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For My Zilsel Friends, The Boar in the Vineyard: The Anthropology of Napoleon Chagnon April 17, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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The “boar” of the title refers to Martin Luther and his heresy, referring to the famous bull of Pope Leo X.  In the early modern world, the boar stood for the problem of heresy in the faithful church.

I. The “World’s Most Controversial Anthropologist”

Napoleon Chagnon has been christened the “world’s most controversial anthropologist” by the New York Times.  Chagnon enjoys the label, it is on his faculty web site. Why is he the world’s most controversial anthropologist?  I give two reasons.  1) in a book published in 2000, “Darkness in El Dorado,” he was accused with James Neel, a well-regarded epidemiologist, of exacerbating  a measles outbreak in order to test the fitness of tribes of Yanomami in Northern Brazil and Southern  Venezuela. These charges, offered by a journalist, were dismissed by the American Anthropological Association. 2) his linking of social status, with reproductive success or of cultural success with biological success. Chagnon argued, as had his adviser and mentor the geneticist and epidemiologist Jim Neel in the 1970s and 1980 (most explicitly in “On Being Headman” in 1980) that those Yanomami villagers who were good at warfare, good at killing had high social status. Aggression and warlike behavior (through mechanisms not really explained) have become social virtues due to their biological benefits. As a result of their high social status, they enjoyed reproductive success.  They had more children than villagers less adept at warfare. Aggression persists, moreover, because it is evolutionarily adaptive and it is the result of human beings acting rationally, in the pursuit of their own self-interest as well as those of their kin.

The linking of status and differential rates of reproduction or “differential fertility” is an old idea, dating back to R.A. Fisher.  After Fisher’s death and due to the influence of social biology in Britain and the United States, it became a main tenant of theoretical population genetics and demography after the Second World War, losing (or loosening) its eugenics ties and naturalizing in demography and epidemiology especially. And the idea that social factors influence biological evolution is today a well-established trope in human biology and evolutionary population genetics.  It need not be controversial.

Indeed, many of Chagnon’s ideas were in no way original. He just stated them very loudly and applied them to primitive warfare.  Chagnon was viewed by much of the anthropological profession, even after the El Dorado controversy died down, as engaging in eugenics.  This was because he was taken as saying that there was a “gene” for aggression and warlike behavior.  Chagnon did not say this but his reduction of warfare to the principles of biological evolution, his reduction of tribesmen to “utility maximizers” and of yoking cultural evolution to simple biological models, game theory and evolutionary explanations deeply offended a great number in the field who considered culture as one of many social facts.  Added to this is Chagnon’s difficult personality and his constant critique of anthropology as rubbish. 

His anthropology and the human behavioral ecology he helps promote are the first in my case studies of the dissenting sciences.

But like my others studies in the “dissenting sciences,” Chagnon is both of the field and not a part of the field.  He is both central and marginal.  He has published in many major scientific journals, like Science. But he is loathed in many parts of the discipline.  Chagnon also finds it most comfortable to publish with those who hold his views (particularly today.)  Lastly, he considers his anthropology to be “anthropology” and his approach is irreconcilable with that of cultural anthropology.  If he is correct, the work of the vast majority of anthropologists is rendered useless. His account of anthropology too relies so much on an alternate conception of the field, where culture, if culture is to be explained at all, it must be explained according to the principles of evolutionary biology and population genetics. Chagnon thus continues to occupy a liminal position in the field a “heretic” and a “misanthrope.” (as he states in his autobiography Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes: the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (2013)

In 2013, when Chagnon was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, Marshall Sahlins, in many ways the premiere anthropologist in the United States, resigned from the Academy in protest.

What makes this position of dissent most interesting is the degree to which he is considered a “heretic.”  Terry Turner, a well respected anthropologist in the field, has declared Chagnon and his mentor Jim Neel “eugenicists.” Turner has recently repeated the claim that Chagnon reduces his subjects to nothing more than animals in an oral history of his life and work by anthropologist Alan Macfarlane .  On the other hand, Chagnon has inspired a legion of followers who write about the connection between social success and biological success and who consider Chagnon for helping found human behavioral ecology, and are published oftentimes in the premiere anthropological journals.  However, if one closely examines the sources and approaches used, it appears than many of these articles on social and biological success appear to be having a conversation amongst other adherents of human behavioral ecology rather than other anthropologists generally. In many ways, every article in human behavioral ecology, even when published in the major journals, is another ballast directed towards the profession. In these articles especially, the approach is given a history and in particular, is constructed as the superior approach because of its synthesis of a number of slow-developing insights.  

Briefly, human behavioral ecology   uses optimization theory  and post-war evolutionary theory (especially the work of W.D. Hamilton) to explain cultural evolution.It further views human beings as engaging in rational behavior (like all of the natural world. This is also the opinion of Gordon Tullock, whose work in public choice political economy was profoundly influenced by his rather idiosyncratic take on sociobiology.  This I will detail in the next post) which is evolutionary adaptive.  This approach as two institutional centers (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor as well as Rutgers University’s Center for Evolutionary Studies) as well as a number of “aligned” journal such as Ethnology and Sociobiology. An actual social position study of this inquiry will be attempted but not in this post.  Human behavioral ecologist publish in a number of mainstream academic journals, but are typically not aligned with major anthropology departments such as Columbia and Chicago.  Also, a number of human behavioral ecologists have either studied at University of Michigan or are at Rutgers, so there is social selection in regards to academic positions and pedagogy. 

