Tuesday, March 12, 2013

'Noble Savage' Reignites The Anthropology Wars

Human Sciences

The Nature versus Nurture debate continues to simmer, sometimes reaching boiling levels of vitriolic, character assassination and outright denial of scientific evidence, especially if evolution is brought to the forefront. Evolution doesn't only scare those who hold deeply religious views supported by their biblical sources, it scares many social scientists. Lorna Salzman writes: "The reasons for this were various; the one most often postulated is their repugnance at the eugenics movements of the 1930s, followed by Nazism. The cornerstone of their dogma was set in concrete: Never suggest that there is any genetic influence on human behavior. Any such suggestion would, in their fevered imagination, lead to racism and worse. The inference, later codified in numerous and tiresome tomes and articles, was that every aspect of human life, behavior, culture, values—including and later more emphatically science—was "socially constructed". Nothing outside of the human brain or imagination had any objective basis, meaningful existence or importance."

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by Lorna Salzman

Napoleon Chagnon went to live with the Yanomami ("The Fierce People") in Venezuela in the 1960s and 1970s. His book about them loosed the attack dogs of the social sciences establishment, which for many long years was dominated, regrettably, by the Nurture people who trembled in fear at the notion that humans might actually have some aspects of "Nature" in them, bestowed by evolution.

The Nature vs. Nurture controversy has never died out because the original rabid drooling spread to the post-modernists and cultural studies people, reinforced by the writings of some incomprehensible French philosophers who knew nothing about science whatsoever. (Check out Sokal's Hoax by Alan Sokal and his recent annotated release of this work).

These forces infiltrated and took over American social studies departments starting in the post war period, and they have expanded to include defense of and alignment with some of the most totalitarian repressive violent movements of our day;the left, having had love fests with Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot, their affections shifted to Castro, Chavez, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and today Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamism. Their motto continues to be "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". Their fearsome leaders (Noam Chomsky in this country mainly) have provided fodder for an especially virulent brand of anti-Americanism that can easily overlook the execrations of vile tyrants and regimes and tar the USA as the worst violator of human rights in the world. This is a special kind of ideological blindness; it is not unique to this country but most of it originated here and continues to spread. As one can imagine, the Arab and Muslim worlds are delighted to have these allies in their enslavement of women, hatred of Jews and unending quest to restore the Muslim caliphate to the entire world by all means necessary.

But I digress somewhat. The relevance here is that the social sciences neglected—deliberately—to take evolution into account in the development of human societies and cultures. The reasons for this were various; the one most often postulated is their repugnance at the eugenics movements of the 1930s, followed by Nazism. The cornerstone of their dogma was set in concrete: Never suggest that there is any genetic influence on human behavior. Any such suggestion would, in their fevered imagination, lead to racism and
worse. The inference, later codified in numerous and tiresome tomes and articles, was that every aspect of human life, behavior, culture, values—including and later more emphatically science—was "socially constructed". Nothing outside of the human brain or imagination had any objective basis, meaningful existence or importance.

With Identity Politics and Political Correctness now spread widely, Marx dominated and and allowed them to expand it to say that economic relations are the sole determinant of how humans and society will act. Economic determinism still rules the day in most social sciences textbooks. In cultural anthropology, this was altered to assert that the struggle for food and resources in "primitive" human societies was the ruling motivation for their behavior; you could call it "resource determinism". Chagnon's crime, in their view, was to posit reproductive advantage, an evolutionary strategy, as a motivation for aggression and violence. These peaceful leftists recoiled from the notion of "Nature red in tooth and claw", thus recoiling from natural selection and Darwin.

As I wrote in my book, one could argue that sociobiology (the scourge of post modernists) is what we got when the social sciences ignored evolution. That may seem a bit flip and superficial, but I believe there is more than a grain of truth in it. In any case, it took biologists to revive Darwin and evolution and to start regarding humans not as superior animals exempt from the laws of Nature but as an animal whose evolutionary history included millions of years as pre-human, as a primate, i.e. as an animal. The notion that at some point this primate suddenly became human and therefore no longer subject to evolution or the laws of Nature is still prevalent.

