) that:

It was a prank. Mr. Tierney turned good-natured horseplay into a horror story. Sure, Mr. Good was not amused by the caper. Regardless of how it was received, a practical joke before the long grind of fieldwork was to begin was not the same thing as a “raid.”

During the snowstorm of email communications set off by the publication of “Darkness in El Dorado”, Good set the record straight:

Shermer is playing here with semantics and intended meaning of words and informs his readers that it was just a “prank”. Neither I nor, I believe, Tierney ever meant that this was an angry, belligerent raid but rather an aggressive incursion designed to frighten and to “initiate” students who Chagnon over a long period of time had inculcated the dangers of living among the Yanomami. Call it what you will, I think the bursting into students hut in the night, drunk, destroying students essential equipment (mosquitoes nets are crucial in a malaria infested zone) and not even remembering much of it the next morning says enough in itself.

Kenneth Good, who was a big strapping lad at the time, could handle Chagnon or bigger threats to his health and safety. But he did not come looking for a fight. He was mainly interested in tracking the food intake of the Yanomami in the Hasupuweteri village, who would turn out to be anything but fierce.

Good’s first dwelling in the village was a hut that the Indians helped him build. Like many other jobs they did for him, they were paid in trade goods such as fishing hooks, machetes and metal pots. Jared Diamond might be a horse’s ass but he certainly was correct when it came to identifying the importance of steel in such primitive societies.

Yanomami shapono from above

Eventually he decided that living outside of the village was an obstacle to data gathering, which revolved mainly around observing and recording their food intake. So he moved into their shapono, a circular group home for Yanomamis that is made of thatched grass and contains nothing inside except for hammocks and hearth fires. If you are interested in privacy, the shapono is not for you. Good writes:

They slept on even when someone yelled out in anger or fright during a nightmare, or when a father awakened from a mournful dream of a child who had died and cried out his anguish, though the death might have happened years ago (which was what I had heard that first night). Meanwhile someone would get up to tend a fire whose warmth was needed by the family sleeping naked in their hammocks; someone else might walk outside to urinate, though not too far outside, because one didn’t venture far from the shapono at night.

In the middle of the night a shaman might decide he wanted to chant. He’d take his drugs, his conduit to the world of the hekura, the spirits. At that hour no one was up to blow them into his nose, so he’d inhale the epene powder like snuff from his hand, then stand up and chant for an hour or two, exactly as he would during the daytime.

At the beginning I was constantly cranky. The Yanomama have the ability to wake up and go back to sleep in a minute. I did not. When something got me up, I was up. I’d lie in the hammock for in hour trying to get back to sleep among all the nighttime noises in the shapono. Eventually I got used to this, too. Like the Yanomama, I’d spend eleven hours in my hammock at night to get seven or eight hours of actual sleep.

The more time he spent as a fellow villager, the more he began to see the kinds of aggression that Chagnon doted on.  However, most of it was ritualized to the point that death or serious injury was excluded. In fact the fighting generally functioned as a way to let off steam that could have led to more serious conflicts in such a confined space. He writes:

The other thing is that in Yanomama land you’re dealing with a society that doesn’t have any laws and doesn’t have any method of enforcement, even if they did have laws. Looking at the occasional domestic violence in the shapono, I would try to get a perspective on it. How many men in the West, I thought, would beat their wives if there were no social sanctions and laws about it? How many do anyway? Not that that’s an excuse of any sort. But it certainly happens, and even in some so-called civilized societies it happens with disturbing frequency.

The more I thought about Chagnon’s emphasis on Yanomama violence, the more I realized how contrived and distorted it was. Raiding, killing, and wife beating all happened; I was seeing it, and no doubt I’d see a lot more of it. But by misrepresenting violence as the central theme of Yanomama life, his Fierce People book had blown the subject out of any sane proportion. What he had done was tantamount to saying that New Yorkers are muggers and murderers. If you go out on the streets of New York, they will mug you and knife you and take your money. Of course these things do take place. But that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate or reasonable generalization to make about New Yorkers. It doesn’t mean that someone would be justified in writing a book entitled New Yorkers: The Mugging and Murdering People.

Besides the different values and ideals of Yanomama and Western societies, I began to feel that one essential contrast between us and them was not in the frequency of wife abuse and other forms of violence, but in the fact that in their world such behavior is visible. An American anthropologist can easily observe, record, and even film Yanomama violence—all of which makes for dramatic presentations in textbooks, lecture halls, and classrooms. A Yanomama anthropologist, by contrast, would have a hard time getting into American kitchens and bedrooms to watch angry or drunken husbands battering their wives and children.

Eventually Chagnon figured out that Kenneth Good was not ideologically reliable and would likely take Marvin Harris’s side in the ongoing debate. While there is no way to prove the link between Chagnon’s likely animosity and his treatment of Kenneth Good, the evidence is rather strong that Chagnon was highly vindictive. Chagnon refused Good the use of his aluminum canoe and to send him anti-malarial Camoprim tablets. The two defaults conspired to nearly end Good’s life when he was navigating the Orinoco rapids on a flimsy dugout during a nasty bout of malaria, when he, the boat, and all his anthropological records were thrown into the water. He managed to swim to the shore where he fought off a high fever for three days until anti-malaria workers rescued him. It was the beginning of the end of his ties to Chagnon, who until this point had been his dissertation adviser.

After the boating accident took place in 1974, Good returned to confront Napoleon Chagnon at Penn State with “blood in his eye”. When Chagnon learned that he was going to transfer to Columbia University and study with Marvin Harris, taking all his fieldwork notes with him, he read the riot act to Good. Chagnon said, “Okay, this is obviously not going to work out. So let’s just drop it. Let’s forget it. But, Ken, tell me, what are you going to do with yourself, go to work in your brother’s dental lab? Because you are not going to get into any other anthropology department. I’ll see to that.”

When Good returned to the Hasupuweteri village, making himself at home again in the shapono, he was approached one day by the headman who broached a most delicate subject with him: “I’ve been thinking that you should have a wife. It is not good for you to live alone.”

To humor the headman, Good told him “Sure, okay, I’ll take a wife”. “Good”, the headman said. “Take Yarima. You like her. She’s your wife.” The only problem, leaving everything else aside, was that Yarima was 9 years old.

