Savage Science: An Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, the World's Most Controversial Anthropologist

By Miele, Frank | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Savage Science: An Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, the World's Most Controversial Anthropologist


Miele, Frank, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


SKEPTIC: BEFORE YOU BECAME "PROBABLY THE world's most controversial anthropologist," you first had to become an anthropologist. How did you get into that field? Was it something you read a lot about in high school? What excited you about it?

Chagnon: I came from a culturally deprived personal world where I had to take driver's education to get enough degree credits just to graduate from high school. The thought of something as sophisticated as anthropology was light years away. My parents couldn't afford to send me to college so I applied for a couple of scholarships that were available to high school students having to do primarily with training in areas of engineering and road construction. This was the time of President Eisenhower's program to create a lot of jobs while at the same time developing the United States interstate highway system.

The scholarship offered me a chance to go to the University of Michigan School of Engineering and Surveying in Jackson Hole, WY, and I accepted it gleefully. After several months in an intensive training camp there, I came back to Michigan and was immediately eligible for a job in the state of Michigan highway department, which I again enthusiastically accepted. I used that time to earn enough money to put myself through college without taxing my parents' meager income and went off to Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Lake Superior State College) in Sault Ste. Marie, MI on the Canadian border. When I attended the college it had 400 students, almost all men. And there were lots of men in Air Force or Army uniforms in international border towns. Every time I went into town I managed to get into a fight with some plowboy or army guy who didn't like college kids. So I grew up with an awareness that the working world wasn't a very nice place.

In any event, after I worked for a year I managed to get to college. At the end of my freshman year a University of Michigan recruiter came to our campus. A number of colleges interviewed top of the class students who wanted to transfer to larger colleges other than the main college at the Houghton Branch of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology. I decided to go to a recruiting session held by the University of Michigan recruiters. I asked them a dumb question, "Do you accept freshman transfer students?" and was told, "Yes, kid, we do." So I applied for and was admitted to the University of Michigan's program. Since I was majoring in physics at the time, I was admitted because the physics department accepted me as well. Well, physics was in the college of science, literature, and the arts, so I was required to take courses in social sciences as well as art. The social science option that happened to fit into my schedule was anthropology.

My first course in anthropology was taught by the famous Elman Service. I was intrigued and decided to take a second course, taught by the even more famous Leslie A. White. After two weeks in my second course I realized, "My god, this is the way I want to go." So I switched my major from physics to anthropology without missing a beat in my course requirements and ended up majoring in anthropology and graduating in 1961. I realized you couldn't get a job with an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, so I decided to go on to graduate school. At Michigan, the anthropology department was very large at the time, having probably 30 or 40 faculty members. By the time I got my Master's degree there in 1968 I was married and had two children, so I decided to go for a Ph.D. That required you to pick an area of the world and declare a specialty--archeology, physical anthropology, linguistics, or cultural anthropology. I chose cultural anthropology in large part in order to study the most unexplored part of the world possible. There were only two parts of the world in the 1960s that were relatively unexplored and where the native peoples were relatively "un-contacted". …

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