Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Meet Joe Science

The flap in the last couple of weeks over Jared Diamond’s publicity for his book, The World Until Yesterday, and Napoleon Chagnon’s publicity for his book, Noble Savages needs a little context, which happens to be a specialty of anthropology.

Anthropology is coming off of a year that was described in the leading science journal in these here United States as an annus horribilis.   And you know damn well, that when Americans resort to Latin to describe something, it’s got to be pretty bad.  Of course in the background we have the perpetual war against the creationists and the racists, both of whom see anthropology as their enemy. 

So we elect a President whose mother was an anthropologist, and you think that might bode well for the public appreciation of our field.  But we get Florida governor Rick Scott, upset by his daughter’s choice of a major, declaring it to be not the kind of major we want in Florida.  And shortly thereafter, the big business publications – Kiplinger and Forbes – publicly branded it as the worst major.  It seems almost as if the Republicans had declared war on anthropology, along with the creationists and the racists.

Then we have the one-two punch from the guys claiming to be Joe Science.  Jared Diamond pretends to be an anthropologist, but does things that no competent anthropologist would do, and interprets other peoples as no competent anthropologist does.  That is to say, he soft-pedals the historical context of other cultures, and imagines them to be stand-ins for his own ancestors.  He tells Stephen Colbert that we don’t call New Guineans “primitive” because it’s politically incorrect, apparently unaware that we don’t call them “primitive” because the term connotes a false, ancestral relationship between “them” and “us”.

Napoleon Chagnon is a sadder story, because he is not a pseudo-anthropologist, but an incompetent anthropologist.  Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce”  he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.

And so, after the New York Times runs a puff piece on Chagnon in the Magazine, and a critical review of his book simultaneously in the Book Review section, it seems as though the best we can hope for is a draw.  But wait!  Into the fray comes their distinguished science reporter Nicholas Wade, with a second puff piece on Chagnon.

WTF?  His work isn’t that important to anthropology, except as a methodological counter-example.  Why is it so important to the Times?

Again, some context,  Nicholas Wade once co-wrote a good book on scientific fraud.  Judging from his work since then, I am inclined to attribute its meritorious aspects to his co-author.   More recently, Wade has been pushing genetic determinism as hard as he can from his pulpit at the Times.  And you know who his antagonists are going to be. 

Wade’s 2007 book,  Before the Dawn, was marketed as a celebration of anthropological genetics.  Except that anthropological genetics means something different to anthropological geneticists than it does to Wade.   To anthropological geneticists, it means the mutual illumination of genetics and anthropology, often using the technology of the former to study questions framed by the latter.  To Nicholas Wade, however, it means that the Chinese excel at ping-pong because of their genes for it (p. 197).

The book was reviewed in the leading science journals by leading anthropological geneticists.  The reviewers in Nature found it to be a work of social darwinism (that phrase is not bandied about as a compliment these days).  Rebecca Cann in Science had this to say:

As a graduate student … I often wished that there were science writers energized to follow the new insights from geneticists as closely and rapidly as others reported interpretations of fragmentary fossils. Well, be careful what you wish for.

And she continued,

The book also reveals some unpleasant truths about science writing that currently passes for objective and informed. Only smugness that one’s sources must be correct because they represent a scientific elite group having new and exclusive truths about human evolution makes it possible to write, in 2006, sentences such as “The Australian and New Guinean branch [of our phylogenetic tree] soon settled into a time warp of perpetual stagnation."

In other words, the 19th century idea that in looking at other people we are seeing our ancestors, against the modern anthropological view that we are seeing people with other histories, is what unites Chagnon’s, Diamond’s, and Wade’s books.  It is a false and outmoded ideology, one that knowledgeable scholars – or, for the sake of argument, “scientists” -  have rejected.

Nicholas Wade, however,  is undeterred.  In an interview with the Anthropology News in 2007, he told them , "Anyone who’s interested in cultural anthropology should escape as quickly as they can from their cultural anthropology department and go and learn some genetics, which will be the foundation of cultural anthropology in the future."  In other words, he wants to return to the pre-modern era of anthropology, before E. B. Tylor separated “culture” from “race” or “nature” – because what we think is cultural is really better studied by geneticists.  That was actually a “pro-science” stance a century ago, but it is by no stretch of the imagination “pro-science” today.  It is decidedly anti-science.  It fact it sounds almost as if he is beginning to believe his own bullshit.

So, let’s see what he has to say about Napoleon Chagnon this week, throwing the weight of his reputation in the New York Times around, to balance their recent Chagnon pieces as 2-1 against anthropology. 

