We tend to associate the active persecution of scientific ideas with late medieval times - the cases of Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo spring most readily to mind. And so when a comparable case occurs in the present, we are somewhat slow to recognize it. But a hundred years from now, after the dust has settled, the case of renowned anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon will surely rank high in the annals of science for the systematic persecution of scientific conclusions.
Chagnon began his professional career in 1964 when he went to Venezuela to conduct the fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation. He had chosen to study the most primitive tribe he could find, the one most untouched by modern governments, law, or any form of civilization. He selected the Yanomamo, who lived in some 250 villages in and around the Amazon basin, on the border between Venezuela and Brazil.
Cultural anthropologists typically produce "ethnographies," one- or two-hundred page summaries of the social, kinship, and other characteristics of the particular group they have chosen to study. Prior to Chagnon, the most successful and highly regarded ethnography was Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. Chagnon's ethnography of the Yanomamo, however, almost immediately supplanted Mead's as the best-selling work of its kind, and Yanomamo: The Fierce People became a staple of anthropology courses all across the country. By this standard, Chagnon could arguably be considered the most influential anthropologist of all time.
Chagnon's ethnography was remarkable not only for the quality of his fieldwork and his specific findings about the Yanomamo, but also for the larger and deeper implications of his discoveries. In his recent book, Noble Savages, Chagnon locates his work within the framework of competing theories of political philosophy. According to Rousseau, life within a "state of nature," that is, prior to all civilization, was relatively peaceful and benign, with an emphasis on friendly cooperation and community values. Hobbes, by contrast, envisioned the state of nature as fraught with conflict and discomfort - in other words, in his famous phrase, as "solitary, mean, nasty, brutish, and short."
Rousseau's vision was encapsulated in the phrase, "noble savages," suggesting a primitive society of cooperating individuals without the benefit of civilization. What Chagnon found among the Yanomamo, however, was much closer to the idea endorsed by Hobbes, with warring tribes and a chronic state of conflict and anxiety both within and between tribes in neighboring areas. His selection of the title Noble Savages is therefore somewhat ironic - although he did indeed regard the Yanomamo as noble in many respects, they hardly fit the image of the peaceful, altruistic individuals Rousseau had imagined.
Enter here the anthropologists - the other community of "noble savages" referred to in the title of Chagnon's book. Here again, the wording is ironic, for although his colleagues no doubt regarded themselves as noble, their actions were more accurately described as savage.
The origins of the hostility to Chagnon's work are complex. One of the sources appears to be fundamentally religious in nature. The animus evidently arose within a particular sect of the Roman Catholic Church, the Salesians, who maintained a few missionary outposts near some Yanomamo villages. Chagnon found grounds to criticize the work of the Salesians in a number of respects, and the opposition his findings engendered eventually grew intense.
The charges against Chagnon were as absurd as they were false: that he and a medical colleague had exacerbated a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo (the facts are precisely the reverse); that he had fostered violence among the Yanomamo by introducing machetes and other weapons; and even that he had helped topple the government of Venezuela! To be sure, Chagnon had traded fishhooks, knives, and machetes to the Yanomamo in exchange for their friendship and cooperation, but these tools had been introduced to their culture long before he arrived, and had little effect on their values or behavior. The other charges had no foundation in fact whatsoever.
Spurred in part by this religious animosity, the accusations against Chagnon and his work got caught up in internecine battles within the discipline of anthropology. With his revolutionary findings about the Yanomamo, Chagnon had implicitly endorsed a fundamentally Darwinian or biological perspective about the origins of human nature. This was anathema to received dogma within cultural anthropology, where it was an article of faith that all human values and behavior arise strictly from social and cultural influences, with no biological component whatsoever.
For yet another faction within anthropology, any form of scientific work among native populations was suspect at best and insidious or destructive at worst. The "post-modernist" ideology and its adherents regarded the whole field of cultural anthropology as essentially a political activity, not a form of disciplined, empirical research.
Returning to fieldwork among the Yanomamo represented for Chagnon the lifeblood of his career as an anthropologist. As a result of the controversies his work had engendered, however, his applications to return to Venezuela or Brazil for this purpose were repeatedly denied by governmental authorities. The consequence for Chagnon was the effective end of his professional endeavors. In 1999, he took early retirement from his tenured position at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and returned to his home state of Michigan.
Only within the last few years has a measure of proper recognition been restored to Chagnon's career and reputation. With the support of a community of scholars broader than the tribe of cultural anthropologists, he has been elected to the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and as of this year he occupies the position of Distinguished Research Professor and Chancellor's Chair for Excellence at the University of Missouri.
As a result of their failure to support Chagnon's scientific findings, the American Anthropology Association in particular, and the field of cultural anthropology in general, have suffered a stain that may be indelible. Some measure of respect might be restored to the discipline with a comprehensive repudiation, in writing, of its previous positions with respect to Chagnon's work. Otherwise, he is sure to be remembered as one in a long series of victims of persecution for his scientific work, but one notable in that his findings concerned the nature of that most unusual creature, Homo sapiens.