‘Among’ is a curious preposition. Today it seems to be used mostly to describe the relation of being with beings that are not quite like us, but still enough like us that a properly second-person relation may obtain with them. One can be ‘among’ ghosts and apes, while such a relation is less plausible when it comes to snails or rocks. This connotation perhaps explains the survival of the word in contexts where the intent is to sound like an anthropologist. When Napoleon Chagnon’s book, Noble Savages: My Life among Two Dangerous Tribes- The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists (Simon & Schuster, 2013), tells us that its author has spent time ‘among’ these ‘tribes’, we can immediately take from this that the author wishes to sound like an anthropologist, and to sound like one for an audience that prefers to imagine this discipline in its pith-helmeted, imperial chapter. That Chagnon is in reality an anthropologist does not change the fact that his concern to sound like one is meretricious in the extreme. For he would have us believe that discipline in whose name he speaks still wears a pith helmet, that it remains a matter of men of science descending into the heart of darkness to study groups of people who, while possessed of a language of sorts, are not recognized in any significant way as having their own voice. More than this, he would have us believe that it is only in this uniform, it is only ‘among the tribes’, that anthropology can continue to present itself as scientific.
Chagnon is a staunch defender of one side --the losing side-- in a recent rift within academic anthropology. In 2010, as was widely and apocalyptically reported by scientistically minded journalists such as Nicholas Wade, a subcommittee of the American Anthropological Association deemed its own subject a non-science, or at least argued for excluding any mention of science from its self-desciption. This change was meant as an acknowledgement of the fact that anthropology does indeed deal with interactive subjects who can speak for themselves, and does not deal with mute ants or atoms. From the outside, it is not hard to regret this unnuanced decision, for what the AAA subcommittee seems to have missed is that one need not make a choice: the human sciences can be sciences too, real sciences; even if they require some methods and provisos of their own, they can still remain connected to the broader unified project of understanding how the world really, truly works. One can’t help but share in Chagnon’s frustration at the hasty decision of the majority of his disciplinary peers to disown its historical connection to any branch of the complex and variegated scientific tradition. After all, until very recently (and to some extent to this day still in languages such as French and German), a ‘science’ was any relatively systematic body of knowledge, anything the goal or product of which was scientia, and it is only in the very most recent times that the notion has been reduced to the figure of somber men seeking to run the world on the basis of claims of unassailable expertise. Yet the cartoon version of science that Chagnon proposes in response, in its total failure to recognize that there might be special problems of theory-ladenness, power inequality, looping effects, prejudice --in a word, all those factors that make the scientific study of humans a more delicate matter than the study of other domains of nature--, can easily make one wish to take the ‘postmodern’ turn oneself, if only to get away from this astoundingly simplistic pretense of scientificity.
Recent scholarship in French, Spanish, and Portuguese focusing broadly on Amazonian cultures cannot but further contribute to the view that the rift in American anthropology has led to a further impoverishment of the discipline in this country. In Europe and Latin America, we find very theoretically sophisticated engagements with Amazonian cultures being undertaken by authors who take a broadly naturalistic and scientific view of their project, and who proceed with complete indifference to the work of Chagnon. Some of these approaches deploy decidedly western and science-friendly conceptual tools, yet still manage to say something valuable and revealing about the actual beliefs and concerns of the people being studied. Thus for example in his remarkable book, Par delà nature et culture (Paris, Gallimard, 2006), Philippe Descola, following the precedent of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, takes the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz as providing a point of access to certain varieties of animist ontology in South America. Leibniz, like the Makuna and the Wari’ peoples, supposes that “that thing is a subject that finds itself activated or turned into an agent by means of a point of view.” In this respect, for Leibniz and the South American tribespeople alike, the discontinuity of forms in nature is underlain by a deeper unity, to be explained by a difference of perspectives. The ‘perspectivism’ at the basis of his approach, Descola explains, “is thus the expression of the idea that every being occupies a point of view of reference, and thus finds itself situated as a subject.” Descola concludes that a Leibnizian perspectivism amounts to an “ethno-epistemological corollary of animism.” Every being, on this view, is an expression of exactly the same rational order. But heterogeneity or discontinuity of forms arises at the corporeal level. Different beings have different bodies, and so also different phenomenologies, since their perception of the world takes place through their bodily sense organs. This means also that they must conduct themselves in the world differently, that they will be non-identical with respect to their agentive means, even if at a fundamental level all in the end have the same rational ends. For Descola, in turn, the fact that the Makuna and the Wari’, like Leibniz and all the representatives of European science who came after him, see all of nature as governed by something like reason, and by a reason that is knowable by human beings, is in the end grounded in a universalism about human minds that is informed by cognitive science and neurolinguistics.
