Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” – The Life of an Anthropological Heretic

Supposedly Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages.  It is better not to see them being made.”  The same could as well be said of science.  However, for those who insist on watching the process, Napoleon Chagnon’sNoble Savages” is a must read.  The book relates the author’s experiences as an anthropologist, a field long dominated by a particularly unsavory crew of sausage makers.  Indeed, there is some question about whether they ever intended to make any real sausages at all.  Instead, for many decades now, they have been busily engaged in concocting imaginary ones, which have the advantage of tasting much better than the real ones.  In point of fact, they don’t invent sausages, but human beings, which, unlike the real ones, are never aggressive, and always nice.  One might refer to them as Homo nihilum.

Chagnon was never cut out to be one of these fanciful anthropologists.  He lacked imagination.  On top of that, he was naive.  In a word, he told the truth.  Chagnon devoted his career to studying the Yanomamö, an indigenous people of South America.  It was obvious to him from the start that they were not particularly nice, and were decidedly not invariably benign and unaggressive.  He lacked the skills that are carefully acquired by most anthropologists, such as the ability, when one holds up four fingers in front of their face, to truly believe that they are seeing five.  In a word, he had the bad taste to blurt out what he had seen in learned journals and academic conferences.  This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup.  The shibboleth of human “niceness” that Chagnon had so clumsily demolished happened to be one of the main ideological props, not only of their ingroup, but of the ingroup of a whole host of related ideologues as well.  In their alternative universe, humans are never, ever naturally aggressive.  The somewhat discordant fact that warfare has been a ubiquitous feature of human existence since before the dawn of recorded time is explained away as merely the unfortunate artifact of some pathological derailing of human culture in the distant past.  In order for us all to become “nice” again, all we need to do is eliminate these pernicious cultural engrams from our brains by such time-honored techniques as denying the obvious.  Ironically, their furious and ruthless attacks on Chagnon provided a perfect example of the very behavior they were so determined to deny.  They debunked their own myth.  As Chagnon put it,

This virtual Noble Savage is a construct based on faith:  in that respect anthropology has become more like a religion – where major truths are established by faith, not facts.


Despite the skepticism widely shared in the now politically correct anthropological profession, the ethnographic and archaeological evidence overwhelmingly indicates that warfare has been the most important single force shaping the evolution of political society in our species.

Having so egregiously upset the apple cart by observing that human beings are not necessarily all that “nice” after all, Chagnon could not leave well enough alone.  Instead, he rubbed salt in the wound.  As any good progressive can tell you, such human conflict as does exist must be caused by “greed” for money, property, and related appurtenences of the social means of production.  Alas, it turns out that this notion, too, belongs in the realm of faith, not facts.  In the author’s words,

Conflicts over the possession of nubile females have probably been the main reason for fights and killings throughout most of human history:  the original human societal rules emerged, in all probability, to regulate male access to females and prevent the social chaos attendant on fighting over women.

I suggest that conflicts over the means of reproduction – women – dominated the political machinations of men during a vast span of human history and shaped human male psychology.  It was only after polygyny became “expensive” that these conflicts shifted to material resources – the “gold and diamonds” my incredulous colleagues alluded to – and the material means of production.  By that time, after the agricultural revolution, the accummulation of wealth – and its consequence, power – had become a prerequisite to having multiple mates.

Chagnon simply would not desist.  Next, he went after another of the favorite sacred cows of the “progressives”; the notion of egalitarianism:

Pre-state societies – tribesmen like the Yanomamö – are described by many anthropologists as egalitarian:  everyone is more or less interchangeable with any other person of the same age and same sex, so status differentials are essentially determined by age, sex, and occasionally the ephemeral characteristics of leaders.  This is definitely not the case among the Yanomamö.  If my teachers (and anthropology textbooks) got anything wrong, it was their misunderstanding of the notion of egalitarianism:  they stubbornly insisted on tying it to “differential access to material resources.”  Among the Yanomamö, tribesmen differ in their ability to command and order others around because of differing numbers of kinsmen they can deploy in their service, whether they are unokai (men who have killed or been involved in a killing), and other nonmaterial attributes.


The traditional anthropological view of egalitarianism is remarkably Eurocentric and ethnocentric, that is, the argument that tribesmen are egalitarian because nobody has “privileged” access to “strategic” material resources.  Such a view erroneously projects our own political and economic views into the Stone Age.

Perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all was Chagnon’s embrace of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology.  As he put it,

Our training had emphasized the role that culture played in human social relationships while completely ignoring the evolution of human behavior.  The view from anthropology was that psychologists studied human behavior and anthropologists studied culture.  Ever since Durkheim, cultural anthropology was skeptical about not only psychology and biology, but any theory that emphasized the biological underpinnings of behavior.

He goes on to describe his own embrace of what is known to the layman as human nature, and the furious attacks such ideas drew from the ideological zealots of the “progressive” left, noting,

One of the pro-sociobiology participants that I frequently ran into at these debates, Robert Trivers, said to me at one of them:  “I’ve finally figured out what they mean by a ‘balanced’ debate.  For every clear demonstration of how effective a sociobiological explanation is of some phenomenon, it must be ‘balanced’ by a completely nonsensical appeal to B.S., emotions, and political correctness.

Of course, this particular flavor of ideologically inspired obscurantism is known to aficionados as the Blank Slate episode in the behavioral sciences.  It is interesting how his status as, in spite of his heresies, a member of the academic tribe, has shaped Chagnon’s consciousness of the affair.  For example, he is unfamiliar with anything that happened before E. O. Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology in 1975, has apparently never read Robert Ardrey and is unaware of his significance, particularly in shaping the consciousness of a large audience outside of academia, and seems unaware that, for the time being at least, the Blank Slaters have lost control of the message outside of the ivory towers.  For example, the “mainstream media” has embraced the basic premises of evolutionary psychology as if there had never been the least controversy about the subject.  This was decidedly not the case in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Furthermore, Chagnon seems to think that Blank Slate ideology was less pervasive in other branches of the behavioral sciences, such as psychology, than in cultural anthropology.  This was certainly not the case in the United States, though it may have been true to some extent in Europe and elsewhere.  In a word, he takes a very cultural anthropology-centric view of the affair.  As a  result he can certainly see clearly enough what’s going on in his own field.  However, the impact of the Blank Slate orthodoxy transcends any one academic baliwick, and he may not see this big picture quite as well.

In any case, all these heresies goaded the ideologues who called the tune in anthropology into a frenzy.  As usual, they were none too picky about the ways they chose to strike back.  There were, of course, the usual accusations of racism and fascism, and the familiar bowdlerization of anything faintly smacking of evolutionary psychology as “genetic determinism.” A collection of slanders was published by a particularly vile reptile by the name of Patrick Tierney and, to its eternal shame, was uncritically received by the august members of the American Anthropological Association.  Those interested in the details of this episode are encouraged to read, “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” by Alice Dreger.  The attacks continue unabated to this day.  A typical example of the genre, full of the usual pious grandstanding, by one Lori Allen, another “expert” who was never there may be found here.  By all means read her essay.  After you reach the 99th ad hominem attack on Chagnon, it may start to dawn on you why I insist on the importance of understanding morality for what it really is.  In general, people like Ms. Allen can no more justify the legitimacy of their copious striking of pious poses than the man in the moon.

In the end, Chagnon had the consolation of being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, at which one of his more persistent attackers, Martin Sahlins, resigned.  Good riddance!  May many more of Sahlins’ fellow obscurantists pursue the same course.  It reminds me of the words from my favorite German version of Haydns Creation, after God says, “Let there be light!” (see Google translate.  The original libretto was actually in English, but I like the German translation a lot better)

Erstarrt entflieht der Höllengeister Schar
In des Abgrunds Tiefen hinab
Zur ewigen Nacht.

Verzweiflung, Wut und Schrecken
Begleiten ihren Sturz,
Und eine neue Welt
Entspringt auf Gottes Wort.

I may be an atheist, but sometimes a good oratorio hits the spot.  Other than that, I can only say I admire Chagnon for his courage, both in enduring the rage of his fellow “scientists,” and in working in conditions in which his life and safety were anything but secure for many years in the pursuit of knowledge.  And, by all means, read the book.

UPDATE:  Hattip to her ladyship for the hbd-chick-lanche.  😉

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

4 thoughts on “Napoleon Chagnon’s “Noble Savages” – The Life of an Anthropological Heretic”

  1. “This unwonted candor so shocked his fellow anthropologists that they actually began acting like Yanomamö themselves, confirming some of Chagnon’s hypotheses in the process; they reacted with furious hostility and aggression towards a perceived member of an outgroup.”


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