Archive | August, 2013

Is Cultural Anthropology Biophobic?

20 Aug

I admit this is a pretty old topic for a blog called Anthropology Now – but I’m just getting around to reading Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. Since I’m a member of one of those tribes (not the Yanomamö), I feel like I should read it.


I have a generally positive view of Chagnon and his work among the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil. His classic ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People, first published in 1968, is currently available in a “Legacy Sixth Edition” and is still frequently assigned in cultural anthropology classes. Also, if there is such a thing as an anthropological spectrum, I tend to be toward Chagnon’s end of it. But he is not without his detractors (a recent article by Alan Goodman makes some valid points and one by Barbara J. King does an exceptional job of explaining the issues without taking sides). The 2000 book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon by Patrick Tierney was highly (some would say “sensationally”) critical of Chagnon and others and their interactions with Native Amazonians. However, the central claims of Tierney’s book have been pretty well debunked.

What’s your perspective on the “Chagnon Wars”? Please share your ideas in the comments below. Seriously, this is not rhetorical – If I didn’t want your opinions, I wouldn’t ask 🙂

Long Story Short…

6 Aug

Based on my previous posts, you’ve probably guessed that I consider the development of the scientific method a major (perhaps the major) turning point in human history. An article at by author David McRaney (excerpted from his book You Are Now Less Dumb) humorously sums up this turning point:

“It’s easy to laugh at the very wrong things that people once believed, but try not to feel too superior…Your ancestors may not have had the toolset you do when it came to avoiding mental stumbling blocks or your immense cultural inheritance, but their minds worked in much the same way. The people who thought the world rested on the back of a great tortoise or who thought dancing would make it rain — they had the same brain as you; that is to say, they had the same blueprint in their DNA for making brains. So a baby born into their world was about the same as one born into yours.”

And then there was science!

“People learned that science, as a tool, as a lens to create an upside-down way of looking at the world, made life better. Your natural tendency is to start from a conclusion and work backward to confirm your assumptions, but the scientific method drives down the wrong side of the road and tries to disconfirm your assumptions. A couple of centuries back people began to catch on to the fact that looking for disconfirming evidence was a better way to conduct research than proceeding from common belief. They saw that eliminating suspicions caused the outline of the truth to emerge.”

And, long story short:

“Once your forefathers and foremothers realized that this approach generated results, in a few generations your species went from burning witches and drinking mercury to mapping the human genome and playing golf on the moon.”