It was understood that she would only become his real wife when she reached puberty, a transition that while making some sense still did not qualify as “normal” in the outside world and was in fact against the law in most parts of the U.S. Always the anthropologist, Good has a way of making such an arrangement sound sensible, at least in Yanomami terms:

From an anthropological point of view, the Yanomama custom of child betrothal made a lot of sense. First of all, it created or strengthened ties between families in the community and between different lineages (marriages within i lineage are prohibited as incest). Second, since girls are already spoken for when they reach adolescence, there is no competition for them. A lot of potentially destructive rivalry is precluded this way, as are the problems of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In Yanomama land every woman is considered sexually available once she has begun to menstruate. And since there are no moral inhibitions against premarital or extramarital sex, having unattached adolescent girls around would create all sorts of difficult and disruptive conflicts.

That was from an anthropological point of view. From a personal point of view, this was not particularly serious. These were an inventive people in some respects, and one of the things they were inventive at was in devising ways to keep a nabuh [outsider] around, with his immense and distributable wealth. The origin of Longbeard’s approach may well have been simply to provide me with an additional attachment to the Hasupuweteri. He was the headman, and it was his responsibility to think of the group’s well-being. Or it might have been a gesture of friendship, a surge of brotherly feeling—an indication that he and his lineage felt I was really a part of the community. Certainly no one at the beginning ever thought of it as an actual marriage. Who ever heard of marrying a nabuh? You might as well marry an alien from outer space. And as for me, in my wildest dreams it had never occurred to me to marry an Indian woman in the Amazon jungle. I was from suburban Philadelphia. I had no intention of going native.

When Kenneth Good was 39, he consummated his marriage with Yarima who was now 15. Despite their age differences and despite having completely different cultural backgrounds, they appear to have been happy with each other. Part of the mystery of Good’s memoir is his steadfast refusal to describe the exact nature of their relationship, other than the fact that it was sexual. Most of the time, he comes across more as her big brother than her husband, a perception reinforced by this photo from his memoir:


No matter how much Kenneth Good admired Yanomami values, he was never completely part of their world. “Going native” was only possible if he cut his ties to the academic world, which kept beckoning him out of the rainforest for professional obligations and that left Yarima at the mercy of predatory men in her village. If Chagnon’s “fierce people” thesis is revealed as bogus in the course of this memoir, there certainly are aspects of Yanomami society that refute any “noble savage” stereotypes.  Mostly they revolve around the rampant sexism in Yanomami villages where every woman is considered fair game for sexual abuse, including rape. So poor is the status of women in the tribes, who are described by some Indians as “vaginas” and nothing else that incidents of rape are generally met with a shrug of the shoulder.

When Kenneth Good is off on anthropology business in 1985, Yarima is raped by a number of men and has part of an ear sliced nearly in half during the altercation. Not only were Yanomami men determined to take advantage of Yarima, Venezuelan government officials were putting all sorts of obstacles in his path as he sought to continue his fieldwork with the Yanomami. In the eyes of officialdom, he was considered to be as much of an exploiter of Yarima as the men who raped her. In their eyes, anthropologists had no business getting into relationships with Indian women, especially ones young enough to be considered jailbait in the USA, as Jerry Lee Lewis once learned.

The last section of the book is devoted to Kenneth Good’s struggle to protect his marriage against the authorities and against threats within Yanomami society. Eventually he reaches the decision that the only answer was to return to the USA and take a teaching job. Yarima, who would go on to have three children, moved to New Jersey with him and struggled in vain to adjust to suburban living. She found the omnipresent diet of television and shopping malls so oppressive that she fled New Jersey and returned to the rainforest in 1991, leaving her children behind her.

Now 66, Kenneth Good is likely retired from the academy. Googling his name reveals virtually no new contributions to the field or to the Chagnon debate since the early 1990s. As someone who lived life to the hilt, one can certainly understand why this most unusual scientist would want to retire to the side of the road. As for Yarima, who would be 41 or so, we’d like to think that she is happy living the live she was accustomed to, although pressures on this proud and independent people from rapacious mining and logging interests make this problematic at best.

August 6, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part six

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

Jacques Lizot’s critique

There is a cinematic quality between the clash of Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot. Chagnon, the blustering American who like to fire pistols to intimidate the Yanomami, could have been played by the young John Wayne. Lizot, the gay French disciple of structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss who seduced young Yanomami with gifts of cigarettes and pasta, could have been played by Alain Renais.

It is too bad that Patrick Tierney chose to emphasize Lizot’s sexual predations in his “Darkness in El Dorado”. While there certainly could be a case made that any adult taking sexual advantage of a young woman or man for that matter deserves opprobrium, one cannot escape feeling that Tierney was exhibiting old-fashioned homophobia in the name of defending Indian rights.

Although Chagnon and Lizot started out as collaborators, they eventually parted ways—no doubt a function of deep differences over how to regard the Indians. For Chagnon, they were like Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees waging primate war on their enemies. For Lizot, they were more like the Bonobo chimps that used sexual play—including homosexual—to relieve the tensions that lead to violence.

To be fair to Lizot, he did not literally think that the Yanomami were like chimps. In fact his main objection to Chagnon was over his sociobiology, a bogus science that reduces everything to genes.

One of the first articles to identify Chagnon as a sociobiologist was written by Lizot and Sarah Dart. Titled “On Warfare: an answer to N. A. Chagnon”, it appeared in the November 1994 issue of “American Ethnologist”.

Although Chagnon never described himself as a sociobiologist specifically, his efforts to situate anthropology in the framework of what he called “modern evolutionary thought” was clearly identifiable with E.O. Wilson’s theory. The notion that violence and warfare were a means to seize women of rival tribes so as to help propagate the genes of the dominant warrior group was nothing less than the “Darwinian fundamentalism” Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were determined to debunk.

Lizot is in basic agreement with Gould and Lewontin, writing: “Let us say it straightaway: sociobiology is only in very imperfect agreement with modern genetics; it is linked to an outdated conception of Darwinism and to a series of ideas that were abandoned nearly half a century ago.” He adds that “Wilson’s theory has been challenged by a majority of biologists and geneticists, and Lewontin has even gone so far to declare that it is a caricature of Darwinism”.

Just as Marvin Harris was able to demonstrate that Chagnon used a highly atypical Yanomami village to prove that warfare was not related to food intake, Lizot examines Chagnon’s data about warfare between two other villages in order to invalidate his hypothesis about their “fierceness”. (One wonders what Chagnon, now in his seventies and living in northern Michigan—militia country—makes of the fact that the gay community uses the word “fierce” to describe something extraordinary.)

Lizot takes up the warfare between the Tayari-theri and the Pishaasi-theri in 1979 that Chagnon had described as costing the lives of a large number of adult men. Lizot was quite familiar with the first village since it was where he reigned as a kind of over-chief due to the largesse of trade goods he bestowed upon its inhabitants, often in exchange for sexual favors.

