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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.


For My Zilsel Friends, The Dissenting Sciences April 13, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. Some Opening Thoughts On My Motivations

My friends at Zilsel have invited me to speak on a topic which I have been working on for quite some time, through my various researches in biosocial anthropology and human behavioral ecology, behavior genetics and public choice economics (in the work of Gordon Tullock especially) the “dissenting sciences.” I keep changing my mind on what to call them, having referred to them as “heterodox” and “pariah” sciences.    

I am a bit in a muddle and I have decided to write my way out of this confusion. I have submitted two introductions to introduce my case studies.  This is a version of those introductions.

Writing on the Pseudosciences

I do this because our field not only suffers from the privacy of criticism but also the privacy of ideas.  As Will has written about many times, historians of science are too concerned with only publishing their very polished thoughts. This means that much of the knowledge of the profession is hidden from public view. This behavior is elitist.  

And now everyone reading this hopefully has a better sense of my motivations.  My thoughts on pseudoscience are a bit of a muddle, I am using this blog as a way to puzzle out this muddle, as a prelude to puzzling out some of my confusions in a talk on Tuesday.  I am deliberately not holding back my unpolished thoughts in the hopes that others will do so.  (more…)

If You Read Joseph Agassi, Man and Nature Become More Complex July 15, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Agassi and the 20th century, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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For other entries in the series, please see most especially this post as well as this post

I. Dichotomies pose problems for philosophy and the social sciences

In “The Rationality of Science is Partial” in Towards a Rational Philosophical Anthropology (1977) TRPA  Joseph Agassi points out the two of the key dichotomies in philosophy, namely between nature and convention and between the “utterly universal” and the “utterly particular.” It is possible to view any”specific society as merely arbitrary” … “because although from the outside a custom in a given society may look quite arbitrary, from within it may look quite rational” (263). Many social institutions, such as organized religions, contain both rational and supposedly irrational elements. They are a mix of the universal and the particular. Because they appear to be a mix of dichotomies, social scientists and philosophers are at a loss to explain them. They then explain one and explain away the other. Explanations typically end in an arbitrary manner.

Thus, many have concluded that religion is rational, but not rational enough (Ludwig Feuerbach). Because social institutions are rational, but not rational enough, various solutions have been applied. Relativism more or less declares the debate useless: everything is particular (266-7). For relativists, one can only describe and not engage in causal reasoning. For functionalism, customs, like religious institutions are “natural” and perfectly reasonable, “though only from within.”

Functionalism presents every institution as 100% conducive to good order. Opposite to relativism, everything may be explained. Functionalism also promotes a kind of quietism. If customs and institutions are rational and perfectly reasonable, “natural,” even Hegelian, then how they are to be improved remains a mystery. Their naturalness speaks against their reform. “How can natural things have errors in them?” one would ask. Of course, any modern biologist would tell you that nature is full of errors. Some of them quite interesting.


Henry C. Carey on Law and Civilization (Part 2) April 5, 2015

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology, Philosophy of Law.
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In my previous post on the 19th century political economist Henry C. Carey I underscored some of his methodological suppositions (his Newtonianism, his Baconianism and his dependence upon William Whewell). I made two further points: first, that Carey’s system-building and his emphasis on man and nature being under the rule of law was typically of social theory penned during the nineteenth century. One finds the same flavor of contention in the work of John William Draper and Henry Buckle, where both authors attempted to bring diverse sorts of information ranging from facts concerning the course of civilization to the laws and regularities of human psychology under one kind of generality, where facts and the laws which they illustrated were exemplars of a well-ordered universe.  This is more or less the purpose too of later sociological reasoning.4a29884r

Depending upon the writer involved, this mammoth reductionism and systems-building, with its consequent determinism, was to differing degrees rhetorical, heuristic, deadly serious, and inconsistent. As importantly, these efforts at system-building and reduction often obscures digressions and departures which form intriguing sub-arguments and sub-systems.


Robin Fox: Biosocial Anthropology as Philosophical Anthropology (Slightly Updated) November 8, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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UPDATE: It has occurred to me that my two part argument—leveling a criticism of the philosophers’ portrayal of biosocial anthropology as censure-worthy at the expense of an understanding of the complexity of its ideas and normalizing biosocial anthropology in post-war ideas by re-categorizing it as philosophical anthropology—that I focused less on ideas and their genealogies (especially the Gellner bits) than was satisfactory. Thus, quite soon, I will analyze in depth Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger’s The Imperial Animal (1971) as both philosophical anthropology AND as an outgrowth of the re-configuration of the social sciences in the US and the UK after the Second World War. Hopefully, by the time of my review of Joel Isaac’s Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2013) my views on post-war, Cold War American and UK social sciences will be reasonably apparent.  

In a previous post, I attempted a taxonomy of post-war inquiries which interrogated the connections between the biological and social sciences in various post-war intellectual communities. Bio-social anthropology, biosocial anthropology, sociobiology and social biology were loosely defined. Part of the challenge of discussing these (mostly) post-war inquiries is in going beyond the fraught discussions over the extent that any or all of these inquiries engage in biological reductionism and biological determinism.

What is needed more is a discussion of the ideas themselves and their genealogies and, by extension, their connections to broader themes in post-war and Cold War sciences. The ideas themselves are quite complicated, and many philosophers of science, such as Mario Bunge (though much of his work is among my favorites in philosophy of science), reduce them to caricatures (intelligent distortions—but reductions which worry about their societal implications and evil intent). On a philosophical and ethical level, these ideas are troublesome and distortions—but they are with us and have been with us for some time.  One can talk about the ideational content of (say) public choice theory, without the merits of its practical application.  It seems impossible to talk about Hayek or Keynes outside of their virtues as policy, but this must change as well.


Biosocial anthropology, as noted in the last post, is, especially in the works of Robin Fox, part of a philosophical and social science critique against relativism in the social sciences as well as in epistemology. Such a critique draws strength from the methodological writings of Karl Popper (previously mentioned), but even more so from Ernest Gellner. Gellner is the subject of a remarkable biography by John A. Hall (that is not without its problems, and will be reviewed here shortly). Fox’s appropriation of Gellner’s ideas also points to a rather bifurcated legacy on the part of this diverse social thinker: as a philosophical critic and anthropologist and as a theorist of nationalism. Mary Douglas, whose diverse works have never been much understood by anthropologists, but whose ideas have been appropriated by diverse other fields, was deeply scornful of Gellner’s books on nationalism (as evidenced by her oral history with Alan Macfarlane). Fox seems to prefer Gellner the philosopher to Gellner the theorist of nationalism.  Hall, valiantly tries to unify them. Such an account is incredibly useful, but at odds with my understanding of Gellner.


From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.