The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Spin-Doctoring the Yąnomamö:
Science as a Candle in the Darkness of the Anthropology Wars

In the following retrospective on the occasion of the recent death of Napoleon Chagnon, one of the world’s most famous and controversial anthropologists, we reprint Dr. Michael Shermer’s analysis of the charges leveled against Dr. Chagnon by the journalist Patrick Tierney in his book Darkness in El Dorado (originally published in Skeptic magazine 9.1 in 2001), which at the time caused a huge media stir. Not only was Chagnon vindicated by multiple inquiries, his view of human nature was solid at the time and has held up ever since. Welcome to the Anthropology Wars over the nature of human nature…

Figure 1 (above): The man behind the controversy: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon accompanies two Yąnomamö men on a 1995 field study. From Darkness in El Dorado, 2000.

There is a maxim anthropologists often cite about the geopolitics of diplomacy and warfare among indigenous peoples: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In reality, of course, the maxim applies to virtually all groups, from tribes and villages to city-states and nation-states — recall the temporary friendship between the US and USSR from 1941-1945 that promptly dissolved into the Cold War upon the defeat of their common enemy.

I thought of this maxim on Monday, November 20, 2000, when I interviewed journalist Patrick Tierney for the science edition of NPR affiliate KPCC’s Airtalk, when he was in Los Angeles on tour for his just published book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.1 Tierney had just flown down from San Francisco where, the previous day, he was pummeled by a panel of experts in front of a thousand scientists gathered at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

Among the many scientists that Tierney goes after none take more hits than the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose study of the Yąnomamö people of Amazonia is arguably the most famous ethnography since Margaret Mead’s Samoan classics. Since I knew of Chagnon’s reputation as an intellectual pugilist who has accumulated a score of enemies over the decades, I fully expected that, in obedience to the maxim, they would have rallied around Tierney in a provisional alliance. With a couple of minor exceptions, however, there was almost universal condemnation of the book. A British science writer told Skeptic Senior Editor Frank Miele, who was in attendance: “If I had taken such a beating as Tierney I would have crawled out of the room and cut my throat.”2

Tierney did seem shell-shocked, as he timorously tiptoed into the studio with a subdued countenance. On the air he seemed almost apologetic for his book, emphasizing that he was not presenting the final word on the subject of the mistreatment of the Yąnomamö but, rather, he was merely suggesting the need to investigate the scandalous charges against Chagnon and others that he had gathered in his decade of research.

A wispy thin man with an edge of wilderness about him, left over from a waif-like nomadic lifestyle spent chasing down what he thought might be (and his publisher trumpeted as) the anthropological scandal of all time, Tierney struck me as a conciliatory man ill-suited for the fight he had instigated. Indeed, he seemed the very embodiment of the type of man Rush Limbaugh would call a bleedingheart, tree-hugging liberal, and someone environmentalists would call a friend. His publicist at W.W. Norton told me that he was flat broke from years of grant-less, salary-less research and that his very survival hinged on the success of this book. Her interpretation of the AAA meeting, which she attended in hopes of this being a coming out celebration for a potentially bestselling book, was that Tierney had few friends there because he was an outsider, a mere journalist at play in the field of the scientists.3 Who was he to stick his nose in the private business of professionals whose union card — the Ph.D. — was hard earned through the centuries-long system of mentorship and hoop-jumping, not unlike the rites of passage young men endure in many indigenous cultures? Had Tierney simply not paid his scientific dues, or was there something else going on that turned Chagnon’s erstwhile enemies into new found friends?

Despite his lack of scientific training Tierney did spend 11 years researching his book, and since outsiders occasionally do make important contributions to science, I wanted to give him a chance. His on-air stories were eye-popping, and his book is filled with so many stories and anecdotes, charges and accusations, backed by interviews, documents, and 70 pages of endnotes and bibliography, that at first blush one is left thinking that if only half, or even a tenth of them are true, there is darkness in anthropology, indeed, in all of science.

Judging the Yanomamo by their covers

Figure 2: Judging the Yąnomamö by their covers. The book jackets of Napoleon Chagnon’s Yąnomamö, Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart, and Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado. Although all three show the Yąnomamö in ceremonial feathers and spears as part of a formal feast, Tierney claims that Chagnon depicts the Yąnomamö as violent and aggressive while Good portrays them as peaceful and loving. This is spin-doctoring science. In reality, Good’s narrative account supports Chagnon’s scientific treatise.

Darwin’s Dictum and Damaged Data

Humans are storytelling animals.4 Thus, following what I call Darwin’s Dictum — “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service”5 — we begin by recognizing that Tierney is telling a story against a view he believes has been put forth by certain anthropologists about the Yąnomamö and, by implication, about all humanity. Chagnon, he points out, subtitled his best-selling ethnographic monograph on the Yąnomamö “The Fierce People.” The French anthropologist Jacques Lizot, Tierney notes, calls the Yąnomamö “the erotic people.”6 Chagnon and Lizot, of course, are not immune from the human tendency to dichotomize and pigeonhole, but in telling a story — especially one for or against some view — one is obligated to be fair in properly contextualizing observations and conclusions because the data never just speak for themselves. Thus, the substrate of this essay is the relationship between data and theory, and how journalists and scientists differ in their treatment of that relationship.

For example, Tierney spares no ink in presenting a picture of Chagnon as a fierce anthropologist who sees in the Yąnomamö nothing more than 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,” says Tierney, is a Rorshachian window into Chagnon’s own libidinous impulses. Chagnon is the béte noire of Darkness in El Dorado. In Tierney’s pantheon of anti-heroes, Chagnon is the anti-Christ of the Yąnomamö. The gold miners who kill Yąnomamö and destroy their land, and the missionaries who want to “civilize” the Yąnomamö by replacing their animistic superstition with a monotheistic one, by comparison, are let off easy. Indeed, Chagnon is well-known in anthropological circles for being tough-minded and occasionally abrasive, and Tierney seemed to encounter no shortage of stories of braggadocio and bellicosity peppered throughout descriptions of a man who himself might best be described as “fierce,” both in the jungles of Amazonia and the halls of academia. In a letter to the Santa Barbara News Press, for example, Chagnon called his critics “so much skunk in the elephant soup”:

I used a metaphor to try to put the nature of academic things into perspective: a soup comprised of one elephant and one skunk. The vast majority of my professional colleagues regard my work with esteem — the elephant part of the soup…. But, a highly vocal minority persists in denigrating me and my research in non-academic ways for a variety of reasons, most notably professional jealousy. These represent the acrid flavor that a skunk, even in a very large elephant soup, imparts to it.7

In a private e-mail that was forwarded to and published in Newsweek (without Chagnon’s permission), the embattled anthropologist expressed himself like a true alpha male: “I am encouraged to believe that The New Yorker and W.W. Norton [Tierney’s excerpter and publisher] are sticking their peckers into a very powerful pickle slicer.”8

In Tierney’s pantheon of anti-heroes, Chagnon is the anti-Christ of the Yąnomamö. Gold miners who kill Yąnomamö and destroy their land, and missionaries who want to “civilize” the Yąnomamö by replacing their animistic superstition with a monotheistic one…are let off easy.

In a two-page account designed to arouse emotion in the reader (it does), Tierney recounts a story told to him by the anthropologist Kenneth Good, who spent 12 years among the Yąnomamö (first as a graduate student of Chagnon, then with the German ethologist Iranäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and finally with the cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris). Good recalled in a 1995 interview with Tierney that he and Chagnon “used to go down to bars and drink together. It was an embarrassment, but I did it because he was going to be my chair. He was the type of guy who had German shepherd attack dogs, and he’d have people come over to his house in the afternoon and he’d have the students dress up in padded suits and have the dogs attack them. Oh, yes. They’d have to put out an arm or a leg and the dog would attack. Students could get injured.”9 Tierney then turns to Good’s book, Into the Heart, to retell the story of a violent outburst by Chagnon. Here is how Tierney describes it:

During his first, nervous night in the jungle, Good was terrified when two screaming men burst inside, pushed him into a table, and ripped his mosquito netting. In the ensuing tussle, all three men wound up sprawling on the ground, bruised and covered with mud, but not before Good recognized his assailants as Chagnon and another anthropologist, both drunk. Good, a tall, husky man, was so angry he threw Chagnon, who is much smaller, over an embankment.

Tranquilo, Ken,” Lizot said, as he helped bring peace. Fortunately, Chagnon could not remember what had happened to him when he woke up, rather bruised and muddy, the next day. Good never forgot the experience, however. It was the only time anyone ever attacked him in Yąnomamiland. “In my twelve years, I witnessed only one raid.”10

Attack dogs and drunken brawls — it would appear from this narrative that Chagnon is the fierce one, not the Yąnomamö. Perhaps, as Tierney argues, even the occasional acts of violence committed by the Yąnomamö were nothing more than Chagnon-stimulated outbursts, like something out of The Gods Must be Crazy, where the mere introduction of a Coke bottle disrupts the entire !Kung culture (this analogy is not mine — Chagnon’s critics began making it soon after the film’s release).11 As the jacket flap for Darkness in El Dorado dramatically concludes:

Tierney explores the hypocrisy, distortions, and humanitarian crimes committed in the name of research, and reveals how the Yąnomami’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 tale about Chagnon was so inflammatory that I read it aloud to my associates at Skeptic, exclaiming “Can you believe this guy?” I privately wondered whether we all been duped by Chagnon. In fact, Darkness in El Dorado is filled with such stories, typically told mostly in Tierney’s words with snippets of partial quotes from his various sources. This literary style always makes me uneasy, so when I interviewed Good I asked him about this incident. He indicated that it happened pretty much as Tierney summarized it, adding that it was more than a little irritating that his mosquito net was torn (malaria-carrying mosquitoes infest the Amazon), and that he was not at all amused by his mentor’s inappropriate behavior.12

It was with much interest, then, when Good kindly sent me a copy of Into the Heart that I read the original account. Here is Good’s rather different description of the event Tierney portrayed as an act of inebriated violence:

Chagnon, Lizot, and the French anthropologist all knew the Yąnomami, and of course their reputation for violence, and having had more than a little to drink, they figured it would be a lot of fun to scare the pants off us. It was, after all, the first night Ray, Eric, and I were spending in a Yąnomami village, and who knew what kinds of fears might be racing through our heads. So they decided they would initiate us. …

As Eric and I were busy working with our hammocks and nets, all of a sudden out of the night two big figures burst into the hut screaming, “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” grabbing us, and shoving us toward our hammocks, ripping the mosquito netting. My heart skipped a beat. I heard Eric gasp. Bracing myself against a table to keep from falling, I twisted around and saw in the glow of the Coleman Chagnon and the French anthropologist, both of them completely drunk. …

Still screaming, I grabbed Chagnon with one arm and the Frenchman with the other and went stampeding out the door with them. There something tripped me up, and I sprawled on the ground, watching as Chagnon and his friend rolled into the eight-foot-deep pit from which the Indians had excavated clay for the hut. Lying there panting, I looked up and saw Lizot emerge from the darkness. “Tranquilo, Ken, tranquilo,” he said. “Take it easy, they were just joking.”13

Note that Tierney leaves off Lizot’s qualifier “they were just joking.” It was a prank! Tierney turned horseplay into horror. Sure, Good was not amused by the caper, and no doubt alcohol enhanced the pranksters’ enthusiasm for playing a practical joke before the long grind of fieldwork was to begin. But regardless of how it is received, a prank is not an “attack” or a “raid.”

