A Thousand Kinds of Life: Culture, Nature, and Anthropology

Yanomami villagers at an indigenous expo in Caracas (Luigino Bracci, 2011, Flickr creative commons)

In the latest twist in an unusually public academic dispute, one of the world’s most influential and highly regarded anthropologists resigned in protest from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in late February. In quitting the academy, Marshall Sahlins took aim in part at the work of fellow anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose contentious memoir, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanamamö and the Anthropologists, was recently published by Simon & Schuster. But his action is also a skirmish in a much longer and very important debate over what it means to be human—a debate with consequences for the broader public discussion.

Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, said that he was leaving the 150-year-old academy for two reasons: the election of Chagnon to the NAS last year and the involvement of the NAS in research for the military. His action prompted an outpouring of petitions and statements of support from colleagues, including several hundred in Brazil.

The academy says that principled resignations like Sahlins’ are “rare”—so rare that the only precedent anyone could identify was famed Harvard biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin’s 1971 departure in protest against NAS military work related to the war in Vietnam. In the 1960s Sahlins himself was helping to launch campus teach-ins against the Vietnam War and to raise issues about the relationship of anthropology to the military.

Sahlins initially tried to resign last year in May, after Chagnon was named to the NAS, then again in October, when he received a request sent to all eighty-four anthropologists at the academy for advice on two research projects aimed at making the military more effective. The request arrived at a time when a controversy was already smoldering in the field about anthropologists’ involvement in implementing the Human Terrain Systems counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq (the October request for help appears unrelated to HTS). The academy had indirectly been involved in military research since the allied National Research Council was established in 1916 specifically for military research. But Sahlins objected to any NAS involvement in projects such as the two proposed in October. One focused on “contextual factors that influence individual and small unit behavior,” and the other sought scientifically valid methods, including any suggested by neuroscience, for improving individual and group military performance.

The publication of Chagnon’s memoirs prompted a third, successful attempt at resignation. Sahlins had objected to the NAS admitting Chagnon—formerly at the Universities of Michigan and of California at Santa Barbara, now at the University of Missouri—because of the quality of his research and his ethics in the field. Sahlins is also critical of both the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of sociobiology, more often referred to now as evolutionary psychology. A minority of anthropologists adopt its viewpoint. But many non-anthropologists—such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, and Jared Diamond—have used the work of Chagnon and like-minded anthropologists to reach a large audience.

Fundamentally, this group of writers and researchers see biology as destiny. They argue that biological evolution defines human nature through the inheritance of traits that provide individuals with a reproductive advantage—that is, with more offspring.

In the late 1960s Chagnon worked among the Yanomami people living on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Brazil. He portrayed the Yanomami—which he dubbed “the fierce people,” for their frequent inter-village warfare—as living in a “state of nature” essentially like that of our Paleolithic ancestors. And he claimed to present evidence that men who were “killers” had many more offspring—which, even when he occasionally hedged, others took as proof that evolution favored and preserved traits for male aggression and violence.

Anthropologists, including Sahlins, have since criticized nearly every aspect of Chagnon’s research. (See “Natural Born Nonkillers.”) For example, many note that other tribal people have relatively peaceful, cooperative cultures. Research from various perspectives also runs counter to Chagnon’s argument that evolution rewards killers with more offspring—including computer simulations of evolution, studies of animal behavior showing that killing within a species is rare, even military studies of how men in combat try to avoid killing others. In any case, critics say, the Yanomami were not in a pristine state of nature when Chagnon first visited: they had a history, including likely displacement from their original land by pressures from European colonial settlers and some continuing contact with the wider world that led to the acquisition of a few trade goods. There were many more charges that his data were flawed. To take one example, Chagnon categorized Yanomami men as killers or not killers based on their own classification as unokai or not unokai. But the term identifies a man who has gone through a purification ritual, which was used by both real “killers” and by men who, say, had employed sorcery.

In 2000 journalist Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado, which accused Chagnon of spreading fatal diseases (like measles) through his collaboration with geneticist James V. Neel, of fomenting some of the inter-village fighting, and other ethical offenses. The American Anthropological Association established a taskforce that dismissed some of Tierney’s most lurid charges but concluded that Chagnon, among other lapses, did not get informed consent from Yanomami research subjects and may have improperly delayed immunizations he and Neel were providing. At its convention, the AAA adopted the taskforce’s report and criticisms, but later Chagnon’s supporters moved to rescind the report largely on procedural grounds. With only 10 percent of members voting, the AAA reversed its endorsement of the report—which Chagnon backers inappropriately claimed as the profession’s vindication of his work.