Lizot argues that the conflict between these two villages had little to do with competition for women. Instead the conflict grew out of “gossip, insults, stone throwing, provocations, garden thefts, and the boastful attitude of certain Tayari leaders.” Things reached such a sorry state that finally Pishaasi warriors killed two of their adversaries, which led to a reciprocal revenge—an Amazon version of Hatfield-McCoy so to speak–that led to the loss of men on both sides.

Finally, a well-organized attack by 150 enemies on the Tayari village led to its total destruction by fire. Despite the murderous intentions, only 6 Tayari tribespeople died that day. Lizot examines the fatalities involved in this conflict that Chagnon chooses to describe as typical of Yanomami “fierceness” and arrives at the following conclusions. One, it is indisputable that the war was costly. One out of four men was killed in the fighting. But, more importantly, only 0.3 percent of the marriages in all the villages involved in the fighting were with women taken from an enemy group. Based on these figures, there is no cost-benefit involved with fighting in order to secure childbearing females. Unlike the Trojan War, this blood-letting in the Amazon had nothing to do with stealing women.

Lizot then applies the coup de grace to the tottering figure of Chagnon:

Chagnon’s point of view is, moreover, marked by an underlying male chauvinism, and sociobiology is a garment that suits him well. According to his conception of things, women, in the quarrels of the men, are nothing but beings without initiative and will.

Although I obviously have problems with Tierney’s hostility toward Lizot, he does have some information that will make the Tayari/Pishaasi war more understandable. In his chapter on Lizot titled rather provocatively “Erotic Indians”, Tierney gives some background on the relationship between the French anthropologist and his beneficiaries. They had their own outboard motors and plenty of shotguns, all courtesies of the French academy just as “Chagnon’s people” enjoyed trade goods provided by the University of Michigan and various museums.

Relative to other villages, the Tayari-theri was well-endowed. When a headman from a rival village approached the Tayaris after an unsuccessful hunting expedition, he was pelted with mud. This humiliation, according to Tierney, was what led to the first attack. The coalition involved in the attack on the Tayaris was regarded by the Indians as “Chagnon’s people” and were at one point determined to kill Lizot himself.

One supposes that the main lesson of this particular war among the Yanomami is that it could have been averted if the anthropologists had simply stayed home.

August 3, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars: part five

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

Marvin Harris

Critique number one: Marvin Harris

This will be the first in a series of posts about Napoleon Chagnon’s critics. It will begin with a review of the arguments of Marvin Harris, a long-time member of the Columbia University faculty who died in 2001. Harris described his approach as cultural materialism, clearly influenced by Karl Marx.

Harris is best known for “Cannibals and Kings: the Origins of Culture”, a book written in 1978 that explains human history as a struggle to achieve nourishment, including the Aztecs whose ritual human sacrifices were interpreted as a means to a better diet! Many anthropologists regarded this approach as one-sided, including Marshall Sahlins who was Harris’s peer and also influenced by Marxism. In a November 23, 1978 review in the New York Review of Books, Sahlins faulted Harris for being overly deterministic:

Applied to the explanation of Aztec cannibalism or Hindu taboos, Harris’s utilitarianism incorporates the meanings other people give their lives within the kind of material rationalizations we give to our own.

Sartre appropriately called a similar intellectual procedure “terror,” for its inflexible refusal to discriminate, its goal of “total assimilation at the least possible effort.” Sartre was referring to the “vulgar Marxism” which could only see in an act of politics or a poem of Valéry’s some version of “bourgeois idealism.” Everything in the social superstructure could be reduced to its economic function.

Given this context, it should come as no surprise that Harris’s main beef with Chagnon was over whether the Yanomami were as well-fed as he claimed. If warfare was understood as the need to gain control over scarce meat protein in the rainforest, then the whole business about gene diffusion became less convincing.

It should also be stressed that Harris found Chagnon’s “war is in our nature” very much in line with the ruling class’s justifications for the war in Vietnam, which was raging at the time Harris began to mount his criticisms. Indeed, Harris was one of the few faculty members at Columbia University besides Immanuel Wallerstein who took the side of the student radicals in 1968. In June of that year, Harris wrote an article for the Nation Magazine titled “Big Bust at Morningside Heights” that made it clear where he stood:

I believe that there is a connection between the mentality expressed in the Columbia administration’s viewpoint and that which was responsible for driving this country deeper and deeper into the Vietnamese War. It is the domino theory, all over again. If we don’t punish the revolutionaries for taking over the president’s office, how are we going to stop them from taking over the entire university? The answer, as we have almost learned in Vietnam, is that if there are well-formed structural reasons for mass resentments against existing laws and authority, the dominoes have a good chance of falling no matter how many policemen are brought in to shore them up.

The fact that people like Marvin Harris has worked for Columbia University always made the relatively low pay and the lack of a career path acceptable. Never in a million years would have any of my old bosses at Goldman Sachs ever said anything remotely like that.

Harris wrote “Animal Capture and Yanomamo Warfare: Retrospect and New Evidence” for the spring 1984 “Journal of Anthropological Research”. It states in the third paragraph: “With the escalation of the Vietnam War, many anthropologists, myself included, became involved with the peace movement.” For Harris, Chagnon was clearly a figure who reinforced the dominant ideology of American imperialism:

Chagnon’s theory involved two major contradictions: Why should villages make war to protect their sovereignty when war itself places their sovereignty in the greatest jeopardy? And why should Yanomamo men artificially maintain a shortage of women through female infanticide and then fight over sexual access to them?

Why did these contradictions fail to bother Chagnon? Apparently because he believed that warfare and male sexism arose from genetic programming that was readily capable of inducing irrational or even insane behavior (from a materialist-ecological, cost/benefit point of view).

Harris took particular exception to a comparison that Chagnon made betweenYanomami warfare and the war in Vietnam in his 1974 “Studying the Yanomomo” that was intended in part to refute Harris’s protein deficiency thesis:

I know of no serious anthropologist who would argue that the American military activities in Southeast Asia were a direct response to territorial shortages or protein deficiencies in the United States but there will be some anthropologists who will feel cheated if another colleague claims that Yanomamo warfare is not related to ecological parameters…I find the parallels between the behavior of modern nation states and the military behavior of sovereign tribal villages very intriguing…Warre…is still with us…and causes statesmen to ponder the essence of security, and to conclude from time to time, that the best defense is a good offense…

‘Warre’ is an explicit reference to Hobbes’s spelling of the word. As I stated in the beginning of these series of posts, the Chagnon/Jared Diamond sociobiology approach is nothing less than neo-Hobbesian. It is predicated on the belief that Rousseau’s noble savage is a lie and that our genes require men to kill their rivals as a necessary strategy for Darwinian survival. The only way to avoid violence is to create a strong state that can rein in mankind’s homicidal impulses, a view that dovetails with neoconservative and “muscular liberal” beliefs in preemptive warfare and all the rest.

