Marshall Sahlins, National Academy of Sciences, Napoleon Chagnon

This page tracked the Marshall Sahlins resignation from the National Academy of Sciences, as a complement to the page tracking anthropology-oriented reviews of Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon.

There are at least two saddening and maddening aspects to this. First is how anthropology seems to only make the news when there’s this kind of dispute. The most recent reviews of Noble Savages are by anthropologists doing really interesting and innovative work: Rachel Newcomb, author of Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco, and John Colman Wood, author of The Names of Things (yes, that’s a fictional novel, but it concerns anthropology and the charge that anthropologists don’t write compelling books).

Or look at the amazing selection of Anthropology Blogs for many examples of people crossing lines of biology and culture (see also my recent review of Testosterone Anthropology). But this kind of work rarely makes the news.

For more anthropologists who take the moment to emphasize the true scope of anthropology, see Lori A. Allen, Napoleon Chagnon, a most controversial anthropologist; Barbara J. King, The Napoleon Chagnon Wars Flare Up Again In Anthropology; and Paul Stoller, The Real News of Anthropology.

The other aspect is that contrary to portrayals of this as “anthropological warfare” or Greg Laden’s Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?, for the most part this is not really a dispute within anthropology. Rather it is an attempt speared by people outside anthropology to seize control of the story, research funding, and book sales about human nature and human behavior. For more on the empirical, methodological, and theoretical critique, see my review of Ferguson, Sahlins, Wolf, and Chagnon.

The goal is to replace anthropology’s emphasis on patterns of learned behavior with a story rooted in genetics and biology. That’s something Marshall Sahlins tracks in The Western Illusion of Human Nature. And that’s why the debate still matters, as depressing as it can be. As Jonathan Marks so powerfully writes in The Times, it is Outragin’, “Science, evolution, anthropology, and history are all on the same side.

Update June 2013: For the most recent attacks on anthropology, see Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature, Goodbye to all that.

Human Science, Marshall Sahlins
When native Australians or New Guineans say that their totemic animals and plants are their kinsmen – that these species are persons like themselves, and that in offering them to others they are giving away part of their own substance – we have to take them seriously, which is to say empirically, if we want to understand the large consequences of these facts for how they organise their lives.
London Review of Books, 9 May 2013
Worth reading here is Alex Golub’s commentary Gillison, Sahlins, and NAS.

The National Academy of Sciences: Goodbye to all that, Marshall Sahlins
I was naïve. When I received the communication from the Secretary for Section 51, Anthropology, in October of last year, enlisting members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for research designed to improve the mission effectiveness of the US military, I thought this was something new–and inappropriate. I thought we had no business lending anthropology to the military adventures of the US, which had just demonstrated a shocking and useless disregard for the lives and well-being of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as our own citizens, in the unnecessary wars of the past decade. I didn’t know that the National Research Council (NRC), which is the instrumental branch of the several national academies, and for which we were being recruited, had been established by President Wilson in 1916 in order to expand research in military preparedness.
Anthropology Today, April 2013

A Thousand Kinds of Life: Culture, Nature, and Anthropology, David Moberg
Homo sapiens evolved biologically and mentally from our hominid ancestors over several million years within the context of the hominid tool-making culture. “What evolved was our capacity to realize biological necessities, from sex to nutrition, in the thousand different ways that different societies have developed,” Sahlins says. “Hence, culture, the symbolically organized modes of the ways we live, including our bodily functioning, is the specifically ‘human nature.’”
Dissent: A Quarterly of Politics and Culture, 21 March 2013

Militarism, Biological Determinism, and the National Academy of Sciences, Jordan Bloom
One shouldn’t attribute a uniform opinion to the scholars of NAS section 51 (the designation for anthropologists). But the basic objection–to a controversial scholar who contends warfare and human conflict has a genetic basis being elected to a body with an increasingly close relationship with the military–makes a lot of sense.
The American Conservative, 25 March 2013

The Chagnon Controversy – What are the issues, what’s at stake, where do we stand?, Gordon Ramsey
Finally then, Chagnon may deserve an apology for his mistreatment, but so may the Yanomami. It could be argued that Chagnon’s election to the National Academy of Sciences is not justified given the failure of his evidence to substantiate his theories and the allegations of misrepresentation which have been made against him, but then the same argument could have been made about Sahlins. Chagnon sees his election as a vindication of him personally, and it may be seen as a rebuke to the AAA for its poor handling of the allegations against him. Chagnon also sees his election as a vindication of a ‘scientific’ approach to anthropology. Certainly it is a wake-up call to the discipline that whether they accept or reject such approaches, they need to be sufficiently knowledgeable of evolutionary theory to engage with them effectively. In a wider political context, Chagnon’s election could be seen as a somewhat sinister statement that the ends justifies the means. If so, the fact that the ends turned out to be a lot less rewarding than promised should also stand as a symbolic warning.
Embodied Knowledges, 14 March 2013

The Times, it is Outragin’, Jonathan Marks
Science, evolution, anthropology, and history are all on the same side. The other side is where the anti-intellectuals and ideologues are, and have always been, the ones who either don’t understand evolution themselves, or are knowingly misrepresenting its implications to the public. As I said, that is a recurrent theme in the history of this intellectual engagement. For the New York Times to promote Chagnon’s anti-intellectual nonsense unchallenged, as if it represented evolution, much less science, is a terrible, terrible mistake. And for them to allow Nicholas Wade to conduct his intellectual war against the science of anthropology in their pages is outrageous.
Anthropomics, 2 March 2013

