February 15, 2013

HOW NAPOLEON CHAGNON BECAME AMERICA’S MOST CONTROVERSIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST: I think, actually, that the field of anthropology nearly self-destructed with its attacks on him, as illustrated here:

At an open-mike A.A.A. session, attendees, few of whom had read the book, weighed in on the controversy. Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross later described the event in a damning article in American Anthropologist: “Virtually every aspect of [Chagnon’s] behavior, relevant or otherwise, was open for public dissection. One participant took the microphone and claimed that Chagnon had treated her rudely in the field during the 1960s. A colleague from Uganda praised Tierney’s book and suggested that Westerners manufactured the Ebola virus and disseminated it in his country, just as Chagnon and Neel had started the measles epidemic. Members of the audience applauded both speakers.” For Gregor, who recently retired as an anthropologist at Vanderbilt, the session was “a watershed moment.” “These are people who are supposed to be scientists,” he told me. “This had the look of an emotionally charged witch hunt.” . . .

As Gregor and Gross put it, what the inquiry most clearly demonstrated was not Chagnon’s guilt or innocence but rather anthropology’s “culture of accusation,” a “tendency within the discipline to attack its own methods and practitioners.”

This is what happens when science is politicized. On the other hand, the Yanomamo understand: “They fight, and this makes them happy.”