Anthropology cut to the core when two tribes go to war

A feud at the heart of the discipline is undermining efforts to build a unified science of humanity, warns Camilla Power

March 14, 2013

Source: Elly Walton

Cultural anthropologists side with Sahlins, Darwinians with Chagnon. For anthropology, where natural and social science should meet, it’s a disaster

Marshall Sahlins, the grand old man of US cultural anthropology, has resigned from the National Academy of Sciences, citing objections to the election of the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and to the NAS’ “military research projects”.

This doesn’t just matter to anthropologists (although Sahlins is about the most respected anthropologist in the world). This is bigger even than the issue of the US military policy of “research and destroy”, as Sahlins calls it: co-opting, bribing and funding social science graduates to build their careers by assisting combat missions.

At stake is science itself, as the deepening rift between the social and natural sciences is frustrating all efforts at a unified science of what it means to be human. In these days, when we threaten to destroy all life and culture on the planet, we badly need to sort out that story.

Both Sahlins and Chagnon represent their long-term feud as a battle for the soul of science. At the 1976 American Anthropological Association meeting, where Chagnon helped to organise a session on “human socio- biology”, Sahlins opposed a motion condemning this new discipline, but then published his famous tract The Use and Abuse of Biology, which portrays sociobiologists as a cult of pseudo-scientists producing the stories free-market capitalism wanted to hear. Resonantly, he observed: “So far as I am aware, we are the only society on Earth that thinks of itself as having risen from savagery, identified with a ruthless nature. Everyone else believes they are descended from gods.”

Chagnon by his own account, in popular texts such as Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968), glories in methods many would see as opposed to the basic principle of informed consent. He has been accused of trespassing on deep-set Yanomamö cultural taboos to collect genealogies, blood and urine samples. His fieldwork has been condemned by some Yanomamö cultural experts as unethical, manipulative and manifestly interfering with the society he researched. His infamous unokai paper - purporting to show that “killers” among the Yanomamö gained more reproductive success, so men were under sex selection to kill - has been severely critiqued by cultural anthropologists for his misunderstanding of the meaning of unokai and by evolutionary anthropologists for his method of analysing men’s reproductive life history.

But rather than US imperialism or Chagnon’s allegedly dubious research practice, Sahlins’ main enemy remains selfish-gene Darwinism - and I cannot understand how a man who knows his dialectics has got it so wrong.

I agree fully with Sahlins that the selfish gene is the “Thatcherite” gene - just as Darwin’s Malthusian-inspired theory of natural selection was born into its time as the origin story that high Victorian capitalism needed to tell about itself. That did not stop Marx and Engels recognising Darwinism’s revolutionary potential as materialist science. Selfish-gene Darwinism sets itself the problem of explaining solidarity. “The leading problem in sociobiology today is explaining why humans have prosocial emotions,” as behavioural scientist Herbert Gintis puts it. Far from demonstrating that we are the killer ape, it is more likely to reveal us as the babysitting ape, the paternity job-share ape, the classificatory kinship ape, the symbolic cultural ape.

Take Chagnon’s intriguing findings on the manipulation of kinship classification. Yanomamö warriors try to shift the category boundaries by optimistically identifying classificatory sisters (whom they can’t marry) as cross-cousins (whom they can); or changing “mothers” into “mothers-in- law”, making the daughters available. What does this teach us? Dominant males surely did not invent this system, which puts women who are not very close genetic relatives out of bounds. This implies that others - less dominant men, women, their mothers, perhaps - asserted the institutional facts of Yanomamö kinship to ensure more equal distribution of the paternity pie. Isn’t this of any interest to Sahlins and other students of the origins of cultural kinship and egalitarianism?

Cultural anthropologists may object that “we’re obviously cooperative, that’s what makes us human, so why bother to explain it?” The capacity to kill conspecifics is shared with our closest relatives; but no primate species begins to approach our levels of altruism and empathy. Back in 1960, Sahlins knew this, writing an insightful article contrasting monkey and ape social and sexual competition with hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. But he never explained how such a stark difference evolved. Without selfish-gene models for cooperation, we can’t explain it.

Predictably, this all breaks down along tribal boundaries. The social and cultural anthropologists side with Sahlins, the Darwinians with Chagnon, slinging their anti-science jibes. For anthropology, the place where natural and social science should meet, it’s a disaster.

Chagnon’s gung-ho research provides the origin story needed by the fading economic and imperialist power that is the US today. Sahlins long ago decoded this Hobbesian view as a Western peculiarity. As the War on Terror drags on, it comes as no surprise that the national academy of the most violent, warmongering state on the planet is anxious to validate narratives - such as those of Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Chagnon - which legitimise state control over alleged “violent savages”.

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