The Napoleon Chagnon Wars Flare Up Again In Anthropology, Barbara J. King
More than any other animal, we humans experience life, and have experienced it for countless generations in societies around the world, through a complicated and chaotic mix of cultural, historical, political-economic and biological variables. Biological anthropologists know this. You only have to read the work of Jonathan Marks, of Agustin Fuentes, of Alan Goodman, of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy or countless other of my colleagues, to see that we do. And to know it really does matter, because it’s the foundation of doing informed, comprehensive and ethical anthropological science. So, what now? Am I suggesting that Chagnon not be read? Not at all. Read Chagnon, of course. Read his work alongside that of Sahlins and of the other anthropologists I’ve noted here, and of even more anthropologists whom you’ll discover for yourself. Sahlins’ protest resignation from the National Academy of Sciences was a brave act of principle. For the rest of us, reading widely and deeply in anthropology is the best antidote to inappropriately reductionist science.
NPR 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, 28 February 2013

Sahlins resigns from National Academy of Sciences as Chagnon enters, Alex Golub
After all is said and done, the facts about Chagnon are straightforward: just because some of your enemies distrust science doesn’t mean you’re any good at it.And just because some people dislike your work for political reasons doesn’t mean every criticism of your work is invalid. In the struggle to create a healthy, empirical, and robust anthropology for the twenty-first century, NAS has chosen the wrong side.
Savage Minds, 25 February 2013

The Destruction of Conscience in the National Academy of Sciences: An Interview With Marshall Sahlins, David H. Price
The truth is that outside of the distortion field of the New York Times and a few other media vortexes, there is no “science war” raging in anthropology. Instead the widespread rejection of Chagnon’s work among many anthropologists has everything to do with the low quality of his research. . . . It is a tragic state of affairs when good people of conscience see the only acceptable act before them to be that of resignation; but sometimes the choice of disassociation is the strongest statement one can courageously make.
David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State.
Counterpunch, 26 February 2013

Anthropologist rightfully denounces militarization, WSN Editorial Board
We hear more and more in the news about the applications–many of which are militaristic in nature–of scientific inquiries and discoveries. There is nothing necessarily bad about this–machine learning helps Netflix suggest movies more accurately, anthropology is being used to smooth relations between the U.S. military and Iraqi citizens and game theory can predict election outcomes. But a heavy focus on application can impede scientific research, since the ultimate goal of science is explanation, not application. Furthermore, with militaristic intentions, it can lead to immoral and destructive ends.
Washington Square News, 27 February 2013

Jungle Fever (originally in The Washington Post), Marshall Sahlins
In America, the scientific doctors accord the sociobiological gases emanating from this same technology the highest esteem, worthy of hours and hours of inhalation in the rooms of the New York Academy of Sciences. On college campuses across the country, Chagnon’s name is a dormitory word. His textbooks have sold in the millions. In the huge undergraduate courses that pass for education in major universities, his prize-winning films are able to hold late adolescents spellbound by primitivizing, hence, eternalizing, their own fascination with drugs, sex and violence. America.
Archived Document, Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume, 10 December 2000

Is “Sociobiologist” Napoleon Chagon Really a Disciple of Margaret Mead?, John Horgan
Final irony: Mead is a favorite whipping girl of modern sociobiologists, including some prominent defenders of Chagnon. Yet according to Alice Dreger, Mead once “vocally objected to attempts to ban a session on sociobiology at a [American Anthropological Association] meeting that Chagnon had organized.” Maybe Mead–unlike other progressive cultural anthropologists, such as Marshall Sahlins–recognized Chagnon as, potentially, a kindred spirit.
Cross-Check: Critical views of science in the news, 25 February 2013

A Protest Resignation, Serena Golden
“Chagnon’s defenders operate almost entirely by diversion,” countered David Graeber, reader in social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. “[T]hey never seriously engage with the core objections to what Chagnon did, which is to vilify a group of human beings so that enormous violence could be unleashed on them. “Marshall Sahlins is a man of genuine principle,” Graeber continued. “He’s never had a lot of patience for shirtless macho Americans who descend into jungles, declaring their inhabitants to be violent savages, and then use that as an excuse to start behaving like violent savages themselves–except with command over infinitely greater technological resources.”
Inside Higher Ed, 25 February 2013

The Chagnon Wars, cont’d., Alan Jacobs
Having read a great deal about the Chagnon Wars over the years, I have come to some tentative conclusions–“tentative” not in that I don’t hold them pretty firmly, but in that I could imagine most of them being overturned by further evidence.
1) Napoleon Chagnon is a very unpleasant person who seems to have gone out of his way to make enemies among his fellow anthropoligists, and among his researxh subjects.
2) Many of Chagnon’s research practices teeter on the edge of irresponsibility and dishonesty, and probably go over that edge.
3) People who hate Chagnon–most notable among them the journalist Patrick Tierney–have frequently distorted the evidence against him or even lied about him. The many debates over Tierney’s mendacious book Darkness in El Dorado have been thoroughly summarized and linked to here.
4) It’s often impossible to disentangle anthropologists’ attitudes towards the accusations against Chagnon from the position in the larger debates among anthropologists about (to speak very generally) whether their discipline is fundamentally empirical and scientific or interpretative and humanistic.
The American Conservative, 25 February 2013

Twitter: Sahlins submits resignation to National Academy of Sciences

Savage Minds, 23 February 2013

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Marshall Sahlins, National Academy of Sciences, Napoleon Chagnon.” Living Anthropologically website, Originally posted 25 February 2013 on the Anthropology Report website, Revised 3 December 2017.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

Living Anthropologically is part of the Amazon Associates program and earns a commission from qualifying purchases, including ads and Amazon text links. There are also Google ads and Google Analytics which may use cookies and possibly other tracking information. See the Privacy Policy.