In the section of his article titled “Chagnon Refuted”, Harris presents data that undermines the entire basis of Chagnon’s gene-based ideology—namely the evidence that the struggle for survival in the Amazon rainforest does definitely center on the need to procure food rather than females.

In the March 2, 1979 issue of Science Magazine an article titled “Protein Deficiency and Tribal Warfare in Amazonia: New Data” by Chagnon and Raymond Hames tried to fend off Marvin Harris’s criticisms. They supply data from the Toropo-teri village intended to prove that “the protein intake of the Yanomamo is more than adequate”. They claim that the bulk kilograms of protein per capita consumed each day in the village was 52 during the period studied, an amount that satisfies normal dietary standards.

Harris explained that the Toropo-teri village was not typical. It was attached to a highly acculturated and larger village of Ye’kwana Indians who were in fact traditional enemies of the Yanomami. The Yanomami men in this village no longer lived communally. They tilled the manioc gardens of the Ye’kwana for which they received a wage. The money allowed them to buy goods and food, and even create barns for cows—hardly the model to serve to illustrate protein deficiency. The Yanomami women worked as well, making manioc flour and getting paid with dresses made on Ye’kwana sewing machines. This led Kenneth Good, an anthropologist who I will post about in this series, and Jacques Lizot to state:

We believe that the conditions at that community (as well as its extreme geographic marginality) have so drastically altered the group of Yanomami that they cannot legitimately be represented as Yanomami society. For this reason we believe that the data presented here have little importance for the discussion of protein and warfare among the Yanomami.

In my next post I will take a closer look at Jacques Lizot’s research, which reflects the best instincts of his profession despite Patrick Tierney’s unfortunate tendency to view him as nothing more than a pedophile in “Darkness in El Dorado”.

July 30, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part four

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

What Napoleon Chagnon believed

Although it is brief article (7 ½ pages, including 42 footnotes), Napoleon Chagnon’s “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” has the merit of encapsulating all the themes that would make him famous in anthropological circles. Since it appeared in the February 26, 1988 issue of Science Magazine, a publication that is behind a subscriber’s firewall, I have made it available at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/chagnon.pdf as well.

Because I plan to summarize some of the best-known opposition to Chagnon’s theories in subsequent posts, it only makes sense to establish first what he stood for. He begins by making a distinction between his own approach and more traditional views that centered on the struggle to control scarce food resources:

Violence is a potent force in human society and may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture (1). For two reasons, anthropologists find it difficult to explain many aspects of human violence. First, although ethnographic reports are numerous, data on how much violence occurs and the variables that relate to it are available from only a few primitive societies. Second, many anthropologists tend to treat warfare as a phenomenon that occurs independently of other forms of violence in the same group. However, duels may lead to deaths which, in turn, may lead to community fissioning and then to retaliatory killings by members of the two now-independent communities. As a result many restrict the search for the causes of the war to issues over which whole groups might contest-such as access to rich land, productive hunting regions, and scarce resources-and, hence, view primitive warfare as being reducible solely to contests over scarce or dwindling material resources (2). Such views fail to take into account the developmental sequences of conflicts and the multiplicity of causes, especially sexual jealousy, accusations of sorcery, and revenge killings, in each step of conflict escalation.

For Chagnon, the real source of violence is the male struggle for control over females rather than food. Since his theory (as we shall see) rests on the assumptions that the Yanomami enjoyed an ample supply of food in the rainforest, the only explanation for “warfare” is a fundamentalist Darwinian struggle for the survival of one’s genetic material. As Chagnon puts it:

Specifically… the mechanisms that constitute organisms were designed by selection to promote survival and reproduction in the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. This implies that organisms living in such environments can be generally expected to act in ways that promote survival and reproduction or, as many biologists now state it, their inclusive fitnesses…

If you want to understand this by analogy, think in terms of a chimpanzee band in the middle of Africa that is in close proximity to an ample supply of food. But no matter how much food there is, the male chimpanzees will fight for dominance in the pack since that assures that his genes will have the best chance to propagate the species. After all, the genes of the best fighters will be of the most use in breeding a chimp troupe that can survive its enemies in the wild. So for Chagnon this is the best way to understand the Yanomami. If this seems far-fetched, it must be understood that this is the core belief of sociobiology that finds expression in Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” (i.e., homo sapiens). Like Chagon who he acknowledges, Diamond views warfare as rooted in our genes—or perhaps man’s need to spread his genes.

The bulk of the article consists of Chagnon’s data in support of his theory. Most of it is pretty much along the lines of:

The number of (living) unokais [killers] in the current population is 137, 132 of whom are estimated to be 25 or older, and represent 44% of the men age 25 or older (15). A retrospective perusal of the data indicates that this has generally been the case in those villages whose unokais have not killed someone during the past 5 years. I have recorded 282 violent deaths during 23 years of studies of villages in the region under consideration , deaths that occurred sometime during the past 50 to 60 years. These include victims who were residents of villages in this area or victims from immediately adjacent areas killed by residents or now-deceased former residents of the groups considered here. Of these 282 violent deaths, the number of victims of living unokais is 153. These victims were killed during approximately the past 35 years. All the unokais come from the villages under discussion, but not all of the victims do; some are from villages in adjacent areas beyond the focus of my field studies.

If you skip ahead to the Discussion section of Chagnon’s article, you will find him once again restating the sociobiological premises of the article without ever using the word sociobiology. Despite his reluctance to use the term, there is little doubt that this trend sees him as a member in good standing, if not a founding figure.

A number of problems are presented by these data. First, high reproductive success among unokais is probably caused by a number of factors, and it is not clear what portion might be due to their motivation to seek violent retribution when a kinsman is killed. I can only speculate about the mechanisms that link a high reproductive success with unokai status, but I can cast doubt on some logical possibilities. For example, it is known that high male reproductive success among the Yanomamo correlates with membership in large descent groups. If unokais come disproportionately from these groups, that might explain the data: both could be caused by a third variable. But unokais do not come disproportionately from larger descent groups. The three largest patrilineal descent groups among the Yanomamo considered here include 49.4% of the population, but only 48.9% of the unokais. The four largest descent groups include 55.9% of the population but only 55.5% of the unokais.