Anthropologist Kenneth Good studied the dietary habits of the Yanomamo.

Figure 3: Anthropologist Kenneth Good studied the dietary habits of the Yąnomamö. Here he weighs a peccary to document hunting yields. From Into the Heart, 1991.

In my interview with Chagnon he initially called Tierney a “disgusting, slippery, conniving guy,” but later reflected that perhaps Tierney’s book was simply a case of self-deception, where the author’s political agenda of protecting the Yąnomamö forced him to misread the data and ethnographies of those he perceived as harming his self-proclaimed charges.14 At first I went along with Chagnon in his assessment, as I have witnessed first hand how powerful self-deception can be among such ideologues as creationists and Holocaust deniers. The more you believe in your own cause, the easier it is to get others to go along. While there may be some self-deception at work here, I fail to see how it can account for the butchering Tierney made of this humorously intended escapade.

Finally, what of Chagnon’s “attack dogs”? It turns out that Chagnon is a serious dog trainer; so serious, in fact, that he wrote a book on the subject entitled Toward the Ph.D. for Dogs: Obedience Training from Novice Through Utility, published by Harcourt in 1974. Chagnon was merely demonstrating to his students his highly trained dogs.

The Anthropology Wars

Tierney’s book is only the latest in a long line of skirmishes and battles that have erupted in the century-long anthropology wars. The reason such controversies draw so much public attention is that what’s at stake is nothing less than the true nature of human nature, and how that nature can most profitably be studied — through rigorous quantitative science or through some other set of methods.

Derek Freeman’s life-long battle with the legacy of Margaret Mead, for example, was not really about whether Samoan girls are promiscuous or prudish. Mead’s philosophy (which she inherited from her mentor Franz Boas) that human nature is primarily shaped by the environment was apparently supported by her “discovery” that Samoan girls are promiscuous (because in other cultures promiscuity is taboo and therefore sexual behavior — and by implication all behavior — is culturally malleable). Freeman says Mead was duped by a couple of Samoan hoaxers and had she been more rigorous and quantitative in her research she would have discovered this fact before going to press with what became the all-time anthropological bestseller — Coming of Age in Samoa. But, says Freeman, Mead’s ideology trumped her science and anthropology lost.15

So heated can these debates become that in at least one instance it has led to the complete fissioning of an academic department. Stanford University now houses the Department of Anthropological Sciences and the Department of Cultural Anthropology. The chairman of the former, Bill Durham, explained to me that the split was not simply between physical and cultural anthropologists, nor is it between those who prefer biological theories of human nature versus those who favor cultural theories. “The split is really between those who use and stand behind scientific methods in field and lab work, and those who think science is just another way of knowing, just another paradigm among others. It just so happens that anthropologists often divide on this issue between physical and cultural anthropologists, but not always. There are plenty of cultural anthropologists who conduct rigorous quantitative research. But many others are steeped in postmodernism.”16 Interestingly, Chagnon’s ethnography, Yąnomamö, the epicenter of this whole affair, was published as part of an academic series on “Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology” whose series editors are at Stanford University!

Another venomous snake in the viper pit of the anthropology wars is the question of research ethics. It is simply impossible for anthropologists to observe anything remotely resembling Star Trek’s “prime directive,” where one never interferes with the subject of one’s study. To get to know the people you have to interface with them on numerous levels and no one has ever gotten around the problem of the “observer effect” and still had anything worth saying about a people. That’s a given, and the Code of Ethics published by the American Anthropological Association is correspondingly vague, offering such “ethical obligations” as:

To avoid harm or wrong, understanding that the development of knowledge can lead to change which may be positive or negative for the people or animals worked with or studied.

To respect the well-being of humans and nonhuman primates.

To work for the long-term conservation of the archaeological, fossil, and historical records.

To consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved.

Can you have sexual relations with the natives? The Code of Ethics is no help. Point 5 under Section A states: “Anthropological researchers who have developed close and enduring relationships (i.e., covenantal relationships) with either individual persons providing information or with hosts must adhere to the obligations of openness and informed consent, while carefully and respectfully negotiating the limits of the relationship.”17 That’s as clear as Amazonian mud during the rainy season. Thus, it is hard to say whether the scientists Tierney says were unethical were, in fact, in violation of their professional standards and obligations.

Anthropologist Kenneth Good studied the dietary habits of the Yanomamo.

Figure 4: Into the Heart is a moving love story between anthropologist Kenneth Good and a young Yąnomamö woman named Yarima. They eventually married, had children, and returned to the United States. Yarima grew bored with American life and returned to the more stimulating environment of Amazonia. From Into the Heart, 1991.

Tierney’s strongest case may be against Jacques Lizot who, he documents, engaged in homosexual activities for years with so many young Yąnomamö men, and so frequently, that he became known in Yąnomamö speak as “Bosinawarewa,” which translates politely as “Ass Handler” and not so politely as “anus devourer.”18 In response to these claims not only did Lizot not deny the basic charges (that also included exchanging goods for sex), but he admitted to Time magazine: “I am a homosexual, but my house is not a brothel. I gave gifts because it is part of the Yąnomamö culture. I was single. Is it forbidden to have sexual relations with consenting adults?”19 No, but Tierney disputes both the age of Lizot’s partners and whether or not they consented, and suggests that even if it were both legal and moral this is hardly the standard of objectivity one might have hoped for in scientific research, and that it is Lizot who best deserves the descriptive adjective “erotic.”