I have dwelt on this example at some length in order to illustrate an important point: that one can in fact approach the subject matter of anthropology naturalistically, using the conceptual tools of European traditions of thought, and still come up with theoretically sophisticated accounts of indigenous beliefs that remain nonetheless sensitive to the actual concerns, to the ‘voices’, of the people being studied. This is what the best social anthropology, conceived as a branch of the human sciences, has always aspired to do: to tell us what other people are thinking, as a step toward piecing together the puzzle of what it is that humans qua humans think, and to determine what they are thinking by taking seriously their own categories and commitments, by learning to think like they do. The interpretation of culture is a complicated task, and it doesn’t automatically become uncomplicated if one affiliates oneself to ‘science’ rather than ‘postmodernism’. Rigorous, mature science --and this applies already to the sciences that study the non-human world-- understands that it is not just about observing the bare facts and relating them, but rather always involves interpretation through an appropriate theoretical framework, the choice of which must be made in large part on a priori, indeed philosophical, grounds. Chagnon’s dichotomy is forced and false.
But are his particular scientific claims as false as his belief in his own role as conservator of science? There is nothing intrinsically ridiculous about Chagnon’s central hypothesis that ‘primitive’ societies are structured by male competition over women, or that this competition results in systemic violence. More generally, the central conviction, that culture is an outgrowth of nature, and that many features of human societies can be studied just like ant colonies can be, seems to me almost certainly correct, and in any case should be assumed to be correct as a matter of methodology for many research purposes. Surely it ought to be permissible to call Chagnon out as a poor reasoner --to the extent that he makes a fallacious leap from the view that culture is natural to the view that there simply are no problems of interpretation or ideology or theory-ladenness in a scientist’s undertaking to tell us what this nature-bound culture is like-- while refusing to rush headlong in the other direction and to deny that culture is natural, or to insist that human societies are fundamentally different from ant colonies and can not at all be studied by the same methods.
The real problem with Chagnon’s work, whatever accusations his enemies in anthropology may throw at him, is not the Hobbesian hypothesis at its core, but rather the fact that he does not prove, or even begin to prove, this hypothesis from the empirical evidence mustered. Chagnon boasts that “most anthropologists have never lived among people who are really primitive.” The fact that he has done so, he believes, gives him access to special insight into the basic forces underlying human history. Namely, as a result of his Amazon sojourn, “I discovered that maximizing political and personal security was the overwhelming driving force in human social and cultural evolution.” But how do you ‘discover’ this from observing a single group of people? Might there be some alternative interpretations of the same observations? Might there indeed be alternative interpretations that one could plausibly defend without even having been there, simply from the sort of book-learning that Chagnon sets himself up as disdaining? For example, might group fitness also play a significant role in individual human actions? Or, to put it less Darwinistically, might values associated with community play a role in the explanation of human motivation, equal to the maximization of individual benefit? I am not saying they do play such a role; but I seriously doubt that the definitive conclusion that they do not, on the basis of observation of a single group of people, however ‘pristine’, could possibly count as good science. I would trust a sharp theoretical mind that grasps the subtle interpretive problems involved in accounting for the driving forces in human evolution, even if that mind has never lived ‘among’ pristine tribes, sooner than I would trust an experienced field-worker who has no apparent talent for, or interest in, problems of interpretation or of the difficulty of choosing theoretical frameworks.