Second, it is possible that many men strive to be unokais but die trying and that the apparent higher fertility of those who survive may be achieved at an extraordinarily high mortality rate. In other words, men who do not engage in violence might have a lower risk of mortality due to violence and produce more offspring on average than men who tried to be unokais. This explanation would be supported by data indicating that a disproportionate fraction of the victims of violence were unokais. The data do not appear to lend support to this possibility. Of 15 recent killings, four of the victims were females: there are no female unokais. Nine of the males were under 30 years of age, of whom four were under an estimated 25 years of age. Although I do not have the unokai histories of these individuals, their ages at death and the political histories of their respective villages at the time they were killed suggest that few, if any of them, were unokais. Also, recent wars in two other regions of the study area resulted in the deaths of approximately 15 additional individuals, many of whom were very young men who were unlikely to have been unokais.

Leaving aside the sociobiology that these paragraphs fairly reek of, there is of course the question of Chagnon’s data. As so often happens in academia, there is a tendency to cherry-pick if not fabricate data to support your theory. In subsequent posts—devoted to Chagnon’s critics—this question will certainly come up.

July 24, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part 3

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Yanomami film documentaries

Documentaries about the Yanomami became a hot commodity not long after Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot established beachheads in the Amazon rainforest. Since they were one of the few peoples in the world who lived in primitive conditions, as opposed to the modern primitives who used B-52’s, there was a big market for films that depicted their reality. The question as to whether this was the documentary maker’s reality or that of the indigenous peoples remained open.

Chagnon decided to make movies based on the model of Robert Gardner whose “Dead Birds” documentary on Papua New Guinea warfare became an instant classic. In Gardner’s movie, you actually saw people being killed but in Chagnon it only occurs off-screen. For example, in “The Feast”, a documentary about two villages coming together in a military alliance cemented by the exchange of food and gifts, Chagnon announces as the movie concludes that they went to another village and killed a woman.

It is no coincidence that both the Papua New Guinea highlands and the Yamomami villages were the subjects of documentaries with an identical focus. Anthropologists, either professional like Chagnon or amateur like Jared Diamond, with a sociobiological bent see these two areas as overflowing with confirmation of their Hobbesian analysis.

Chagnon initially approached Gardner to work with him on a film, but was told to contact Timothy Asch instead. Chagnon and Asch went on to make a number of films together that became staples in anthropology classrooms. Unfortunately, “The Feast” is not online but you can watch a trailer here.

You can watch “The Ax Fight” below, however:

This is 12 minutes of mayhem with males beating each other with staffs at first and then escalating to machetes and axes. Nobody is actually wounded, however. The final minute or two consists of a Yanomami woman cursing out the visiting villagers who have provoked their wrath. Originally, Chagnon explained the violence as arising over an act of incest but discovered subsequently that he had mistranslated the Yanomami word yawaremou as sexual incest when it really meant something like improper behavior toward a blood relative. The final seconds of the movie acknowledge this misunderstanding but not quite in terms of Chagnon’s lack of linguistic expertise.

The improper behavior in this particular instance was a young man hitting his aunt who had refused to give him some plantains, an altogether less dramatic violation than incest to be sure.

All in all, the documentary has the lurid quality of a “Cops” episode on Fox-TV, with one group of neighbors cursing out another group over perhaps a dog crapping on their lawn. Since there are no cops in the Amazon rainforest, the clear implication is that the violence could have escalated into homicide.

A few years after the movie was made, Chagon developed a new explanation for the conflict, one more in line with his sociobiological theories. One group of disputants was composed of individuals more closely related to each other than that of the other group. Family ties, you see, were critical just like with Tony Soprano. Chagnon drew upon the skills of a mathematician who mapped out their genetic connections like something out of a calculus seminar.

Timothy Asch, who was not political at all, never felt comfortable with “The Ax Fight” even though it was one of his most famous films. He thought that the whole thing was staged by Chagnon who promised the Yanomami trade goods like machetes and pots and pans in exchange for whooping it up.

In an interview, Asch said:

You know the joy of “The Ax Fight” is that because Chagnon was so stuck in simple theories that, right away, the film became a real joke. It is funny with its simplistic, straightjacketed, one-sided explanation…I was feeling, you know, halfway into making the film, this great suspicion of the whole field beginning to fall apart before my eyes as I was putting “The Ax Fight” together. I had a powerful piece of material and it was suddenly looking kind of foolish… I felt it was a little bit like a gargoyle at Chartres…one of those strange things that stick out and you way, what’s this?

One Yanomami villager named Gustavo Konoko, who was an adolescent when the film was made, reflected back on the events that day. He says that Chagnon paid them a machete, a knife and some red cloth to start “una pelea horemu”, or fake fight–kind of like professional wrestling. Tierney quotes Konoko:

He [Chagnon] said, “Fight with poles! We’re going to film, and then I’ll pay you. I’ll give you whatever you want.” When he said that, many young men bloodied each other, playing. “Hit each other! Be fierce! Argue! When the young men play, let the women begin to scream at them.” That’s what he said.

After Tierney’s book was published, Chagnon and his defenders attempted to spin the film’s meaning in a more pacifist direction. They claimed that the ax fight was not a sign of violence but of the Yanomami’s ability to blow off steam, hence staving off a more bloody conflict. If this was the intention, it clearly failed based on the impression it made on anthropology students. Student surveys found that a large majority saw “The Ax Fight” as a traditional chronicle of savagery. A sophomore at USC reacted this way:

The only thing I know about the Yanomami is that they act on their raw passions. They are very primitive people. It seems that they don’t even think before they act. They are very violent people that just go raiding other villages. They take drugs and they freak out on drugs, and on drugs they’ve been know to attack people.

Using more elevated language, of course, this is exactly the impression that Napoleon Chagnon sought to convey.

In April 1996 PBS premiered a documentary titled “Warriors of the Amazon” on Nova. Directed by Andy Jillings, it was an attempt to create an alternative to Chagnon’s documentaries on Yanomami fierceness. A shorter version of the show can be seen in 7 parts on Youtube under the title “Spirits of the Rainforest”. Part one appears below, but it is missing the audio for some reason. It is also necessary to scan forward about 10 seconds to get the video going. For some reason, the other 6 parts work just fine.

