The Long PC Battle in Anthropology


My sorry academic discipline, anthropology, has been in the news the last few weeks. Napoleon Chagnon broke his long silence by publishing a memoir, Noble Savages, about his work among the South American Yanomamo Indians and the long nightmare of politically correct recrimination that greeted his work.

Chagnon was infamously accused of infamy by a journalist, Patrick Tierney, who confabulated a story about Chagnon starting a measles epidemic among the South American Yanomamo Indians so that he could study the results. Chagnon was hauled up on charges by the American Anthropological Association; condemned in 2002; and then reprieved in 2005 when the AAA rescinded its condemnation after it became clear that Tierney’s accusation had been fabricated.  

Tierney, in Darkness in El Dorado, also alleged that Chagnon had instigated violence among the Indians, drastically misrepresented them, and done other things to put them in harm’s way.  The j’accuse met with some skepticism.  Chagnon had done pioneering fieldwork in the 1960s among an unacculturated tribe, written brilliantly detailed enthnographies, and collaborated on some stunning films. 

But Chagnon was also in bad odor with a large number of American cultural anthropologists who disliked his theoretical perspective and pretty much despised him on political grounds.  Chagnon was among the minority of anthropologists who took sociobiological explanations of human behavior very seriously.  What he found among the Yanomamo was that men who killed other men in battle fathered far more children than their less aggressive tribesmen.  And he figured that, in the long term, such reproductive success had something to do with the exceptionally belligerent character of the Yanomamo as a whole. 

His conclusions were more than irksome to the anthropological establishment, which took on principle that biological explanations of human behavior are illegitimate.  Moreover, the depiction of a Native American people as “naturally” aggressive and homicidal just plain contradicts the temper of modern anthropology, which likes to smooth the violent tendencies of our species into a narrative that deposits most of the blame on the distortions wrought by Western civilization.

The American Anthropological Association’s task force on the accusations looked deep into its navel and after two years delivered a two-volume tome exonerating Chagnon of causing measles but excoriating him on everything else.  Then, and only then, the facts began to leak out.  Tierney had simply made up the substance of most of his accusations.  He was a fraud, and in the two years of the AAA’s sifting the sands of evidence, no one had noticed.  Oops, the AAA said in 2006, cancel that fatwa.  It is no longer operative.

The New York Times weighed in on the controversy several times in recent weeks.  A review in the Sunday Book Review by Columbia University anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli, trashes Chagnon for his depicting the Yanomamo as ugly, smelly, deceitful, and mean.  She also faults him for seeing the Yanomamo as representatives of our common Neolithic past rather than sui generis and living in the present.  Chagnon’s book, in Povinelli’s eyes, is “less an expose of truth than an act of revenge”–on the Yanomamo and on Chagnon’s persecutors among the anthropologists.

But wait, there’s more!  Chagnon has just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. That was too much for Marshall D. Sahlins, a long-standing member of the Academy and a long-standing persecutor of Chagnon.  Sahlins is a fascinating figure in anthropology, a one-time Marxist-influenced historical materialist who “converted” mid-career to relativistic culture-is-nearly-everything approach.  One of his important essays, “The Original Affluent Society” depicts hunter-gatherers as leading a life of material ease.  Sahlins also had a long-running debate with another anthropologist, Gananath Obeyeskere, over whether the Hawaiian Islanders really understood what they were doing when they murdered and ate Captain Cook in 1779.  Sahlins held out for an extreme form of cultural relativism in which the Hawaiians’ behavior could be understood only through the lens of their own cultural presumptions.  

In short, Sahlins is the kind of anthropologist who is vehemently opposed to the idea of an underlying human nature, and he is at the same time a romanticizer of the primitive state of humanity.  Chagnon is almost perfectly cut out to play the role of archvillain in Sahlins’ morality play.  And Sahlins is making the most of the moment.  As he resigned from the Academy, he thundered down imprecations on the evolutionary-minded Chagnon and on the academy itself, which he said had committed “a large moral and intellectual blunder.”  The New York Times’ Nicholas Wade covered the story as “Discord Over Scholar’s Tribal Research.”

There is lots more in this vein.  My favorite is at the end of an article in Inside Higher Ed, “A Protest Resignation,” which cites as an authority no less than David Graeber, who smears not just Chagnon but “Chagnon’s defenders” as well, for declining to deal with the objection that what Chagnon did was “to vilify a group of human beings so enormous violence could be unleashed on them.”

David Graeber is an anthropologist too, at the University of London, and known for such works as Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, and Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  They are well-written and interesting, at least if you are interested in matters anthropological.  But Graeber is perhaps better known as the New York Times once put it, as the “house theorist of Occupy Wall Street.”  In “Anarchist Anthropology,” Thomas Meany of the Times offered an admiring portrait of the man who proclaimed in 2011 that the Occupy movement would be “the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American empire.” 

While the New York Times Sunday Book Review was roasting Chagnon on a spit, and the New York Times Science section was reporting Sahlins’ high dudgeon over Chagnon’s elevation to the Academy, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article by Emily Eakin, “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist.”  It is the best of the batch, capturing why Chagnon caught the imagination of the public in the first place, why his work continues to demand serious attention, and just how his career came to suffer so much ideologically motivated abuse. 

As I said, my sorry academic discipline has been in the news a lot these last few weeks, and it is looking a lot sorrier by the day.  Tempers flare.  Ideological extremism roars out its absolutes.  Intellectual freedom takes it on the chin.  Anthropology is in principle the study of mankind, but right now it looks a lot like a cross-section of humanity’s ill will.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

    View all posts

One thought on “The Long PC Battle in Anthropology”

  1. This surely rings true. Four decades ago my colleague Richard Stroup and I published a few articles on economic anthropology. One was in Public Choice, an Econ journal. Its editor, Gordon Tullock, published W/O revision–but advised me anthropologists are going crazy. Alas, this piece suggests his observation/prediction is correct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *