Having spent most of my summer reading books rather than blog posts, I’ve been slacking on the news-at-large in the anthropology world and it seems that really, I haven’t missed much. I came across this post from Living Anthropologically about a recent sit-down at The Edge to basically deify Napoleon Chagnon and champion his greatness. This isn’t my hyperbole, the nearly three hours of video and transcript basically do just that. Also, The Edge has this air of a old boy’s drinking club where people go to pat each other on the back, I need to be in this club, sounds great. Anyway.
Jason from L.A. makes great points about the discussion, Chagnon, and his place in the pantheon of anthropology but the best parts are the links he’s gathered to different discussions of the roundtable at The Edge. But the ones I liked the best were the comments at BoingBoing apparently written by mostly sane people who can look past their noses to see through the sycophantic chitchat at The Edge and Cris Campbell’s take on the whole thing. Like Campbell, I too got to spend basically an entire semester knee-deep in Chagnon’s monograph and then a scant amount of time thinking about the ensuing controversies surrounding it and his work over the last 30 years. Cris, I have bad news for you: even though your studies of Chagnon and mine are separated by many years, anthropology students are still forced to read this book and stake out our claims on the controversies.
Here I am on the side of Daniel Everett in which he says that “Chagnon is controversial, but he ought not to be” (from The Edge) because the truth is, he shouldn’t be at all. His monograph was excellently written from an ethnographical and technical perspective, hands-down the most detailed and in-depth one I’ve read on a single society, contained in a single volume. While I found a lot of the writing to be repetitive and at times, flat out boring, he went to extraordinary lengths to describe bottom-to-top the Yanomami culture. Out of the few dozen ethnographies I’ve read, not a single one comes to matching the depth of information of Chagnon’s and that should be the biggest take away from the book. The rest of the controversy of the 30+ years? I could care less. Part of that is the fact that I, as a student, am so far divorced from the issues that they do not directly affect me or my studies (or, apparently, my professor’s ideas on the subject and she’s an older anthropologist much closer to this than myself) but also because they’re just distractions from the content of the work and the point of an ethnography. The monograph was an excellent exposition into a far-flung secluded world of an amazingly resilient people whose society isn’t really that different from modern Western society despite being typically characterized as “primitive” or “stone-aged”. Really? Their intra-tribal wars are mostly about the same things ours are: economic resources. All of the fights Chagnon describes are typically over a natural resource encroachment or theft (or attempted theft) of another economic resource: women. Sure, their methods and reasoning are very different from ours but at a macro level, the two do not drift far apart.
And this is where Campbell and Antrosio, and many other researchers, end up, they valuate this information academically and on the merit of the work itself, discarding all the chaff. But there are so many people out there who want to deify Chagnon for “bravely” facing these seemingly unsurmountable controversies that seek to make Swiss cheese of his legacy, even though all the available information on the issues clearly show that he is complicit in causing these issues to even have come to the fore in the first place. Dawkins, the atheist’s best friend and one of the most vocal people in all of science, is practically tripping over himself to shower Chagnon in compliments at The Edge, presumably because he feels that the two are kindred spirits in their firebrandism — oh and because of the whole Darwin connection of Chagnon’s work, but mostly the first bit. I have immense respect for Dawkins’ scientific work and for a long time, respect as an atheist but let’s be honest, his public discussions are a one-trick pony of sticking a finger in the eye of opposition as hard as possible while trying to remain erudite. And that’s how he comes off in the discussion at The Edge: the great sycophantic defender of Chagnon for standing up to The Man. He’s drumming up an (almost dead) controversy in the grandest way possible to laud Chagnon and in part, himself. Much of the talk wasn’t about the academic merit of the work but about the problems, finger-pointing, and vitriol over the last few decades.
This is the point where anthropologists just need to stand up and in unison say “Enough is enough, we get it” because we do. There are bigger things to debate these days, so when can we start debating them? Like the need for public anthropology or how polarizing HTS is.