We have dissected some of the controversial terms in the subtitle of Chagnon’s book, even down to its prepositions, but have so far steered clear of everything having directly to do with his invocation of either nobility or savagery. The phrase ‘noble savage’ dates back to John Dryden’s 1672 play, The Conquest of Granada, whose hero, a Spanish Muslim in the New World, discovers the delights of going native: “I am as free as nature first made man, / Ere the base laws of servitude began, / When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” Chagnon does not in fact claim that the tribe of anthropologists has anything noble about it, and in this respect the book’s title, likely a marketing-inspired afterthought, is not really fitting. What is important for our purposes anyhow is the access Dryden’s immortal phrase gives us to a certain basic opposition in the history of modern European thinking about the nature of human culture, progress, and diversity.
To speak of the nobility of the savage state is to imply a sort of romantic primitivism that does not sit well with most varieties of political progressivism. Some forms of anarchism and ecologism excepted (a significant exception), the main currents of progressive thought have been based on the core belief that, through human agency, history can and ideally does move from a worse state to a better one. One might place Chagnon by saying that he has accepted the worst of both worlds: the belief that the modern, developed west knows best, together with a version of the belief that the ‘savages’ have a unique power to reveal to us who we really are as human beings. A romantic primitivist of Chagnon’s sort does not want us to learn from the Yanamamö in the sense of adopting their ways or returning to a more ‘primitive’ form of life in the spirit of the anarcho-primitivists and various other droppers-out. Rather, he wants us to draw the lesson that ‘primitive’ Amazonians, to the extent that they reveal more clearly the elementary constituents of human social life, are therefore in a position to tell us what human beings are really like. Now ordinarily ‘science’ is held to contrast with ‘romanticism’ nearly as starkly as with ‘postmodernism’, and Chagnon himself would surely not acknowledge this part of his pedigree. Indeed, again, his is a very peculiar sort of romanticism: it says not that we should reject the status quo in order to return to something primordial, but rather that the status quo is in truth only a late echo or unfolding of that primordial something.
Of course, and again, what is missing here is any real concern about the difficulty of interpreting the facts. This difficulty is there even in the case of the ants, but it is greatly compounded by the tremendous variability of culture, that is, by the fact that human beings respond to the same basic environmental exigencies in hugely different ways. Human culture is not discontinuous with the rest of the natural world, but this does not mean that it carries no special problems of its own, and the best way to characterize the central problem, which also ought to be enough to give anthropology its raison d’être as a distinct and somewhat autonomous domain of science, is to note that there is no obvious way, no algorithm or formula, to explain how a given set of natural circumstances will lead to a given cultural form. Different groups will come up with widely different responses to more or less the same environmental pressures, not because humans are supernatural or in principle incomprehensible in scientific terms, but because the science of human culture must in the end be what Leibniz would have called a science of res singulares, of singular things. This does not mean that we cannot look for an order underlying the diversity, but it does mean at the very least that we must be very careful about generalizing from any particular case to a claim about humanity in general, even, or perhaps especially, when the case at hand is ‘primitive’, in the sense that it displays the purportedly elementary features of human society.
This interpretation of the basic shortcomings of Chagnon’s supposed science should be familiar enough to those who have followed the drawn-out dust-up between him and Marshall Sahlins. The latter has been a committed opponent of sociobiology since its first articulation by E. O. Wilson in the 1970s-- or, better, since its first articulation under the label of ‘sociobiology’; some form or other of the view that human society is fundamentally of the same sort as animal society has always been around, and has been defended by figures as diverse as Diogenes the Cynic, Piotr Kropotkin, and Bernard Mandeville, author of the 1714 Fable of the Bees. Sahlins sharply noted, in a 2000 review of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) (which accused Chagnon of, among other things, intentionally spreading the small pox virus among the Yanomamö, an accusation that has since been disproven), that it would be impossible --not difficult, but theoretically impossible-- to identify a universal selective pressure for violence, just as it would be impossible to genetically track the rapidly transforming behavioral values associated, e.g., with competition over potential mating partners. It follows for Sahlins that the only selective force that we can identify is the one that favors a human ability “to realize innate biological dispositions in a variety of meaningful ways, by a great number of cultural means.” Sahlins continues:
Violence may be inherently satisfying, but we humans can make war on the playing fields of Eton, by sorcery, by desecrating the flag or a thousand other ways of ‘kicking butt’, including writing book reviews. What evolution has allowed us is the symbolic capacity to sublimate our impulses in all the kinds of cultural forms that human history has known (“Jungle Fever,” Washington Post, December 10, 2000).