He starts off, “What were our early ancestors really like…?” – a good question, but one to which Napoleon Chagnon’s work is irrelevant.   Bad start, though, because it means that even now, neither Chagnon nor Wade apparently understands what the Yanomamo actually tell us about anything.

“One of Dr. Chagnon’s discoveries was that warriors who had killed a man in battle sired three times more children than men who had not killed.”  Not exactly a discovery, though; more of an assertion, which was published in Science, and shown convincingly to be based on a misinterpretation of the data. Chagnon’s interpretation is that his data have no historical context, and are simply the Yanomamo doing what is natural – not only for them, but for us as well.  Brian Ferguson’s interpretation is universally taken to be more insightful then Chagnon’s, because it incorporates politics and history.  But neither of the pieces puffing up Chagnon, and publicizing his hatred of his colleagues, even acknowledges the existence of alternative interpretations of Chagnon’s work.  The problem, simply put, is that Chagnon's statistics were rubbish, because he neglected to include the children of killers who had themselves been killed.

Chagnon's figures on reproductive success did not include dead unokai. The obvious question, in Ferguson's view, was whether the greater reproductive success of unokai was offset by higher mortality. Responding in American Ethnologist, Chagnon calculated the same figures without the headmen and came up with a correlation similar to, although smaller than, his previous figure. But, Chagnon told Science, he “didn't record at the time the status of unokai men who were killed,” which is necessary to respond to Ferguson's second objection. “But from what I know,” he says, “it looks as though [Ferguson's] hypothesis doesn't hold up.”

Here is a translation into scientific terms.  Chagnon's apparent statistical conclusion linking killers and babies is bogus because of a flaw in the data, which means that it is invalid to derive the conclusion that Chagnon derived.  The best he can do is claim impressionistically that he hopes Ferguson is wrong.  But that defeats the purpose of pretending to be a scientist and doing statistics in the first place.

So now, the best Wade can come up with is to repeat Chagnon’s claim that he represents science against “the ideology of his fellow anthropologists.  The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes.”  Kind of makes it sound as if he’s got a list of names that he wants to give to Senator McCarthy.  Damn commies.  (See my previous post for the commies.)  The point is that if the ostensible statistical relationships are mirages, then the only people they are going to be able to convince are other cult members.  But science is supposed to be able to convince skeptics, not other cult members.

And finally, explains Wade, the entire field of anthropology is like, totally anti-science, even the American Anthropological Association.  “In 2010 the A.A.A. voted to strip the word 'science' from its long-range mission plan and focus instead on ‘public understanding.’ Its distaste for science and its attack on Dr. Chagnon are now an indelible part of its record.”

Sure sounds like the American Anthropological Association is indelibly anti-science.   Actually, though, that  "distaste for science" is very delible.   How delible is it?  Well actually, that change (to remove the word “science” as a way to emphasize that anthropology incorporates both scientific and humanistic study, and thus is not limited by the scope of science) was suggested by a committee, and was rejected by the membership of the AAA.  Wade is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Instrumentally, perniciously, and anti-intellectually.

So on one side you’ve got the creationists, racists, genetic determinists, the Republican governor of Florida, Jared Diamond, and Napoleon Chagnon – and on the other side, you’ve got normative anthropology, and the mother of the President.  Which side are you on?



  1. The callout to McCarthy is appropriate. We're told this was a case of science vs. the biased Marxists, but if Marx knew that Harris's protein-shortage-conflict theory was Marxism, then he surely would have said je ne suis pas Marxiste.

  2. Nicholas Wade writes in to give the full quotation about the Chinese ping-pong genes:

    On p.197 of my book "Before the Dawn" is the following statement:
    "The fact that different races or ethnic groups tend to excel at different sports - Africans at track, Chinese at ping pong, Europeans at weight-lifting - is not proof in itself of any genetic component but just a starting point that hints at possible genes to look for."

    1. Of course, a couple of page slater, he's talking about a 'gene for sedentism'...

  3. ...but, but, but...he was trained as an engineer. Like in mechanics, man. Speaks volumes.
    Check out Ken Weiss's musings on "Nap" in his blog The Mermaid's Tale.

    Jon, what's your take on Patrick Tierney?

    1. It's hard to find much merit in "Darkness in El Dorado". Perhaps that it got anthropologists interested in research ethics again.

  4. I'm not a professional anthropologist, just a curious person who enjoys looking at the myriad ways that people live and have lived. There are a lot of people like me. I hope that doesn't get lost in this discussion.

    As a curious member of the public, I also remember reading Wade's book. I was not at all comfortable with some of his assertions about the ability of genetics to predict the cultural and intellectual behavior of populations.

    I'm glad to know that professional anthropologists also see problems with this book.