I believe that this separation of humans—no longer appropriately studied as other animals are—from the natural world turned what remained of that world into a commodity and opened the door to exploitation, leading inexorably to our present ecological crisis.

Chagnon left the social constructivists behind; being a evolutionist and sociobiologist, he understood that humans could and should be studied using the same criteria (though with somewhat different methods obviously) one uses in science, with none of the romance and hyperbole and cultural relativism imbued in primitive societies by the social scientists. You can imagine the fury and furor that greeted his unvarnished research, published as Yanomami: The Fierce People (1989) The social scientists had a field day and they still haven't given up. In 2010 the American Museum of Natural History's Margaret Mead Film Festival featured a film by a Brazilian filmmaker, JosePadilha, about Chagnon and the Yanomami. (AMNH is a Nurture acolyte, thanks to people like Margaret Mead and Ian Tattersall).

Nothing inherently wrong with a film, is there? Well, there was. The film relied almost entirely on the scurrilous mendacious book by one Patrick Tierney (brother of former NY Times neo-con columnist John Tierney). Patrick was on the far left side of his brother, and decided to make his career on the remains of Chagnon. He invented baseless lies and charges, including blaming Chagnon and his associate James Neel for a measles epidemic in Venezuela (as the local people and others attested, the epidemic started before Chagnon arrived there and he helped launch a vaccination program to protect as many tribal members as possible). Aiding Tierney were local Catholic priests who happily lent themselves to the slander campaign.

Alice Dreger has written a long well-researched paper on this whole controversy. Eventually all the leading scientific associations in the US, including the American Anthropological Society, vindicated Chagnon. Before this happened, though, even the illustrious New Yorker magazine fell for Tierney's blather and printed articles blasting Chagnon based solely on what Tierney told them. I am not sure whether they ever retracted it or apologized.

Fast forward to today's NY Times Magazine (Feb. 17) and an excellent article on this controversy by Emily Eakin. If you don't have time to do more extensive research, her article will give you a quite complete and fair idea of what went on. But in the NYT Book Review, Elizabeth Povinelli, some post modernist feminist at Columbia, wrote a review of the Chagnon book itself (Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists; 1968). It's a stupid review no matter whether you agree with her or not, and her main point seems to be that Chagnon wrote his new book just to get even with his critics. That's a way of NOT saying that he wrote the book to bring all of this out in the open and to let us know what's going on in academia at the expense of truth and scientific integrity.

In 2000 I met Chagnon when we were on a panel sponsored by the exMarxist now neo-con Institute of Ideas in London (if you google them you'll find some really interesting stuff about them). Also on the panel was Ullica Segerstrale (hope I got the spelling right), who is the author of a quite stupendous book called Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate (2000) on the subject of......SOCIOBIOLOGY. It's the definitive history of the discipline and covers everyone of note involved in it, its participants, defenders, detractors, enemies. Terrific book. She was great on the panel. So was Chagnon.

Then in 2010, when I learned that the Padilha film about Chagnon was going to be screened, I tracked Chagnon down, we chatted, and I said I had prepared a fact sheet to distribute at the film and would run it by him for accuracy. But he then got in touch with two other scientists, Alice Dreger and Raymond Hames, and they prepared their own fact sheet, which I then xeroxed and distributed. The woman in charge of the film screening at the AMNH was not amused and confronted me afterwards. Then there was a panel discussion that had not invited anyone who might defend Chagnon. Chagnon had given them the name of a woman and the museum people claimed that they had invited her and that she had declined. Shortly after that I and Chagnon learned that they had never invited her. However, eventually someone was added to the panel to give Chagnon's version.

These are some of the Science Wars going on. They are real wars and they have grave implications for scientific inquiry. Evolutionary biologist Michael E. Soulé has written an excellent essay, "The Social Siege of Nature," in Reinventing Nature (1995), which was published following a conference on post modernism and science. Soulé says the post modernists have done incalculable damage to the image of science held by the public, and that in so doing they have given ammunition to the climate change deniers and their allies. I have no doubt this is true.

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The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.


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Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.