When Two Tribes Go to War, Anthropology Is Riven to the Core: Opinion

By Power, Camilla | Times Higher Education, March 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

When Two Tribes Go to War, Anthropology Is Riven to the Core: Opinion


Power, Camilla, Times Higher Education


The Marshall Sahlins-Napoleon Chagnon feud undermines efforts to build a unified science of humanity, warns Camilla Power.

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 Yanomamo: 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 Yanomamo cultural taboos to collect genealogies, blood and urine samples. His fieldwork has been condemned by some Yanomamo cultural experts as unethical, manipulative and manifestly interfering with the society he researched. His infamous unokai paper - purporting to show that "killers" among the Yanomamo 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. …

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