In short, the fact that human beings are symbol-using animals ensures that violence will not always just be violence; we will get creative, find new and often amazingly subtle ways to fight. Other animal species are indeed capable of symbolic displays of hostility—they can make their hair stand up on end, for example, or show their teeth. But human beings can bring about similar effects by means, for example, of sequences of carefully selected black symbols against a white background. Writing is a uniquely human activity, but it is not unique among human activities. In fact, as many archeologists are coming to appreciate, all human material culture is symbolically dense in the same way texts are, and the division between the study of prehistory, as concerned with non-textual cultures, on the one hand, and on the other history, which begins roughly with cuneiform tablets, is entirely artificial, set up, arguably, to give us a comfortable psychological buffer zone --‘prehistory’-- between properly human history and the dark abyss of time that precedes it. Material culture, dress, weaponry, ritual objects, scarification, perhaps writing too: all of these developments make possible a sublimation of violence from its blunt club-to-the-head variety into manifestations that can be exceedingly difficult to interpret or even to detect. And this means that we are returned inevitably to the approach to anthropology that understands it fundamentally as an interpretive endeavor, not entirely unlike the effort to extract meanings from texts or tombstones. This is not postmodernism, but only an acknowledgement of one of the things, alongside raw data collection, that science, in the rich old sense of Wissenschaft, has always done and cannot but do.
We have, so far, contrasted Chagnon’s blunt ‘scientific’ approach with both ‘postmodernism’ as well as with any theoretically sophisticated approach to the human sciences. What these distinctions fail to capture, however, is the fact that a great deal of current anthropology positions itself not principally as any of these, but rather in an advocatory role. Many of its practitioners are uncomfortable in the role of scientific explainers not because they are subjectivists about truth or they reject grand metanarratives, but simply because they have understood the fragility of the plights of the indigenous peoples they study, and have determined that their efforts and resources are better directed toward mediating between native peoples, on the one hand, and governments and rapacious corporations on the other, than toward telling us what the driving forces of human social evolution are.
But here there is not such a sharp separation, since many anthropologists manage to unite this foremost concern with profound theoretical insights. Thus for example Terence S. Turner has been able to portray the Kayapo of Brazil in a way that both conveys the richness and complexity of their beliefs and corresponding actions, and, at the same time, sensitively deals with both the threats to these beliefs coming from encroaching modernity, as well as with the potential ways in which anthropology itself can hasten this encroachment (see, e.g, Terence S. Turner, “Representing, Resistance, Rethinking: Historical Transformation of Kayapo Culture and Anthropological Consciousness,” in G. Stocking, ed., Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge, History of Anthropology, Vol. 7, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 285-313). Chagnon, meanwhile, has actively been portraying the Yanomamö as a people who in certain important respects do not have their house in order, and this in a context where he knows, and they know, that the land they inhabit is extremely desirable to a number of parties who would be perfectly be happy to use the civilizing mission as a pretext for moving in on them.
It is important to note here, if only in passing, that support for the gradual ethnocide that would result from governmental acculturation programs, driven in the end by corporate interests, remains surprisingly widespread even among purported humanitarians. Thus in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, the conservation biologist John Terborgh offers the following argument of assimilating uncontacted indigenous peoples: “Do we want,” he asks,
to keep people in a ‘cultural museum’, a time warp as it were? Putting aside the practical questions of how this would be accomplished, is it morally the right thing to do? This is a question of values and some of my anthropologist colleagues would say yes. But the morality of this question has to be considered in the light of our own cultural origins. Once upon a time, the ancestors of each and every one of us lived in a premodern culture. Those cultural origins have now been completely erased from our collective memory. Do any of us regret the loss of this memory? Would any of us prefer to return to our ancestral condition, rather than to live in the modern world? Few, if any, would say yes. To live in isolation is to live a short, hard life in the absence of modern medicine and in complete ignorance of history, geography, science, and art (“Out of Contact,” New York Review of Books, April 5, 2012).