Sahlins first weighed in against sociobiology in the mid-1970s with The Use and Abuse of Biology, but he has continued to pursue many of the same critical themes in recent books, such as What Kinship Is—And Is Not and The Western Illusion of Human Nature. He argues that human nature is culture—that is, the learned values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that social groups follow or believe they should follow, as well as the capacity to change those ideas passed from previous generations. Culture—and not some special features of biological evolution, like a carnivore’s teeth or the short beak of a seed-eating bird—provides humans with a flexible, varied means of adapting to a wide and changing variety of circumstances.

Homo sapiens evolved biologically and mentally from our hominid ancestors over several million years within the context of the hominid tool-making culture. “What evolved was our capacity to realize biological necessities, from sex to nutrition, in the thousand different ways that different societies have developed,” Sahlins says. “Hence, culture, the symbolically organized modes of the ways we live, including our bodily functioning, is the specifically ‘human nature.’”

Sahlins argues against the sociobiologists’ neo-Hobbesian view of human nature as a war of all against all—with a brutal, competitive nature clashing with culture. This view of human nature has deep roots in Western cultural traditions, he writes, but it also projects a more modern capitalist view of self-interested, even selfish, behavior on both humanity and the rest of the natural world. In many other societies, people do not see the same sharp division between nature and culture. And all human societies have systems of kinship, which Sahlins defines as “mutuality of being,” meaning that “kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence.”

“Symbolically and emotionally, kinfolk live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths,” Sahlins says. “Why don’t scientists base their ideas of human nature on this truly universal condition—a condition in which self-interest at the expense of others is precluded by definition, insofar as people are parts of one another?” Sahlins cites a classic definition of kinship first developed by Aristotle: kinfolk are in various degrees other selves of ourselves.

Moreover, this kinship is not biological. There are many ways besides birth that societies have developed notions of mutual being, Sahlins says. For example, in the highlands of New Guinea, strangers can become your kin by eating from the land where your ancestors are buried. The food raised on that land is in effect the transubstantiation of the ancestors. Accordingly, people who eat from it share ancestral being. In the local conception, they are as much kin to each other as people who have the same parents.

In the West, and even in much anthropological writing past and present, kinship is treated as genealogy, or biology. But even biological reproduction, Sahlins argues, takes place within the context of a particular kinship system, and to reproduce children is to reproduce that culturally defined kinship order. And in most cultures, notions of kinship diverge, often dramatically, from our “folk theory,” with its emphasis on biological genealogy. In any case, all human societies exist within some framework of “mutuality of being,” which starkly contrasts with the view of human life run by selfish genes.

In an email interview, Sahlins responded to a few questions about his resignation, incorporating some passages from his recent writings.

DM: You offered two reasons for your resignation from the National Academy of Sciences. Starting with the election of Napoleon Chagnon to the NAS, what were your most important objections to that election—the quality of his scholarship, professional ethics in the field, or other issues?

MS: He deals in caricature: of the people he studies, of science, of anthropological theory, of fellow anthropologists, and of himself as a beleaguered “fierce person.” His vicious misrepresentations of Yanomami as savage and disgusting have, as many local scholars have pointed out, aided and abetted national and entrepreneurial forces anxious to exploit and pollute their land and, directly or indirectly, drive them to extinction. Likewise, his own fieldwork methods have contributed to the sufferings and destabilization of the Yanomami (as I discussed in an article for the Washington Post).

The idea that the Yanomami represent the primordial human condition of the Stone Age is preposterous. Why them and not the numerous other, quite different societies—including many, such as Australian aboriginals, with just as modest economies but a quite different social order and inter-group relationships? In fact, all have long histories, including dynamic relations with other societies, that remove them as far from the Paleolithic as modern nations. Moreover, as other studies of Yanomami show, they have a richness of oral tradition (so-called mythology), a spiritual pantheon, and a metaphysics of culture and nature that is virtually totally ignored by Chagnon where it is not simply dismissed.

Compared to the rich fieldwork of many Amazonian anthropologists, his ethnography is shallow. His generalizations are sophomoric. His thesis about the reproductive success of Yanomami warriors, contradicted by his own data, has been thoroughly refuted by others. His evolutionary anthropology is from the ancien régime, outdated by almost a century.

