‘Noble Savages,’ by Napoleon A. Chagnon
By ELIZABETH POVINELLI
As I read “Noble Savages,” Napoleon A. Chagnon’s memoir of his years among the Yanomamö, an isolated Amazonian tribe, I started hearing Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” first as a low background hum that grew louder and more insistent across the book’s 500-plus pages.
Courtesy of Napoleon A. Chagnon
My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists
By Napoleon A. Chagnon
Illustrated. 531 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50.
For the uninitiated, Chagnon is an American anthropologist whose 1968 book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which argued that “primitive” people didn’t live in the peaceable societies Rousseau had imagined but instead fought bitterly, put him at the center of several long-running controversies. In “Darkness in El Dorado” (2000), the writer Patrick Tierney claimed that Chagnon and his research partner, the geneticist James V. Neel, exacerbated the 1968 measles epidemic among the Yanomamö; and that Chagnon aggravated the violence he claimed was endemic by distributing machetes and guns as payment to his informants.
The American Anthropological Association convened a special task force to look into the accusations. Its two-volume report concluded that while Chagnon may have misrepresented the Yanomamö, no evidence backed up the measles allegations. The committee was split over whether Neel’s fervor for observing the “differential fitness of headmen and other members of the Yanomami population” through vaccine reactions constituted the use of the Yanomamö as a Tuskegee-like experimental population.
Heavy charges, grave deliberations, fraught conclusions: what better context for a meditation on how truth is produced in the social sciences? But while “Noble Savages” — a lively and paranoid romp through the thick jungles of the Amazon and the thicker tangles of academic and religious intrigue — might generate more publicity for Chagnon, I doubt it will do his reputation much good.
Portraying himself as an innocent caught between two dangerous tribes, Chagnon spares no perceived enemy, including, it seems, the people on whose backs he built his career. Perhaps it’s politically correct to wonder whether the book would have benefited from opening with a serious reflection on the extensive suffering and substantial death toll among the Yanomamö in the wake of the measles outbreak, whether or not Chagnon bore any responsibility for it. Does their pain and grief matter less even if we believe, as he seems to, that they were brutal Neolithic remnants in a land that time forgot? For him, the “burly, naked, sweaty, hideous” Yanomamö stink and produce enormous amounts of “dark green snot.” They keep “vicious, underfed growling dogs,” engage in brutal “club fights” and — God forbid! — defecate in the bush. By the time the reader makes it to the sections on the Yanomamö’s political organization, migration patterns and sexual practices, the slant of the argument is evident: given their hideous society, understanding the real disaster that struck these people matters less than rehabilitating Chagnon’s soiled image.
But the problems bedeviling “Noble Savages” are not the stinking “primitives” or the politically correct academy, but the book’s Manichaean rhetorical structure, simplistic representation of the discipline and questionable syllogisms. This final problem is especially acute given that Chagnon contends that cultural anthropology lacks a rigorous evidence-based scientific outlook. In “Noble Savages,” the good guys and bad guys are easy to discern. Marxists and cultural anthropologists are, by definition, bad. Rousseau was wrong and is bad. Hobbes got it right and is good. “Sinister” Salesian Catholic missionaries have been out to get Chagnon ever since he refused their request to murder one of their own, who fathered a child with a local woman, and for revealing that they were distributing shotguns among the tribe. (When Chagnon handed out guns, he suggests, he inconvenienced himself, not the Yanomamö.) The Yanomamö are a deceitful, stubborn and murderous people. “Real” scientists are always good, and Chagnon is eager to convince us he is a real scientist, exploding myths and speaking truth to power. Yet his arguments in this book rely on slippery qualifications, dubious presumptions and nonreplicable claims. Chagnon’s findings can’t be tested since, as he takes pains to remind us, most contemporary Yanomamö are now “acculturated,” their “wild” eyes dimmed.
Obviously one doesn’t have to be among “Stone Age warriors” to be mortally threatened, attacked by bugs or lack a proper coffee maker. But you cannot experience Chagnon’s fantastic journey to the heart of darkness unless you believe, as he does, that you are peering across eons of time. Ditto with his core set of rhetorical syllogisms: (a) Neolithic man was a Hobbesian creature brutally competing for Darwinian reproductive advantage; (b) the Yanomamö are Neolithic men who desire women; therefore, (c) the Yanomamö are competing for reproductive advantage. But paying attention to desire and sexuality need not entail a theoretical paradigm of reproductive fitness. A different set of presuppositions would lead you elsewhere.
And what of these “primitives,” who “duck-waddled in closer and wiggled in to have their feel” of their first white man? Leave aside the contrasting comparative data from other societies: we discover midway through the memoir that a “jungle grapevine” had long ago sent very accurate portraits of him to far distant groups. Surely bush telegraphs also conveyed word of what was likely to occur when white men showed up with guns and machetes. And yet, perhaps knowing this all too well, the Yanomamö look after Chagnon when he is stranded or in need. Like most people, the Yanomamö seem to combine forms of care with those of violence.
No doubt facing public accusations of large-scale wrongdoing must be harrowing. But “Noble Savages” starts by backing out of one tragedy only to end in another. It is less an exposé of truth than an act of revenge. If your belief in your culture’s superiority is founded on thinking of other societies as prehistoric time capsules, then you will enjoy this book. If not, say a requiem for the trees and make an offering to the pulp mill.