Blood Is Their Argument: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon

During the brief moment that I majored in anthropology in college, I was fascinated by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon and his seminal 1968 text Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon's time as a field scientist in the Amazon had a profound impact on the field of anthropology even as his methods (and misunderstandings of his methods) resulted in an academic war on his research and his character. To further explore Chagnon's legacy, and what he really found in the rainforest, BB pal John Brockman of EDGE convened a meeting between Chagnon and big thinkers Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. The result is 30,00 words of conversation and hours of video that John says is "one of the most significant events in (Edge's) sixteen year history." From an intro to the materials by Richard Dawkins:
YanoooChagnon committed the unforgivable sin, cardinal heresy in the eyes of a certain kind of social scientist: he took Darwin seriously. Along with a few friends and colleagues, Chagnon studied the up-to-date literature on natural selection theory, and with brilliant success he applied the ideas of Fisher, Hamilton, Trivers and other heirs of Darwin to a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world. It is sobering to reflect on how unconventional a step this was: science bursting into the quasi-literary world of the anthropology in which the young Chagnon was trained. Still today, in many American departments of social science, for a young researcher to announce a serious interest in Darwin's dangerous idea--even an inclination towards scientific thinking at all--can come close to career suicide.
Napolean Chagnon: Blood Is Their Argument


  1. What a terrible load of conspiratorial horseshit from Dawkins!  All kinds of anthropologists take Darwin seriously (although most of us aren’t prone to romanticizing him).  The difference is that we don’t apply Darwin in a completely crude manner.  Chagnon has gone from making the even the sketchiest arguments to making hay out of attacking people who disagree with him.

    Dawkins’ line of attacking deserves a name.  For lack of a more pithy formulation, I’ll call it “hermeneuticist baiting,” since it hinges on blackballing anyone who argues that human culture requires actual interpretation, rather than merely crude biologizing.

  2. I really admire Chagnon, and enjoyed studying his book in my Anthro. class.  I have followed his work (casually) since then, and watched some of the criticisms he’s been hit with over the years.  I find the account of him being some kind of martyr for Darwin utterly bizarre.  He was criticized for his research style, and was accused of inaccurate reporting, and further investigations showed that some accusations were off base (esp. the attack over measles), but that he did make some mistakes as a researcher, some fairly serious.  The Darwin-angle wasn’t relevant at all, his slagging of the Catholic Church is what got him in trouble.  In fact the whole writeup reads like it was written by a paranoid Dawkins-inspired writer with a victim complex lashing at the social sciences with no familiarity of their actual methods.

      1. Dawkins’ intro.  I’d missed that Dawkins himself wrote it…  That makes it highly Dawkins inspired, I guess.

  3. Everything is wrong with this post, from the all-macho gang setup to the spectacular load of anthropological nonsense dispensed by those professional amateurs and a fake professional maverick.

  4. Ev psych people in general make a mistake very similar to that of the creationists, in that they look for explanations of all of our behaviors ( even those that we share with other primates or a wide variety of other mammals) in our protohuman savannah phase.  Psychologists in general severely underestimate the degree to which we are influenced and controlled by culture. That said, the people on the other side of this particular debate are just as bad.  Steven Jay Gould is a lying ideologue who has faked data to prove his ideologically motivated arguments, and routinely deliberately misrepresents the positions of his opponents.  Many of the anthropologists arrayed against Changnon (who, I might add, criticized ev psych himself) are of the school of thought that everything is culture, and that our behavior has nothing to do with our genes and genetic differences, which is even more ridiculously like creationism than the other side.  I can’t see how a thinking person in the 21st century could conclude that we are, somehow, the only animal whose behavior is not influenced by our genes.  All that said, the way they hounded Chagnon over obviously spurious accusations ( measles) was nothing more or less than a witch hunt. 

    1. Citations needed for anthropologists who argue that “everything is culture” and “our behaviour is not influenced by our genes”. Thanks.