I asked Ken Good about the charges against Lizot. Good said he never once witnessed homosexual behavior in any Yąnomamö village and that, in his opinion, it was obvious that the Yąnomamö young men were involved with Lizot for one reason only — to obtain machetes and trade goods. I have been unable to resolve any more on the Lizot affair and, in any case, he seems to be a secondary player in this anthropological drama. Despite Tierney’s characterization of the Chagnon-Lizot relationship as hostile, Chagnon had no comment at all on Lizot’s sexual behavior, and instead told me that “Lizot is a quite capable and thorough scientist, but he’s not a particularly good synthetic thinker. He does not always see the bigger picture in his research.”20

Chagnon, by contrast, is a synthetic, big picture thinker, and thus it is that the ethics of his research have come under closer scrutiny. Anthropologist Kim Hill from the University of New Mexico, for example, was strongly critical of Darkness in El Dorado, yet he expressed his concern about many of the ethical issues the book raises:

I was concerned about the negative attitude that many Yąnomamö I have met seem to have towards Chagnon, and despite the fact that much of this attitude is clearly due to coaching by Chagnon enemies, I do believe that some Yąnomamö have sincere and legitimate grievances against Chagnon that should be addressed by him. The strongest complaints that I heard were about his lack of material support for the tribe despite having made an entire career (and a good deal of money) from working with them, and his lack of sensitivity concerning some cultural issues and the use of film portrayals. However, I think most of Chagnon’s shortcomings amount to little more than bad judgment and an occasional unwise penchant for self promotion (something which seems to infuriate Yąnomamö specialists who are less well known than Chagnon).21

Since evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker co-authored a letter in defense of Chagnon in the New York Times Book Review (in response to John Horgan’s surprisingly uncritical review of Tierney’s book there), I queried him about some of the specific charges. He replied, “the idea that Chagnon caused the Yąnomamö to fight is preposterous and contradicted by every account of the Yąnomamö and other nonstate societies. Tierney is a zealot and a character assassin, and all his serious claims crumble upon scrutiny.” What about the charge of ethical breaches? “There are, of course, serious issues about ethics in ethnography, and I don’t doubt that some of Chagnon’s practices, especially in the 1960s, were questionable (as were the practices in most fields, such as my own — for example, the Milgram studies). But the idea that the problems of Native Americans are caused by anthropologists is crazy. In the issues that matter to us — skepticism, scientific objectivity, classic liberalism, etc. — Chagnon is on the right side.”22

To postmodernists and cultural determinists, calling the Yąnomamö “fierce” and explaining their fierceness through a Darwinian model of competition and sexual selection, Chagnon appears to be indicting all of humanity as innately evil and condemning us to a future of ineradicable violence, rape, and war.

The carping over minutiae in Chagnon’s research methods and ethics that has dogged him throughout his career, however, is secondary to the deeper underlying issue in the anthropology wars. What Chagnon is really being accused of is biological determinism. To postmodernists and cultural determinists, in calling the Yąnomamö “fierce” and explaining their fierceness through a Darwinian model of competition and sexual selection, Chagnon appears to be indicting all of humanity as innately evil and condemning us to a future of ineradicable violence, rape, and war. Are we really this bad? Are the Yąnomamö?

Erotic or Fierce?

Anthropology is a sublime science because it deals with such profoundly deep questions as the nature of human nature. This whole “fierce people” business is really tapping into the question of the nature of human good and evil. But to even ask such questions as “Are we by nature good or evil?” misses the complexity of human affairs and falsely simplifies the science behind the study of human diversity. (The propensity to do so is very probably grounded in the tendency of humans to dichotomize the world into unambiguous categories.)

Thus, the failure of Tierney’s book has less to do with getting the story straight and more to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of the plasticity and diversity of human behavior and a lack of understanding of how science properly proceeds in its attempt to catalogue such variation and to generalize from behavioral particulars to categorical universals. Upon finishing the book I let it sit for a couple of days and then plowed through the 147-page rebuttal published on the Internet by the University of Michigan, as well as the many other responses by Chagnon and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara.23 I also reread Chagnon’s classic work Yąnomamö. Tellingly, the fourth edition dropped the subtitle The Fierce People (although Tierney, characteristically, refers to the book only by the old subtitle). Had Chagnon determined that the Yąnomamö were not “the fierce people” after all? No. He realized that too many people were unable to move past the moniker to grasp the complex and subtle variations contained in all human populations, and he became concerned that they “might get the impression that being ‘fierce’ is incompatible with having other sentiments or personal characteristics like compassion, fairness, valor, etc.”24

In fact, the Yąnomamö call themselves “waiteri” (“fierce”) and Chagnon’s attribution of them as such was merely attempting “to represent valor, honor, and independence” that the Yąnomamö saw in themselves. As he notes in his opening chapter, the Yąnomamö “are simultaneously peacemakers and valiant warriors.” Like all people, the Yąnomamö have a deep repertoire of responses for varying social interactions and differing contexts, even those that are potentially violent: “They have a series of graded forms of violence that ranges from chest-pounding and club-fighting duels to out-and-out shooting to kill. This gives them a good deal of flexibility in settling disputes without immediate resort to lethal violence.”25

Top: two men duel over the infidelity of one of their wives. Bottom: many Yanomamo men have masses of scar tissue on their heads from such battles

Figure 5: Despite Tierney’s claim that Chagnon exaggerated the level of aggression and rape among the Yąnomamö, Kenneth Good documented both. Top photo: “two men duel over the infidelity of one of their wives.” From Into the Heart, 1991. Bottom photo: many Yąnomamö men have masses of scar tissue on their heads from such battles, as shown by Chagnon in Yąnomamö, 1992.

