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Scientific American

The Erotic-Fierce People

published May 2001 | comments (1)
The latest skirmish in the “anthropology wars” reveals a fundamental flaw in how science is understood and communicated
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Another battle has broken out in the century-long “anthropology wars” over the truth about human nature. Journalist Patrick Tierney, in his book dramatically entitled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, purportedly reveals “the hypocrisy, distortions, and humanitarian crimes committed in the name of research, and reveals how the Yanomami’s internecine warfare was, in fact, triggered by the repeated visits of outsiders who went looking for a ‘fierce’ people whose existence lay primarily in the imagination of the West.”

Tierney’s bête noir is Napoleon Chagnon, whose ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People is the best-selling anthropological book of all time. Tierney spares no ink in painting him as an anthropologist who sees in the Yanomamö a reflection of himself. Chagnon’s sociobiological theories of the most violent and aggressive males winning the most copulations and thus passing on their genes for “fierceness,” Tierney says, is merely a window into Chagnon’s own libidinous impulses.

Are the Yanomamö the “fierce people”? Or are they the “erotic people,” as described by French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, another of Tierney’s targets? The problem lies in the phrasing of the question. Humans are not easily pigeonholed into such clear-cut categories. The nature and intensity of our behavior depend on a host of biological, social and historical variables. Chagnon understands this. Tierney does not. Thus, Darkness in El Dorado fails not just because he didn’t get the story straight (there are countless factual errors and distortions in the book) but because the book is predicated on a misunderstanding of how science works and of the difference between anecdotes (on which Tierney’s book is based) and statistical trends (on which Chagnon’s book depends).

To be sure, Tierney is a good storyteller, but this is what makes his attack on science so invidious. Because humans are storytelling animals, we are more readily convinced by dramatic anecdotes than by dry data. Many of his stories enraged me … until I checked Tierney’s sources myself.

For example, Tierney accuses Chagnon of using the Yanomamö to support a sociobiological model of an aggressive human nature. Yet the primary sources in question show that Chagnon’s deductions from the data are not so crude. Even on the final page of his chapter on Yanomamö warfare, Chagnon inquires about “the likelihood that people, throughout history, have based their political relationships with other groups on predatory versus religious or altruistic strategies and the cost-benefit dimensions of what the response should be if they do one or the other.” He concludes: “We have the evolved capacity to adopt either strategy.” These are hardly the words of a hidebound ideologue bent on indicting the human species.

The fourth edition of Chagnon’s classic carries no subtitle. Had he determined that the Yanomamö were not “the fierce people” after all? No. He realized that too often people “might get the impression that being ‘fierce’ is incompatible with having other sentiments or personal characteristics like compassion, fairness, valor, etc.” As his opening chapter notes, the Yanomamö “are simultaneously peacemakers and valiant warriors.” Like all people, the Yanomamö have a deep repertoire of responses.

My conclusion is that Chagnon’s view of the Yanomamö is basically supported by the evidence. His data and interpretations are corroborated by many other anthropologists. Even at their “fiercest,” however, the Yanomamö are not so different from many other peoples around the globe. Yanomamö violence is certainly no more extreme than that of our Paleolithic ancestors, who appear to have brutally butchered one another with abandon. If recorded history is any measure of “fierceness,” the Yanomamö have got nothing on Western “civilization.”

Homo sapiens are the erotic-fierce people, making love and war too often for our own good. Fortunately, we now have the scientific tools to illuminate our true natures and to help us navigate the treacherous shoals of surviving the transition from a state society to whatever comes next.

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One Comment to “The Erotic-Fierce People”

  1. Marijo Readey Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful review of the works by Chagnon and Teirney. The contrast you drew is excellent. I use Chagnon’s work in my Animal Behaviour class and in my introductory ecology class as examples of how the environment can influence cultural expression. Too often I have had someone spew forth the ideays in Tierney, assuming that if it’s in print, it has to be right. I will provide a link to this review to help them better understand the difference between data and a desire for a different reality.