Terborgh’s heart may be in the right place, but he could not be more wrong. He evidently has learned nothing from his anthropologist colleagues. As has been familiar since Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1962 La pensée sauvage, indigenous peoples do have science, in fact they have a tremendously complex system of classifying and interpreting salient features of the natural world. This complexity has been borne out in more recent work by Brent Berlin, Scott Atran, and others on what is sometimes called ‘ethnotaxonomy’. They also have history, or what we would call, usually dismissively, ‘myth’. It may involve different standards of evidence and be underlain by a different epistemology, but it is meaning-giving and valuable to the people who recite it, learn it, and embody it. They certainly have geography: just ask any outsider who needs to find his way around indigenous territory and who seeks the aid of a native guide. And the claim that they do not have art is simply nonsensical.
But the greatest problem with Terborgh’s plea for assimilation comes at the practical rather than the philosophical level. Indigenous people are never assimilated into a larger society anywhere other than at the very lowest rung. From being people who occupy no particular social class, they become, when urbanized or engulfed into a state structure, the occupants of the bottom class, enjoying none of that society’s privileges. I don’t see how anyone could argue that it is better to be a proletarianized slumdweller than to live out a life in the traditional way, beyond the pale of history, as Kant, for example, would put it in his Enlightenment-era condescension. Assimilation always means introduction to new hazards: guns, drugs, high-fructose corn syrup, wages guaranteed in advance to maintain the laborer in poverty (for an excellent account of the consequences of absorption of the Sudanese Nuer into a state structure, for example, see Sharon E. Hutchinson’s excellent study, Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State, University of California Press, 1996). Terborgh has absolutely no vision for a program of assimilation that would yield better results.
Chagnon for his part does not explicitly argue for assimilation, but nor does he show much concern about the relationship between his own work and the potential consequences for the Yanomamö. He is right to protest against his enemies, such as Marvin Harris, who falsely and slanderously interpreted Chagnon as arguing that “the Yanomamö have a gene for warfare and violence,” and who saw a direct link between this claim and the subsequent depredations that these people suffered at the hands of Brazilian gold-mining companies. Yet Chagnon explicitly denies that ‘activism and advocacy’ have any place in anthropology, in fact sees these as one member of an unholy trifecta alongside ‘postmodernism’ and ‘biophobia’, and appears to understand the decision of other anthropologists to take up the role of the advocate as necessarily involving the use of false claims against competitors based only on presumed moral authority. (Perhaps this is the source of the talk of nobility: that activist anthropologists have taken to telling ‘noble lies’?) He speaks of other anthropologists who became politically radicalized, and consequently began “fighting the forces of acculturation rather than actually studying the Yanomamö.” From Chagnon’s point of view it is his job as a scientist to simply tell it like it is, to be a straight-shooter, and insofar as he is transmitting the truth, whatever happens as a result can only be of secondary importance.
At this point, though, one cannot help but notice the connection between the lack of theoretical sophistication and the sort of damage to indigenous people that anthropologists like Turner are working hard to forestall: a subtle and broadminded fieldworker, one imagines, would be able to give an interpretation of the people under investigation that would show the complexities of their connection to the environment they inhabit, that would, in simply aiming to show the truth --the scientific truth, if you will-- ipso facto show an outsider the supreme and inviolable reasons for leaving those people sovereign and unmolested in their native habitat. Thorough, unsimplistic anthropology can already, in itself, amount to something close to advocacy: it shows the richness of other worlds, and therefore the tragedy of destroying them. Chagnon’s work does none of these things, for reasons that are all interconnected, and that at bottom have to do with an impoverished and caricatural understanding of science. The AAA subcommittee’s desire to extinguish any mention of science in its own self-understanding, in turn, is surely a symptom of the same impoverishment. (This self-understanding, alas, did not take hold; in the AAA's latest public statement on the topic, 'What Is Anthropology?' there is an acknowledgment of important connections to science, even if it stops short of saying every domain of anthropology is itself a science)Anthropology was born of sin in the period of high-modern European imperialism, and there is no question that its problematic origins in large part explain its current fracturing and stalling. But none of this changes the fact that the minute description of human cultures through participant-observation with an eye to accounting for the nature and extent of their variety, and to revealing the complex web of dependencies and interactions between nature and culture (disputed categories for Descola), can still in principle be of tremendous value in our effort to understand ourselves and our place in the world.