        ” Conversely, well known anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, unequivocally dismissed Darwin’s theories. Mead and Bateson argued that all social behaviour, including emotional expression, was a result of cultural experience and influence, and had little or no biological basis (Darwin & Ekman, 1998). ”

        It’s also described in detail in some of Ekman’s other books. 
        Or you could just google “margaret mead tabula rasa” yourself to get all kinds of stuff about it.  It was, at least at the time the controversy started, a major tenet of the school of anthropology that was intent on demonizing Chagnon, and a major ideological motivation behind the witch hunt.

        1. Hmm, well that’s not a quote by an anthropologist and I also don’t think that it’s a fair characterisation of either Bateson or Mead’s thought. In Bateson’s case, his ecological anthropology and theories of somatic change explicitly engage with and develop approaches that include biological factors and evolutionary development.

          As for Mead, consider this quote of hers from her book Male and Female, published in 1949:

          “Different as are the ways in which different cultures pattern the development of human beings,there are basic regularities that no known culture has yet been able to evade. After excursions into contrasting educational methods of seven different societies, we can sum up the regularities that must be reckoned with by every society. Every attempt to understand what is happening in our own society, or in other societies, every attempt to understand ourselves, or to build a different life for our children, must take these into account.”

          Does this sound like someone who thinks that biology has nothing to do with human behaviour?

          On this subject I recommend Paul Shankman’s book The Trashing of Margaret Mead, which argues that the accusation that Mead was a tabula rasa-ist has been a very common straw (wo)man argument. He also argues that such arguments are usually based on an unquestioning acceptance of Derek Freeman’s character assassination of Mead rather than an engagement with what she actually wrote. I think it’s here that we have to look for ideological motivations and witch hunts.

          By contrast, much of the criticism of Chagnon has not been an ideological knee jerk reaction to his biological arguments but instead substantive criticisms of his methodology and reasoning. I.e. the central critiques have been that he was doing poor science, not that he’d crossed some ideological line.

          1. I’m not an anthropologist, so I can’t claim to be an expert on mead’s thought, but you really should look into Ekman’s (who I’m aware is a psychologist, not an anthropologist) work on facial expressions and emotions, which wound up being pretty conclusive, and Mead and Bateson’s reactions to it, even after it became conclusive.  To be fair, she actually did stand up for Edward Wilson when he was being vilified by a lot of social scientists, so she’s perhaps not the best example.   I think that, in the case of Chagnon:  1) He did do plenty of stuff wrong, but most of it was stuff that everyone in the field was doing back then (eg writing about their subjects with the assumption that none of them would ever read it. ) 
            2) The fact is that any substantial criticisms of him got lost in the vile slander like the alleged measles experiments.   Those allegations were so obviously false that the fact that the anthropologists arrayed against him kept repeating them, even after they were demonstrated to be false, strikes me as a pretty clear signal that they cared more about having a witch hunt than about “substantive criticisms of his methodology and reasoning.”

          2. I know next to nothing about Ekman, but the fact that he uncritically slanders Mead and Bateman within considering what they actually wrote doesn’t exactly recommend him to me.

            Regarding critiques of Chagnon. Yeah, feels like another straw man to me. If you’re interested, check out this anthropological blog post, which points out that Chagnon has been challenged on empirical, methodological and theoretical grounds. So no simple ideological attack.


  5. Interesting stuff, though I am shocked (shocked!)  at Dawkins’s disparaging a field he seems to know nothing and inserting himself into a debate in which he somehow manages to get the positions of both sides wrong.

  6. Dawkins in my opinion is a brilliant scientists and polemist  but his understanding of cultural anthropology is obviously lacking. He has been duped by Chagnon and I encourage him to learn much more about the subject.

  7. The slur against social sciences having a bias against science looks to me like the sort of thing people who have no idea about what the social sciences actually are might say.

  8. I find it ironic that Dawkins, whose main criticism of religion is that it is not evidence based, could offer such an evidence-free characterisation of cultural anthropology. But then Dawkins has form for promoting concepts that have no more empirical support than the the Flying Spaghetti Monster — like “memes” for example. 

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