This past week eSkeptic published an interesting interview with Napoleon Chagnon, an American anthropologist who became world famous for his intensive study of the Yanomamö, an Amazonian tribe. His findings were published in a series of books, beginning with Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968) and several widely-seen documentary films done in conjunction with Tim Asch. His 1968 book is the bestselling anthropological text of all time and is a standard text in many classrooms.
Chagnon experienced controversy in his career, first when he was accused of sparking violence among the Yanomamö by providing some members of the tribe with Western weapons, and again when in 2000 he was accused of sparking a devastating measles epidemic among the Yanomamö. A report from the American Anthropological Association in 2002 exonerated Chagnon of the measles charges but accused him of providing negative representations of the tribe and failed to obtain proper consent for his studies. The AAA rescinded its report in 2005 after finding serious errors in its methodology.
In his interview with Skeptic’s Frank Miele, Chagnon accused organized academia of dogmatism and unwillingness in the 1970s and 1980s to accept Chagnon’s findings that the Yanomamö engaged in warfare because of an ideological predisposition to seeing Native peoples as pacific:
Well, I didn’t realize until I began committing these heresies, how entrenched that orthodoxy was. […] And my descriptions apparently annoyed my colleagues that some of them began to publish statements “correcting” me.
Specifically, other anthropologists resisted the idea that any group would fight for control of females instead of material resources. Part of the reluctance was due to a reaction against colonial-era anthropology’s depiction of native peoples as sub-human, violent savages, as well as the then-dominant anti-colonial ideology that idealized native peoples. However, over the next several years, additional research and new arguments led to the widespread acceptance of the idea that native peoples could be and often were quite violent.
I’m not quite sure how that differs from normal academic debate, whereby a new idea is proposed, opposing views are presented, and, eventually, a consensus emerges. Chagnon was of course right that Native peoples engaged in violence, and a similar resistance occurred when the first evidence of cannibalism among the ancient inhabitants of the southwestern United States emerged. In both cases, though, evidence overturned old ideas, and the consensus changed.
But Chagnon raised a much more interesting point that I think is worth highlighting. He suggested that academic anthropologists were blind to the idea of men fighting over women because most came from an elite background where such fighting does not occur:
It may be that a number of cultural anthropologists come from a general class of the American public that goes to private high schools and elite colleges and universities and ends up teaching in major universities. Not enough of them have spent time in pool halls and bars, as maybe you and I have, so they haven’t anything called common sense. […] [One critic wrote that] Chagnon grew up in a very poor community and he has rather lower-class tastes because he drinks beer and he hunts.
I can’t help but think of how Chagnon’s points exactly parallel the anti-elitism of Scott Wolter and of Ancient Aliens, forever accusing academics of blindly pronouncing Truth from their sequestered ivory towers. Chagnon specifically accused a few individual anthropologists of treating him as déclassé, but his complaint seems to be about interpersonal relationships, not scholarly output. After all, Chagnon’s work is widely used in university classrooms, indicating that most anthropologists see it as valuable and largely correct. It reads to me like Chagnon—for understandable reasons—has elevated the personal to the political.
I’ve met quite a few archaeologists and anthropologists, and I don’t know that I’ve met any elitists who’ve never set foot in a bar, but I do know that by the time one becomes a tenured professor, one has entered a well-paying, relatively comfortable lifestyle and can—sometimes unintentionally—absorb the values of the socioeconomic class of one’s university peers. Additionally, students who study anthropology or archaeology today are typically those who come from privileged backgrounds because such studies fall under the liberal arts (and thus are not “practical”) and open primarily to those whose immediate concerns are not financial. Increasingly, many are also political activists who come to the discipline to support native cultures and native rights movements.
This is a difficult question because it’s one that plays directly into the views of “alternative” writers and TV hosts. To what extent are the academic elite separate and apart from the “lower classes”? To what extent are they to be distrusted because of it? Part of the appeal of America Unearthed is Scott Wolter’s quest to unmask academia as a dogmatic, blinkered conspiracy of out-of-touch elites. Similar to Chagnon, Wolter also accuses specific academics of treating him as a dilettante and a low-class ruffian, paradoxically reinforcing his conviction in his own correctness. Ancient astronaut writers like Erich von Däniken have made the same charges about their work. But Chagnon had decades of careful, scientific fieldwork, while alternative writers have slapdash “theories” cobbled together from scraps of real scholars’ work.
That, I think, is the essential point. In the end, even the most elitist academics have a respect for the scientific method and can be convinced by scientific arguments. Even if some academics have blinders derived from ethnocentrism, socioeconomic status, or ideology, academia is not homogenous and there is no one dogma enforced from on high. The diversity of views, in practice, pushes better ideas forward and dismantles bad arguments. This doesn’t happen instantly—nor could it, for we don’t know what the better ideas are until they’ve been disputed and interrogated—but, over time, it happens.
So here’s the difference: Anthropologists and archaeologists think a great deal about how ethnocentrism can affect their science, and they also consider the ethical implications of their work, and its effects. You may not agree with the conclusions, but they do think about it. When was the last time you hear alternative thinkers seriously consider their own cultural or ideological biases or its effects on their work?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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