Chagnon has often been accused of using the Yąnomamö to support a sociobiological model of an aggressive human nature. Even here, returning to the primary sources in question shows that Chagnon’s deductions from the data are not so crude, as when he notes that the Yąnomamö’s northern neighbors, the Ye’Kwana Indians — in contrast to the Yąnomamö’s initial reaction to him — “were very pleasant and charming, all of them anxious to help me and honor bound to show any visitor the numerous courtesies of their system of etiquette,” and therefore that it “remains true that there are enormous differences between whole peoples.”26 Even on the final page of his chapter on Yąnomamö 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.”27 These are hardly the words of a hidebound ideologue. In fact, in 1995 Chagnon told Scientific American editor John Horgan that because male aggression is esteemed in Yąnomamö culture, aggression as a human trait is highly malleable and culturally influenced — an observation that might have been made by Stephen Jay Gould, considered by most sociobiologists to be Satan incarnate. “Steve Gould and I probably agree on a lot of things,” Chagnon surprisingly concluded.28

Even when he is talking about the Yąnomamö casually and not for publication, Chagnon carefully nuances and contextualizes everything he says. For example, at the Skeptics Society 1996 Caltech conference on evolutionary psychology Chagnon delivered a factpacked lecture mixing anecdotes and data, including the graphs from his now-famous Science article revealing the positive correlation between levels of violence among Yąnomamö men and their corresponding number of wives and offspring. “Here are the ‘Satanic Verses’ that I committed in anthropology,” Chagnon joked, as he reviewed his data:

I didn’t intend for this correlation to pop out, but when I discovered it, it did not surprise me. If you take men who are in the same age category and divide them by those who have killed other men (unokais) and those who have not killed other men (non-unokais), in every age category unokais had more offspring. In fact, unokais averaged 4.91 children versus 1.59 for non-unokais. The reason is clear in the data on the number of wives: unokais averaged 1.63 wives versus 0.63 for non- . This was an unacceptable finding for those who hold the ideal view of the Noble Savage. ‘Here’s Chagnon saying that war has something good in it.’ I never said any such thing. I merely pointed out that in the Yąnomamö society, just like in our own and other societies, people who are successful and good warriors, who defend the folks back home, are showered with praise and rewards. In our own culture, for example, draft dodgers are considered a shame. Being a successful warrior has social rewards in all cultures. The Yąnomamö warriors do not get medals and media. They get more wives.29

And despite the mountains of data Chagnon has accumulated on Yąnomamö aggression, he was careful to note throughout his lecture the many other behaviors and emotions expressed by the Yąnomamö:

When I called the Yąnomamö the ‘fierce people,’ I did not mean they were fierce all the time. Their family life is very tranquil. Even though they have high mortality rates due to violence and aggression and competition is very high, they are not sweating fiercely, eating fiercely, belching fiercely, etc. They do kiss their kids and are quite pleasant people.30

Even in the question and answer period, when given the opportunity to make his case for an extreme sociobiological view of humans to an obviously receptive audience dominated by older males who encouraged such answers with leading questions, Chagnon gently but firmly demurred. One gentleman inquired whether Chagnon thought that his data implied there might be genes for violence that are passed down to future generations by the unokais, and whether this implied that perhaps all human violence is innate. Chagnon unhesitatingly answered in the negative:

No, I do not think violence is that directly connected to specific genes, although there is undoubtedly a biological substrate underlying violence. Violence is a facultative trait. You have to look at the environmental cues to see what touches it off. Because they are an inbred population we can expect that Yąnomamö genes are different from other populations, but I do not think that they are any different genetically from other populations in terms of violence.31

In light of his data on warriors who are rewarded with more wives, one questioner wondered what happens to the men who get no wives, and if this means that the Yąnomamö are polygamous. Chagnon explained that, indeed, some Yąnomamö men have no wives and that it is often they who are the causes of violence as they either resort to rape or they stir up trouble with men who have more than one wife. But he added an important proviso that indicates, once again, Chagnon’s sensitivity to the nuances and complexities within all cultures, and the danger of gross generalizations:

Anthropologists tend to pigeonhole societies as monogamous or polygamous or polyandrous, as if these are three different kinds of societies. In fact, you have to look at marriage as a life-historical process in all societies. There are, for example, cases of monogamy in Yąnomamö society. In fact, monogamy is the most common type of marriage. But there are also polyandrous families where one woman marries two men, who tend to be brothers. There are, in fact, examples of all three types of marriage arrangements in Yąnomamö culture.32

Even at work Chagnon refrains from oversimplifying his research. I asked anthropologist Donald Symons, Chagnon’s colleague from the University of California, Santa Barbara, about the accusations that Chagnon is a sociobiological ideologue bent on painting a portrait of humanity as self-centered, competitive, and violent. Symons replied: “You know, it’s interesting that people make such charges against Nap, because when you ask him about this or that aspect of the Yąnomamö he never just offers some simple opinion. He’ll says things like ‘I think I can get that data for you,’ or ‘let me check that and get back to you.’” So then why does Chagnon seem to have so many enemies, I inquired? “Well, sometimes he responds to his critics in a belligerent manner that is off-putting to many people. His initial defense is typically ad hominem, where he will call his critics Marxists or Rousseauian idealists. That’s not the way to defend against charges, which should be answered point by point.”33

While spin-doctoring has gone on and does go on in science…we hope that peerreview and other checks and balances that are part of the self-correcting nature of science keep it at a tolerable minimum. What we are witnessing in this latest battle in the anthropology wars is journalistic spin-doctoring of what is, for the most part, solid science.