  5. The general bias in anthropological theory draws heavily from Marxism, Dr. Chagnon writes.” Kind of makes it sound as if he’s got a list of names that he wants to give to Senator McCarthy. Damn commies.

    I don't get it. Are you saying Marxism is not a major thread in cultural anthropology? Or are you saying those on your "side" should be free to be nakedly ideological without it being noticed or commented upon?

    1. I think he's zinging the people who accuse anthropology of being some threatening political ideology because sometimes it studies class/gender/race/economic relations.

      Understanding where Sen. MacCarthy stands on Communism might shed some context on this zinger, which is what anthropology is good at...

      Those darn liberal perfessors!!!

    2. Marxism never was a major thread in cultural anthropology, nor is it now. There were some great works, such as Eric Wolf's _Europe and the People Without History_ which drew on Marx for inspiration, but by then it was a heavily modified version of Marxian ideas, never very doctrinaire. For more on these intellectual currents, see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires.

    3. Sloc,

      "I think he's zinging the people who accuse anthropology of being some threatening political ideology because sometimes it studies class/gender/race/economic relations."

      As far as I can tell, Chagnon's "accusation" is that these types are driving their discipline to irrelevance (not that they are politically "threatening").

      To understand why raising the spectre of "MacCarthy" in this context may not be the wisest rhetorical move (not one likely to elicit the sympathy of anyone not already on JM's and your "side" in any case), take a step back and contemplate which end of the political spectrum actually dominates academia and whose career was actually targeted for destruction here.

      Those on your side have been left more or less entirely free to moot "class/gender/race" issues as they please in the echo chambers they control. Yet many have felt perfectly justified in attempting to enforce their liberal creationist dogma on those who study "class/gender/race" without starting from the assumption that humans are immune to evolution in whatever respects political doctrine might dictate.

      Jason Antrosio,

      "Marxism never was a major thread in cultural anthropology, nor is it now. [. . .] modified version of Marxian ideas, never very doctrinaire."

      The bottom line is that extreme leftist ideology informs the worldviews of most modern cultural anthropologists, and this is not a question seriously up for debate. It doesn't actually matter what you call it (though in most cases there probably are genealogical links to Marxism).

    4. You act is if there's some veil of conspiracy among all post-modern college professors going on here.

      Get the tin foil hats ready, there's a new cold war between cultural anthropologists and pre-modern thinkers.

      oh wait!

    5. @n.a.: "...take a step back and contemplate which end of the political spectrum actually dominates academia and whose career was actually targeted for destruction here...."

      Hardly Chagnon's - he did rather well for himself. On the other hand, as Jon Marks pointed out in another context, prominently sociobiologists did rather explicitly threaten a reviewer who they feared might provide a positive review of 'Darkness in El Dorado', a book critical of Chagnon.

      "I was still working on my review of Darkness when I received emails from five prominent scholars: Richard Dawkins, Edward Wilson, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Marc Hauser. Although each wrote separately, the emails were obviously coordinated. All had learned (none said exactly how, although I suspected via a friend of mine with whom I discussed my review) that I was reviewing Darkness for the Times. Warning that a positive review might ruin my career, the group urged me either to denounce Darkness or to withdraw as a reviewer."


    6. "as Jon Marks pointed out in another context, prominently sociobiologists did rather explicitly threaten a reviewer"

      While Horgan tries to imply he was "threatened" (obviously wanting to make himself out as the put upon victim / brave hero), he stops short of saying so directly. And given his failure to reproduce any quotes from his correspondents the reality was likely far less dramatic.

      Horgan's story as I interpret it: Horgan is given fair warning that he would be discrediting himself by endorsing Tierney's fabrications. He goes ahead and discredits himself, committing journalistic malpractice in the process (he claims he made his review more positive than he otherwise would have merely because believers in human evolution thought the book unworthy of a glowing review; although, in fairness, it's possible he came up with this rationalization after the fact to make himself look a bit less foolish for having been taken in by Tierney).

      As far as we know Horgan suffers no repercussions beyond a letter to the editor from Richard Dawkins pointing out the charges in Tierney's book had been refuted. Horgan sticks his fingers in his ears and insists the book is fine and the sociobiologists are the bad guys.

      Meanwhile, over a decade on, Tierney's charges remain false. The book Horgan imagined would "become a classic" has only been further discredited. Horgan remains a biased, incompetent science writer, with no apparent shortage of work (a surprise to no one, given that Horgan's biases lie in the correct directions).

      There's no comparison with the campaign against Chagnon.

