A Scientist at War With His Tribe
February 13, 2013 3:57 PM   Subscribe

How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist. "Jaguars and anacondas are impressive adversaries — 'Indiana Jones had nothing on me,' Napoleon Chagnon says — but his staunchest foes are other anthropologists."
posted by homunculus (30 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's one well-respected Anthropologist on Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon which references this article.
posted by Rumple at 4:46 PM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Who names their child Napoleon?
posted by item at 4:48 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, the Dynamites, for one.
posted by fatbird at 4:54 PM on February 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Chagnon briefly taught at Northwestern in the '80s, and as a brand-new freshman, I found myself in his office to beg to be let into his class. I knew nothing about anthropology, I just needed to find something to take the place of a Spanish class I had decided to drop. He took pity on me and let me in, and I loved his class. He really was a real-life Indiana Jones, especially at that point in his life, just a few years out of the jungle. Even in that class, he almost couldn't wait to get into arguments with students who wanted to challenge him on the relatively-new idea of sociobiology or about some of his assertions about the damage done by missionaries. I liked his class so much I took another anthropology class the next quarter, and it was so dry and boring by comparison that I lost any interest in anthropology that Chagnon's class had given me.
posted by briank at 4:55 PM on February 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Indeed - the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
posted by Rumple at 5:14 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


"At 74, Chagnon may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist"

As a grad student in anthropology...I've never heard of this guy until now, though he sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe best-known outside of academia...Sadly, I'm pretty sure 99% of the wider public wouldn't recognize the names of any of the top 15 best-known American anthropologists among other anthropologists.

Just from reading this article though, I would honestly say that he sounds like a combination of every possible cliche of how NOT to do anthropology.
posted by adso at 5:17 PM on February 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Chagnon was one of my first college professors and although I struggled to follow and stay interested in all the anthropology theory, he was a passionate teacher. I remember my first college exam was a long multiple choice test in his course on the Yanomamo. Have multiple choice dyslexia, I got a bunch of questions incorrect but couldn't understand why my answers were wrong. Chagnon famously loved beer and when I went to his office the first thing you saw when you opened the door were 5 foot tall walls of beer boxes creating a maze like hallway from the door of his office winding around to his desk by the window where he sat drinking a beer. It was a surreal experience visiting his office. He was very patient and listened as I explained my interpretation of various multiple choice questions and answers and why I felt I'd gotten them right. He wound up giving me credit for several questions and sent me on my way. Later that week my TA for his course took me aside and said Chagnon told him I ought to consider majoring in Anthropology. I was flattered and tried to figure out how an anthropologist makes a living but couldn't -- so I never switched majors.
posted by pallen123 at 5:22 PM on February 13, 2013


Any anthropologist who crows about outdoing Indiana Jones is probably not going about things in the best way. I'm another anthropology graduate student, and while we did read Chagnon in my cultural theory classes, it was as an object lesson in how not to do ethical, exhaustive, fundamentally good anthropology.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:27 PM on February 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Rumple : That article rubs me the wrong way. It may be that it's written for an audience more familiar with scholarly criticisms of Chagnon and Diamond, but it seems to be trying to associate them with eugenicists, anti-semites, and segregationists by saying "These two are wrong about anthropology just like this list of horrible people". Rather than by, say, showing how Jared Diamond is a racist right winger through his writings or his actions.

"We exchanged letters in Nature as the data falsification came to be exposed, but he nevertheless made the fraudulent work the centerpiece of his science bestseller, The Third Chimpanzee.

That convinced me that Diamond is an anti-intellectual, that he thinks he knows more than the experts. Where have we heard that before? Well, from the creationists. From the climate-change deniers. In fact, back in the early 1960s, segregationists were saying in the pages of Science that blacks had not produced any good culture or civilization,"


I mean, really, rhetorically that's only one notch above, "You know who else was pro gun control?"
posted by Grimgrin at 5:40 PM on February 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yeah all I learned from this article is that anthropologists are bad at explaining things and kinda fighty. It was entirely unclear what made Chagnon such a horrible human being other than the other anthropologists disagreeing with him. He may be, but the article fails to mention why.

Diamond is criminally boring, I can agree with that.
posted by fshgrl at 5:55 PM on February 13, 2013


That article rubs me the wrong way. It may be that it's written for an audience more familiar with scholarly criticisms of Chagnon and Diamond, but it seems to be trying to associate them with eugenicists, anti-semites, and segregationists

Yea, that post seemed a bit hyperbolic, though it is coming from the fact that anthropology has a long, long history of being recruited for very dubious, unethical ends. I'm not sure if he was trying to equate Chagnon and Diamond with them so much as contextualize their errors within this history.

It was entirely unclear what made Chagnon such a horrible human being other than the other anthropologists disagreeing with him.

