L’affaire Chagnon (Part 2)
There is a storm raging with unremitting fury. There are politically defined sides and bogeymen to be reviled and condemned and all of this furor is happening between people who generally display politically left-leaning opinions. I know that this is sounding familiar but you may be surprised to learn that this is all taking place within academia, specifically within and around anthropology. Honestly, this dispute has been raging for ages and doesn’t show any signs of cooling down. I believe there are political reasons for this fire but also the debate is difficult to ground in truth since this is the age old question, Nature versus Nurture (a dichotomy that I don’t appreciate). As it is, each side is unable to relate or construct any kind of persuasive argument that the other side accepts and I will attempt to frame this for you or at least relay the details of this particular argument to you.
In the skepto-atheist blogosphere world (subset of a subset!) the environment is rife with explosive sensibilities and closely guarded opinions regarding extremely important subjects that seem to center around feminist ideology. Newsflash, I know. I think that we would be wise to study the heated arguments that take place between individuals inside other groups, like anthropology, that are full of similarly minded folks because it might help us see how our individual actions in this group can be misinterpreted or are generally corrosive to open dialogue and discovery.
Marshall Sahlins is an incredibly accomplished academic who recently ostentatiously stepped down from his appointment at the National Academy of Sciences. Marshall Sahlins wrote a review of Darkness in El Dorado (written by Patrick Tierney) titled Jungle Fever in which Sahlins takes an extremely sympathetic position towards this takedown of Chagnon’s work as his title might suggest. Sahlins cites the most salacious assertions made by Tierney which was that the geneticist working with Chagnon, James Neel, might have been administering measles vaccines that were designed to expose a virgin population with measles and then study those effects. Neel basically denounces these allegations by saying that there’s no evidence of such an atrocious scheme but his response left me cold. This type of assertion by Tierney needs ironclad proof before being proposed because it is basically accusing Chagnon’s crew of either committing mass murder or criminal negligence against a people that trusted Chagnon with access to their villages. Therefore, I would expect a vociferous reaction from Sahlins, not:
But by the time Darkness in El Dorado was published, it was already in a second, revised edition, one that qualified some of Tierney’s more sensational claims in the galley proofs of “The Outbreak.” Tierney is an investigative journalist, and critical aspects of his original indictment of Neel took the form of well-documented speculation, leaving plenty of space for the heated exchanges by e-mail and Internet that ensued among respectable scholars who for the most part hadn’t read the book. These hasty incriminations and recriminations created their own versions of what Neel had done–and, accordingly, criticisms of Tierney that had nothing to do with what he had said. Still, it became clear enough that Neel could not have originated or spread genuine measles by the vaccine he administered. Tierney then revised the conclusion of the relevant chapter in the published version, making the vaccine issue more problematic–and to that extent, the chapter self-contradictory. Other issues, such as whether Neel was doing some kind of experiment that got out of hand, remain unresolved as of this writing.
Sahlins had no reason to include that last bit because there is no evidence of some “experiment” and it’s wrong to even flirt with the idea. This type of baseless rumor mill has no place in scientific discussions and it reveals his disdain for Chagnon’s work or maybe just Chagnon’s conclusions. This underhanded dig is the type of interaction that firms up battle lines and entrenches each side against one another, a process with which we atheists and skeptics have become all too familiar. It lessens the opportunities for deeper discussions and agreements, even though we may sincerely doubt whether Chagnon and Sahlins have diametrically opposed opinions.
For instance, John Horgan (a recent guest on the Godcast) confessed on our show and in his blog that he had neglected to mention in his review of Darkness in El Dorado Chagnon’s fairly reasonable opinion regarding genetic determinism. Horgan cites Chagnon:
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.
I am only an onlooker and I’m probably biased towards Chagnon et al. but it seems to me that he’s not quite the hard lined dogmatist that others have characterized him and I’ve little doubt that him and Sahlins could find much agreement regarding native populations and their ethical treatment. But Horgan also explained that he has come in direct conflict with the other side of this debate when Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson and Marc Hauser each emailed Horgan separately in an attempt to coerce Horgan into writing a negative review of Darkness in El Dorado. This attempt to squelch Horgan’s opinion is something that I wouldn’t expect from these individuals (except Hauser!) because they tout the ideal of truth and discovery and allowing all information and opinions to stand on their own merits and not through this strong arm tactic. The problems found in Darkness in El Dorado have been highlighted and torn apart and it ultimately did not matter that John Horgan did not have the same opinion of it as Dennett, Pinker, Dawkins, Wilson and Hauser.
The most recurring criticism of Chagnon’s work which is that his depiction of the Yąnomamö (or Yanomami) paved the way for colonialist governments to rally their populations against the natives and annex their land for mining purposes but I think I’ll let Steven Pinker answer this:
…it is blazingly controversial among non-quantitative anthropologists, though the objections are often political and moral rather than empirical — namely that it is harmful to non-state peoples to depict them as having high rates of violence, since it would make it easier to justify exploiting or oppressing them. My own view is that none of us should sign on to the bogus implication that IF a traditional people has high rates of violence THEN it would be OK to exploit them. People are what they are; all societies have violence, even if rates differ, and needless to say it is never justified to exploit or oppress people.
You may blame evolutionary psychologists or sociobiologists for the destruction of native populations but I posit that you could join hand in hand with them in condemning those governments and land barons for their crimes and immoralities which would amplify your voice louder. That is, if your objection is only political.