That is, in fact, what is being done by a cadre of Chagnon defenders, who have compiled an impressive literature of point by point refutations of Tierney’s accusations. Even Chagnon was taken by surprise. “I’ve received a number of e-mails from people identifying themselves on the academic left, who made it clear they while they disagree with me on a number of theoretical points they do not want anything to do with Tierney or his book.”34

Spin-Doctoring Science

In politics, spin-doctoring is the art of interpreting words and actions in the light most favorable to one’s position or cause. Spin-doctoring is openly practiced in politics and spin doctors have become star players on politician’s teams (there is even a television show called Spin City that revolves around a spin doctor played by Michael J. Fox). While spin-doctoring has gone on and does go on in science, ideally we strive for objectivity and we hope that peerreview and the other checks and balances that are part of the self-correcting nature of science keep it at a tolerable minimum.

Top: armed visitors to a village feast. Bottom: the Yanomamo dress differently for war, without feathers and their faces painted black with masticated charcoal.

Figure 6: The realities of Yąnomamö life, and of human life, is nuanced in all its richness by Chagnon in his ethnography entitled simply Yąnomamö. Earlier editions included the subtitle “The Fierce People,” but readers missed the multi-layered meaning of courage, valor, and compassion. But warfare among the Yąnomamö is a reality, as it is for all of humanity. Armed visitors to a village feast (top) adorned with buzzard feathers and red paint, pause after dancing. The Yąnomamö dress differently for war (bottom), without feathers and their faces painted black with masticated charcoal. From Yąnomamö, 1992.

What we are witnessing in this latest battle in the anthropology wars is journalistic spin-doctoring of what is, for the most part, solid science. In carefully reading Good’s Into the Heart and Chagnon’s Yąnomamö back to back over the course of several days of intense study, I found myself continually wondering how Tierney could possibly have read both books and come away with the impressions he did, unless this was a clear-cut case of spin-doctoring. The same descriptions of violence, aggression, and especially rape are present in both books; it all depends on the “spin” one puts on the data. For example, Good writes:

I got increasingly upset about Chagnon’s “Fierce People” portrayal. The man had clearly taken one aspect of Yąnomami behavior out of context and in so doing had sensationalized it. In the process he had stigmatized these remarkable people as brutish and hateful. I wasn’t fooling myself into thinking that the Yąnomami were some kind of Shangri-la race, all peace and light. Far, far from it. They were a volatile, emotional people, capable of behavior we would consider barbaric.35

Well, if the Yąnomamö are really “barbaric,” then why is it sensationalistic to call them “brutish”? It all depends on the spin.

Into the Heart is a page-turner because the very features of Yąnomamö culture that Chagnon’s critics claim he overemphasizes are, in fact, present in spades in every chapter of Good’s gripping tale. As Chagnon’s graduate student Good immersed himself in Yąnomamöland, and in time he found himself falling in love with a beautiful young Yąnomamö girl named Yarima. (Columbia Pictures bought the rights to produce a dramatic film based on the book, and Good even received a phone call from the actor Richard Gere, who was interested in playing him. That deal has since fallen through and others have shown interest in a film deal, but nothing has come of it to date. Good has avoided commenting publicly about the Tierney-Chagnon controversy, he said, because he doesn’t want his half-Yąnomamö children to become the focus of media attention.36 )

As the years passed and he had a falling out first with Chagnon and then with the worldrenowned ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Good became emotionally distraught over leaving Yarima alone when he was forced to return to Caracas to renew his permit, or when he was to return to the U.S. or Germany to attend conferences or work on his doctoral dissertation. Why? When Yarima came of age (defined as first menses in Yąnomamöland), she and Good began living together and consummated their “marriage” (Yąnomamö do not have a marriage ceremony per se; instead a couple, usually the man, declares that they are married and the two begin living together). Good’s problem was that he was all too aware of what Yąnomamö men are really like:

They will grab a woman while she is out gathering and rape her. They don’t consider it a crime or a horrendously antisocial thing to do. It is simply what happens. It’s standard behavior. In such a small, enclosed community this (together with affairs) is the only way unmarried men have of getting sex.37

Good’s worries were justified and the universal emotion of jealousy was no more attenuated in this highly civilized, educated man than it was in any of the people he was studying to earn his Ph.D. In short, Good was on an emotional roller coaster and couldn’t get off.

I felt the tension, and I tried to deal with it. I wanted to think that Yarima would be faithful to me. But I knew the limits of any woman’s faithfulness here. Fidelity in Yąnomami land is not considered a standard of any sort, let alone a moral principle. Here it is every man for himself. Stealing, rape, even killing — these acts aren’t measured by some moral standard. They aren’t thought of in terms of proper or improper social behavior. Here everyone does what he can and everyone defends his own rights. A man gets up and screams and berates someone for stealing plantains from his section of the garden, then he’ll go and do exactly the same thing. I protect myself, you protect yourself. You try something and I catch you, I’ll stop you.38

Many antisocial behaviors, such as theft, are kept at a minimum through such social constraints as shunning, or personal constraints as fear of violence and retaliation. But, as Good explains, “sex is a different story”:

The sex drive demands an outlet, especially with the young men. It cannot be stopped. Thus the personal and social constraints have less force, they’re more readily disregarded. As a result, a woman often has no choice. And if a woman is raped, she will not tell her husband, because she knows that her husband will beat her, or worse. In most cases the husband will become extremely angry, at both his wife and at the man who has raped her. But his anger will most likely not have the intensity or duration to provoke a village-shattering conflict, unless perhaps his wife is young and has not had a child yet. In that case the husband might find he cannot tolerate it; he might lose control utterly and embark on violent action. He badly wants to at least get his family started himself, rather than have someone else make her pregnant.39