It's not so much that he is a bad anthropologist - just as in any social science, there are both geniuses and mediocrities, but the mediocrities usually sink into obscurity. The reason why anthropologists are riled up is that he's being presented in the NYTimes as if he's some kind of big influential figure in the field when this is far from the truth. There was an article a while back that found that anthropologists are the least respected of all social scientists in the US. Well, this is why.

Anthropology is poorly represented and highly misunderstood in the wider public as well as among other social scientists. Parading around hacks like Diamond and Chagnon as the pinnacle of scholarship is not helping. With so many budget cuts to university departments, it's a matter of survival right now to assert that anthropology is in fact an incredibly relevant field and there is some amazing scholarship being produced that no one outside the field hears about.
posted by adso at 6:29 PM on February 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Grimgrin - yeah, it's main virtue is snark, not scholarly rebuttal. Part of that is because the Chagnon affair is extremely familiar to Anthropologists of a certain age (say, over 40), and so without leadup he just blows off both barrels as collateral damage to his assault on Diamond (which in my view is well targeted with regard to Evol Psych being a naive flavour of Anthropology).

And, he is pretty much always snarky. See his prior takedown of Harvard Earnest Anthropologist Hooton -- contains some delicious stuff:

In 1918, Hooton writes a little throwaway line in the context of a review of a different book in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Only the Prussians and Madison Grant now believe that the Nordics are a race of supermen and archangels.”5 Cute, huh? But he never uses his stature as a Harvard expert on race to challenge Madison Grant. And when Grant sends him a copy of his 1933 book, The Conquest of A Continent (i.e., more of same), Hooton writes him back politely after reading only the first chapter, “I don’t expect that I shall agree with you at every point, but you are probably aware that I have a basic sympathy for you in your opposition to the flooding of this country with alien scum.”6

Of course, he is referring to my grandparents there. So fuck him.


So I don't think his goal is objectivity but if you like your Anthropologists to engage in a public spectacle of poo-flinging, then his occasional posts are worth the wait.
posted by Rumple at 6:29 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cultural anthropology is possibly even more fond of examining what their discipline is trying to do than is philosophy, which I wouldn't have thought possible. My impression is that there is a lot of anxiety over its roots as a sort of colonialist discourse and that this leads them to be very alert for exploitative tendencies.
posted by thelonius at 6:35 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have no knowledge, none at all, about either tribal people in South America or anthropologists, but whenever I read one of these magazine profiles where a maverick scientist talks about how their innovative theories were suppressed for political reasons by the establishment, I'm always inclined to think that there are other, better reasons the establishment didn't accept those theories.
posted by escabeche at 7:14 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


This was an extremely sympathetic article; clearly the author felt it necessary to detail all the attacks on Chagnon, but he frames them as hysterical or vicious.

I came out of this as convinced that Chagnon is a slimy asshole with dubious ideas and sketchy methods, as the author seems to be convinced he is an unfairly persecuted noble adventurer slash genius.
posted by edheil at 7:37 PM on February 13, 2013


edheil: "I came out of this as convinced that Chagnon is a slimy asshole with dubious ideas and sketchy methods, as the author seems to be convinced he is an unfairly persecuted noble adventurer slash genius."

I ended up thinking Chagnon is probably an asshole, and so are his critics, generally speaking. The vaccine skepticism and the "Ebola was engineered and introduced into Uganda" stuff took care of that.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:00 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


but whenever I read one of these magazine profiles where a maverick scientist talks about how their innovative theories were suppressed for political reasons by the establishment, I'm always inclined to think that there are other, better reasons the establishment didn't accept those theories.

It's not a bad rule of thumb in general. The thing is, Chagnon really is a self-aggrandizing mediocrity who tried to interpret the world through a few overly-simplistic ideas (probably why Steven Pinker is so fond of him), but the attempt to paint him as a new Mengele who intentionally let the Yanomamo die of measles as part of an experiment really was a politically-driven witch-hunt that has now been totally discredited.

To me all of l'affaire Chagnon is a sad portrait of the intellectual self-destruction of post-modern cultural anthropology that hit its nadir in the late '90s/early oughties, an object lesson in how a discipline that's removed every method of distinguishing truth from falsehood other than ideology is a house of mirrors.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:05 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the vaccine stuff was nasty. He couldn't just be wrong, he had to be someone who murdered thousands. If that was widely believed in academic circles despite the biological implausibility, it reflects poorly on the discipline.
posted by Area Man at 8:40 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of anthropologists don't even consider anthropology to be a science, and are rather anti-science in general.
posted by empath at 9:08 PM on February 13, 2013


One of the bloggers at Discover has been writing about this recently, also:

Against the Cultural Anthropologists
Jared Diamond vs the Anthropologists

It seems to me that a lot of anthropologists don't seem to want to look at larger patterns and tendencies in human behavior at all and want to see their particular studied culture as a unique isolated snowflake with no way to compare them fairly with the rest of the world.
posted by empath at 9:12 PM on February 13, 2013


