More on Napoleon Chagnon’s Abhorrent Field Methods

Note to readers: This item responds to two letters objecting to Culturebox’s recent review of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. To read Culturebox’s review, click here. To read the letters, scroll to the bottom of that page.

In my review of Patrick Tierney’s much refuted Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, I opine that although Tierney fails to drum up a scandal out of his unsupportable accusations of genocide, there is another, truer scandal buried in his story. That is the way that Napoleon Chagnon–the anthropologist under attack in the book–went about extracting genealogies from the Amazonians known as the Yanomami, despite their strong taboo against uttering the names of their dead. I call the practice “staggeringly callous” and “evidence of a chilling disregard for human dignity and individual belief.” Two colleagues of Chagnon, anthropologists Raymond Hames and Ed Hagen, accuse me of mischaracterizing the procedure.

One of them, Professor Hagen, is right to say that I got one fact wrong, but he is incorrect when he implies that Chagnon’s field methods are somehow less abhorrent for it. I write: 

He would play people against one another. He would go to one man and ask for the names of his rival’s dead relatives. Then he would go to the rival and reel off the names of his kin, gauging the accuracy of the first man’s information by the amount of anger it elicited in the second. The rival, by now an enemy of the first, would spew the names of that man’s dead relatives in retaliation.

In fact, as Hagen points out, Chagnon took care not to go directly to rivals with the forbidden names but rather to their friends and neighbors. He did this because when he did utter the name of an informant’s late close relative to that informant’s face, the man usually flew into a rage and stopped talking to Chagnon. The anthropologist also feared being physically attacked.

Mea culpa. Let’s put my mistake in context, though. The question here is, was Chagnon’s genealogy-gathering unusually divisive and disrespectful to the Yanomami? The answer is yes.

Consider how he first hit on the method. He was watching a club fight between two men that escalated to such fury that one man began calling the other by the name of his deceased father. Chagnon saw this and all but pounced on the angrier of the men:

I quickly seized on this incident as an opportunity to collect an accurate genealogy and confidentially asked Rerebawa about his adversary’s ancestors. … He gave me the information I requested of his adversary’s deceased ancestors, almost with devilish glee. I asked about dead ancestors of other people in the village and got prompt, unequivocal answers: He was angry with everyone in the village.

Inspired by his success with the embittered Rerebawa, Chagnon soon realizes that local enmity and strife hold the key to Yanomami family trees:

[I]t was a major turning point in my fieldwork. Thereafter, I began taking advantage of local arguments and animosities in selecting my informants, and used more extensively informants who had married into the village in the recent past. I also began traveling more regularly to other villages at this time to check on genealogies, seeking out villages whose members were on strained terms with the people about whom I wanted information. I would then return to my base in the village of Bisaasi-teri and check with local informants the accuracy of the new information.

At one point, Chagnon nearly gets himself killed when he goes to a village where a woman has recently been murdered and, in an effort to find out who she was so he doesn’t inadvertently drop her name in the wrong context, whispers it to a close relative:

[H]e flew out of his chair, enraged and trembling violently, his arm raised to strike me: “You son-of-a-bitch!” he screamed. “If you say her name in my presence again, I’ll kill you in an instant!” I sat there, bewildered, shocked, and confused. … I reflected on the several articles I had read as a graduate student that explained the “genealogical method,” but could not recall anything about its being a potentially lethal undertaking. My furious informant left my hut, never again to be invited back to be an informant. I had other similar experiences in different villages, but I was always fortunate in that the dead person had been dead for some time, or was not very closely related to the individual into whose ear I whispered the forbidden name. I was usually cautioned by one of the men to desist from saying any more names lest I get people “angry.”

Any reader who comes across these passages is bound to pause and ask herself what was really going on here, just as I did. Why didn’t Chagnon stop or at least reconsider his research when he saw how offensive it was to the Yanomami? What made him so sure that his edification was worth the price of their distress? The answer is clear: The Western anthropologist considered his concerns to be more important than the Yanomami’s concern with preserving the dignity of the dead. The distinguished anthropologist Marshall Sahlins words his criticism of this attitude much more harshly (and insightfully) than I did. I encourage everyone to read his excellent review of Tierney’s book in the Washington Post. Here’s what Sahlins says about Chagnon’s genealogy project:

[Chagnon] was also engaged in an absurdist anthropological project, which he took seriously, of finding ancestor-based lineage institutions among a people who by taboo could not know, could not trace and could not name their ancestors–or for that matter, could not bear to hear their own names. To utter people’s names in their presence is the gravest offense, a horror: “In battle they shout out the name because they are enemies.” As for the dead, they are completely excluded from Yanomami society, ritually as well as verbally, as a necessary condition of the continued existence of the living. But for the sake of science, Chagnon had to know–and so set in motion an opposition between their humanity and his epistemology that developed progressively through his professorial career.

As for the usefulness of native North American genealogies, which Professor Hagen cites, apparently as a possible justification for Chagnon’s research, I don’t see how they are relevant to a discussion of Chagnon’s work. Even if the Yanomami genealogies were as useful as native North American ones are–and Hagen doesn’t claim they are–the bottom line is that harmful research techniques should be condemned no matter how good their data is or or how much good it ultimately does. One of the perennial questions in medical ethics is whether to use the information about the limits of human endurance obtained through Nazi experiments in concentration camps. Some people think we should; others do not. But no one tries to claim that the experiments are defensible just because they produced some data that might be of value to us today.