DM: You argue that “biologism” is the problem, that “human nature is culture,” and that Western thought in general is dominated by the idea that there is a conflict between a disruptive human nature and vulnerable culture. How would you address a predictable layperson’s view that surely human nature must be at least in part an independent biology as well as culture? What essential qualities, if any, do you think “human nature” may have if it is indeed defined in terms of culture?

MS: Yes, all cultures have sex, aggression, etc., but whether and how it is expressed is subordinate to the cultural order. Sociobiologists say that individuals achieve immortality by having many children, but apparently no one ever told that to the Catholic clergy. The important point is not that all cultures have sex, but that all sex has culture, that is, social norms that specify with whom, how, where, and when sexual relations are appropriate or inappropriate. Culture preceded modern human physical form by a million years or more. The body of the modern human species, Homo sapiens, was formed under the aegis of culture. What evolved was the ability and necessity to realize our bodily needs and dispositions in cultural forms.

Biology became the dependent variable. These needs had to be subordinate to and encompassed by their cultural forms of expression, otherwise how could the same needs or dispositions be realized in the thousands of different ways known to history and ethnography—the various cultural ways of having sex, eating, being aggressive, and the like? As Clifford Geertz put it, we “all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” That can only be if our natural dispositions were subject to cultural ordering rather than the source thereof.

For over two thousand years, Western people have been haunted recurrently by the specter of their own inner being: an apparition of human nature so covetous and contentious that unless it is somehow governed it will plunge society into anarchy. Indeed, by the twentieth century the worst in us had become the best. In the neoliberal view, self-interest in the form of each person’s pursuit of happiness at the cost of whom it might concern was a god-given right. The insatiable love of the flesh that for Augustine was slavery became “freedom” itself. Likewise, then, political Augustinism has been reversed: self-interest having been transformed from slavery to liberty, the least government is now the best. Although for neoliberalism the ancient vice of self-love is greatly to be desired, in other native anthropologies it remains a potentially fatal quality of the human make-up.

DM: Given the harsh criticism of Chagnon’s work by the American Anthropological Association, the leading professional academic organization in the field, how do you account for the NAS decision and for the apparent popular appeal of his work, such as suggested by two recent, highly sympathetic articles about him and his new memoir in the New York Times?

MS: NAS decision? I am not sure, but I believe that many members, those who elected him, have a natural science sense of anthropology, as archaeologists almost have by necessity, and Chagnon promotes himself under that description. Popularity? Mostly on college campuses, I would think, from his textbooks and movies, which resonate with certain popular undergraduate preoccupations: sex, drugs, and violence. America.

DM: You also said that you were resigning because the NAS was supporting social science research on improving combat performance of the U.S. military. To what extent is support for such military-related research a new or growing development within the NAS?

MS: Since resigning I have learned that the NAS, with its charter of research for the nation, engaged in secret military research as far back as the Vietnam War, and who knows how much before or since. At least one prominent scientist, the extraordinary biologist Richard Lewontin, has resigned from the NAS for that reason. Professor Lewontin did so in 1971.

DM: You suggest that NAS should instead, if it does anything in the field, study how to promote peace. Do you have any suggestions about what sort of research would be useful for anthropologists or others to pursue to that end?

MS: What are the consequences of attempts to forcefully impose democracy on societies with no such traditions? Especially, how does the imposition of “winner-take-all” democratic elections in ethnically divided societies exacerbate violence, as has happened time and again in many postcolonial societies in recent decades? How does the reframing of local differences in terms of international issues, backed by opposed international forces, create a virtual state of nature, as happened in Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, and many other similar situations, going back to the encompassment of local disputes in the opposition between democratic-imperial Athens and oligarchic Sparta in the Peloponnesian War? (See “Iraq, The State of Nature Effect.”)

DM: Finally, do you see any connection between your two reasons for resigning or are they independent motivations?

MS: There is a connection: it is referenced in one of my answers in a Counterpunch article by David Price. The premise of American overseas aggression, according to Donald Rumsfeld and others, is something like the line in the movie Full Metal Jacket: “inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.” All we have to do to liberate this innately freedom-loving, self-interested, democracy-needing, capitalist-in-waiting is to rid him of the oppressive, evil-minded regime holding him down—by force if necessary. That is, Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest. It is the same native Western ideology of the innate character of mankind. A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.

 David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times.

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