Empath, anthropology has an overcomplicated sense of itself, to be sure, but Khan is one of the last people to be looking at for a sense of what the discipline is about.
posted by col_pogo at 9:17 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Jeez yeah, Khan is just a hater.
posted by Rumple at 9:45 PM on February 13, 2013


Hmmm. I know of Khan only through his bloggingheads.tv appearances, and he comes off as level headed and intelligent on those, at least to me.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:54 PM on February 13, 2013


He's very knowledgeable about genetics. For whatever reason he hates cultural anthropology. Maybe he had some bad undergraduate prof or something he never got over. I mean, I have no real taste for the seriously relativistic trends in anthropology myself but I understand where they are coming from and I don't think they are non-rigorous, just that I disagree with them.
posted by Rumple at 10:15 PM on February 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


It seems to me that a lot of anthropologists don't seem to want to look at larger patterns and tendencies in human behavior at all and want to see their particular studied culture as a unique isolated snowflake with no way to compare them fairly with the rest of the world.

I don't know. This isn't my experience with anthropology at all. If anything, i think the opposite is often the case - anthropologists who put forward totalizing theories that try to explain far more than empirical evidence will allow them to. The whole idea of studying cultures as "unique isolated snowflakes" died out decades ago. Nowadays it's not even common to refer to "a" culture as a concrete thing with boundaries that can be studied. If you ask an anthropologist what they study, they're much more likely to say something like: secularism, legal practices, commodity flows, political economy, heritage politics, food-ways, citizenship, mass media, race, medical practices, etc, rather than "I study x culture, and that is what I'm an expert in."

I think much of this criticism (Khan) stems from a basic misunderstanding of anthropology's methodological and theoretical aims. It is not sociology. It is not political science. It is not economics. It has its weaknesses and excesses, just like any discipline, but I think it gets at crucial aspects of human life that other social sciences are completely and utterly blind to.
posted by adso at 10:40 PM on February 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think it gets at crucial aspects of human life that other social sciences are completely and utterly blind to.

Which are?
posted by empath at 10:52 PM on February 13, 2013


Well, I'm not sure I can give a distilled answer that is adequate (it's also past my bedtime), but I guess a very basic answer is that as a qualitative and interpretive discipline, it strives to account for social categories that most other social sciences take for granted. It's not about generating models - it's about understanding how action is rendered meaningful through culture, at least if you take the Geertzian route (which is not the same thing as relativism, though you could get into a whole debate about truth and human agency and so on over this). In some ways, anthropology is a place where philosophy and social science meet, for better or for worse. This may seem kind of woolly, but it has concrete consequences. There is, for example, the way political scientists, human rights people, etc, employ a very ham-fisted, reified notion of culture and difference in, for example, debates over "Islamic" veiling in France. In the same vein, the way that other fields speak of culture as a whole is pretty naive - ideas like "culture clash" that get bandied around without actually questioning what kinds of epistemological assumptions are necessary for that term to even make sense. Talal Asad's essay "French Secularism and the 'Islamic Veil Affair'" is a good example of what an anthropological eye can add to these sorts of issues. (Or, for a more extended, very dense, yet pretty satisfying meditation on the nature of secularism, his book Formations of the Secular.)

This is not so much a criticism of other disciplines so much as the fact that each discipline has its blind spots - they cannot look at every angle of every issue at the same time.
posted by adso at 12:45 AM on February 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you ask an anthropologist what they study, they're much more likely to say something like: secularism, legal practices, commodity flows, political economy, heritage politics, food-ways, citizenship, mass media, race, medical practices, etc, rather than "I study x culture, and that is what I'm an expert in."

Yes, but this is fairly recent. And when I was studying anthro (roughly '98 to '04) there was still a lot of anxiety about whether or not you were really doing anthropology if you were looking at any of this stuff directly in a developed environment, especially your own culture, rather than trying to feed it through an ethnographic filter. Ethnography, in its traditional form, can't remain the be all and end all of anthro if it wants to remain relevant. But as soon as you start to move away from it, you have all kinds of demeaning labels applied to you, like "cultural studies."

As to anthro's relationship with science, Latour's Lab Life sort of points up the issues: science is culture, and has its own ideologies that become authorized truths (apologies to Latour for being so reductive.) Of course, mentioning Latour and anthropology together is like an invitation to an argument in some circles. Which sort of illustrates the problem....
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:06 AM on February 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's one well-respected Anthropologist on Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon which references this article.

I refuse to read the nytimes article, but that blog "anthropomics" is great!
posted by ennui.bz at 5:54 AM on February 14, 2013


I've seen a couple cases now of professionals who are the best at being known while not being quite so hot at their profession.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:04 PM on February 14, 2013


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