Ideological wars in anthropology

Is peace or war the natural state of man? Do men fight primarily over material possessions or over women?yanomamo-2

For decades anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomamö, a remote tribe in South America, learning about their almost-constant warfare — and his findings put him in open conflict with academic anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association. The latter saga is worth an anthropological study in its own right.

It’s a tale of Rousseauians (peace!) versus Hobbesians (war!) and Marxists (materialism!) versus Don-Juan-Darwinists (sex!), and it’s nicely told by Nicholas Wade in this New York Times piece. (Thanks to R.M. for the link.)

Here are Chagnon’s early article in Science and his recent, amusingly-titled book: Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.

5 thoughts on “Ideological wars in anthropology

  • February 21, 2013 at 10:58 am

    The way Chagnon was treated by so-called scientists is bad enough. But the decision by a supposedly “scientific” society, the AAA, to eliminate the word “science” from its long-range mission plan and focus instead on “public understanding” is incredible. Exactly how is this “understanding” to be reached without science?

  • February 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Um … by faith, dogmatism and intimidation …?

  • February 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    “Understand” = “regurgitate the party line”

  • February 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    I think Stanley Kubrick had a better peg on the reality of early man than Jean Jacques. A cardinal means of apportioning scarce resources in the state of nature was and is violence, familiar to anyone who watches nature documentaries, to Chagnon, and as depicted in the early scenes of the proto-human apes in Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It was the evolution of private property that enabled large scale economic, hence social cooperation between humans and formed a cornerstone of civilization. Of course another, if inefficient alternative is slavery. It is no coincidence that modern foes of property reanimated that ancient institution on often stupefying scale.

  • March 15, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on the Chagnon debate, and how Chagnon’s work has been disastrous for the tribe.

    Visit for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami and who ‘disagree with Napoleon Chagnon’s public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people.’

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