    7. The 'campaign against Chagnon'? Please elaborate on this 'campaign'.

    8. @n/a: Oh nonsense. That's exactly the sort of straightforward threat that - if it was directed at a sociobiologist - you'd be highlighting as an example of how awful anthropologists are.

      Plus, of course - and everyone's been too nice to mention this so far - it's pretty funny in retrospect to have Marc Hauser opining on issues of honesty and accuracy.

  6. I've just discovered this blog and it's fantastic. It's great stuff to read before my anthro tutorials. Thanks a lot!

  7. Glad I ran into this blog through a link to my article on Chagnon from Savage Minds. I am going to bookmark it now. Great to see such a muscular counter-attack on a true musclehead.

  8. I am a musicologist, not an anthropologist, so my reading of this ongoing controversy is strictly the curiosity of a fellow scholar. As an outsider, what I find striking is the angry language. Ad hominem arguments simply don't belong in scholarship, even in informal blogs. I have never met a scholar who didn't believe he or she was working in the best interests of a discipline. Of course people are led astray, but it doesn't help to question their motives or conclude that they are not really scholars. Mud-slinging should be avoided: instead, simply, politely, dispassionately engage the specifics of an argument. Rather than turning up the volume, each interaction should endeavor to gently turn down the volume and focus on the details of a debate.

    In my discipline, even in private, people don't speak of other scholars the way I've seen in anthropology. (And believe me, there are passionate differences of opinion in my field.) To an outsider, anthropology does indeed appear to exhibit a "culture of accusation" in these discussions.

    At the end of Kenneth Clarke's "Civilization," he identified several features that he regarded as characteristic of a civil society. The most important of these is politeness. This may be a culturally limited perspective. But in my own fieldwork and scholarship, I've found politeness to be the single most important attitude in productive interactions.

    1. There are political stakes here that make it different from other sciences, I think - as you can probably discern from the comments.

    2. David,

      You should check out the muscle-head of his publications before you come to the conclusions that this blog doesn't engage the arguments -- I think then, you'll too be convinced and outraged at creationists, segregationists, and scientific racism.

      Lastly, this is his blog, his reflexive account of the shit that goes by in academia without the ho-hum which we can all appreciate.

      Red herring aside, maybe you have some actual thoughts on the matter?

    3. Dr. Huron: I think part of that is because the personality of the anthropologist has a huge effect on his work. If you haven't yet, you should read the book "The Collectors of Lost Souls"; it really shows the inextricable influence of personalities on field research in anthropology.

    4. Or Paul Rabinow's "Reflections" in which he writes "...fieldwork is a distinctive type of cultural activity, and that it is this activity that defines the discipline. But what should therefore be the very strength of anthropology - its experiential, reflective, and critical activity - has been eliminated as a valid area of inquiry by an attachment to a positivistic view of science, which I find radically inappropriate in a field which claims to study humanity." (p.5)

  9. My latest: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/22/chagnons-war/

  10. Genetic determinism is an epidemic of Zombies. You kill these awful ideas over and over again, but the dead rise from their graves and start walking and talking. I don't think we will ever lay these babies down for good.

  11. Survival International has compiled a list of materials from experts, anthropologists and the Yanomami themselves on the Chagnon debate, and how Chagnon's work has been disastrous for the tribe.

    Visit http://www.survivalinternational.org//articles/3272 for statements from Davi Yanomami, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Philippe Descola and Manuela Carneiro, and an open letter signed by over a dozen anthropologists who have worked for years with the Yanomami. They 'disagree with Napoleon Chagnon's public characterisation of the Yanomami as a fierce, violent and archaic people. [and] deplore how Chagnon's work has been used throughout the years - and could still be used - by governments to deny the Yanomami their land and cultural rights.'

  12. Dr. Marks,

    I'm sure any memory of me is lost amongst those of the thousands of other undergrads who were fortunate enough study under you. I'm the old guy at UCB who wrote the petition defending your comments about, and suggestion that we watch how the media framed Princess Diana after her unfortunately early death.

    I just stumbled onto your blog through reading articles about Marshall Sahlns' resignation from NSA over objections to the election of Chagnon to the NSA, and to the military research projects of the Academy.

    It's encouraging to see that you're still "fighting the good fight." I'll be back.

    ~ Daniel Glennon

  13. Hi Dr. Marks,
    I also saw that Anthropology was listed as the Worst Major for Forbes magazine and though I did comment on that article I wanted to post a comment here. Since I graduated with my Anthropology degree from UNCC I have been hired at not one, but TWO of the largest corporations America has to offer and have not been unemployed a single day. Let those who are brave enough major in what they love and let the rest wonder what it is all about.
    Heather McMullan

  14. I just saw this short article on Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" that I think you and some of your readers might enjoy.


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