As it turns out, the village featured in the documentary was the one presided over by the sexual predator Jacques Lizot. Understandably, he was not part of the documentary but he is credited as a consultant. While Lizot was clear that the village had not been involved in hostilities with other villages for a very long time, he was not averse to staging a feast with a visiting village that played up the ritualistic combat dances that typify Yanomami fierceness. Nova provided an introductory monologue to the movie that begins, “This is the world of the Yanomami; it is a world marked by aggression and revenge.” It was also marked by “the threat of warfare” that requires their men to “go off and fight two or three times a year”.

When Tierney arrived in Yanomami-land, he tracked down the village in order to verify what takes place in the movie. In fact, the village was involved in nearly no killings between 1968 and 1976. After that it got drawn into a war between Chagnon’s village and another village ruled by Lizot. (More about that to come.)

Basically, the film crew induced the villagers to perform “fiercely” on camera in exchange for trade goods and even cash. Since these Indians were fairly well acculturated, the cash made sense. To make the movie seem realistic, it was necessary to get them to go about naked. Up until the filming, people tended to wear clothing bought at missionary stores.

If you watch the movie closely, you will notice a number of the men and women coughing. As it happens, the village was ravaged by disease—including the common cold—that they had no resistance to. During this period, when gold miners and film crews were flooding remote areas where no immunity existed to various infectious diseases, the Indians were suffering the same fate as their North American brothers and sisters in the 18th and 19th centuries. In one key scene a young woman dies from an unnamed illness and is burned at a pyre in a touching ritual. As sensitive as Jillings was to native concerns, the filming of a burial ritual went against their traditions. They don’t allow snapshots let alone filming at such events.

July 20, 2009

Yanomami science wars, part 2

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

The Cast of Characters

As I read through the mind-blowing account of the principal characters in the Yanomami dispute in Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, it began at first to remind me of Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, with Napoleon Chagnon as a stand in for Marlin Brando. But then I realized that it bore a more striking resemblance to Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God”, another tale of madness in the Amazon rainforest that some critics cite as a major influence on Coppola’s movie.

Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, is a conquistador who leads his soldiers deeper into the jungle trying to find El Dorado, the lost city of gold. At the end, monkeys surround him as he hacks through the underbrush in a futile quest. Chagnon was not looking for gold, but Indian behavior that would validate his Hobbesian thesis about the cruelty of primitive society. In the end, Chagnon was just as isolated as Aguirre, relying on the support of his acolytes in the academy.

In this post I want to introduce you to the cast of characters that figure in this bizarre drama, starting with Napoleon Chagnon. In subsequent posts, having a firm idea of the players will help you navigate through what will be unchartered territory for most of you, just as it was for me before starting this research project.

The Chagnon camp

1. Napoleon Chagnon

Born in 1938, Chagnon was a 26-year-old undergraduate at the University of Michigan who was approached by a professor named James Neel, a long-time expert in the field of genetics, to collect blood samples from Indians living in the Amazon rainforest. Neel would fund the anthropology student’s research while he collected blood.

His research turned into a dissertation titled “Yanomamö Warfare, Social Organization and Marriage Alliances” that made all the points he would become famous for. Although one cannot assume that his research was in some way directly related to the divisions in American society over the Vietnam war, it could not help but be influenced by the protests occurring everywhere, including the U. of Michigan.

In 1984, a graduate student asked Chagnon if there were any pacifist Yanomami. He replied, “You mean cowards? I don’t go to the Amazon to study cowards”. During the 1960s when so many left-leaning students were struggling to create a society based on peace and equality, Chagnon’s research could only serve to reinforce the idea that society was hierarchically structured and violent by nature.  The Yanomami wars over women were a case in point. To the victors belonged the spoils, namely the successful spread of one’s genes.

In 1976, when Chagnon was at the pinnacle of his fame and power, he received a $260,000 grant (equivalent to one million today) from the National Science Foundation to study mortality and divorce in Yanomami-land.  He hired a graduate student named Kenneth Good, who would become an authority on the Indians in his own right in the future. The two men soon became drinking buddies even though Chagnon made him uncomfortable. Tierney writes:

One of the graduate students was Kenneth Good. Until then, Good had been a good friend and protégé of Chagnon’s. They got to know each other at Penn State University, where Good was Chagnon’s drinking buddy. “We used to go down to bars and drink together,” Good recalled. “It was an embarrassment, but I did it because he was going to be my chair. He was the type of guy who had German shepherd attack dogs, and he’d have people come over to his house in the afternoon and he’d have the students dress up in padded suits and have the dogs attack them. Oh, yes. They’d have to put out an arm or a leg and the dog would attack. Students could get injured. And he used to like taking the attack dogs—whose names were Gus and Parma—into bars so he could corner big, 200-pound-plus weightlifter types.

To prepare his students to deal with the Yanomami’s supposed extreme violence, Chagnon obtained extra-strength chemical mace from the Pittsburgh Police Department (which Good re-labeled “Center County Dog Repellent” in order to pass customs). Chagnon also armed Good with a double-barreled Winchester shotgun.

Apparently Chagnon brought his machismo ways with him into the rainforest, which he thought crucial to showing the warlike Indians who was boss. He made a prominent display of the shotguns he brought with him and occasionally fired a pistol in the air to cow the supposedly bellicose Indians.

He also sought to become a dominant figure within their society by adopting their clothing (or lack of) and rituals. Pablo Mejìa, a Yanomami fluent in Spanish, first met Chagnon when he was 12 years old. This is how he described Chagnon to Tierney:

I was in Momaribowei-teri. That’s the first village where Chagnon arrived after he established himself at Bisaasi-teri. He thought he would become a sorcerer [brujo]. In order to be a sorcerer, he asked the other brujos to teach him. When he arrived at the village, he had his bird feathers adorning his arms. He had red onoto dye paint all over his body. He used a loincloth like the Yanomami. He sang with the chant of his shamanism and took yopo [a powerful hallucinogen used by Yanomami shamans that alters vision and self-awareness]. He took a lot of yopo. I was terrified of him. He always fired off his pistol when he entered the village, to prove that he was fiercer than the Yanomami. Everybody was afraid of him because no one had ever seen a nabah [white man, outsider] acting as a shaman. He would, say, ask, ‘Who was your dead father?’ He said to my brother Samuel, who was the headman, ‘What is your mother’s name?’ My brother answered, ‘I don’t want to say her name. We Yanomami do not speak our names.’ Shaki [Chagnon] answered, ‘It doesn’t matter. If you tell me, I’ll pay you.’ So, although they didn’t want to, people sold their names. Everyone cried, but they spoke them. It was very sad. I remember well because I was about ten or twelve years old. That’s how things were with Shaki. He said, ‘I want to be a shaman who works only for your village. Go ahead and teach me.’ He would say this to the old ones, the shamans. But they were afraid. Later he went to Mishimishi, where they taught him. Shaki had his own shaman circuit. He would say, ‘I am the cacique of all the Yanomami.’ He played everything, risked everything. I’m not the only one who heard—everyone heard him. He can’t deny it. When he would come to our village, all the children would run into the forest screaming with fear. I’ve never seen anything like it.