How different is Good’s analysis from Chagnon’s description of a raid triggered by a desire to seek revenge for an earlier killing, that also included the abduction of women:

Generally, however, the desire to abduct women does not lead to the initiation of hostilities between groups that have had no history of mutual raiding in the past. New wars usually develop when charges of sorcery are leveled against the members of a different group. Once raiding has begun between two villages, however, the raiders all hope to acquire women if the circumstances are such that they can flee without being discovered. If they catch a man and his wife at some distance from the village, they will more than likely take the woman after they kill her husband. A captured woman is raped by all the men in the raiding party and, later, by the men in the village who wish to do so but did not participate in the raid. She is then given to one of the men as a wife.40

It’s all in how one spin-doctors the data. Chagnon carefully parcels it into contextualized units as quantitative data. Good uses it anecdotally as part of a literary narrative, and Tierney uses Good to weave it into an indictment. For example, Tierney accuses Chagnon of acting “fiercely” around the Yąnomamö, dressing up like them, using their drugs, pounding his chest, and screaming. Tierney gleefully explains how “Chagnon suddenly went from being an impoverished Ph.D. student at the bottom of the totem pole to being a figure of preternatural power,” then quotes Chagnon’s own description of how he immersed himself into the Yąnomamö culture:

The village I’m living in really thinks I am the be-all and the end-all. I broke the final ice with them by participating in their dancing and singing one night. That really impressed them. They want to take me all over Waicaland to show me off. Their whole attitude toward me changed dramatically. Unfortunately, they want me to dance all the time now. You should have seen me in my feathers and loincloth!41

Contrast this passage, quoted by Tierney to incriminate Chagnon, with Good’s explanation of why he did nearly the same thing as Chagnon did in order to be accepted into Yąnomamö culture:

What people, even some anthropologists, do not understand is how truly different it is to live with people whose conception of morality, laws, restrictions, controls differs so radically from ours. If you don’t protect yourself, if you don’t defend yourself, if you don’t demand respect — you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. If you act down here as you would up there, you’ll be so intimidated, so worked over, you’ll be running out of here. And lots of guys have been.42

Despite these rather brutish descriptions of the Yąnomamö, Good concludes:

The point is that it’s what you want to see, it’s what you are drawn to write about. And that’s supposedly anthropology. Chagnon made them out to be warring, fighting, belligerent people, confrontations, showdowns, stealing women, raping them, cutting off their ears. That may be his image of the Yąnomami; it’s certainly not mine.43

This is what I mean by spin-doctoring. The entire second half of Good’s book is a spellbinding narrative about how Good spent most of his time warding off men from his wife who, despite his best efforts, was gang-raped, beaten, had an earlobe torn off, and was stolen by a man while Good was away renewing his permit. And Good admits that this “was more or less standard conduct. Men will threaten, and they’ll carry out their threats, too. They’ll shoot a woman for not going with them. I know of more than one woman who has been killed for rejecting advances made under threat. What usually happens is that she goes along with it. There isn’t any choice. You go and make the best of it.”44

Who is the Hobbesian anthropologist? As an outsider with no relationship to any of the players in this anthropological drama, and no commitment to any theoretical position within the science, I fail to see any difference between Chagnon’s description of the Yąnomamö and Good’s. Tierney has merely spin-doctored them to support his cause.

Science as a Candle in the Dark

The psychology and sociology of science is interesting and important in understanding the history and development of scientific theories and ideas, but the bottom-line question here is this: did Chagnon get the science right? Some anthropologists question the level of violence reported by Chagnon, claiming that they have recorded different (and often lower) rates in other areas of Yąnomamöland. Good, for example, is quoted by Tierney as saying: “In my opinion, the Fierce People is the biggest misnomer in the history of anthropology.” Did he mean that, I asked him?

All along I have felt that Chagnon has not represented the Yąnomamö accurately. I feel he might have slanted, or even cooked, some of his data. In over a dozen villages in the course of a dozen years of research, I never saw what Chagnon reported that he saw in terms of the violence both within and between villages. I have said from the beginning that (1) Chagnon did bad field work, or (2) there was something wrong with the villages Chagnon studies, or (3) Chagnon was in a “hot” area with a lot of activity whose disruptive forces led to higher levels of violence.45

What about Chagnon’s data, I wondered? It strikes me as heavily quantitative and easily checkable. “Yeah, well, let me tell you about anthropological ‘data’,” Good retorted. “An anthropologist goes into the field for 15 months, comes out and tells the world what the people he has studied are like. No one was there with him. How can those observations be checked? This is a serious problem in anthropology. I’m sure that 90 percent of anthropologists are doing good field work, but in my opinion there are problems with both Chagnon’s and Lizot’s data.” Perhaps he and Chagnon had studied different Yąnomamö villages and this might account for their differing conclusions? “I went to several of the same villages as Chagnon, and I just didn’t see what he saw.”46

Who is the Hobbesian anthropologist? …I fail to see any difference between Chagnon’s and Good’s description of the Yąnomamö. Tierney has merely spin-doctored them to support his cause.