These journals have peer review, but their editorial board and editorial practices are very much predisposed it appears to accepting authors who agree with the approaches of the journal.  It also appears that many of the authors who publish in these types of journal only publish in these types of publications.  As I become more interested in pursuing this project, I am developing metrics which attempt to describe and measure quantitatively the degree of “inbreededness” of these journals.  The questions I seek to answer: to what degree do the same authors publish in journals such as Ethnology and Sociobiology? Are those authors only publishing in those journals such as Ethnology and Sociobiology, where their ideas will  be received favorably?  Do human behavioral ecologists such as Chagnon, Lee Cronk and Laura Betzig publish at the same rate in journals which are in no way favorable to the dictates of human behavioral ecology?

This question is difficult.  For example, Chagnon has published extensively in both Science and in the journal of the American Anthropological Association .  His work is also discussed in the pages of this “flagship” journal of the field.  Lee Cronk as well  has published extensively in this journal.  Both are therefore a part of the discipline even if they dissent from its tenants of anthropology as description, of culture as autonomous from biology, and of the task of the anthropologist as a relativistic chronicler.

However, Laura Betzig, also a human behavioral ecologist posses a different case.  Unlike Cronk and Chagnon, she only publishes in journals which are favorable to the tenants of human behavioral ecology. The reasons for her lack of mainstream acceptance are obvious,  she wishes to turn her understanding of the linkages between social and biological success into a Darwinian theory of history.  I shall relate more of this below.

II. The Boar and the Yanomami

In an series of articles and books, Chagnon with others contended that the Yanomami were warlike and this war-like posture was a fundamental state of their society. This was to counter what he considered to be the doctrinaire  idea of anthropologists of the “noble savage”, that of the pacific, wise and noble tribe of primitives.  Such an idea, Chagnon believed had become solidified in to a “faith” rather than a fact (see his biography “Noble Savages.”) So too was the majority of the anthropology profession based almost entirely on faith rather than on fact.  The reliance on faith rather than on fact blinded cultural anthropology to a number of fundamental issues.  According to Chagnon, social anthropology suffers from “biophobia.” Cultural anthropologists stridently resist all attempts to explain the behavior of primitives according to any kind of biological imperative. In fact, social anthropology resists any explanation at all.  In the 1970s, anthropologists explained any kind of tribal warfare and the dynamics of village demography by framing territorial aggression as the product of competition over scarce resources.  Warfare, according to social anthropologists, is the result of dearth.  Chagnon  found that levels of protein could not be correlated with active warfare.  Warfare was then the result of another factor.

Blindness to biology lead anthropologists to not consider the factors behind the evolution of culture. Chagnon used violence as a prism to examine the evolution of culture drawing from political anthropology as well as biological theory.  Chagnon in his landmark 1988 article, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” published in Science in 1988, argued that primitive tribesmen can generally be expected to act in ways which promote survival and reproduction,  especially the survival and reproduction and survival of themselves and their close kin, or what evolutionary biologists would call “inclusive fitness.”  They are rational and engage in behaviors which maximize the survival and reproduction of themselves and their kin.  Human beings too through learning and the inculcation of mores and customs, are adept at learning social customs (985-86).

Therefore Chagnon concluded, warfare among the Yanomami is predominantly in retaliation for revenge and resembles a tit-for-tat exchange. Warfare is initiated due to the loss of one’s close genetic relation, leading to a decrease in inclusive fitness. Kin groups which respond quickly forestall violent actions of their neighbors in the future. Aggressive, warlike groups also have a greater facility in abducting women.  Aggression leads to greater success in the capture of wives.  Tribesmen who act aggressively, kill aggressors and are proficient warriors have higher social status within the community and therefore have higher social and reproductive success.

Thus there are two direct causes for tribal warfare: 1) to forestall aggression, where violence acts as a deterrent and 2) men who kill other men have more wives and therefore more children.  Such wives are secured not only through forcible capture, but also through the increased social status granted to men who are good warriors.  “Cultural success leads to biological success,” Chagnon concludes, where “in short” military successes lead to reproductive benefits and concessions from others in the community (990). Being successful in warfare, he continues, is one of the many virtues encouraged by Yanomami society. Such a virtue is reinforced because having large numbers of aggressive men leads to a successful village (which does not get raided by outsiders.)

III. The Vineyard

Why did anthropologists take offense at this?