2. James Neel

Beginning with his research into the effects of radiation on its victims in Hiroshima  and Nagasaki, Neel made a career out of the study of genes. He died at the age of 85 in 2000, just before he got dragged into the controversy over the Yanomami.

Neel had become fixated on the Yanomami who because of their isolation from other gene pools were seen as ideal specimens. He believed that they enjoyed a high standard of living by world standards, especially caloric intake. Hence, their proclivity for war making could not be explained in terms of resource scarcity, a traditional cause of war in indigenous societies.

Neel’s interest in genetics was not just academic. He was a latter-day adherent to  eugenics, a racist “science” that took social Darwinism—the precursor to sociobiology—to its extreme. Tierney writes:

Neel was obviously not afraid of being called a eugenicist; the title of his autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool, is a good definition of one. Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, founded eugenics in the 1880s. It became a political-scientific movement to weed out undesirable traits from the gene pool, and encourage desirable ones. Eugenicists led campaigns for mass sterilization of the unfit. Neel had a career-changing moment when he visited the Eugenics Records Office in New York in 1942 and realized how much work it would take him to make eugenics a true science.

In Michigan, Neel campaigned for statewide screening of defective fetuses and did a cost-benefit analysis showing how much money each abortion would save the state ($75,000). Where Neel differed from most people, and most scientists, was his belief that fetuses with some easily curable defects should be aborted—because they would ultimately run down the gene pool by passing on the undesirable trait. Like Galton, Neel stood in self-confessed “awe” of the process of evolution, and horror of modern society’s attenuation of competition. Galton preached a crusade to promote Social Darwinism and went as far as suggesting that “a missionary society” be founded “with an enthusiasm to improve the race.” In some respects Neel’s Department of Human Genetics became this missionary society.

But while European eugenicists saw northern blonds as the pinnacle of creation, Neel felt a romantic attraction to tribal societies. By 1957, he had begun speculating that primitive tribes optimized selective breeding. In 1962, he visited Brazil’s Xavante tribe, where he had an almost conversion experience while hearing their shamans chant around night fires. “Suddenly the thought came to me that I was witness to a scene which, in one variation or another, had characterized our ancestors for the past several million years. The sudden realization of this contact with the thread of evolution resulted in another of those very emotional professional moments; this time I could feel the hair on the nape of my neck stirring. . . .”

In Neel’s world, as opposed to the racists who would tend to put indigenous peoples at the bottom of the totem pole, the Yanomami were superior because they lived by stricter Darwinian laws than the more effete modern societies that did not fully exploit the “genetic potential” of each citizen. In an article titled “On Being Headman”, Neel wrote:

I believe we will agree that there is scant prospect of our engineering an early return to Yanomama population structure– small demes, living of course in twentieth-century comfort, in which a generally acknowledged headman of superior attributes enjoys a well-defined reproductive advantage. Since there is little prospect society will ask us to remake it with these or other extensive eugenic measures, there really are available only two practical (i.e., socially acceptable) courses of eugenic action for the immediate future. The first is an increasing concern with the provision of genetic services designed to decrease the transmission of genes causing disease…The second eugenic measure which geneticists can facilitate is a concern with measures which influence human mutation rates…

3. Charles Brewer-Carìas

As hard as it may be to believe, Brewer-Carìas is even more outlandish than Chagnon. In a movie, Dennis Hopper could play Brewer-Carìas while Gary Busey would be a good Chagnon before the actor suffered brain damage from a motorcycle accident.. Who knows. Maybe the brain damage would have helped the performance.

As an amateur botanist and explorer, a member of a wealthy Venezuelan family, and a government official from 1979 to 1982, he was uniquely positioned to facilitate Chagnon’s forays into the Amazon. Charlie Brewer, as he was better known, was profiled in an August 28, 2006 NY Times article that stated:

His English grandfather, Mathias Brewer, came to Venezuela by way of St. Thomas, then a Danish possession, and served for decades as Britain’s vice consul in La Guaira, a port near Caracas. His mother’s family descends from a Spanish general dispatched by Madrid in the early 19th century in an effort to reassert control over Simón Bolívar’s rebels.

“We were counterrevolutionaries, of course,” said Mr. Brewer-Carías, who speaks English with a slight Spanish accent. “I am for an oligarchy, an oligarchy of the well prepared.”

His brother Allan R. Brewer-Carías, a noted legal scholar according to the Times, went into exile in 2005, accused of helping to draft the decree used to overthrow Hugo Chávez in April 2002. He was seen in “The Revolution Will not be Televised” explaining why the Venezuelan constitution was no longer valid.   Perhaps he was called in as an outside consultant to advise the Honduran military. He is now an adjunct professor in the law school at Columbia University of all places.

Allan’s brother Charlie also had a thing about overthrowing governments. At one point he organized a paramilitary that he led in an incursion into Guyana. After Guyana put its army on alert, the invaders withdrew and Brewer got fired from his ministry of youth job. He sent videotape to the Pentagon trying to make the case that Guyana was infested with Marxists.

Charlie Brewer was as macho as Chagnon, even more so possibly. He was the inventor of a “Survival Knife” that can be purchased on the Internet in various places and used to carry a handgun with him to the gym. His explanation: “Everyone out there wants to kill me.” While Chagnon was into attack dogs, Brewer kept hawks in a cage at his house and liked to feed them chickens in order to impress houseguests. When Chagnon got together with Brewer, it was a match made in heaven.

But the biggest controversy surrounding Brewer had to do with his encroachment into Indian territories in order to mine for gold and tin. While trying to develop the image of a friend of the Indian, he was working overtime to poison their rivers. At the very time the plight of the Indians was becoming a cause célèbre of human rights groups around the world Brewer was using his influence in the upper rungs of Venezuelan society and the state to pursue his dirty profits.

Brewer set up a strip mining operation near Pemon Indian land in Venezuela that left their waters polluted and their hillsides stripped of trees. Not only was it against the law, it was contrary to Brewer’s claim that he was a conservationist. Apparently the only thing he was interested in conserving was profits.

