Militarism, Biological Determinism, and the National Academy of Sciences
I’m a bit late on this; following intradisciplinary feuding among academic anthropologists usually isn’t a high priority, but this is an interesting story. Marshall Sahlins, a prominent anthropologist resigned recently from the National Academy of Sciences over the election of his controversial colleague Napoleon Chagnon and what he perceives as the unhealthy relationship between the NAS and the military:
Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century. I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”
To see how the two are even related one has to dig down into two of the discipline’s major contemporary debates; the primacy of science and empiricism, and the ethics of using anthropological research in military campaigns such as the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former is less interesting to laypeople, but the basic shape of it is that Chagnon’s critics accuse him of bad science whereas he accuses them of being anti-science postmodernists. Barbara King, a biological anthropologist and former professor of mine, weighed in over at NPR:
As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explained in an essay from 2000, Chagnon’s conclusions on homicide and reproductive success among the Ya̧nomamö attempt to “support the theory that violence has been progressively inscribed in our genes.” Explaining human behavior in this way, by primary recourse to genetics instead of looking to a rich mix of cultural and biological factors, is considered by many anthropologists to be an inaccurate, impoverished view of human behavior. … Chagnon’s central conclusion is a stark one: chronic warfare and homicidal violence among the Ya̧nomamö should be understood, in large part, as a biologically ingrained behavior.
The debates surrounding his work are burning brightly once again with the publication of Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages. The book received lacerating reviews by anthropologists Elizabeth Povinelli in The New York Times and Rachel Newcomb in The Washington Post.
Others put a finer point on it:
Sahlins’ research has focused on the impact of culture on human behavior, while Chagnon has tended to look for biological underpinnings. In recent years, anthropologists who consider themselves scientists have complained about being marginalized by, as one put it, “fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.”
Asked to offer his opinion on Sahlins’ move, Chagnon wrote in an e-mail, “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….”
It’s not just Chagnon’s theoretical underpinnings that have come in for criticism either, his ethics and methodology were the subject of a National Book Award-winning investigation that was later partially debunked by the American Anthropology Association. Chagnon was also the subject of a recent NYT Magazine profile, which noted that he “may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist.”
And yet Sahlins’ statement on his resignation cited another reason as well, one that has been defended by David Graeber and David Price, both decidedly of the anti-war left. Price, a long-time critic of the militarization of anthropology, asked him in CounterPunch:
Price: To combine themes embedded in Chagnon’s claims of human nature, and the National Academy of Sciences supporting to social science for American military projects; can you comment on the role of science and scientific societies in a culture as centrally dominated by military culture as ours?
Sahlins: There is a paragraph or two in my pamphlet on The Western Illusion of Human Nature, of which I have no copy on hand, which cites Rumsfeld to the effect (paraphrasing Full Metal Jacket) that inside every Middle eastern Muslim there’s an American ready to come out, a self-interested freedom loving American, and we just have to force it out or force out the demons who are perpetrating other ideas [see page 42 of Sahlins; The Western Illusions of Human Nature]. Isn’t American global policy, especially neo-con policy, based on the confusion of capitalist greed and human nature? Just got to liberate them from their mistaken, externally imposed ideologies. For the alternative see the above mentioned pamphlet on the one true universal, kinship, and the little book I published last month: What Kinship Is–And Is Not.
One shouldn’t attribute a uniform opinion to the scholars of NAS section 51 (the designation for anthropologists). But the basic objection–to a controversial scholar who contends warfare and human conflict has a genetic basis being elected to a body with an increasingly close relationship with the military–makes a lot of sense.