  1. In part the sociobiology of the late 1970s and 1980s of E.O. Wilson was much to blame.  The position of sociobiology viz a viz human behavioral ecology is quite contested.  One can think of these two inquiries as overlapping. However, sociobiology has always been more concerned with sociality and adaptation in the natural, animal world than in human communities.  E.O. Wilson’s many books discussing human societies have always remained amateurish. The comparison to sociobiology is also not warranted because Chagnon’s notion of cultural evolution has always restricted itself to the development of customs which govern mating and reproduction (although he did a great deal of research on Yanomamo cosmology and religion, he is not remembered for this.)  Chagnon discusses “mating systems,” sex, reproduction and war.  Little else.
  2. Chagnon’s account of tribesmen has always been unflattering.  He views them as nasty and brutish. He inserted himself into their village politics and there have always been accusations of his exacerbating the conflict. A key, now probably unanswerable question, is whether the tribesmen used machetes as weapons of war due to Chagnon, or whether they had access to those weapons before (Chagnon has been described as an arms dealer in some publications). His outlook on politics, derived from a very select readings of Hobbes and historical works in political anthropology, have portrayed tribal society as a war in the state of nature.
  3. There is a deep institutional divide between his type of anthropology and the cultural anthropology embraced by the majority of the anthropological profession.  Chagnon’s anthropology (and that of Lee Cronk and Robin Fox) is deliberately presenting itself as scientific, falsibable and progressive and the majority of social anthropology as practiced today as not. It is very Popperian.
  4. Chagnon does not  believe there to be any evidence behind the anthropology of Marshall Sahlins and Clifford Geertz.  For Chagnon, both men’s anthropology is not evidence based. Moreover, much of Chagnon’s critique of Geertz, Sahlins and social anthropology positions himself as the penultimate and perfect fieldworker.  It is Chagnon, having spent decades in the field, who is correct.  According to him, many social anthropologists have merely read about primitive tribes and attempt to do as little fieldwork as they can. The debate between Chagnon and  Sahlins thus reveals a divide between fieldworkers versus theorists.
  5. The controversy over Chagnon too is at the core of the problem of the dissenting sciences.  Because of his fieldwork expertise, because of his important and voluminous publications, because of his lineage with Jim Neel and his long presence in the field, he can not so easily be dismissed as “pseudoscience.” He is now a member of the National Academy of Sciences as is Robin Fox. Chagnon has a senior academic appointment. His work on differential fertility has granted him many followers and adherents. Human behavioral ecology is now a significant inquiry with its own journals, metaphysical principles and followers.  It is an established community.  Social anthropologists can not get rid of Chagnon, nor can they rid themselves of his followers.
  6. Chagnon presents kinship as a social system which reinforces biologically self-interested behavior.  This is against a very core tenant of anthropology which views kinship as unconnected to biology in any way. 

As I explore in the final section,  human behavioral ecology in the work of Laura Betzig has given rise to some fascinating, though troubling speculations.  Her example, as opposed to Lee Cronk, provides an interesting test case for examining how the dissenting sciences themselves are heterogeneous and how Betzig has suffered her own kind of marginality by taking many of behavioral ecology’s positions to extremes.

V. “Darwinian History” and the Limits of Dissent

Chagnon’s work has become a significant part of the inquiry called human behavioral ecology. Human behavioral ecology has perhaps one significant center in the United States, Rutgers University.  According to Lee Cronk, human behavioral ecology views culture and human behavior as the outcome of reciprocity, cost-benefit analysis,  investment and self-interest.  Human behavior can be explained in terms of simple models from game theory and population genetics.

All norms and customs, but especially those governing marriage and reproduction, underscore that all human beings seek to maximize their advantage (and that of their kin) while diminishing costs as well as diminishing the benefits of others.  All human behaviors are adaptive, increasing the fitness of those who engage in these behaviors in their environment, relative to those who do not.  This explains, along a classic social selection model, the origin and persistence of social customs and norms. Another example of behavioral ecology is “optimal foraging theory“.  Hunter gatherers tend to forage in a manner which maximizes the utility of the foraging while decreasing the costs.  Such behaviors exist because they (if maximizing) improve or increase fitness is passed on through generations, so that over time, customs and practices governing foraging become a part of the culture and norms of the actors.

What is interesting the degree to which, though provocative, such models are only used to explain the behavior of discreet populations (usually primitive tribes).  There is some generality though it does not rise to the level of a theory of history.  The scenario is quite different with the work of Laura Betzig, who has used her (and Chagnon’s account) of differential reproduction and the connections between status and biological fitness to explain all of human history.  Fascinatingly, this was reviewed even poorly in Ethnology and Sociobiology and other aligned journals.  Commentators believed there was too little evidence to sustain Betzig’s claim.  Betzig is on the margins of the profession.  What does she argue? In Despotism and Differential reproduction (1983) she traces the course of human history and the mechanisms of despotism by arguing that hierarchy and  despotic regimes arise because of individuals succeeding in maximizing their own reproduction at the expense of others, with great power…comes greater fitness.  Power is not pursued for its own sake but for its connections to superior access to reproduction!

Chagnon was Betzig’s dissertation adviser and one can see many of the influences of human behavioral ecology. Everything is reduced to evolutionary adaptation, self-interest and the benefits of kin.  What is also fascinating is the resounding criticism carried out in the pages of Ethnology and Sociobiology, which critiqued everything from Betzig’s use of evidence and statistics, to her overall approach.  Dissent can only go so far.

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