It is impossible for me not to enjoy academic dust-ups. The controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which led his fellow anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to resign from that august organization.
Asked to comment on Sahlins’s resignation, Chagnon cheerfully obliges:
I am surprised that Sahlins resigned from the NAS to protest my election last year to the NAS. One possible interpretation is that he is displeased with the gradual swing back to to the academic principle that scientists should tell the truth in their publications.
Another anthropologist, David Graeber, offers his own thoughts:
Marshall Sahlins is a man of genuine principle. He’s never had a lot of patience for shirtless macho Americans who descend into jungles, declaring their inhabitants to be violent savages, and then use that as an excuse to start behaving like violent savages themselves — except with command over infinitely greater technological resources.
And Alex Golub adds,
After all is said and done, the facts about Chagnon are straightforward: just because some of your enemies distrust science doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. And just because some people dislike your work for political reasons doesn’t mean every criticism of your work is invalid.
Having read a great deal about the Chagnon Wars over the years, I have come to some tentative conclusions — “tentative” not in that I don’t hold them pretty firmly, but in that I could imagine most of them being overturned by further evidence.
1) Napoleon Chagnon is a very unpleasant person who seems to have gone out of his way to make enemies among his fellow anthropologists, and among his research subjects.
2) Many of Chagnon’s research practices teeter on the edge of irresponsibility and dishonesty, and probably go over that edge.
3) People who hate Chagnon — most notable among them the journalist Patrick Tierney — have frequently distorted the evidence against him or even lied about him. The many debates over Tierney’s mendacious book Darkness in El Dorado have been thoroughly summarized and linked to here.
4) It’s often impossible to disentangle anthropologists’ attitudes towards the accusations against Chagnon from the position in the larger debates among anthropologists about (to speak very generally) whether their discipline is fundamentally empirical and scientific or interpretative and humanistic.