Considering his reputation I half expected Chagnon to explode over the phone when I queried him about these charges. Not only did he respond with dispassionate coolness, he had nothing critical at all to say about Good, commenting only that it is entirely possible that he and his former student did see different behaviors:

Good spent much of his time trekking with the Yąnomamö, going on hunting trips outside of the village. If a village contains, say, 150 people in a complex web of relations, but you are spending most of your time with just a dozen or so away from the village, of course you are going to make different observations.47

In Yąnomamö Chagnon notes that such variation in violence observed by different scientists can be accounted for by a concatenation of intervening variables, such as geography, ecology, population size, resources, and especially the contingent history of each group where “the lesson is that past events and history must be understood to comprehend the current observable patterns. As the Roman poet Lucretius mused, “nothing yet from nothing ever came.”48

After reading through the literature and interviewing many on all sides of this issue, my conclusion is that Chagnon’s view of the Yąnomamö — while in the service of some view (a Darwinian one) — is fundamentally supported by the available evidence. His data and interpretations are corroborated by many other anthropologists who have studied the Yąnomamö. Even at their “fiercest,” however, the Yąnomamö are not so different from many other peoples around the globe (recall Captain Bligh’s numerous violent encounters with Polynesians, and Captain Cook’s murder at the hands of Hawaiian natives), even when studied by tender-minded, non-fierce scientists. (I do find it ironic, however, that in their attempts to portray the Yąnomamö as Rousseauian noble savages — in defense of a view of human nature as basically benign and infinitely flexible — a few anthropologists have proven themselves to be fierce and persistent warriors in their battles with Chagnon.)

Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, for example, told me that he found the role of warfare among the peoples of New Guinea that he has studied over the past 30 years quite similar to Chagnon’s depiction of the role of warfare among the Yąnomamö.49 And, judging by the latest archaeological research presented in such books as Arthur Ferrill’s The Origins of War and Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, Yąnomamö violence and warfare is no more extreme than that of our paleolithic ancestors who, around the world and throughout the past 20,000 years, appear to have brutally butchered one another with all too frequent abandon.50 Finally, if the last five thousand years of recorded human history is any measure of a species’ “fierceness,” the Yąnomamö have got nothing on either Western or Eastern “civilization,” whose record includes the murder of hundreds of millions of people.

Homo sapiens in general, like the Yąnomamö in particular, are the erotic-fierce people, making love and war far too frequently for our own good as both overpopulation and war threaten our very existence. Just as science has been our candle in the dark illuminating our path into the heart of human nature, science is our greatest hope for the future, showing us how best we can utilize our natures to insure our survival. END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the Science Salon Podcast, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia. Follow @michaelshermer.

  1. Tierney, P. 2000. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W. W. Norton.
  2. Personal correspondence with Frank Miele, November 29, 2000.
  3. Personal correspondence with Louise Brocket from W. W. Norton, November 20, 2000.
  4. In defense of this statement see Shermer, M. 1999. How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W. H. Freeman, Chapter 7.
  5. I coined “Darwin’s Dictum” in my inaugural column for Scientific American, May, 2001, from a letter Darwin wrote to a friend on December 18, 1861. The full quote reads: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”
  6. Tierney, 2000, 15. See also Lizot, J. 1985. Tales of the Yąnomami: Daily Life in the Venezuelan Forest. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. See:
  8. Begley, Sharon, 2000. “Into the Heart of Darkness.” Newsweek. November 27, 70-75.
  9. Tierney, 2000, 130.
  10. Ibid., 131. Different authors use different spellings of the people’s name, the two most common being Yąnomamö and Yąnomami. According to Chagnon, the “ö” is similar to the German ö, rendered “oe” in English transliteration and pronounced as it is in the German poet “Goethe.”
  11. Chagnon joked about the analogy with the film The Gods Must Be Crazy when he spoke at the Skeptics Society 1996 Caltech conference.
  12. Interview with Kenneth Good, December 5, 2000.
  13. Good, K. 1991. Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yąnomami. New York: HarperCollins, 5.
  14. Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, December 12, 2000.
  15. Freeman, D. 1997. “Paradigms in Collision: Margaret Mead’s Mistake and What it Has Done to Anthropology.” Skeptic, Vol. 5, No. 3: 66-73. This entire issue of Skeptic is devoted to anthropological controversies.
  16. Interview with Bill Durham, December 1, 2000.
  17. American Anthropological Association, Code of Ethics, from “Section A. Responsibility to people and animals with whom anthropological researchers work and whose lives and cultures they study.”
  18. Tierney, 2000, 132-133.
  19. Roosevelt, M. 2000. “Yąnomami: What Have We Done to Them?” Time. October 2: 77-78.
  20. Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, December 12, 2000.
  21. Statement by Kim Hill is at
  22. Personal correspondence with Steven Pinker, December 1, 2000.
  23. Go to to begin searching. Links and search engine scans under the names of the various anthropologists will net hundreds of pages of relevant documents.
  24. Chagnon, N. 1992. Yąnomamö . New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, xii-xiii.
  25. Ibid., 7.
  26. Ibid., 10.
  27. Ibid., 206.
  28. Horgan, J. 1995. “The New Social Darwinists.” Scientific American. October: 150-157.
  29. Chagnon, N. 1996. “The Myth of the Noble Savage: Lessons From the Yąnomamö People of the Amazon.” Skeptics Society Conference on Evolutionary Psychology and Humanistic Ethics, March 30.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Interview with Donald Symons, November 28, 2000.
  34. Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, December 12, 2000.
  35. Good, 1991, 42.
  36. Interview with Kenneth Good, December 5, 2000.
  37. Ibid., 115.
  38. Ibid., 116.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Chagnon, 1992, 190.
  41. Tierney, 2000, 31.
  42. Good, 1991, 128.
  43. Ibid., 129.
  44. Ibid., 185.
  45. Interview with Kenneth Good, December 5, 2000.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Interview with Napoleon Chagnon, December 12, 2000.
  48. Chagnon, 1992, 1.
  49. Interview with Jared Diamond, November 27, 2000.
  50. Keeley, L. H. 1996. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press. Ferrill, A. 1988. The Origins of War From the Stoneage to Alexander the Great. London: Thames and Hudson.

This article was published on October 1, 2019.

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