Just around the time that Brewer began his mining operations, legislation was proposed to grant the Yanomami some kind of autonomy that would have prevented their lands from suffering the same fate as the Pemon. Brewer denounced the plans bitterly which he described as the results of a conspiracy involving a sociologist named Estaban Monsoyi and Muhammed Gadhafi.

All the while that Brewer was undermining Indian sovereignty, he was cultivating important international scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, and the Royal Geographic Society, flying in their staff members to give them guided tours of the rainforest. Tierney writes:

Meanwhile he kept expanding his gold-mining ventures relentlessly. In 1984 the Venezuelan National Guard caught Brewer mining along the Lower Ventauri River in an area where commercial activity was banned. El Diario de Caracas reported that “the ex-minister…was arrested together with other people by the National Guard troops at Kanaripò, because he didn’t have the necessary permits to travel in that area, where—in addition to gold—he was also commercializing and exporting fauna and other species without authorization.”

Well, Brewer was being honest when he told the NY Times that “we were counterrevolutionaries”.

The anti-Chagnon camp

1. Jacques Lizot

Lizot (l) and Chagnon (r) before their split

If some anthropologists liken the Yanomami to chimpanzees fighting with each other to achieve dominance over females, then at least one might have saw them as a much more peaceful and even sexually egalitarian society that was consistent with the Bonobo chimps. Among the Bonobos, tensions are released through sex, including homosexual practices. Although he never likened the Yanomami to Bonobos, this was implicitly the view of Jacques Lizot, a gay anthropologist from France and student of Claude Lévi-Strauss who became Chagnon’s greatest professional adversary in the science wars.

Like many other scientists, Claude Lévi-Strauss was attracted to the Amazon rainforest since it provided an ideal laboratory setting to test out his theory. He thought that the indigenous peoples could illustrate universal social structures that would crop up in more advanced societies.

He recruited Jacques Lizot to study the Yanomami as part of a large expedition in 1968. He arrived on the same cargo-laden airplane as Napoleon Chagnon and Timothy Asch, a documentary film-maker whose collaborations with Chagnon have been viewed by legions of anthropology students (this is the topic of my next post.)

Lizot was so bisexually predatory, exchanging trade goods like machetes for sex, that he got the nickname Bosinawarewa from the Indians, a word meaning anus/vagina devourer. Eventually he settled into a homosexual routine that made the Indians wary. But with his access to trade goods, Lizot was eventually able to become the master of a village in the same fashion as Chagnon. Both Chagnon and Lizot viewed the Salesian missionaries who were also trying to establish a beachhead in the rainforest as rivals.

Tierney quotes anthropologist Kenneth Good, who had no use for either Chagnon or Lizot, on how Lizot held sway in the village of Tayari-teri that he ruled like a scene out of “Heart of Darkness”. He had a retinue of young men who attended to his every need in exchange for spaghetti dinners, a welcome break one supposes from the steady diet of plantains they grew in nearby gardens. They were also paid in cigarettes which Lizot kept in a 30 gallon waterproof drum.

If Chagnon projected his own ideas about aggressiveness on the Yanomami, Lizot tended to find evidence of sexual hunger everywhere he looked. In “Tales of the Yanomami”, Lizot claims that they were ingenious masturbators using everything from holes in the ground to dead animals. He also states that the Indians believe that it is “scandalous” for a boy to perform fellatio on his sister, but there is no shame in “eating the anus” of one’s brother. Missing, of course, from both Chagnon and Lizot’s studies is the independent voice of the Indians themselves. We have to take their word for what goes on in an Indian village. Patrick Tierney offered a contrary view from another scientist:

Alcida Ramos, a Yanomami specialist at the University of Brasilia who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, was the first to politely argue that Lizot’s erotic Yanomami were a projection of his own personality. “Discretion and naturality…are overridden by Lizot’s voyeurism…Having the ever-present narrator hovering over them has the effect of lending the Yanomamo an unreal quality, as if they were characters in a play…” Ramos also ventured that Lizot’s unfettered love stories would elicit “a chuckle of disbelief” from the Yanomami—particularly the passages about achieving orgasm in broad daylight inside the communal shabono [house].

Eventually Chagnon and Lizot would have a confrontation that involved their respective fiefdoms in the Yanomami world. More about that in a subsequent post. There is also an article by Lizot that is a pretty convincing rebuttal to Chagnon’s claims about Yanomami fierceness that I will report on down the road.

2. Patrick Tierney

Despite my political and intellectual animosity toward Jared Diamond, I doubt that I could ever summon up the visceral energy that allowed Tierney to spend 11 years researching a book intended to destroy Napoleon Chagnon’s reputation. It was almost an exercise out of Moby Dick.

If Tierney’s book is intended to debunk the idea that Indians in the Amazon were warlike, his initial scholarly efforts would suggest a similar kind of bias directed against the Aztecs. He was the author of “The Highest Altar: the story of Human Sacrifice”, which he described as a “Chagnonian book”. For those who follow anti-Indian scholarship, the business of Aztec sacrifices is dredged up constantly to make the European invaders less evil by comparison. It is similar to pointed out the alleged destruction of the woolly mammoth by paleo-Indians. Why make a big deal out of the white man’s destruction of the bison in the late 1880s if Indians had done the same thing themselves?

Tierney, a journalist by training, decided to write a book about the gold rush in the Amazon rainforest in the late 1980s. The more he studied the topic, the more disgusted he became with the miners. Eventually he became an activist and helped organized a speaking tour for Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami leader whom Chagnon labeled a “parrot” of Survival International, the group accused by LM magazine of trying to keep Yanomamis in a zoo.

Shortly after Tierney wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times in 1995 attacking gold mining operations in the rainforest, identifying Charlie Brewer as a prime offender, his ideas about Chagnon were solidifying, eventually leading him to the conclusion that Chagnon should be banned from the territory.

He made an attempt to interview Chagnon at the U. of California Santa Barbara, but Chagnon brushed him off. Eventually he sat down with Tierney and defended his association with Brewer and everything else he was up to but not without displaying a certain “victim” mentality—stating “I’m tired of being a scapegoat.” When “Darkness in El Dorado” appeared in print 5 years later, that would be the beginning of Chagnon’s real woes.

As much of a public service as Tierney’s book is, it has to be stated that it is marred by serious flaws that allowed Chagnon’s defenders to use reverse jiu-jitsu on him. I will take up these flaws in a later post.

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